When the story that Leo Messi would be joining the Inter Miami MLS team broke, MLS transfer news suddenly became a very hot topic in American sports. Major League Soccer will not just be getting Messi. He will be joined at Inter Miami by his former Barcelona teammates and Spanish soccer legends Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. (Former) soccer star and current Real Madrid winger Eden Hazard might also be on his way to MLS.

While MLS fans understandably get excited over incoming big-name players, aging stars often don’t require the highest transfer fees. The most expensive incoming MLS transfers are often young teenagers, particularly those from Brazil and Argentina. In this top 10 list, we will look back at the most expensive MLS transfers of all time and determine if they were worth their price tags.

What is the record transfer for an MLS team? What are some other of the MLS’s most expensive transfers?

The record transfer is current Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada. He netted his hometown club Velez Sarsfield a cool €14.55 million ($16 million), and Almada has been a smash hit in MLS so far.

Almada’s fellow Argentinians Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco were subjects of the two other highest transfer fees paid by MLS teams. Like their countryman, they also joined Atlanta United.

Ranking the Top 10 Highest Incoming Transfers in MLS History

  1. Jermain Defoe

Position: Striker
National Team:
Transfer Year: 2014
Age at Time of Transfer: 31
Transfer From: Tottenham Hotspur to Toronto FC

Transfer Fee:  $10 million (€9.09 million)

Already 31 at the start of 2014, striker Jermain Defoe had a career total of 124 Premier League goals and 19 international goals for England when he agreed to leave Tottenham Hotspur for MLS.

“I am grateful for the opportunity for myself and my family to experience living overseas and for me to play in the MLS,” he said at the time.

Having slightly fallen out of favor at White Hart Lane, Defoe decided to go through with a move to Toronto FC. By August, however, he felt unsettled, and he had already returned to England when he joined Sunderland in January 2015. While he did net 11 goals in 19 MLS games, Defoe returned to the Premier League with renewed energy, scoring 34 in 87 games for Sunderland.

Defoe can claim to be both a European football and an American soccer legend.

It should be noted that in the same year Defoe came to MLS, American Michael Bradley returned to the league from Roma for roughly the same transfer fee paid for Defoe. Bradley also joined Toronto FC and remains on the team to this day.

  1. Evander

Position: Attacking midfielder
National Team:
Transfer Year: 2022
Age at Time of Transfer: 24
Transfer From: FC Midtjylland to Portland Timbers
Transfer Fee:  $10.16 million (€9.5 million) 

The young Brazilian attacking midfielder Evander left his youth club, Vasco de Gama, for Denmark’s FC Midtjylland in 2018. He went on to score 50 goals and collect 38 assists over parts of five seasons with that team, all before the age of 24.

The Portland Timbers came knocking in the fall of 2022 with a club-record fee, making Evander their new Designated Player. While the Timbers are off to a slow start to the 2023 MLS season, you can’t fault the talented Brazilian, who already had five goals and three assists through his first 15 starts.

  1. Cucho Hernandez

Position: Striker
National Team: Colombia
Transfer Year: 2022
Age at Time of Transfer: 23
Transfer From: Watford to Columbus Crew
Transfer Fee:  $10.22 million (€9.55 million) 

After starting his European club career with Granada, talented Colombian forward Cucho Hernandez was loaned to three separate La Liga outfits between 2018 and 2021. A strong start to his 2018 campaign with Huesca saw him called up to Colombia’s national team, and he scored twice against Costa Rica in his debut.

Hernandez played for Watford in the Premier League during the 2021-22 season and scored five goals, which led to his return to the Colombian national team after a nearly four-year absence. Following Watford’s relegation, the Columbus Crew came knocking with a $10 million offer. Hernandez scored 14 goals through his first 32 career MLS games and has the Crew on track to make the 2023 MLS playoffs.

  1. Luiz Araujo

Position, National Team: Winger, Brazil
Transfer Year: 2021
Age at Time of Transfer: 24
Transfer From: LOSC Lille to Atlanta United
Transfer Fee:  up to $11.25 million (€9 million base, plus bonuses)

Brazilian winger Luiz Araujo joined Lille from Sao Paulo in 2017 and was in and out of the team for four seasons. He did contribute with six goal-involvements in 2020-21 as Lille shocked PSG to win Ligue 1. He joined Atlanta United following that season for a fee that could rise up to $11.25 million.

Araujo scored 13 times in 63 appearances for Atlanta. On May 18, 2023, he returned to his native Brazil, signing with Flamengo for $10 million.

  1. Brian Rodriguez

Position: Winger
National Team:
Transfer Year: 2019
Age at Time of Transfer: 19
Transfer From: Penarol to Los Angeles FC
Transfer Fee:  $11.5 million (€10.45 million)

Uruguayan winger Brian Rodriguez had only 18 senior appearances for his youth club Penarol when LAFC came knocking. Only 19 when he entered MLS, the talented forward soon was called up to Uruguay’s national team after his $11.5 million transfer had become, at that time, the third-most expensive in MLS history.

Rodriguez has been in and out of the LAFC first team since 2019 and was even loaned to Segunda’s Almeria in 2021 to get more playing time. In 2022, he was sold to Spain’s Club America for $6 million.

  1. Rodolfo Pizarro

Position: Attacking midfielder
National Team:
Transfer Year: 2020
Age at Time of Transfer: 26
Transfer From: Monterrey to Inter Miami
Transfer Fee:  $12 million (€10.91 million) 

Mexican attacking midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro was already 26 by the time he transferred from Liga MX’s Monterrey to expansion MLS outfit Inter Miami in 2020. When Miami activated his release clause for roughly $12 million, it was already the third time he had transferred for over $10 million in his young career.

Shortly after the move, Monterrey filed a complaint against potential tampering between Pizarro and Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham. He has since been a mainstay in the Miami midfield, making the 2021 MLS All-Star team. He won’t have the opportunity to play alongside Messi in 2023, however, since Pizarro recently joined the Greek club AEK Athens.

  1. Brenner

Position: Forward
National Team:
Transfer Year: 2021
Age at Time of Transfer: 21
Transfer From: São Paulo to FC Cincinnati
Transfer Fee: $13 million 

A highly regarded youngster at Sao Paulo, Brazilian forward Brenner’s addition was one of the first major coups in FC Cincinnati history. The $13 million spent to land him remains the fourth-highest total in MLS history.

After an up-and-down first season in 2021, Brenner took off during the 2022 campaign, netting 18 goals and assisting on six others to helping the club secure its first MLS playoff berth. Despite his strong performance, Brenner handed in a transfer request and was sold to Serie A’s Udinese in April 2023 for around $10 million.

  1. Ezequiel Barco

Position: Winger
National Team:
Transfer Year: 2018
Age at Time of Transfer: 18
Transfer From: Independiente to Atlanta United
Transfer Fee:  $15 million 

Argentine winger Ezequiel Barco was a rising star when he joined Atlanta United in January 2018. He had just scored in the 2017 Copa Sudamericana final to lead Independiente to the championship and was linked to clubs across Europe. Atlanta had to fork over a then MLS record fee of $15 million for his services, even though he was still only 18 at the time.

Barco never nailed down a starting spot with Atlanta and came on as a substitute in the 2018 MLS Cup final. He struggled with injuries over the next few seasons and never tallied more than seven goals in a single season. Following the 2021 campaign, he joined River Plate on loan.

Barco was certainly one of the biggest MLS transfers of all time, and it’s a shame his time in Atlanta didn’t quite work out.

  1. Pity Martinez

Position: Attacking midfielder
National Team:
Transfer Year: 2019
Age at Time of Transfer: 26
Transfer From: River Plate to Atlanta United
Transfer Fee: $15.8 million

After talented playmaker Miguel Almiron left Atlanta United for Newcastle in January 2019, the MLS club had a giant creative hole to fill. They filled it with Argentine midfielder Pity Martinez, who was already 26 at the time and cost a then MLS record $15.8 million.

Martinez was solid but not spectacular in his two MLS campaigns, playing in only 39 games and contributing seven goals and 11 assists. Atlanta went from winning the MLS Cup in 2018 to finishing 21st in 2020. Martinez was sold to the Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr for a profit at $18 million, and he now lines up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.

  1. Thiago Almada

Position, National Team: Attacking midfielder, Argentina
Transfer Year: 2021
Age at Time of Transfer: 20
Transfer From: Vélez Sarsfield to Atlanta United
Transfer Fee:  $16 million 

Talented Argentine attacking midfielder Thiagao Almada broke into Velez Sarsfield in 2018 as a 17-year old, and even made The Guardian’s “Next Generation” list that same season. He was a star by 2021 and set the MLS transfer record for the most expensive transfer when Atlanta United forked over $16 million for his services.

Through his first 49 MLS games, Almada had career totals of 14 goals and 22 assists. He performed so well in MLS that he made Argentina’s squad for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. The 2022 MLS Newcomer of the Year has performed well enough that Atlanta might double its investment in him with a big sale in the near future. As the most expensive MLS transfer in history, Almada has been a hit.

Related: MLS has proven that it can develop young talent and supply it to other leagues at a profit. Just consider Alphonso Davies, Miguel Almiron, and some others. Check out the 10 biggest outbound MLS transfers in history.

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