- Now that Taty Castellanos is officially headed to La Liga, which other players could follow him to Europe in the near future?
- After combing through various MLS rosters, we picked out five players who are ready to make the jump
This weekend, I had the pleasure of heading over to Yankee Stadium to watch Valentin “Taty” Castellanos’ last game for New York City FC.
Taty’s development from backup winger to starting striker to Golden Boot and MLS Cup winner has been one of the great stories in MLS over the last four years. With Castellanos heading on loan to La Liga sister club Girona, the Argentine striker becomes the latest young, talented MLS player to make their way over to Europe.
Over the last few years, the league has implemented a series of roster rules to incentivize clubs into developing and signing young players to potentially sell them down the road to bigger leagues in Europe.
- In 2018, the league increased the percentage of transfer fees that clubs could keep from selling homegrown academy players from 75% to 100%.
- In 2020, the league increased the percentage of transfer fees that clubs could keep for all other players from 75% to 95%.
- In 2021, the U22 “Young Money” Initiative gave clubs the freedom to spend on transfer fees for young players. It also gave clubs 100% of the transfer fee for any U22 player sold outside of the league.
It’s hard to argue with the results. MLS teams are selling talent and getting some major returns on their investments. Of the top 16 outbound transfers in MLS history, according to Transfermarkt, a whopping 14 of them have been made since the 2018-19 season. Castellanos isn’t fetching NYCFC a transfer fee just yet, but he’s certainly poised to make an impact in Spain.
With Taty out the door, I scoured MLS rosters and found five players that have the skills to join him in Europe and further this outgoing transfer trend.
LAFC’s decision to trade Mark-Anthony Kaye to the Colorado Rapids last summer for a bunch of allocation money sent shockwaves throughout the league. Why was LAFC trading a quality central midfielder who was on a super-reasonable salary ($247,188) and, at 26, was entering the prime of his career? Turns out the answer to that question was Jose Cifuentes.
This year, Cifuentes is the league leader in American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added (g+) metric and it is very easy to see why. As one of LAFC’s No. 8s, Cifuentes’ chief offensive role is to progress the ball from the defensive third to the attacking third. You can make a strong argument that no one in MLS progresses the ball better than the Ecuadorian international. He excels at finding pockets of space in transition where he can turn and either dribble at the heart of the recovering defense or make the correct pass to LAFC’s dangerous attackers.
When the ball enters the attacking third, Cifuentes is especially adept at crashing into the box as a late runner. He leads central midfielders in MLS in excepted goals (3.94) and is tied for first with Jonathan Osorio in actual goals (6), per ASA. With even more European eyeballs watching the Supporters’ Shield leaders with the addition of Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, it’s hard to imagine that Cifuentes will be in the States much longer.
Team: CF Montreal
The Djordje-to-Europe train is back on the tracks this week as Mihailovic told reporters that he has been talking with his agent about a move to Europe. Before an ankle injury forced him to miss seven weeks and the June U.S. men’s national team training camp, Mihailovic was the most important player for a CF Montreal team that has surprised many with their 4th place perch in the Eastern Conference standings.
Mihailovic is a perfect fit for Montreal’s 3-4-2-1/3-4-1-2, where manager Wilfried Nancy likes to use him as an attacker in the left halfspace. In that position, Mihailovic showcases his best asset: the ability to make intelligent runs that put tremendous pressure on the opposition’s defensive shape.
Looking at some of the numbers, Mihailovic’s production has been phenomenal the last two seasons. Last year, he had four goals to go with 13 assists and so far this year he has seven goals and four assists. If he can return to his pre-injury form, Montreal will be saying au revoir to their versatile attacker.
Team: FC Dallas
Jesus Ferreira is the latest starlet out of the FC Dallas academy.
After Ricardo Pepi left for Augsburg in the Bundesliga, there was a lot of noise about whether or not Ferreira could handle the No. 9 role for FC Dallas. At 5’9”, Ferreira is a much different player than a prototypical center forward like Pepi. The good news for Ferreira is that in the modern game, you don’t need to be tall to be a striker. You just need to score a copious amount of goals, which is something that Ferreira has had little issue with this season.
His ability to consistently make goal scoring runs has him one goal off the Golden Boot lead with 12. Unlike Pepi, Ferreira can also pop into the midfield to help keep control of the ball in Nico Estevez’s 4-3-3 attacking shape.
While not set in stone, Ferreira will also likely have the first opportunity to be the USMNT’s starting striker at the World Cup later this year. A good performance could see his stock go way up for the winter transfer window.
Team: Philadelphia Union
Since 2019, Kai Wagner has been one of the best left backs in all of MLS. Because the Philadelphia Union don’t use wingers in their 4-4-2 diamond shape, the fullbacks play an extremely important role in providing width in the attacking third. That wide left role is one that Wagner – with a rare combination of size, strength, and speed – has excelled in.
Last season, Wagner was selected to his first MLS All-Star game on the back of a three-goal, four-assist season. This season, Wagner is already on pace to crush those assist numbers with five assists (and some better underlying numbers) in only 22 games.
Wagner has been attracting interest for some time now, so it’s only a matter of time before a club comes calling for the Union’s left back.
In his introductory press conference, Giorgio Chiellini had some high praise for his new teammates. “They have fantastic defenders,” the Juventus legend said of LAFC’s center backs. “Why’d they call me?”
One of those fantastic defenders is young center back Mamadou Fall, whose profile has been rising in MLS over the last two seasons. Fall, just 19-years-old, is such an intriguing prospect because of his rare combination of athleticism and ball skills. In the modern game where ball-playing center backs are put at a premium, he crosses nearly everything off a manager’s checklist. He regularly progresses the ball either by making line-breaking passes from the backline or by driving forward into space off the dribble.
Joseph Lowery, the leading MLS expert on ball-carrying center backs, called Fall’s offensive ability “jaw-dropping.”
Editor’s note: Justin is very kind. I think “weirdly into center back dribbles” is probably a better way to describe me, but hey, I’ll take it.
Fall’s defending needs some polishing, but having the chance to learn from Chiellini and the rest of LAFC’s impressive center back core could help the teenager make quicker and smarter defensive reads. He’s young, but Fall could become one of the best defenders to have ever set foot in MLS.