Even in this pandemic summer, as the international transfer market has been unpredictable and money is less prevalent, MLS has managed to continue its recent success in exporting talent to European clubs. Reggie Cannon was the summer’s first example, as he went from FC Dallas to Portuguese top-flight club Boavista.
Then, two more major moves came in: the Houston Dynamo, at long last, transferred dynamic attacker Alberth Elis to Boavista, where he’ll join Cannon (Boavista should be Americans’ favorite Portuguese club); and the Philadelphia Union reportedly agreed to a deal that will send 19-year-old midfielder Brenden Aaronson to Red Bull Salzburg, where he’ll play Champions League soccer with Jesse Marsch, after the conclusion of the 2020 MLS season.
This all comes after a recent stretch in which Zack Steffen debuted with Manchester City, Alphonso Davies continued being one of the top left backs in the entire world, and Weston McKennie (an FC Dallas academy product) signed and went 90 with Juventus. Things are going well for MLS exports!
Elis and Aaronson show path from MLS to Europe
Elis and Aaronson are great examples, in their own ways, of positive outcomes for growing young MLS players. The league will strive to produce more — and already has.
For Elis, this move has been long in the making. He’s 24 and an experienced Honduran international with four years of elite MLS attacking production under his belt. His tenure with the Dynamo has been fruitful. He was brought in at a young age to dominate on the counter and grow as a winger in a three-man attack alongside Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas. It wasn’t always pretty, as Elis went through stretches where he drifted out of games, but the Dynamo survived on this trio.
They won the 2018 US Open Cup and, perhaps most impressively, made a trip to the 2017 Western Conference finals, losing to the Seattle Sounders. Those Dynamo teams could be boring and tactically simplistic. For a great stretch of time, they couldn’t defend anybody as defensive midfielder Juan Davis Cabezas was constantly injured. (Matias Vera has mostly mitigated that issue.) Elis made them exciting. He attracted attention every time he got on the ball, rampaging forward with scorched-earth dribbles. When he was checked in, he was one of those players that looked unstoppable, like a great goal-scoring chance was inevitable.
His stats — 34 goals and 27 assists in 6,365 minutes — are impressive, but understate his impact. He’s always been an advanced stats darling. He consistently creates chances and breaks down opposing defenses. For the last couple of years, he’s been a rumored European target, and it’s surprising it took this long for the Dynamo to pull the trigger on a sale. Houston did well to get good value for him before his contract expired this winter. Elis’s skillset should be pretty useful for a mid-table Portuguese club.
Aaronson is different from Elis in age (19, five years younger), and path to MLS stardom. Whereas Elis went from Honduran club Olimpia to Mexican club Monterrey to Houston, Aaronson was a Union academy product. He was gradually integrated into Philly’s first team, appearing 18 times for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel in 2018 before playing more than 1700 minutes at the MLS level in 2019, earning a Rookie of the Year nomination. He continued improving in 2020, becoming one of the Union’s best players.
He was on the radar of other European clubs besides Salzburg. MLSsoccer.com cites the examples of Hoffenheim, Celtic, and Anderlecht. His familiarity and usefulness in a pressing system makes him a particularly attractive target for Salzburg, given Marsch’s preference for high-pressing. The biggest improvements he’ll have to make are based around his scoring production and consistent involvement in dictating the game.
It will be great watching these two grow. Their stories are proof that European teams are constantly scouring MLS. More will surely come.