You see what you want to see when you look at Miguel Almirón’s reported MLS-record $27 million transfer to the Premier League’s Newcastle United.
If you’re an MLS fan, this is proof that the system works. The league has become a viable destination for Latin American talents looking to develop their talents and increase their exposure. Players like Almirón and his soon-to-be-former Atlanta United teammate Josef Martínez shine in the MLS, becoming known to European clubs for their production and their potential. Bing bang boom, a move is made, and now Almirón will get to play in the most-watched league in the world for a team that desperately needs help to avoid relegation; Newcastle currently sits just two points avoid the relegation zone.
Almirón fits Newcastle coach Rafa Benítez’s counter-attacking style; though he’s considered a number 10 attacking midfielder, Almirón is not a creative player in the vein of other number 10s like Isco or Mesut Ozil. Instead, he’s more of a modern breed of midfielder, using his speed and positional awareness to beat teams up on the counter-attack. He and Martínez terrorized MLS defenses on the way to winning the MLS Cup last season, using their athleticism and mutual understanding of where the other would go at all times.
And when Martínez wasn’t involved, Almirón just did it himself:
For Atlanta, selling the best player in MLS last season—Martínez got all the headlines for his goals and MVP trophy, but Almirón is what made ex-coach Tata Martino’s system work as well as it did—could have stung worse; $27 million is a lot of cash, and they did just lock up Martínez to a long-term contract. If they redistribute the Almirón windfall properly, it’s possible for the league’s hottest team to become the first side to defend the MLS Cup title successfully since the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011 and 2012.
That is all the best-case scenario for MLS true believers, though. If you have doubts about MLS, Almirón’s move is not indicative of the league’s ability to develop players and, in fact, is more evidence that soccer in America is less its own entity and more of a transitional stop for top talents produced elsewhere. Look at the list of high-profile MLS sales in recent years: Almirón; Jack Harrison; Previous transfer record holder Alphonso Davies. None of those players spent more than two seasons in MLS and, perhaps more notably for a league that is so closely entwined with US Soccer, none of those players are American.
The best American to go from MLS to a side of Newcastle’s renown in recent years is probably Tyler Adams, the former New York Red Bulls player who moved to Germany’s RB Leipzig last month on what was reported to be a $3 million fee, with New York also getting 33 percent of a future Adams sale. (There’s also an argument to be made for Columbus Crew goalie Zach Steffen, who is moving to Manchester City next summer, a non-insignificant move for a 23-year-old goalie).
Adams is only 19, so getting money upfront and the promise of a bigger contribution later on was a nice deal for Red Bulls. And for Leipzig, they get to mold a high-potential player into their fast-paced brand of soccer; Adams seems to already be adapting, as his first start, in a 4-0 win over relegation candidates Fortuna Düsseldorf over the weekend saw him play 90 minutes and generally star all over the field, similarly to his work in MLS.
But Adams is not the norm for American players in MLS; the only Americans in the MLS’ top 10 outgoing transfer records are Jozy Altidore, Maurice Edu, Matt Miazga, and Tim Howard. Three of those transfers happened last decade (Miazga was sold in 2016), and none of those players were considered surefire stars the way Almirón is, or even as good as, say, Jack Harrison, the English winger who moved from New York City FC to their daddy club, Manchester City, in January of 2018. Howard turned into a USMNT mainstay only after leaving his first English club (Manchester United) for one further down the league table (Everton), while Altidore and Edu never blossomed into the great American players everyone hoped they would be. Miazga is caught in the Chelsea loan vortex and will likely never become anything more than a middling player.
It’s likely that this will only bother staunch USMNT supporters, though; Almirón’s transfer does at least provide a blueprint for sustainability in MLS. As these Latin American players move through the league, the quality of play noticeably improves, slowly but surely. Even as they leave, the influx of cash can help clubs continue to pick up the best players they can find from the Mexican, Argentinian, and Brazilian leagues, with other less-renowned countries in the hemisphere also sending their best to MLS. And thus the cycle keeps on going.
In that way, Almirón does present the best-case scenario, a true star for the league moving to be a key part of a Premier League team. If the Paraguayan helps Newcastle stay up, he will be more than worth his transfer fee, and perhaps more teams will look at MLS players for reinforcements and, eventually, for potential stars (Leipzig is betting on Adams to be the pioneer of the latter trend). But until the league makes more structural changes similar to the Academy movement of the last few years, those MLS alums making headlines in Europe will continue to include few Americans abroad.