This is a watershed moment for Major League Soccer.
Alphonso Davies securing a record transfer fee for an MLS player ($13.5 million initially, which could rise to $22.5 million) and moving to German giants Bayern Munich as a 17-year-old with braces turned plenty of heads around the globe as to the potential talent currently being developed in the U.S. and Canada.
But what now for MLS? What direction will Davies’ transfer take the league in?
[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]
First of all, Davies is a generational talent. We’re talking in the same bracket as Christian Pulisic for the USMNT right now, or the likes of Dwayne de Rosario and Landon Donovan before him. Davies is destined for great things and his mixture of skill with raw power and pace as a teenager is extremely rare. Now, he has the chance to become a global superstar at Bayern. It won’t be easy but he has the opportunity to take his game to a whole new level in Bavaria.
Unearthing talents on Davies’ level regularly is going to be tough, if not near impossible, but the level of youngsters coming through and starring in MLS is now at a level where clubs across Europe are cherrypicking them. Due to the relative small transfer fees, a stronger physical development in some respects and a bigger upsides in terms of development when they arrive in Europe, the interest in young MLS talent is now at unprecedented levels.
MLS has never really been a selling league with only a handful of players making the league substantial transfer fees over the past two decades, with much of the focus on veteran stars arriving into the league with little spent in transfer funds. That trend is changing with the likes of Barco and Miguel Almiron at Atlanta United, but the internal development of young players is the most intriguing aspect.
That is something which Davies’s transfer highlighted. He may not burst onto the scene with Bayern for a few years, but he has been given the best possible chance for success due to the way the Whitecaps have handled him, and will continue to do so, ahead of his move to Germany at the end of the current MLS season.
But this is where MLS now needs to cash in and make the most of the millions of dollars the league and owners have poured into development academies in recent years. There will always be room for the Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s, Wayne Rooney‘s and David Beckham’s to join the league and enhance its reputation on another level.
Yet it seems like the biggest shift in the next few years will be keeping hold of kids emerging from MLS academies.
If they’re going to increasingly lose talents like Davies to top European clubs, rather than losing them as youngsters in the academy system, they need to be compensated fairly. The plan has to be to then reinvest that cash into academies and let that trickle down to the grassroots, as it did in Davies’ case with his club team, the Edmonton Strikers, to receive some of the transfer fee for being a key part in his development.
MLS’ young stars being sold will continue, relentlessly, as European clubs realize that youngsters getting significant minutes at the senior level as teenagers will benefit their development and ready them for the gauntlet of Europe’s elite leagues. And that should, in turn, entice MLS clubs to give more teenagers opportunities in their first teams as they know that financially it will be hugely beneficial, as well as from a sporting perspective, as long as they’re good enough.
Tyler Adams, who is set to move to RB Leipzig from the New York Red Bulls, is the perfect example of how MLS academies can develop talent, nurture it and then hand over the keys for a fee.
There is, of course, a different way of doing things as you have Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund since the age of 16 and FC Dallas academy product Weston McKennie followed him to Germany at Schalke. 18-year-old Josh Sargent is at Werder Bremen. Keaton Parkes is at Benfica. Erik Palmer-Brown joined Man City from Sporting Kansas City.
The list of young talents bypassing MLS altogether and heading to Europe is substantial, but MLS are getting a grip on how to nurture talent and get something from it. But which players will follow in Davies’ footsteps and head to Europe from MLS?
Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen is perhaps next up, with clubs in England sniffing around the USMNT stopper, while perhaps Justen Glad of Real Salt Lake or maybe Jordan Morris from the Seattle Sounders (when he returns from injury) will be the next big talents MLS can sell to Europe and keep the conveyor belt going.
But this isn’t just about U.S. and Canadian internationals. Look at Barco, Miguel Almiron, Julian Gressel and Josef Martinez at Atlanta United. Kaku at the New York Red Bulls. Diego Rossi, Latif Blessing and even Andre Horta at LAFC. Look at Jack Harrison who left NYCFC for Man City. These are players in their early 20s who are primed and ready to be picked off by European clubs for a relatively modest transfer fee and should be ready to contribute right away.
Whatever way you slice this up, that is good for MLS’ future. Yes, the league will lose talented players, but youngsters will start to see the league, and particular clubs like LAFC and Atlanta, as breeding grounds for successful careers at the highest level. Just like the pathways in Europe which sees clubs like Ajax, Southampton and Celtic accept their roles as feeder clubs and make huge transfer fees before unearthing more young talent, MLS can be a cog in the machines of European giants.
The main challenge for MLS will now be to continue to develop good young players and get transfer fees which will keep the wheels turning and help clubs to become profitable.
It’s future has shifted slightly with this Davies transfer highlighting a path the league, and its individual clubs, can follow to deliver not only short-term success but long-term sustainability as well as enhancing the reputation of MLS around the world.