The New York Red Bulls have made a breakthrough in their efforts to make Belgian international Dante Vanzeir their next designated player, and the 24-year-old forward is expected to fly to the U.S. this week to complete a move that could break the franchise’s record fee for a player. The deal remains subject to medical clearance.
Vanzeir will sign from 11-time Belgian champions Union Saint-Gilloise for $5.3 million, but achievable bonuses related to playing time, goals and team success could take the fee past the $6.25 million that the Red Bulls paid Huracán for Argentine playmaker Kaku Gamarra in 2018.
Union have been one of the most fascinating stories in European football over the past few seasons and Vanzeir has played a significant role in their success.
The Brussels club were bought by English businessmen Alex Muzio and Tony Bloom in 2018, with new ownership rapidly changing the fortunes of a once-famous side then languishing in the lower divisions. In 2021, they were promoted back to the Belgian top flight with Vanzeir ending the season as the top goalscorer in the second tier, only to stun the nation by finishing top of the table in the Belgian Pro League in their first season back among the elite.
Vanzeir struggled in the championship playoffs, scoring just once in six games and missing a crucial penalty against Club Brugge as Union lost back-to-back fixtures to the eventual champions, finishing second and entering the Champions League qualifiers.
The fleet-footed 24-year-old bounced back to form this season with 10 goals before the enforced break for the Qatar World Cup. He has added two since, but declared himself unfit to play in last weekend’s victory over Leuven with a hamstring issue after Union rejected a fourth bid from the Red Bulls for his services.
During the World Cup break he met the Red Bulls on a trip to the U.S. and was offered the chance to quadruple his salary to around $1.2 million by moving to Major League Soccer, according to sources with knowledge of the negotiations who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly about the deal. Union tried to convince the player to stay and help their title chase and Europa League campaign, where they are through to the round of 16, while also boosting Vanzeir’s chances of further international recognition with Belgium, but the player was seduced by the opportunity of moving to the Empire State. Union will now retain $20-million rated striker Victor Boniface, who has been the subject of interest from Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga.
Vanzeir made clear his desire to leave for a new opportunity in America, but Union refused to budge until their valuation was met for the player they signed for an initial $200,000 from Genk in 2020, while also stressing they would need to find a replacement with just one week remaining in the European transfer window, those sources said. The Belgium international was caught on camera shouting at Union CEO Philippe Bormans by local media as the club waited for the Red Bulls to meet their demands, with a breakthrough eventually coming on Monday evening as Vanzeir agreed to give up some money owed to him by Union in order to make the move happen.
Interestingly, Vanzeir’s international career may now lie in the hands of a former Red Bull. Former Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez called up the in-form striker in 2022 and handed him his debut in the World Cup qualifier against Wales, but he missed out on the World Cup squad and his chances of pulling on a Belgium jersey again could now depend on Thierry Henry, should he replace Martinez as expected. The Belgian FA is currently going through its hiring process but Henry, formerly an assistant to Martinez, is favorite for the role.
The Red Bulls will no doubt hope that Vanzeir can fill a hole at the No. 9 position that has been a glaring weakness since the departure of two-time MLS golden boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips at the end of the 2019 season. Wright-Phillips’ 117 goals is sixth most all-time in MLS, and the three-time Supporters’ Shield winner recently rejoined the Red Bulls as special assistant to the sporting director.
Brian White led the Red Bulls in goals scored in 2020 with just five. New York signed Patryk Klimala as a designated player from Celtic and the Polish striker led the team in goals in 2021 with eight. Winger Lewis Morgan led the Red Bulls in goals with 14 last season, with Klimala the next-highest scorer with five.
While Vanzeir is capable of playing in a deeper role or out wide, much of his Union career was spent as the right-sided striker in a front two. At Union, Deniz Undav, now in the Premier League with Brighton, would play more of a target man role while the speedy Vanzeir covered huge amounts of ground around him, both pressing without the ball and then contributing to build-up play with it.
Many scouts from Europe’s top clubs that came to watch the 5-foot-9 Vanzeir were put off by his slight frame, but his low centre of gravity and good balance make him hard to muscle off the ball, and he benefits from a rapid change of direction that central defenders typically struggle to cope with.
(Photo: Vincent Kalut / Photonews via Getty Images)
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