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What teenage star Fidel Barajas’ transfer to Real Salt Lake reveals about the USL-to-MLS pipeline

A premier destination for top USL talent is emerging. 

8 min read
Design: Peyton Gallaher

17-year-olds don’t tend to change games with a single touch or spearhead historic turnarounds for their clubs, but Fidel Barajas isn’t your typical 17-year-old. 

After a breakout 2023 season for the Charleston Battery in the USL Championship, Barjas has moved to Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer for a $250,000 fee. Charleston will retain a sell-on fee, and the Mexican-American youth international will get a chance to shine at a higher level. The entire transfer is a testament both to the player and to the unique approach RSL takes to the lower leagues.

Barajas signed with Charleston in 2022 after previously plying his trade in the San Jose Earthquakes’ academy system.

Already a youth star, he exploded onto the international scene at the Concacaf U-17 Championship that winter, picking up three goals and five assists while leading Mexico to silverware. Barajas repeated the trick in the USL, spearheading a 2023 season in which Charleston turned a 12th-place finish from the previous year into an Eastern Conference title.

On the field, Barajas has a wicked left foot equally capable of curling in a shot from range or softly lofting in a cross. Mainly used as an inverted winger on the right wing, the U-17 starlet finished second in the Championship with nine assists across 2,000 minutes in the regular season. He’s equally good on the left, where he hugs the touchline on his stronger foot to stretch opposing defenses.

The new addition for RSL also brings a strong work rate to the table. Last season, the Battery used a 4-2-3-1 in which the wingers pushed far upfield in the press, and Barajas never wavered in his effort. Barajas put in 15 interceptions last year, the second-most of any winger on the Charleston squad, and is equally responsible when tracking back.

There’s room to grow for Barajas, who can be shouldered off the ball in his 5’9”, 150-pound frame. Despite his strong skillset, he averaged just one successful take-on per match last season. Still, the second-team all-USL starlet has the intelligence and nous to excel against professionals already. The sky is the limit on Barajas’ future.

From the Battery’s perspective, banking $250,000 is a huge move, representing a team-record transfer fee. Giving Barajas immediate gametime in the Championship and allowing him to advance to greener pastures speaks to their developmental capabilities and will serve as a selling point for prospects in the future. Retaining a sell-on fee could be important as well; the El Paso Locomotive didn’t get such a clause when they sold Diego Luna to Real Salt Lake in 2022.

RSL, the home for top USL talent

Between the acquisitions of Luna and Barajas, RSL has swiftly become the premier destination for up-and-coming USL talent seeking a step up to MLS. Luna has flourished during his time in Utah, and is currently in his first senior U.S. men’s national team camp. Both young attackers illustrate a club-wide admiration that RSL have for USL talent that extends to players like Kevon Lambert, signed from Phoenix Rising in 2023.

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