Jhon Duran arrived in MLS as one of the most unique signings in the history of the league. He leaves as one of its most resounding success stories — at least on the balance sheet.
The Chicago Fire signed the then-17-year-old Duran in January 2021 from Colombian club Envigado FC, but the $2 million transfer came with a significant catch. Because FIFA rules bar players from leaving their home countries until they turn 18, Duran couldn’t actually join the Fire for another year. Caught in transfer limbo, he remained with Envigado for all of 2021 before finally arriving in Chicago last preseason.
Duran made his pro debut at 15, became the second-youngest goal scorer in the history of the Colombian top-flight and advanced quickly through his home country’s youth national team system. But he didn’t exactly hit the ground running in MLS, scoring just once in Chicago’s first 21 regular season matches in 2022. The striker came alive down the stretch, however, scoring twice against Toronto on July 14, earning his first caps with the Colombian senior national team in October and netting five times in his final five appearances of the MLS season to finish the year with eight goals and three assists for Chicago.
The Fire weren’t planning to move him on so soon, but the combination of his strong play last fall, physical profile (he’s listed at 6-foot-1, 161 pounds) and tantalizing ceiling made the newly-turned 19-year-old an object of serious interest in Europe this winter. Last week, Aston Villa won the race to sign him. The Premier League club will pay Chicago an initial transfer fee of $18 million with the potential for $4 million more in add-ons if Duran hits various performance benchmarks. Envigado will receive a cut of the final fee. The Fire, too, will maintain a sell-on percentage should Villa move him for a fee in the future.
“When you sign a player,” Chicago sporting director Georg Heitz told The Athletic last week, “you also buy a certain fantasy.”
From an economic perspective, Duran fulfilled a fantasy for the Fire. The deal represents a minimum profit of roughly $15 million for Chicago, a net gain that would stand as one of the largest in MLS history, likely in the same neighborhood as past deals for Alphonso Davies, Miguel Almiron and Ricardo Pepi. Duran being under contract with the Fire through 2026 and the interest of other clubs beyond Villa (Benfica, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United were among others reportedly sniffing around) helped increase his price, Heitz said.
Duran’s move occurred in the same window where the Fire officially moved 18-year-old goalkeeper Gaga Slonina to Chelsea for a base fee of $10 million. To add further context to the windfall, Sportico reported last September that the Fire generated just $23 million in commercial revenue in all of 2021. The final price for Duran might end up nearly matching that figure by itself.
Had MLS not introduced the Under-22 initiative into its quagmire of roster rules ahead of the 2021 season, it’s unlikely that Chicago would have ever signed Duran.
“Many times, you can find a way, but I can’t see how it could have worked out without the U-22 initiative,” Heitz said.
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 make more than the maximum budget charge, which is set at $651,250 in 2023. While their age and salaries are restricted, there is no limit to what clubs can spend on transfer or loan fees for U-22 players. No matter their fee, players signed under the initiative hit the MLS salary budget at $150,000 or $200,000 depending on their age.
Effectively, the rule lets teams increase their spending, but without occupying too much budget space, and only on up to three players whose age makes them more likely to be transferred for a profit.
Duran is an almost perfect example of how MLS would like the mechanism to work. He was acquired for a relatively nominal fee at a very young age, performed reasonably well in MLS, then got sold for a huge gain. It might not be the exact dream scenario — that would’ve required Duran to have made more of an on-field impact for Chicago, which finished 24th in the league in 2022 — but it’s pretty close.
“It was a wise decision to add it,” Heitz said of the U-22 initiative. “We need these tools. It’s a global market that we’re in, we compete with really, really big clubs (for these young players), and this is a very, very useful tool for us in trying to sign those players.”
Chicago, to its credit, took steps to mitigate the risk around Duran, keeping him top of mind even while he remained at Envigado for the first year after he was signed. According to Heitz, the Colombia-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 teenager a constant touchpoint with the Fire. Heitz also said that Chicago organized individual training sessions for Duran while he was in Colombia so he could integrate into the team quicker once he did arrive in the U.S.
However, don’t expect Duran’s path to be the norm for U-22 acquisitions. Signing any player is an inexact science. Signing them at 18, 19 or 20 years old only adds to the uncertainty. Youngsters, especially those leaving their home country for the first time, are subject to all kinds of pitfalls, with injuries, homesickness and plain old stagnation among the litany of issues that can derail their progress. Even the players who are considered the safest bets at those ages sometimes flame out.
Accordingly, U-22 initiative players have had pretty mixed results so far in MLS. Among the success stories is Leo Campana, who was acquired under the initiative by Miami last season, had a strong campaign and was upgraded to designated player status for this year; Jose Cifuentes and Diego Palacios were grandfathered into the designation in a way that allowed LAFC to free up budget space for use on other players; Orlando midfielder Cesar Araujo, Cincinnati’s Alvaro Barreal, Galaxy striker Dejan Joveljic, Portland midfielder Santiago Moreno and NYCFC winger Gabi Pereira all look promising, too. None have been moved on yet, but they’ve positively contributed to their teams and could very well be transferred for profit in future windows.
Of course, there have also been a fair number of misses. Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra haven’t lived up to their price tags in Atlanta; Moussa Djitte and Rodney Redes have yet to make much of an impact for Austin; Vancouver midfielder Caio Alexandre, Cincinnati winger Isaac Atanga, Seattle winger Leo Chu and Charlotte attacker Kerwin Vargas have all also struggled to make a dent in MLS, with Alexandre and Atanga now both out of the league on loan.
Those players who haven’t yet hit it big deserve more time. They are, after all, still young and developing. But their experiences are as illustrative as Duran’s when it comes to the impact of the U-22 initiative on MLS. The rule isn’t the most efficient way to raise the quality of play of the league — on the whole, teams would likely get better play for their dollar if they spent the money on older players. But the mechanism does increase the odds of teams adding transfer revenue as the Fire did with Duran. In a league where many clubs still struggle to generate income relative to their spending, that’s important. U-22 signings won’t always work out, but, as the Duran case shows, the potential for truly huge rewards does exist.
(Photo: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)
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