Newell’s was struggling through the start of the season. The fans were upset. The environment was not ideal.
“He wasn’t the fan favorite, he wasn’t the coach’s favorite, and the kid is on the field just fearless,” Berhalter told MLSsoccer.com. “For a 19-year-old to be in that environment where the team is struggling, you’re getting criticism, and to still be able to perform at a good level, it showed us a lot about what he’s made of.”
Valenzuela wasn’t perfect as a player, but Berhalter didn’t expect him to be. Not at that age and not in those conditions. The Columbus coach knew, however, that Valenzuela fit his team’s profile. Columbus inked the Argentine left back to a loan deal as a young Designated Player this offseason and Valenzuela has been a standout early this season.
It’s a formula that has worked well for Crew SC during Berhalter’s tenure.
Over the past few seasons, Columbus has been incredibly efficient in the global transfer market, especially in finding young talent in Central and South America. Valenzuela is one of four Latin American players aged 22 or young on the Crew SC current roster, along with Brazilian midfielder Artur (22), Panamanian winger Cristian Martinez (21) and Venezuelan playmaker Eduardo Sosa (21).
In a market where you often get what you pay for, Columbus has been quite effective in identifying impact players at lower price points, where risk is inherently higher. There have been no Miguel Almirón-level signings in Columbus, yet Berhalter has had more hits than misses to this point.
“Regardless of how much money you spend, it’s all relative to how much money you have,” Berhalter said. “We want to be thorough with every single dollar we spend and we want to make sure we’re spending it in the right way. There will be failures with transfers. We’re calculating that maybe if we get seven out of 10 we’ll be happy. We know three are going to fail, that’s just part of the game.”
The players have not only proved to be good fits for Berhalter’s system, but they have adjusted quickly to the league and a new culture. It is one of the more difficult aspects of player recruitment to anticipate, and it plays a massive role in the success of a signing.
“You look at a guy like Milton, his quality on the ball, his decision-making, but what amazes me even more so is that at 19 years old you can come to a completely different country, you don’t speak the language, and be so adaptive to the team, to the players,” said Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp. “We recruit off character also. Artur is a guy with a wonderful personality, a great heart. He dove in head first and guys embraced him and he embraced us. The same thing is happening with Milton, with Eduardo Sosa, with Cristian Martinez. We’ve been really fortunate not just with the quality of the player but with the character of the player also.”
It’s a credit to a system in which Berhalter and his scouting network aim to gather as much information as possible to narrow the profiles of players and positions and minimize the risk.
Berhalter said the club has remained patient and avoided pressure to sign players quickly. Columbus often watches a player live multiple times, gathers background information and then meets with the player in-person before pushing forward in negotiations.
There are also other ways to mitigate risk. Columbus signed Artur, Valenzuela and Martinez to loan deals with an option-to-buy. The loan term gives Columbus a chance to work with the player for a year and it limits how much the Crew pay upfront. Crew SC have since inked Artur and Martinez to permanent transfers.
“We want to minimize risk, that’s always what we’re looking to do, so if we fail it’s not a big failure and we want to have a big upside with players,” Berhalter said. “When we bring a guy in there’s the potential that he plays really well with us and gives us a high amount of performance for a lost cost, but also a potential for resale. We try to target players with that potential.”
That resale value has also been a consistent part of Columbus’ decision-making.
Berhalter pointed out that Crew SC sold Nico Naess to Dutch club SC Heerenveen for more than double what they paid for him and transferred Giancarlo Gonzalez to Palermo for “almost 10 times the money we spent for him.” That willingness to sell continued this offseason when Columbus traded Ola Kamara to the LA Galaxy for Gyasi Zardes and $400,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and sent Justin Meram to Orlando City SC for $750,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and $300,000 in General Allocation Money.
Berhalter said Artur’s entire transfer fee was paid using money from past transactions. Columbus is also sitting on a nice nest egg of allocation money for future moves within the league.
“That takes a big burden off, a lot of pressure off of ownership to kick in on every transfer,” Berhalter said. “It’s a partnership, working together, so when we go to our owner and say we want to bring in Pedro Santos from Braga, he doesn’t hesitate. He’ll spend $2 million on a player, no problem. It’s a combination of things to really maximize players’ values.”