Chicago Fire technical director Sebastian Pelzer went to Colombia on a scouting trip in the summer of 2020 to watch a defender named Carlos Teran — but it was another player who caught his eye while he was there.
Jhon Duran, a 16-year-old striker with an eye for goal playing for Envigado FC, was hard not to notice — and Pelzer was adamant his MLS club could not miss out on him.
Duran had made his pro debut in August 2019 while still aged 15, had become the second-youngest goalscorer in the history of the Colombian top flight and had advanced quickly through Colombia’s youth national team setup.
A few months later — in what was a hugely significant moment — Chicago made Duran the youngest foreign signing in MLS history, paying a transfer fee of around $2million (£1.64m). This was despite the fact that he would have to stay at Envigado, the club where Colombian internationals Juan Fernando Quintero and James Rodriguez began their careers, for a year before he was eligible to play for Chicago.
Now, aged 19 and after just a year in the MLS, Duran is heading to Aston Villa for a fee of around $18million (£14.8m) that could rise by an extra $3.7m. The deal is subject to a medical, and the player agreeing personal terms and obtaining the necessary work visa.
It’s a huge price for someone who had only just started to sparkle for Chicago after a relatively slow start to his time in the US.
However, it is currently hard to recruit young strikers as there is a global shortage of good ones compared to other positions.
Talented forwards at the beginning of their careers are swiftly snapped up now, with 19-year-old Benjamin Sesko being a case in point. The Slovenian is rated as one of Europe’s hottest young prospects and will join Germany’s RB Leipzig from their Austrian sister club Red Bull Salzburg at the end of this season in a deal worth around $25.9million.
This isn’t to say that Villa have been forced to settle for Duran — he has enormously impressive physical attributes and his record in Colombia and superb form towards the end of the 2022 MLS season show he has the potential to go far. He is achieving a lot very quickly and has already been capped three times.
He arrived in Chicago at the start of last year with Chicago Fire having relatively low expectations. The idea was to ease the teenager into their line-up as he adjusted to a new country.
The plan worked out largely as expected. Duran started just three games over the first four months of the season, and was used out on the wing at times. In those matches he looked mostly as you would expect from a young player in a new league, new country and new position: raw and a bit out of his depth.
But when Duran finally got a run of minutes as a No 9, you could see the potential that Pelzer had spotted two years earlier. He scored twice against Toronto in July and netted five times in what turned out to be his final five appearances for the club.
Those matches, even in a side who finished third-bottom in the 14-team Eastern Conference with 10 wins in their 34 games, showed Duran is at his best when running into space in transition and providing a real threat in behind the opponents’ back line.
This goal against Cincinnati on October 2 highlights those qualities listed above.
Cincinnati’s back line is pushed way too high as they try to find a way back into the game at 2-0 down, and a turnover in midfield has left far too much space for Duran to take advantage of and he lifts the ball over the goalkeeper to clinch the game.
His first goal that day was similar to his second.
Duran has peeled off the centre-back and Cincinnati’s high line is punished by a simple through ball. Duran’s speed is too much for the Cincinnati defence and he makes easy work of the finish.
The majority of Duran’s MLS goals were scored in this sort of fashion — and it’s unlikely he will be granted as much space in the Premier League.
Duran will need to show he can get shots off and score goals in tighter spaces and by combining with team-mates, not just running into space in transition. His size (6ft 1in/186cm) should prove an asset at set pieces as well.
The reality is Villa have signed a young player who is still developing. But one capable of punishing teams who play with a high line.
Duran has plenty of work to do and at such a high price he’ll carry expectations unlike any he’s seen so far in his career.
“He is not only physically interesting, especially if you consider his age, but also technically, he’s really good in front of the goal, he’s good in the box, he’s smart, he’s quick with his feet. A raw talent, but really gifted,” Chicago’s sporting director Georg Heitz told The Athletic in January 2021.
Chicago knew Duran’s time with them would be limited, but expectations around the club were that a sale was likely to happen in the summer. Duran was expected to play for Colombia Under-20s at this month’s South American championship on home soil with the MLS club hoping that impressive performances at that tournament would encourage a bidding war.
It turns out the timing of that competition brought about an offer sooner than expected, and to get this type of fee after just 14 starts and 1,365 minutes has raised eyebrows.
Executives for Chicago and their rivals will hope Duran justifies the price Villa are paying and helps to further open the pipeline of young players from Latin American countries.
A deal like this shows MLS is a realistic destination to propel young players to Europe — and not just for Americans and Canadians.
(Top photo: Andrew Katsampes/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
The Athletic’s Spanish football coverage has expanded…
Read the full article here