With each passing season, MLS players aren't just heading to Europe in greater numbers. They're crossing the pond and establishing key roles, often at clubs in top-five leagues that are chasing titles and competing for UEFA Champions League/Europa League glory.
That's again the case in the 2023-24 campaign, which is slowly getting underway across the Old Continent after a summer chock full of preseason tours, transfer rumors and new beginnings.
Let's set the scene for MLS exports, highlighting academy products, collegiate alums and imported stars that eventually made a big move overseas.
Consider this a top 10 followed by other need-to-know names. Those with loose MLS ties (i.e. Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, etc.) weren't considered.
Aaronson is on a season-long loan to Union Berlin, who await Champions League soccer after finishing fourth in the 2022-23 Bundesliga campaign. This top-flight opportunity follows an up-and-down year at parent side Leeds United, who are now in the Championship (England's second tier) after getting relegated from the Premier League.
The Philadelphia Union homegrown product has a big transfer fee following him, moving ahead of 2022-23 from Austrian side RB Salzburg to Leeds for a reported $30 million. That reunited him with American manager Jesse Marsch, but then things went pearshaped and they couldn't avoid the drop (compounded by Marsch's late-winter dismissal).
Now, the 22-year-old US international hopes a change of scenery can rekindle his promising career and show why he's a highly-regarded all-action winger/attacking midfielder.
Adams has been linked to a range of Premier League clubs, most recently Chelsea FC. All signs point to the USMNT captain leaving Leeds this summer and strengthening the Blues' deep-lying midfield group under new manager Mauricio Pochettino.
If the Chelsea move comes to fruition, it would certainly represent Adams reaching a higher-level club after he joined Leeds last summer from German contenders RB Leipzig. But would he be a sure bet to receive consistent playing time? The jury's still out there, though the 24-year-old proved his Premier League chops and more last season – further fueling speculation around a top-flight return.
Adams, a New York Red Bulls homegrown product, is recovering from a hamstring injury he suffered last spring – one that profoundly impacted Leeds getting relegated to the Championship (second division). When healthy, he approaches elite levels for a No. 6.
Firmly in his prime at age 29, Almirón is hoping to build off a tremendous season for Newcastle where he recorded 11 goals and two assists in 34 games. The Paraguay international was named the Premier League Player of the Month for October 2022, especially shining before the World Cup break.
Almirón, who moved from Atlanta United to Newcastle for an MLS-record transfer fee (reported $27 million) back in January 2019, is heading into the UEFA Champions League. That's following a fourth-place finish in the Premier League, helping the Magpies record their best season in two decades.
Almirón, empowered by manager Eddie Howe, is hoping to prove last year is the new norm.
This offseason, Lazio reportedly spent somewhere near $16 million to acquire Castellanos from New York City FC as they prepare for a Champions League run. That's a top-10 outbound fee in MLS history, earned after the 2021 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner impressed last season on loan at LaLiga side Girona, memorably scoring four goals against Real Madrid.
Now, Castellanos is here to help Lazio build off last year's runner-up finish (second place) to Napoli while chasing the Scudetto. And the 24-year-old could strike up a partnership with Italian international Ciro Immobile, with an expectation of reaching double-digit goals.
Castellanos is a true success story for MLS clubs scouting young talent. The Argentine initially joined NYCFC in 2018 while on loan from Uruguayan side Torque, then exited for a club-record transfer fee.
Davies, entering his sixth season at Bayern Munich, is one of the world's best left backs (he can also play further upfield). He's been linked with a transfer to Spanish giants Real Madrid – it's one of a select few clubs where Davies would "level up" – but he remains in Germany for now.
Davies crossed 150 appearances for Bayern Munich late last season, and their 11th straight Bundesliga title arrived on the final matchday as Borussia Dortmund crashed and burned. They'll enter as favorites yet again, all as Davies handles some left-back competition from offseason signing and Portuguese international Raphaël Guerreiro.
The 22-year-old Canadian superstar and Vancouver Whitecaps FC academy product is surely written in pen into manager Thomas Tuchel's preferred lineup. But will some clarity arrive around his long-term future?
Durán, 19, is a hugely promising Colombian international striker on the rise. Chicago Fire FC recognized that when acquiring him in January 2021 on a pre-contract for the following season, and it's why Aston Villa acquired him in January 2023 for a reported $22 million ($18 million initially + $4 million in add-ons), among the highest fees in MLS history.
Now, it's about Durán truly establishing himself under manager Unai Emery as Aston Villa compete in the Conference League (Europe's third-tier continental competition). He featured in 12 matches last season, all off the bench, and is fighting for minutes alongside strikers Ollie Watkins and Cameron Archer.
Durán, still chasing his first Premier League goal, is all about potential. Can he capitalize on it?
Canada's all-time leading scorer remains in LaLiga, now via a reported ~$8 million transfer to Mallorca, after impressing last season during his loan to Real Valladolid. Larin tallied 8g/3a in 19 games for Real Valladolid, giving them a fighter's chance in LaLiga before suffering relegation by one point.
That proven success makes 12-15 goals a realistic target for Larin, whose new team finished ninth in Spain's top flight a year ago. And he hopes for some stability after never quite settling at Belgium's Club Brugge following his exit from Turkey's Beşiktaş.
Larin, 28, has competed in Europe since 2018. Before then, he burst onto the scene during three goal-filled seasons at Orlando City SC and was named MLS Rookie of the Year in 2015 after being selected No. 1 overall in that year's SuperDraft presented by adidas.
Pepi joined PSV this summer for a reported ~$10 million from Bundesliga side FC Augsburg, leaving behind the German club that paid FC Dallas a reported $20 million back in January 2022. Transfer fees aside, this is a much-needed early-career reset for the USMNT striker who was named MLS Young Player of the Year in 2021.
Pepi, still only 20, is coming off a strong season-long loan to Eredivisie side FC Groningen. He proved himself by scoring 13 goals in 31 games across all competitions, certainly not to blame as his temporary club got relegated.
Now, Pepi has already won a Dutch Super Cup title with PSV and is competing in Champions League qualifiers. He's vying for minutes alongside club captain Luuk de Jong – and the club's sporting director is Earnie Stewart, formerly of Philadelphia and the USMNT.
Slonina, after impressing during the United States' quarterfinal run at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, was looking for first-team minutes. He's found that opportunity via a season-long loan to KAS Eupen, who narrowly avoided relegation from Belgium's top flight last year.
This all follows the 19-year-old joining Chelsea from Chicago last winter for a reported $15 million transfer with add-ons ($10 million base). That is one of the largest outgoing fees for an MLS youth product.
Slonina is one of the world's top goalkeeping prospects, once likened to Italian legend Gianluigi Buffon. While at Chicago, he tallied 16 clean sheets in 43 games – bursting onto the scene in 2021 to begin his rapid rise.
After one season at Premier League powerhouse Arsenal, Turner has departed for another top-flight English side: Nottingham Forest. He served as the primary backup to Gunners backstop Aaron Ramsdale in 2022-23, appearing in just seven games across cup/European competition.
Turner, who won 2021 Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors while at the New England Revolution, now gets a path to more consistent first-team minutes. He might not be guaranteed a starter's spot amid reports that Nottingham Forest will also sign Dean Henderson from Manchester United, but it's a far more advantageous spot for the 29-year-old.
Long-term, this move positions Turner for USMNT success as they build towards the 2024 Copa América and 2026 World Cup. He's become the program's entrenched No. 1.
- Zack Steffen (Manchester City)
Steffen is recovering from knee surgery that could keep him sidelined through September (or thereabouts). The former Columbus Crew standout spent last year on loan at Middlesbrough, and the safe bet is he'll again leave Manchester City in pursuit of playing time.
- Julián Araujo (Las Palmas)
- Reggie Cannon (Unattached)
- Alistair Johnston (Celtic)
- Mark McKenzie (Genk)
- Tim Ream (Fulham)
- Bryan Reynolds (Westerlo)
- Chris Richards (Crystal Palace)
- Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Auston Trusty (Sheffield United)
- Sam Vines (Antwerp)
Reynolds (Dallas homegrown) and Trusty (Colorado Rapids/Philadelphia export) completed transfers in recent weeks away from high-profile teams. For the former, it meant swapping Italy's AS Roma for the same mid-table Belgian club he featured on loan for last year. For the latter, he's departed Premier League side Arsenal for Sheffield United, another top-tier English side, after impressing on loan to Birmingham City a season ago. Meanwhile, former LA Galaxy fullback Araujo is on loan at LaLiga club Las Palmas from Barcelona.
McKenzie (Philadelphia homegrown) and Scally (NYCFC homegrown) are both established at their clubs, while the same applies to Ream (New York Red Bulls alum) as the veteran center back recovers from a broken arm. Richards (Dallas homegrown) is seeking a bigger role at Crystal Palace, setting course for a USMNT rise.
Vines (Colorado homegrown) is hoping to stay healthy after a broken leg halted his progress last season in the Belgian top flight, and Cannon (Dallas homegrown) is seeking a new home after leaving Portuguese top-flight side Boavista amid unpaid wages.
- Paxten Aaronson (Eintracht Frankfurt)
- Gianluca Busio (Venezia)
- José Cifuentes (Rangers)
- Ismaël Koné (Watford)
- Djordje Mihailovic (AZ Alkmaar)
- Kevin Paredes (Wolfsburg)
- Tanner Tessmann (Venezia)
Aaronson (Philadelphia homegrown), Mihailovic (Chicago homegrown/Montréal export) and Koné (Montréal export) are all hoping bigger roles await after Winter 2022 moves to Europe. The first two are chasing USMNT dreams while ascending with top-flight teams, while Koné is an established Canadian international who’s in England’s second tier.
Paredes (D.C. United homegrown) is entering his second full Bundesliga season after being one of Wolfsburg’s top substitutes. Cifuentes only just moved to Rangers from LAFC, giving the Ecuadorian international his long-anticipated move to Europe.
Busio (Sporting KC homegrown) and Tessmann (FC Dallas homegrown) are looking to help Venezia return to Italy’s first division. Though they’re linked with moves away, so their club could change.
- Tajon Buchanan (Club Brugge)
- Daryl Dike (West Bromwich Albion)
- Jack Harrison (Leeds United)
This trio are all SuperDraft products, with Buchanan (New England alum) now playing under ex-NYCFC boss Ronny Deila at a perennial Belgian title contender. Dike (Orlando alum) has been plagued by injuries since joining West Brom, and Harrison (NYCFC alum) is looking to help Leeds gain promotion.