When Gaga Slonina took his place between the posts in the U.S. men’s national team‘s friendly against Serbia in Los Angeles last month, it was a glimpse into the future. Most importantly for the U.S., as Slonina became the youngest-ever American goalkeeper to make his international debut (18 years, 255 days), but more broadly, it was an example of what his development pathway could represent.
“In Chicago, this is something you can show. ‘Look, he was here in the academy, he made it into the first team, he made the international team, he made it to Europe,'” Chicago Fire technical director Sebastian Pelzer told ESPN. “This route… this is a story you can tell.”
For a club that has seemingly been in a perpetual search for an identity in a crowded Chicagoland sports market, Slonina’s rise represented unique a player-city connection that can’t be replicated in other sports. While the concept of a homegrown players — essentially, “he’s one of our own” — has been ingrained in the sport globally for decades, it’s still relatively new in MLS, which has only seen its academies start to develop players who are able to contribute in recent years.
Over the next decade, the continued maturation of MLS academies represents the most important tool the league has in raising its collective standard, with players like Slonina, Alphonso Davies (Vancouver Whitecaps), Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls), Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas) and Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy) serving as recent proof of what’s possible. A close second, though, is the league’s continued identification and pursuit of young players — often from South America — who can come to MLS, make an impact, develop and move on, providing a healthy return on investment in the process.
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That’s what made the 2022 Chicago Fire so interesting, at least in retrospect.
With Slonina having signed for Chelsea in August in a deal that has the potential to be worth approximately $15 million, Chicago agreed last month to transfer 19-year-old Colombian forward Jhon Duran to Aston Villa for roughly $18 million (with the possibility of $4m in add-ons), meaning the club has the potential to receive nearly $40m in transfer fees for a pair of teenagers. They are two of the seven most expensive outgoing transfers in league history. It’s the type of business that should further motivate other owners in the league to increase investment in both roster-building mechanisms.
Both concepts are simple. Execution, of course, is far from it, with luck often carrying an outsized role in what constitutes success.
Duran was just 16 when the Fire became of aware of him in the summer of 2020. The club was scouting center-back Carlos Teran for Colombian side Envigado — the club where James Rodriguez made his professional debut — when Duran came off the bench.
“You could see already what a handful he was,” Pelzer said. “Physically, he stood out. He had very good pace, good technique. In some ways a bit raw, but you still could have the imagination of what level he could reach.”
It was clear right away the Fire wanted to acquire him, but that process came with some challenging hurdles. The first, most obvious one, was his age. Duran couldn’t leave Colombia for the United States until he turned 18 (in December 2021). Then came the Guardian article, in which the British newspaper included Duran on its 2020 list of the 60 best young talents in the world. Chicago was already in a position where it was going to compete for Duran’s signature, and his inclusion on the list brought even more deep-pocketed suitors.
In addition to signing Teran, whose presence in Chicago made the Fire a more appealing destination for Duran, the club also employed a Colombian-based scout, Andreas Werz, who was able to check in and work with Duran throughout the next year until he was eligible to move. Those factors, combined with MLS’s growing reputation as a launching pad to Europe, led Duran to sign with Chicago just after he turned 17 for a reported transfer fee of roughly $2 million.
“Over that period, we made sure [Werz] looked after him. We provided him extra training sessions with trainers to try to prepare him because the level down there and then coming into MLS is also a big jump for him… and also [prepare him for] the demands of the game over here,” Pelzer said. “So we tried to cover that from our end, and it was impressive to see how the stats and the data of Jhon — the evolution in sprints, reactions, jumps — all moved up. From that perspective, [the year he stayed in Colombia] was a very, a very positive process.”
Chicago’s front office felt like the most likely scenario for Duran’s development would be for him to spend two years with the club before the inevitable bigger move would come. Duran’s performance metrics in Colombia were good and combined with his size (6-foot-1, 161 pounds) and physical attributes, it all made for a valuable player profile. But he still had to produce in MLS.
Of the 70 teenage field players who played at least one minute in MLS last year, Duran’s attacking numbers were in a tier of their own. His eight goals were more than double anyone else. When limiting the field to players 18 and younger, only the San Jose Earthquakes‘ Cade Cowell played more minutes (1,547) among attacking players. For most of the season, though, there wasn’t much reason to believe that initial two-year plan would change. During Duran’s first 13 appearances, he scored just once and Chicago didn’t win any of the games in which he appeared.
In the season’s final stretch, things clicked. Duran scored five goals in the Fire’s last five games, which led to his first appearance for the Colombia national team in September, when he replaced Radamel Falcao in a friendly against Guatemala. His rapid ascent was a bit of a double-edged sword: good for the obvious reasons, but it ultimately meant that Duran’s time in Chicago would be short-lived.
It all presents a bizarre conundrum for MLS. Concurrently, Chicago provided the league with best-case examples of how to develop both a homegrown player and a young foreign player. In theory, it’s the type of process that should be celebrated, but it came with a major caveat: Chicago was bad in 2022. It missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year, enters 2023 having last won a playoff game in 2009 and will do so without two of its best players from last season.
When the Philadelphia Union transferred Mark McKenzie and Aaronson to Europe after winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2020, it was easier for fans to swallow. In that case, the players left behind a memorable period of on-field success. The dynamic in Chicago is much different.
“First of all, I have to say the purpose of this whole organization is not to sell players. It just happens in this soccer world,” said Fire sporting director Georg Heitz. “Players always aim to play on the highest possible level. That is natural and should be the case that we need ambitious players. That’s one thing which I always said in my former club [FC Basel in Switzerland] as well. ‘If a player thinks that this should be his last club, then he’s probably not the right player for us.’
“The other thing is clear. We have to find ways to replace this talent. We have to find quality players. Otherwise, fans won’t be happy and they would be absolutely right.”
MLS’s complicated roster rules don’t make it easy. While those transfer fees in most leagues around the world could be converted into building more immediate squad depth, for example, it’s not as straightforward in a salary-cap-governed league. There are clear benefits, though.
The two big-money transfers will combine to give the Fire roughly $2 million in General Allocation Money — effectively raising Chicago’s salary cap — that can be used over a three-transfer-window period from the completion of each transfer (Slonina is considered a summer transfer after finishing the 2022 season on loan). The bulk of that money hasn’t been put to use in a demonstrable way yet, but, according to league sources, Chicago is attempting to sign a striker on a Designated Player deal before MLS’s primary transfer window closes April 24. The club is also exploring the possibility of adding two players using the league’s U22 player initiative, which allows teams to sign younger players — like Duran, for example — to larger contracts and have those deals count toward the salary cap at a reduced figure.
Heitz pointed out that billionaire Fire owner Joe Mansueto has a strong track record of club investment since taking full control of the club in 2019 and that in addition to player signings there are infrastructural investments — including a proposed 30-acre training facility — that will pay off long term.
“Maybe you cannot see this in such a direct way as you can see it in a European club, for example,” Heitz said. “But we benefit a lot [from the transfer fees].”
It’s a trust-the-process scenario. Optimism stems from the idea that Chicago can replicate the development process of Slonina and Duran in higher numbers, and eventually, that will pay off both in the ledgers and on the field.