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What’s Going On With The American Export Market?

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February 2024
The final transfer window of the 2023-2024 European season has just closed and for the third transfer window in a row, the pipeline for Americans in MLS to Europe was very dry. Is it time to panic? Or is this a temporary dip that will course correct soon? I have taken a look at the global football context, as well as the supply of United States players that are looking to move now or in the near future. From doing this I have surfaced some insights about what is going on and what to look for in the future.

Europeans Spending

Here is a look at the top five spending leagues in Europe (England, Italy, France, Germany and Spain) over the last four season’s. During each season, there are two transfer windows. One in the summer before the season starts and one in the winter during the middle of the season. 
Source data: Transfermarkt, numbers represent the top 20 spending club in each season, from each country

Spending Takeaways

England Is Spending Like Crazy

England is outpacing the second highest spending league, Italy, by twice as much. They are outspending France and Germany by three times as much and Spain by four times as much. Although England is spending significantly more to bring players in, few if any, American players in MLS can successfully make that jump. The Premier League is considered to be the most challenging domestic league in the world, and it's a big level up from MLS to England's top flight.

Other Four Leagues Are Top Heavy

While spending is still trending up or at least staying flat for most of the top leagues in Europe the majority of spending in each league is done by a select few at the top. These teams have more competitive squads and are tougher to break into. So while this data communicates growth in transfer demand, this growth is by clubs that are not necessarily the best next step for most Americans in MLS or USL. 

The Top Development Clubs Are Highly Competitive

We have not seen many Americans seamlessly move from MLS to a top league in Europe and have great success. Most players are better served by going to more of a developmental club in a league that is a slight step up from MLS, but there are not a ton of these clubs. These developmental clubs are very meticulous about how they spend. Additionally, emerging talent from all over the world want to go there, which makes it very competitive. Clubs like Ajax, PSV, AZ, Club Brugge, Genk, RB Salzburg, Benfica, Porto, Dinamo Zagreb, Midtjylland, etc have to really want a player and really believe they are a great fit to pursue the player. 

U.S. Supply & Global Perception

Let’s switch our perspective to the United States market and what it currently has to offer. Is the talent that is looking to move to Europe now, weaker than what it was two to three years ago? Here are the players that were primed for a move this window and will likely still be looking for a move next window: Miles Robinson, Jesus Ferreira, John Tolkin, Jack McGlynn, Noel Buck, DeJuan Jones, James Sands, Leon Flach and Aidan Morris.

Robinson was the biggest surprise for some this window,electing to stay in MLS. We will talk more about why that happened later. 

Ferreira and Tolkin are the most ready for a move and will need one soon to stay in the USMNT picture. 

McGlynn and Buck are on the younger side and have some time, there is no rush as both should get a lot of minutes for their clubs in MLS. 

Jones might have missed his chance . He signed a new contract with New England and it’s looking more and more like he will be a MLS lifer. 

Sands went to Europe on an 18-month loan to Rangers. It was up and down. When he left there were reported options to stay in Europe, but he elected to come back home. Will he try to go back at some point? The clock is now ticking but  my guess is he will stay in MLS. 

Flach has had reported interest from Germany for some time, but I don’t rate him super high and can’t see him having a lot of success in a league like the Bundesliga. I hope I am wrong. 

Morris is an interesting case. He doesn’t have much left to prove in MLS, but he is reaching an age where I am not sure he is going to have better financial options overseas at a club that suits his level. I am highly skeptical that he will make it over to Europe. 

It does appear that the export-ready pool of American players in MLS is weaker than it has been over the last few years.

The next batch of exports looks more promising and I think we will see activity pick up starting in January of 2025. That list includes names like: Caleb Wiley, Brian Gutierrez, Diego Luna, Jalen Neal, Chris Brady, Benjamin Cremaschi, Esmir Bajraktarevic, Obed Vargas, Kristian Fletcher, Niko Tsakiris, Bernard Kamungo, Owen Wolff, Matai Akinmboni and the aforementioned Noel Buck and Jack McGlynn. This is a list of young and exciting names that should be in a good position to get moves in the next one to two years. 

Looking Back

In order to understand the nuances of the American export market, let’s look at the players that have moved over the last four seasons. More specifically, let’s look at their age, transfer fee and club they went to. 

MLS: American Exports Since 2020 - 2021 European Season

Ricardo Pepi 18, 16.36M, Augsburg
Brenden Aaronson, 20, 12.7M, Salzburg
Gaga Slonina, 18, 9M, Chelsea
Daryl Dike, 21, 8.36M, West Brom
Bryan Reynolds, 20, 6.85M, Roma
Brandon Vazquez, 25, 6.85M, Monterrey
Kevin Paredes, 18, 6.68M, Wolfsburg
Gianluca Busio, 19, 6M, Venezia
Matt Turner, 28, 5.9M, Arsenal
Mark McKenzie, 21, 5.45M, Genk
Paxten Aaronson, 19, 4M, Frankfurt
Cade Cowell, 20, 3.65M, Chivas
Tanner Tessmanm, 19, 3.64M, Venezia
Djordje Mihailovic, 24, 3M, AZ 
Reggie Cannon, 22, 2.5M, Boavista 
Niko Gioacchini, 23, 2M, Como 
Caden Clark, 18, 1.82M, Leipzig
Joe Scally, 18, 1.8M, Gladbach
George Bello, 20, 1.8M, Bielefeld 
Sam Vines, 22, 1.8M, Royal Antwerp
Auston Trusty, 23, 1.8M, Arsenal
Alejandro Granados, 17, 1.36M, Club Brugge
Chris Durkin, 20, 1.1M, Sint Truiden
Moses Nyeman, 18, 0.35M, Beveren
Griffin Yow, 19, 0.09M, Westerlo
Justin Che, 19, ?M, Brondby
James Sands, 21, 18-month loan, Rangers
Cole Bassett, 20, 18-month loan, Feyenoord

MLS: American Exports Since 2020 - 2021 European Season

Josh Wynder, 18, 1.1M, Benfica
Kobi Henry, 18, 600K, Stade Reims
Jose Gallegos, 20, 450K, SönderjyskE
Korede Osundina, 19, 200K, Feyenoord
Milan Iloski, 24, 200K, Nordsjaelland
Aaron Cervantes, 18, 100K, Rangers
Bryang Kayo, 18, 100K, Wolfsburg
Jonathon Gomez, 18, 90K, Real Sociedad

What Do The Last Few Transfer Windows Tell Us?

One of the most important things that this list tells us is how top European clubs in the top leagues view players in MLS and USL. For MLS, it tells me that clubs believe that if you are a player worth investing in, you should be making an impact in MLS between the ages of 18 to 20. The players that have moved for the most money have moved at 20 years of age or earlier and most of the guys had been impacting their MLS club for a year or two. Additionally, most of these guys have had the greatest success of any American MLS exports, so this perspective seems to hold some weight. 

This list also tells us that unless you are absolutely dominating in MLS, like Matt Turner, there won’t be a high demand for players in their mid 20s to move to the top leagues in Europe. The two anomalies here are Djordje Mihailovic, who earned a move to top Dutch club, AZ, at 24. Unfortunately, that move didn’t go super well and a year later, he is back in MLS. It’s been reported that this isn’t completely because of sporting reasons, but he never really broke through with AZ. 

Auston Trusty is another anomaly of sorts, but CBs do tend to develop later and therefore their window to move to Europe is also a little later. Trusty was an above average center-back in MLS, but I don’t think many predicted he would end up being a Premier League starter, albeit for a club that is likely to get relegated back to the Championship next year. Either way, he is a welcome success story for players moving to Europe later in their development. 

A key factor in these dynamics is salary. When players are on their first contract in MLS, their salaries are around 100K. For players that are on their second contract in MLS, their salaries are typically over a million per year. It is not unusual for leagues to value their domestic players higher. Each league has limited space for “International Players” so having quality domestic players on a squad is very important. 

The challenge is the delta between what MLS is willing to offer a good 23-28 year old player versus what a higher level league in Europe is willing to offer. Let’s take 26 year old Miles Robinson for example, who decided to stay in MLS as a free agent. He is making 1.65M$/year (gross) with FC Cincinnati and PSV offered something around 500K/year. As a point of comparison, Tuta, a 24-year old starting center-back for Eintracht Frankfurt, makes 1.5M€/year (gross), a similar salary when you take conversion rates into account. According to transfermarkt, his value is 15M Euros whereas Miles Robinson is worth 5M. Transfer value is not a universal criteria for determining if one player is better than the others, but I think most would agree that Tuta is a superior player to Miles Robinson. It’s just one data point, but if you look closely at this, it is easy to see why the economics between European clubs and American MLS players like Miles Robinson do not align.

If we circle back to Djordje Mihailovic we see that before his move to AZ he was making 650K€/year (gross) with Montreal in his last season before moving to AZ. AZ paid him 950€/year (gross) and the transfer fee was around 3M. This helps contextualize how this deal got done. It made sense for all parties because Mihailovic got a pay raise and a chance to play at a very good club in a competitive league. This is an edge case for 24 year old players in MLS. Most would have to take a pay cut to get a move similar to this at this age, and understandably, most players are not willing to do that as they enter their prime. That is a massive risk to take. 

Looking at USL, the paradigm is different. The majority of players are leaving right when they turn 18 because that was the agreement with their club when they went to USL. USL clubs are open in saying “come here, and we will move you as soon as you are ready and eligible”. European clubs see this and are taking chances on young players in USL, but they are not making huge bets at this point. They are signing players for much less and moving them to their reserve teams. European clubs do not see USL as a market for first team ready players, but a market for younger, higher risk players that they are willing to invest in and take a chance on.

What Does This Mean Going Forward?

This data suggests that if you are an MLS player and an agent of an MLS player that wants to get to a good level in Europe, your ideal path is by earning first team minutes and performing well from ages 17 to 19 and moving to Europe while on your homegrown deal around the ages of 18 to 21. With this path, European clubs will believe you have the potential to impact their club and potentially get sold for an even bigger fee down the road. Additionally, with this path the economics makes sense. Players will get a healthy pay rise and the pool of clubs that are able and willing to pay become much greater. It will be easier to find a club that is the right next step in development. 

This data also suggests that if you are a player like Miles Robinson or Brandon Vazquez, you have to really bet on yourself to pass on a significant amount of money and go to Europe. Most players are not going to be willing to do that during the prime of their careers. 

If you are somewhere in the middle of these two scenarios, like Aidan Morris or Jesus Ferreira, your European options that make sense, both from a sporting and money perspective, are going to be small. This means that players like this are going to have to find a club that really fits your style and has a big need in your position. 

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