The January 2021 European transfer window proved to be something of a landmark moment for Major League Soccer, with a number of players crossing the Atlantic.
While we’ve seen the likes of Miguel Almiron and Tyler Adams move in fits and starts, and academy graduates such as Weston McKennie, Chris Richards and Giovanni Reyna go on to have success, we’ve never before seen MLS products flood to Europe in one window.
However, this January was a game-changer with established talents and young prospects alike switching MLS for some of Europe’s biggest leagues, while others made shock loan moves to the English and Spanish second tiers. Should they succeed, this crop of players could be the pioneers for future generations of US internationals and South American prospects seeking to ignite their career across the pond.
So, taking a look at the major MLS-to-Europe transfers this past window, let’s rank them by their potential impact at their new clubs.
8. Paul Arriola
From: DC United
To: Swansea City
Position: Right-wing-back, right-wing, attacking midfield
Perhaps one of the more surprising moves in January was Paul Arriola switching DC United for Swansea City on loan until the end of the season. However, despite sitting bottom of this list, the US international still has plenty to give to his new employers.
Although primarily an attack-minded player who can play through the middle or as an industrious winger, Arriola has often been fielded as a wing-back for both DC United and the USMNT, which suits Steve Cooper’s 3-4-1-2 tactical set-up perfectly. Right-wing-back Connor Roberts has played more Championship minutes (2,430) than any other Swansea player this season but, as Cooper himself puts it, the Welsh side will need their full squad if they’re to sustain their promotion challenge, and Arriola could give Roberts a welcome rest.
“I just think in terms of rotating, or changing the team, that’s going to be a necessity at certain times of the season just because of the nature of it,” Cooper said in November. “I don’t think there’ll be many players playing every minute of every single game, barring goalkeepers.”
What pushes Arriola down this list is the fact his deal, unlike some other MLS-to-Europe loans, doesn’t include a permanent option. Arriola would have to supplant Roberts (one of Swansea’s best players this season) and maintain an incredibly high level to persuade Swansea to make the move permanent, or even to attract interest from other clubs in England. That said, a 26-year-old, 35-time international would offer a wealth of quality and experience to a number of Championship and lower Premier League sides.
7. Joe Scally
From: New York City FC
To: Borussia Monchengladbach
Joe Scally’s transfer to Gladbach was technically agreed back in November 2019 but because of his young age, he could only complete the move in January 2021. However, with an initial $2m fee which could rise to $7m (potentially one of the highest-ever fees for an MLS player), there is plenty of excitement around what Scally could achieve in Germany.
The right-back made his MLS debut for NYCFC at just 15 years old and comes out of the same academy as Gio Reyna, who is currently pulling up trees with Dortmund.
Scally describes himself as a “very physical and fast player” who excels at tearing up and down the touchline and delivering high-quality crosses into the box. However, Gladbach are already quite stacked at right-back with the likes of Stefan Lainer and Valentino Lazaro, so it’s likely Scally will further his development in the club’s reserve team, which currently play in the German fourth-tier. Still, that hasn’t stopped Gladbach manager Marco Rose getting pumped about his new acquisition.
“We’re excited about him, we’re excited about his huge talent,” he said. “We’ll give him the time he needs to get used to everything, of course, we’ll support him so he can make a good start.”
6. Jordan Morris
From: Seattle Sounders
To: Swansea City
Position: Winger, centre-forward
Unlike Arriola, Jordan Morris’ switch to Swansea does include an option to make the move permanent and given his pedigree in the United States, there’s a good chance that could happen should he hit the ground running. Swansea co-owner Jason Levien’s links to DC United, where he is CEO and GM, are really paying dividends here.
Able to play as a direct winger or off the shoulder of the last defender as a striker, Morris has been one of the most effective forwards in MLS over the past five seasons (with the exception of 2018 when he was injured), notching 42 goals and 21 assists in 129 appearances across all competitions to help the Sounders win two MLS Cup titles. Add his 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup title and 10 goals in 39 senior USMNT caps to the mix, and you begin to sense the pedigree Morris has in North America.
Morris’ versatility will be a real asset to Cooper, while the aforementioned need to rotate will help him just as much as it will Arriola. Andre Ayew and Jamal Lowe are the Swans’ current first-choice forwards but both will need a break during the run-in. Morris has already made an impact from the bench for Swansea, too, cruelly being denied a penalty after being felled in the box during a 2-0 win over Norwich City.
It’s hard to see Morris being the automatic starter at the Liberty Stadium, but he will get plenty of chances to prove his worth and earn a permanent move.
5. Daryl Dike
From: Orlando City
Perhaps the most surprising deadline day move in January, from an MLS perspective at least, was Daryl Dike’s loan switch from Orlando City to Barnsley. However, the further you dig into this transfer, the more it makes sense. For starters, their CEO, Dane Murphy, worked as a scout and technical director in MLS for Real Salt Lake and DC United right up until his move to Barnsley, while co-owner Billy Beane is very familiar with the famous “Moneyball” approach to transfers.
As for the player himself, 2020 was a real breakout year for Dike, who managed eight goals and three assists in 17 regular-season appearances. That was enough to rank him 10th in MLS’s annual “22 Under 22” list, while it also fired Orlando into their first-ever playoff appearance. Not bad for an ex-college player only picked up in the SuperDraft just over a year ago.
Now, with just one professional season under his belt, it could go either way in the Championship for Dike, while the fact he only earned enough work permit points for this move by making his international debut for the USMNT the night before the transfer shows how little experience he has at the highest level.
However, Dike lists Didier Drogba and Romelu Lukaku as his idols and it’s true there are stylistic similarities in the way he can use his strength to turn away from or bully a defender, while his finishing seems immensely clinical already, despite being just 20 years old. If he can translate his form to the Championship, there’s no reason why he can’t make a serious impact in England, even if a reported $20m buyout clause will be beyond Barnsley.
4. Brian Rodriguez
From: Los Angeles FC
Brian Rodriguez’s move to Almeria is certainly an interesting one. Despite the excitement around his signing in 2019, the 20-year-old has just three goals to his name in 34 appearances for LAFC, being totally outshone by teammate and compatriot Diego Rossi, who was MLS’s Golden Boot winner last season. However, it’s Rodriguez who is getting the nod at international level with Uruguay, scoring three times in nine senior caps, while it is also he who has jumped across the Atlantic.
Despite his low return for the Black and Gold, Rodriguez has obvious talent. The wideman is immensely fast and supremely skilful, able to make a fool of any full-back in a one-on-one situation on his day. Rodriguez has arguably been most restricted at LAFC by Rossi and Carlos Vela, two of MLS’s best forwards. Manager Bob Bradley prefers one striker to play between two inside forwards and, generally, Rossi has been preferred on the left, and Vela on the right. To move either of those two inside, or Rodriguez, would be taking them away from where they’re most effective.
However, despite being the league’s top scorers, Almeria’s top-scoring wideman is Fran Villalba with just three goals. There is room in the squad for a bigger goal threat on the flanks and should Rodriguez provide that and fire Almeria to La Liga promotion, there are options and incentives to make this move permanent — something LAFC would likely be willing to allow.
3. Mark McKenzie
From: Philadelphia Union
At $6m (£4.3m), Mark McKenzie became Genk’s most expensive centre-back ever in January, and with good reason. The 21-year-old was immense on both sides of the ball at the heart of Philadelphia Union’s defence in 2020, helping Jim Curtin’s men win the Supporters’ Shield during the regular season, the club’s first-ever major silverware.
Despite being just 21 years old, McKenzie already defends with the measure and intelligence of a veteran, displaying an excellent reading of the game to snuff out opposition attacks and aggressive in the tackle to dominate one-on-one duels. However, what lends him best to the role of a modern centre-back is his passing ability, with McKenzie incredibly ambitious with the ball at his feet, able to switch play and break lines with consummate ease.
Genk are experts in developing young talent and McKenzie himself admitted this was a big factor in him joining the club as he seeks to jump to one of Europe’s top-five leagues.
“I had already known about Genk for a minute, just studying European football and what not,” McKenzie told CBS Sports recently. “Being [of Jamaican descent], I’ve known about Leon Bailey. Being a defender, I’ve known about Kalidou Koulibaly, watching the best players in the world like Kevin de Bruyne, who came out of the academy. We all know they have produced a plethora of talent. I felt like I could take the next steps to a top-five league, but I wasn’t necessarily fine-tuned enough yet.”
McKenzie has the perfect skillset for his position and given that he’s already hit the ground running in Belgium, it feels like a matter of time until even bigger clubs come circling for him, not to mention nailing down his spot as John Brooks’ regular partner in the US national team.
2. Brenden Aaronson
From: Philadelphia Union
To: RB Salzburg
Position: Central midfield, attacking midfield, winger
While McKenzie kept things locked up at the back, Brenden Aaronson helped spearhead things for the Union at the other end of the pitch, earning a move to RB Salzburg in the process.
“Brenden, when some players tend to shrink in big occasions, he tends to raise his level and then raise his game,” former coach Curtin said of Aaronson’s maturity ahead of his move to Salzburg.
Four goals and five assists across all competitions in 2020 may not seem like groundbreaking numbers but it’s important to remember Aaronson is still only 20 years old, while he offers so much more to a team than just cold, hard stats. Aaronson is an extremely slippery player, able to glide past defenders with ease and that, combined with his composure in possession, makes him incredibly hard to dispossess. What’s more, his mobility and hard-working nature make him a wonderful weapon when pressing the opposition high up the pitch — something which makes him a perfect match for Salzburg manager and compatriot, Jesse Marsch.
Aaronson already has his first assist for Salzburg, coming early into his debut against SV Ried recently, and whether it’s as a “free eight”, a No.10 or a wideman, the two-time US international will no doubt be attracting the interest of sister club RB Leipzig, as well as some other European heavyweights, soon enough.
1. Bryan Reynolds
From: FC Dallas
To: AS Roma
In a transfer saga which rumbled on right through the winter, AS Roma finally won the signature of FC Dallas right-back Bryan Reynolds, beating off stiff and serious competition from the likes of Juventus and Club Brugge. Incredibly, for a teenager with a £6m transfer already under his belt, Reynolds has only played 31 senior games for FC Dallas since replacing Reggie Cannon following his move to Boavista earlier in 2020. Alongside Cannon, he joins the likes of McKennie and Richards among ex-FC Dallas academy graduates now playing in Europe.
Despite his lack of experience, it’s easy to see why Roma were so keen on Reynolds. The 19-year-old managed six assists during his short time with Dallas and as a converted winger, has the perfect profile for a modern full-back. He’s strong, fast and incredibly athletic, but he’s also extremely adept with the ball at his feet, able to combine with his teammates in short passing sequences or gallop down the line himself before delivering dangerous crosses into the box.
Paulo Fonseca has mostly gone with a back-three with Roma this season, using Rick Karsdorp and Leonardo Spinazolla as wing-backs. But the former has failed to convince during his time in Serie A and that spot on the right is definitely up for grabs. While it’d be tough to ask Reynolds to go straight into the starting XI of one of Italy’s strongest teams, there’s a reason they paid £6m for him, while you only have to look at Alphonso Davies’ impact at Bayern Munich to see how quickly these MLS-imported full-backs can make their mark in Europe.