Did you watch the US U-20s this spring in the CONCACAF Championship, and then the U-20 World Cup? Sporting Kansas City Homegrown Erik Palmer-Brown wore the captain's armband, and played the first tournament at defensive midfield, then the second at his natural position of center back. He was something past "very good" in both spots, and solidified his position as one of the world's better center back prospects.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that news of Palmer-Brown's imminent departure from Sporting KC broke over the weekend. Kristian Dyer had it first, then Sam McDowell confirmed it, and then Jeff Carlisle did the same.
The surprise is which team it was that jumped into the picture and claimed his signature. Palmer-Brown has reportedly signed a pre-contract with Manchester City, one of the highest-spending teams in the highest-spending league in the world. They laid out just over a quarter-billion dollars this summer, and just under that mark last summer and the summer before, and they'll almost certainly do the same next year.
How, in a squad like that, will Palmer-Brown fit?
The answer is "he won't." Here's the salient graph from Carlisle's article:
Palmer-Brown, 20, will finish out the current season with SKC and join up with Man City in January, after his current contract expires. He is then expected to spend the rest of the 2017-18 European season on loan.
EPB has been on loan before – he spent last year on loan with Porto, playing in the "B" squad for the Portuguese giants, and SKC fully expected them to purchase him outright at the conclusion of the season. But the money wasn't quite right (or not quite available, depending upon which reports you've read), and so Palmer-Brown's been back with KC all season long, playing out his contract.
The loan he'll be going on in January is a different thing all together, and for those who don't know, I'm here to walk you through it:
- Manchester City are the crown jewel of City Football Group
- CFG own all or part of five other clubs, including New York City FC of MLS
- CFG also affiliate with multiple teams worldwide, including San Antonio FC in USL, and (note this one) NAC Breda in the Netherlands
- When MCFC buy a top, young, talent, they tend to loan those talents out to one of their sister or affiliate clubs
- This includes the likes of Yangel Herrera to NYCFC(*)
- Angelino previously played for NYCFC, and is with NAC Breda this year
- The chances of eventually being sold by MCFC to a smaller European team are higher than the the chances of ever playing significant minutes for MCFC
(*) Just so everyone knows, there is nearly zero chance EPB returns to MLS to play for NYCFC. Sporting made him a substantial contract offer, which means that they hold his MLS rights, which means that if MCFC wanted to loan him to NYCFC, then NYCFC would have to part with some assets. My guess is Peter Vermes's demands would be all the GAM and TAM. All of it.
Palmer-Brown has a ton of potential – he could end up being really good. But there's no doubt he's going out on loan. This is similar to the gambit Matt Miazga took after the 2015 season, when he signed off on a transfer from RBNY to Chelsea for $5 million. He made two appearances for the Blues in the spring of 2016 and has spent the bulk of the last 15 months on loan with Vitesse Arnhem of the Eredivisie.
Vitesse is to Chelsea as NAC Breda is to MCFC: An affiliate rather than a club that's owned outright. Miazga, one of four Chelsea players currently on loan there, helped lead Vitesse to the first piece of significant silverware in their 125-year history last season as they won the Dutch Cup. He's back with them this season, and if he plays well... he probably still won't end up playing for Chelsea next year.
The gap between a mid-flight team in the Netherlands and the very top of the EPL is too great, so if Miazga really does excel this season, that means one of two things:
1) Chelsea fall in love with him and decide he does, indeed, have a future at the club, so they loan him out to a bottom-of-the-table EPL team for 2018/19, which is what happened with Ruben Loftus-Cheek this season. That is the next proving ground for talented young players if they're going to break into the first team.
2) They decide he probably doesn't have a future at Stamford Bridge, at which point they sell him to the highest bidder. Best-case scenario would likely be a mid-table Bundesliga team, or one of the non-PSG top teams in France (i.e., everybody competing for second place).
This is a good career path if Miazga can make it work, but there is inherent risk in being a player out on loan. Whoever you're with temporarily, even an affiliate club, doesn't have as much invested (literally) in you or your development as whoever is actually in their academy, or pushing their way onto the roster from elsewhere. Miazga could be great this year and get sold on next summer, and Vitesse get bupkis. If there's a player who's slightly less good, but who they own and who could maybe make them $1 million in the transfer market, guess who'll play?
CFG have smoothed this process out more than any other team/entity in the world. Patrick Vieira has an interest in developing Herrera because Herrera's awesome and helps him win games, but also because NYCFC and MCFC operate under the same umbrella. It probably shouldn't shock anybody, then, if Herrera's next stop on his journey is with Girona FC, a newly promoted La Liga team that CFG just bought 44% of. If he goes from MLS to the best league in the world and keeps playing as well as he has been, then he's either one step closer to being ready for MCFC, or CFG will be one step closer to selling him for significantly more cash. Either way, though, he'll be going to a team that has a legitimate, layered interest in developing him.
There are currently five MCFC players on loan at Girona. EPB almost certainly won't start his CFG journey there, and is instead likely to do his first season in the Eredivisie with NAC Breda. If he excels – and he's definitely good enough to do so – then perhaps he'll end up scoring himself a loan to Girona for 2018/19, or maybe 2019/20. And if that goes well, then maybe he'll end up, one day, wearing Sky Blue and playing at the City of Manchester Stadium.
It is a mazy and uncertain career path he's chosen for himself, but let's give the kid some credit: He's chosen one that could potentially end with him standing near the summit of club soccer. It's still a remote possibility that he ever gets to the top, but few Americans have ever even earned the opportunity to make the attempt.