Valentin “Tate” Castellanos is finally moving abroad — not in the way many expected about Major League Soccer.
New York City Football Club announced Monday morning that it has sent Castellanos on a one-year loan to Spanish club Girona. On the surface, the movement looks a bit underwhelming. Castellanos won the Golden Boot and led the NYCFC to the MLS Cup in 2021; He leaves the club tied at the top of the league in goals so far in 2022. He is a ruthless final player, a strong athlete with possession, a worker and a tireless runner. By all accounts, the Argentine has been the best striker in Major League Soccer for the past 18 months.
The strikers in the MLS were trading at a premium in that period. In January, Orlando City transferred Daryl Dyke, then 21, to English second-tier club West Brom for a $9.5 million transfer fee. Two days later, FC Dallas sold Ricardo Pepe, who had just turned 19, to German Bundesliga club FC Augsburg for a sum of up to $18 million. Last month, New England Revolution sold 26-year-old Adam Buxa to French Ligue 1 club RC Lens for a $10 million fee. Castellanos was objectively better than both of these players in the MLS. He will turn 24 in October; It may not be quite ideal for potential resale purposes, but it hasn’t even reached the height of its success.
Why, then, is he heading on loan to a small club that has recently been promoted and is preparing for only his third season in La Liga?
Not because of a lack of interest. According to New York City sporting director David Lee, Castellanos have had offers from South American and European clubs for the better part of the past year and a half. Brazilian club Palmeiras tried to sign him as early as 2021, Argentine giants River Plate were reportedly interested this winter and rumors swirled about Premier League club Leeds United playing him this summer, but no one made an offer that came all the way. Close to the $15 million a source said New York City Finance was seeking.
He attributes this discrepancy to me because the European transfer market has not yet fully recovered from the financial effects of the pandemic and his belief that European teams are underestimating the quality of MLS. He also noted that MLS teams, despite spending significant amounts of money on them in recent years, have not been able to sell many South American players to Europe. Li thinks the lack of such a record has led European teams to underestimate Castellanos. It has been quite fashionable in the past few years for European clubs to move in for players aged 18, 19 or 20 who have developed in MLS academies, with each successful move creating a more robust market for said players. This process has not really started yet with the South American signings from MLS.
“We didn’t receive any offers that we felt matched the player’s value,” he told me. “So we had a few options, really: We could either try to keep the player in New York, but I think after holding him for so long now, I think it was pretty clear that was going to be a difficult solution; we could sell for a value that we felt was lower than where we think that Its value is given to how good we think it is; or we can try to find a different way to raise its value.”
New York had a relatively clear path to this third option. New York City and Girona are owned primarily by City Football Group (CFG), the Abu Dhabi-controlled holding company that also owns Premier League champions Manchester City and a network of other clubs around the world. Their joint location within the CFG means that New York City and Girona can work together with a degree of trust and trust that is difficult to achieve between clubs not affiliated with each other.
NYCFC is delaying payday by loaning the Castellanos rather than selling them, but the club is betting that an entire season of playing time in what many consider the world’s best league will significantly raise its value. Girona is not expected to do much this season, but if Castellanos can show he simply belongs at La Liga level, New York City could sell him after his loan spell ends next summer for well over the $15 million the club sought this year. And because they’re in CFG, New York City can count on Girona to give Castellanos proper training and a good chance at playing time in a way they might not be able to loan him to an independent club.
“That’s some of the strength of being within the City Football Group,” he told me. “If he performs well, as we expect him to do, the valuation we have now will look a lot different than it will be in 12 months. So this is kind of a strategic decision for us that we think will ultimately help to maximize his value. It is an opportunity for him. To play in Europe, which is something he really wanted, but the decision really came from us because we think that’s a smart idea to try to strategically raise his value above the level we’ve seen. So far away from European clubs in this transfer window.”
Lee later continued: “There is a risk, but we think it is a relatively small risk.” “I have no doubts that he will go to Europe and play great and show people what a great player he is. I think there will be teams that will look back 12 months from now and say they wish to pay the rating we are asking for him now.”
Lee declined to reveal what fees NYCFC will receive to loan Castellanos. Depending on that number, the club may be able to convert a portion of it into general allocation funds, which can then be used to increase its flexibility within the MLS salary budget.
This isn’t the first time Castellanos has been part of this type of movement. His arrival in New York was along the same lines, on short-term loan from CFG-owned club Atletico Torque in 2018 (it has since been rebranded to Montevideo City Torque). NYCFC bought out his full rights after the 2018 MLS season. Over the next three years, he developed into one of the league’s brightest talents and greatly raised his transfer value, though not as much as the NYCFC had hoped.
The sale of winger Jack Harrison by New York to Manchester City in January 2018 was along the same lines. Upon his purchase by City, Harrison was immediately loaned, at first to Middlesbrough, then to Leeds. He helped Leeds win the Premier League in 2020, and after a third year on loan, he was bought by the club from Man City for a fee of $15 million last July.
“It’s something City Football Group does all the time,” he told me. “It’s less often than New York, but it’s something CFG does all the time in terms of buying talent, then lending them to give them a platform that we think will increase their value.”
NYCFC’s effective use of the group’s scouting network and financial power occasionally attracts attention from some executives around MLS who are trying to write off the club’s success primarily because of CFG, but the truth is that Lee and his staff are doing a very good job, both to cash in on its built-in benefits and create value on its own.
And it’s not as if they are the only team in the league that is part of a multi-club ownership model. Chicago Fire owner Joe Mansueto also owns Swiss club FC Lugano. Stan Kroenke, owner of Colorado Rapids, owns Arsenal in the Premier League. DC United owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levian both own English club Swansea City. Jorge Mas, owner of Inter Miami, owns Spanish second-division club Real Zaragoza. The owner of the Montreal club, Joey Saboto, heads the Italian club Bologna. David Blitzer, owner of Real Salt Lake, owns a stake in a number of European clubs, including Augsburg and Crystal Palace in the Premier League. The New York Red Bulls are part of a global network of teams that includes regular UEFA Champions League participants RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg.
None of the above groups operate at the level of CFG, which owns controlling stakes in 11 clubs around the world, but with the exception of Red Bull, they still do very little to capitalize on their multi-club networks. The few miles that Kroenke and Saputo, in particular, have come out of owning clubs on two continents is rather stark, although the recent sale and subsequent loan of Auston Trustees from the Rapids to Arsenal and then to Birmingham City may be a sign of that. Change is coming to Colorado. To compete better, it would be wise to try to make more use of the exploration, analysis and improved player movement capabilities that come with being part of groups from multiple clubs.
Although the club has a designated player (DP) place, New York City doesn’t necessarily feel the need to go out and sign a replacement for their departing star. Even without Castellanos, the New York Football Club still boasts a group of talented forwards, including forward Heber, who scored in the team’s 2-0 win over Miami on Saturday. One of the most prolific strikers in the league, the 30-year-old Brazilian scored 15 goals in 22 regular season games in 2019 before his ACL derailed him in 2020. He only returned to the field in a supporting role late last season, but fired Fire again this year, scoring six times in just 478 minutes of the regular season to give him 1.13 goals in every 90 minutes he plays.
Rising star Thales Magno, who has five goals and eight assists in 21 games as a winger this season, is also able to play in ninth place. New York City signed the 20-year-old to a DP deal last spring in part thanks to some advantages the club enjoyed as part of the CFG. Striker Santiago Rodriguez, who has scored two goals and nine assists this year, has more direct links with the City Football Group, having arrived in New York last year on loan from Montevideo City Turque, the same club from which Castellanos initially came. Brazilian wingers Gabriel Pereira and Thiago Andrade, who each scored four goals in limited regular season minutes, will also play big roles in the New York Football Club’s bid to replace Castellanos, as will veteran No. 10 and captain Maxi Morales. This kind of depth is unheard of in MLS.
“There are still two weeks left in the transfer window, so while the market is open, we will look,” he told me. “However, I think our starting point is that we have a number of forwards who probably feel they should have played more horrible than they have played so far this season, but not by virtue of strength and depth the list of offensive talent we have been able to put together. I feel very comfortable that If we don’t get someone to replace Tate we have enough firepower, goals and an offensive threat we can win the championship again this year.Heber is a fantastic No.9.He had an unfortunate injury and maybe people have forgotten a little bit how great he was when he made it to the league in 2019, But there is no reason, in my opinion, why he could not return to this level of production.”
One of the biggest narratives about MLS is how it has become more of a selling league, but for teams like NYCFC with the prospect of vying for prizes, selling just isn’t enough. There should be a good succession plan in place as well. Apparently New York City, which has been preparing to relocate Castellanos for the better part of 18 months, had one of those, even if their star’s exit didn’t drop quite as much as the club expected.
“We were kind of imagining that Tate was leaving in January,” he told me. “We re-signed Héber to a new contract in November last year and we know that. But we ended up with Tate in the first six months, we have two incredible strikers in our books, but it was all taken into account in the decision. That is not an easy thing in MLS. You have to have real confidence in your roster to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to put that amount of salary cap on a player who won’t get his chance unless another player leaves,’ but we look at that as something we have to do.”
(Photo: Brad Benner/USA TODAY Sports)