How Aston Villa’s John Doran transfer affects Chicago Fire, MLS’ under-22 junior initiative

John Doran arrived in MLS As one of the most unique signings in league history. It leaves as one of its most spectacular success stories—at least on the balance sheet.

the Chicago fire He signed 17-year-old Duran in January 2021 from Colombian club Envigado FC, but the $2 million transfer came with a big catch. Because FIFA The rules prevent players from leaving their home countries until they turn 18, and Duran could not actually join the Fire for another year. Stuck in limbo, he remained with Envigado throughout 2021 before finally arriving in Chicago before last season.

Debuting at the age of fifteen, Duran became the second youngest goalscorer in the history of the Colombian League and quickly progressed through the national youth team system in his native country. But he hasn’t quite hit the ground running in MLS, scoring just once in Chicago’s first 21 regular season games in 2022. Toronto On July 14, he earned his international debut with the Colombian senior team in October and scored five times in his last five games of the MLS season to finish the year with eight goals and three assists for Chicago.

The Fire wasn’t planning on moving him soon, but the combination of his solid play last fall, profile (he’s listed at 6-foot-1, 161 pounds) and bewildering rooftop make the 19-year-old a subject of serious interest in Europe this winter. Last week, Aston Villa won the race to sign him. the Premier League The club will pay Chicago an initial transfer fee of $18 million with the possibility of an additional $4 million in add-ons if Doran achieves different performance parameters. Envigado will receive a final fee discount. The Fire will also maintain a percentage of the sale should he move from Villa for a fee in the future.

“When you sign a player, you also buy a certain fantasy,” Chicago athletic director George Hitz told The Athletic last week.

From an economic perspective, turnover achieved fire fantasy. The deal represents a minimum profit of about $15 million for Chicago, a net profit that would mark one of the largest in MLS history, and will likely be in the same neighborhood as previous deals for Alphonso DaviesAnd Miguel Almiron And Ricardo Pepe. Hitz said Duran’s contract with Fire until 2026 and interest from other clubs outside Villa (Benfica, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United among others were heaving) helped drive up his price tag.

Duran’s move happened in the same window as the Fire officially transferred 18-year-old goalkeeper Gaga Slonina to Chelsea for a basic fee of $10 million. To add more context to the windfall, Sportico reported last September that the Blaze generated just $23 million in trading revenue in all of 2021. Duran’s final price may almost end up matching that number in its own right.

Had MLS not introduced the Under-22 initiative into the morass of roster rules prior to the 2021 season, it is unlikely that Chicago would have ever signed a rotation.

“A lot of times, you can find a way around,” Hitz said, “but I can’t see how it could have worked without the U-22 initiative.”

As the name indicates, players signed under the U-22 initiative must be 22 or younger for their entire first season in the league. In most cases, they cannot pay more than the maximum budget fee, which is set at $651,250 in 2023. While their ages and salaries are capped, there is no limit to what clubs can spend on transfer or loan fees for players under the age of 22. Regardless of their fee, players signed under the initiative achieved an MLS salary budget of $150,000 or $200,000 depending on their age.

Effectively, the rule allows teams to increase their spending, but without taking up too much of the budget, and only having three players over their age likely to transfer for a profit.

Turnover is an almost perfect example of how MLS works on the mechanism. He was acquired for a relatively small fee at a very young age, performed reasonably well in MLS, and then sold for a huge gain. This may not be exactly his dream scenario — it would have required Duran to make a bigger impact on the field for Chicago, who finished 24th in the league in 2022 — but it’s pretty close.

“It was a wise decision to add it,” Hitz said of the Under-22 initiative. “We need these tools. It’s a global market we’re in, we’re competing with really big clubs (for these young players), and this is a very, very useful tool for us trying to sign these players.”

Chicago, to their credit, took steps to mitigate the risks around Duran, keeping him top of mind even while he stayed at Envigado for the first year after signing. According to Hitz, the Columbia-based scout who initially identified him as a target for Chicago, attended all of Duran’s training sessions with Envigado and spent time with him and his family at their home two or three times a week, giving the teen a permanent point of contact with the fire. Hitz also said that Chicago organized one-on-one training sessions for Duran while he was at Columbia so that he could integrate into the team faster once he arrived in the United States.

However, don’t expect a turnover trajectory to be the norm for acquisitions under the age of 22. Signing any player is an imprecise science. Signing it at 18, 19 or 20 years of age adds to the uncertainty. Young people, especially those leaving their home country for the first time, are exposed to all kinds of pitfalls, with injuries, homesickness and old stagnation evident among a host of issues that can derail their progress. Even players who are considered safer bets at those ages sometimes get blown away.

Accordingly, U-22 Initiative players have had very mixed results so far in MLS. Among the success stories are Leo Campana, who was acquired on the initiative of Miami last season, had a solid campaign and was promoted to Designated Player of the Year status; Jose Cifuentes And Diego Palacios They are integrated into the rating in a way that allows LAFC to free up space in the budget for use on other players; Orlando Midfielder Cesar AraujoAnd Cincinnati‘s Alvaro BarialAnd galaxy striker Diane JovelichPortland Midfielder Santiago Moreno And New York City Winger Gabi Pereira also looks promising. None of them have transferred yet, but they have contributed positively to their teams and could very well be converted for profit in future windows.

Of course, there were also quite a few bugs. Santiago Sosa And Franco Ibarra It didn’t quite live up to their Atlanta price tags; Moussa Djitte And Rodney Reedus It didn’t make much of an impact on Austen; Vancouver midfielder Kaio Alexander, Cincinnati winger Isaac Atanga, Seattle winger Liu Zhu And Charlotte attacker Kerwin Vargas They’ve all also struggled to make an impact in the MLS, with both Alexander and Atanga now out of the league on loan.

Those players who haven’t had much success deserve more time. They are, after all, still young and developing. But their experiences are as illustrative as Doran when it comes to the impact of the U-22 initiative on MLS. The rule is not the most effective way to raise the quality of play in the league – in general, teams would probably play better for their dollars if they spent the money on older players. But the mechanism increases the odds of teams adding conversion proceeds as the Fire did with turnover. In a league where many clubs are still struggling to generate income relative to their spending, this is important. Signing the Under-22s won’t always work out, but as Doran’s case shows, the potential for truly huge rewards does exist.

(Photo: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

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