Columnist: Jonathan Sigal

What Jhon Durán brings Aston Villa & what his transfer means for MLS


Last October, Chicago Fire FC head coach Ezra Hendrickson described striker Jhon Durán as a “really, really special player” – one who’s going places in the global game.

Hendrickson wasn’t kidding.

As the Major League Soccer world woke up Monday morning, English Premier League side Aston Villa announced they’ve agreed on a transfer to acquire the 19-year-old Colombian wonderkid.

The fee can reportedly reach $22 million ($18 million guaranteed), a total that’s tied for the second-most expensive outbound transfer in MLS history. While the deal isn’t technically 100% finalized – a completed medical, personal terms and work visa remain – it’s expected to soon reach the finish line. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Chicago formally announced the move Tuesday afternoon.)

So, what does Durán bring to Aston Villa? What does this move mean for MLS as a whole? Let’s tackle all there is to know about the groundbreaking news.

Who is Jhon Durán?

Durán, who can play centrally or out wide, was initially acquired by Chicago in January 2021 from Colombian top-flight side Envigado FC for a reported $2.5 million transfer fee. But since he was 17, he couldn’t officially be rostered in MLS until he turned 18 (ahead of the 2022 season). At the time, Durán was also the youngest international player signing in MLS history.

Despite his now-lucrative transfer fee, Durán didn’t fully break into Chicago’s lineup until mid-July. But once he did, it was a question of why he wasn’t featuring sooner and more prominently – ultimately finishing the 2022 campaign (his only one in MLS) with 8g/3a in 1,363 minutes (27 appearances; 14 starts).

That form quickly turned Durán from a promising South American talent into a potential solution at striker for Colombia, who narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. He already has three senior-team caps for La Tricolor and is a key piece of their South American U-20 Championship roster. He projects as a key part of Colombia’s new generation.

Given all he’s accomplished, it’s no surprise Durán placed on _The Guardian_’s Next Generation list in 2020 – a group of 60 of the best young talents in world soccer.

What is his profile? Who does he compare to?

Once Durán gets going in the open field, look out:

The 19-year-old is a bit raw in some areas – his combination play and defensive spots come to mind – but his goal-front instincts and physical profile are a handful for opposing defenders. He has the power and strength to compete in the Premier League, perhaps early on for Aston Villa, and has the inventiveness/technique to turn a half-chance into a clinical finish. 

Durán makes strong, hard runs in a variety of attacking situations, the type that get rewarded more often than not:

It’s easy to see why the likes of Benfica and Liverpool were reportedly linked to the Colombian talent, whose skill set and playing style spark visions of AS Roma’s Tammy Abraham, Bayer Leverkusen’s Patrick Shick and Monaco’s Breel Embolo. That’s not to assert those well-established strikers provide a foolproof comparison, but their games offer a sense of what Durán could bring to Aston Villa.

When looking at MLS as a whole, Durán compares quite favorably – at least in expected goals (xG, 0.53) terms – to some of the biggest names in the league. He brought a smaller sample size (< 1,500 minutes), but the potential clearly put him on the scouting radar of high-profile clubs.

Shot + XG per 90 MLS 2022 (2000 min played)

Wait, how much money?

Durán, according to Transfermarkt, is the 14th-most expensive incoming signing in Aston Villa history. His price tag isn’t necessarily surprising for a Premier League club of their spending power and transfer history – especially as they’ve acquired some attacking centerpieces (Emiliano Buendía and Leon Bailey, as two examples) in recent transfer windows for roughly double what Durán reportedly costs.

But European teams know there are deals to be found in MLS and its players can translate to top-five leagues. The $22 million transfer fee, in terms of the most expensive outgoing deals in MLS history, puts Durán tied with Bayern Munich left back Alphonso Davies and just behind Newcastle United attacker Miguel Almiron.

This is some pretty good company to keep.

Chicago, somewhat under the radar, are also becoming more of a selling club. Here are deals they’ve secured in the last few transfer windows:

  • Jhon Durán: $22 million to Aston Villa
  • Gaga Slonina: $15 million to Chelsea
  • Przemysław Frankowski: $3 million to RC Lens
  • Djordje Mihailovic: $6 million to AZ Alkmaar (got a 10% cut from CF Montréal’s deal)

Doing some quick back-of-the-napkin math on reported figures… that’s just north of $40 million in transfer fees. The Fire directly sold two teenage talents (one homegrown; one from abroad) to EPL teams, an established Polish international to a Ligue 1 contender, and got a sell-on fee for a homegrown product heading to a top Eredivisie team – all in the last 18 months or so.

Again: MLS clubs are becoming bigger players in the global transfer market with each passing window. This trend isn’t slowing down any time soon.

What about the U22 Initiative aspect?

For those who don’t know: MLS, in April 2021, launched the U22 Initiative to support further investment in young players. It’s still a relatively new roster mechanism, one where clubs sign players (age 22 and younger) to lucrative contracts at a reduced budget charge.

Without getting too far into the weeds of MLS roster rules, teams can sign up to three U22 Initiative players (depending on their Designated Player situations). Sometimes U22 signings are homegrowns who are rewarded with a new contract, but often they’re imports (like Durán) – an area that’s worth providing extra context around.

Durán isn’t the first U22 Initiative signing to be sold abroad by an MLS club. For reference: Colorado Rapids gave homegrown left back Sam Vines this type of contract before he was sold to Belgium’s Royal Antwerp, and FC Dallas transferred winger Szabolcs Schon to Hungary’s first division. There have also been some loans: LAFC midfielder Francisco Ginella is at Uruguayan champions Nacional, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC midfielder Caio Alexandre is at Brazilian top-flight side Fortaleza.

But the transfer fee Durán commanded represents a new frontier, a proof of concept for what the U22 Initiative can become. Chicago acquired a top talent from South America who became their top goalscorer, then sold him for nearly a 9x profit to a well-established Premier League team. That’s fantastic business.

There will likely be more U22 Initiative sales in the Durán mold – LAFC midfielder Jose Cifuentes, LA Galaxy fullback Julian Araujo and San Jose Earthquakes forward Cade Cowell are all reportedly generating transfer interest across the world. But none, so far, are as notable as Durán's pathway.

A quick add-on: MLS teams aren’t just signing South American talents in the U22 Initiative mold. Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada (the first-ever active MLS World Cup winner) and NYCFC forward Talles Magno are both DPs who could realistically secure lucrative moves abroad sooner rather than later. But, again, Durán's U22 Initiative classification is especially notable for where MLS is going.

What’s next?

For Aston Villa, it’s getting the deal completely over the finish line and then determining when Durán gets fully integrated. They’re currently 11th (midtable) in the Premier League standings, boosted by manager Unai Emery joining in late October and with established strikers Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins leading the line.

For Chicago, it’s identifying a striker (or two) they can acquire to play alongside DPs Jairo Torres and Xherdan Shaqiri. Their 39 goals scored were the second-worst total in MLS during the 2022 campaign (Hendrickson’s first year in charge). As great as Durán was on a personal level, the club needs to find final-third solutions in seeking their first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs trip since 2017.

For the rest of us, it’s watching what Durán can accomplish in arguably the world’s top league. The transfer market often moves quickly, especially when it comes to young talents like the one the Fire identified and helped develop.