Snapshot
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MLS and CSL: trading players with Europe

To commemorate the launch of the 2021 MLS season, an overview of transfers with European clubs – compared to the Chinese Super League.

20 April 2021

A great deal has been written in the media over the past few years about player decisions to move to the North American or Chinese soccer/football leagues. But as these leagues mature and become more established, there is evidence such moves are in decline.

Overall, there has been a pronounced decline in the number of player transfers between European clubs and both Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Chinese Super League (CSL).

  • The number of players coming from European clubs to the MLS peaked at 80 and 77 in 2017/18 and the following year, but fell dramatically in the past two (European) seasons.
  • In 2020/21, MLS clubs collectively became net exporters of players to Europe, as 40 players were traded out vs. 30 players arriving.
  • In the CLS, the peak years were in 2015/16 and 2017/18, since when numbers have fallen even more dramatically, to just 16 players in 2020/21 – driven by the introduction of strict new caps on international player salaries.
Number of players traded with European clubs, CSL and MLS, 2015/16 to 2020/21
Number of players traded with European clubs, CSL and MLS, 2015/16 to 2020/21

The sums involved in player trading between the MLS and Europe have been significantly lower than in the CSL, during the period studied.

  • For the MLS, the peak in player trading occurred in 2018/19 when €82.7m changed hands with European clubs over the two transfer windows – but this number fell to €26.0m in the latest season.
  • The player trading market between European clubs and Chinese clubs peaked in 2016/17 at €297.4m – more than 15 times the equivalent sum for the MLS in that season.
  • The total sum of player trades between Europe and both the MLS and CSL was €70.9m in 2020/21, down 54% from the previous year and 78% from the peak in 2016/17.
Sum of player trades with European clubs, CSL and MLS, 2015/16 to 2020/21 (€m)
Sum of player trades with European clubs, CSL and MLS, 2015/16 to 2020/21 (€m)

The MLS has taken a balanced approach to positional recruitment from Europe, while the CSL focused on attacking players.

  • Across the 6-year period, MLS clubs recruited a similar number of defenders, midfielders and forwards from European clubs, and 40 goalkeepers made the move.
  • Meanwhile in the Chinese Super League, 43% of players brought in from Europe were forwards, 34% midfielders and only 23% defenders or goalkeepers.
Number of players traded with European clubs by position, CSL and MLS, 2015/16 – 2020/21
Number of players traded with European clubs by position, CSL and MLS, 2015/16 – 2020/21

Top nationalities of players arriving in the MLS from Europe have been predominantly European, while many Latin American players made the move to China.

  • In the years 2015/16 to 2020/21, the most common nationality of player moving from European clubs to the MLS was English (37 players). There were also 27 Spanish and 19 Swedish players.
  • The most common nationality for players moving to the Chinese Super League was Brazilian, and Colombian also features in the top five.
  • Portuguese players – speaking the same language as those from Brazil – and Italians are the top European nations represented amongst transfers into the CSL.
Number of players traded with European clubs – top 5 nationalities, CSL and MLS, 2015/16 – 2020/21
Number of players traded with European clubs – top 5 nationalities, CSL and MLS, 2015/16 – 2020/21

Most transfers take place between clubs with previously-established links with clubs in North America and China.

  • The English club making the highest number of player trades with the MLS was Manchester City, with its sister club New York City being involved in 7 of its 12 transfers.
  • Similarly, 10 of the 11 transfers between Bologna FC and the MLS were with Montreal Impact, its sister club under the ownership of Joey Saputo.
  • The clubs in Spain and Italy making the most player trades with Chinese clubs were Atletico Madrid, which was part-owned by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group between March 2015 and February 2018, and Inter Milan, majority-owned by Suning since June 2016.
Big 5 clubs with most player trades with CSL and MLS, 2015/16 – 2020/21
Big 5 clubs with most player trades with CSL and MLS, 2015/16 – 2020/21