The 10 most expensive signings in MLS history, with top three spots belonging to one club

Ryan Baldi
10 most expensive signings in MLS history

Major League Soccer has always courted recognisable names to help grow its global reputation, from David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Kaka and Lionel Messi.

But the league and its clubs haven’t always possessed the kind of spending power to match its European counterparts, with many of the biggest deals in MLS history appearing modest by European standards.

Transfer spending in MLS is on the rise, though, as the league now looks to add top young talent from abroad alongside the famous ageing imports. Here are the 10 most expensive signings in MLS history.

10 – Cucho Hernandez – $10 million

Signed from Watford in a $10 million deal midway through the 2022 MLS season, it didn’t take Cucho Hernandez long to establish himself as one of the best strikers in the league with Columbus Crew.

A scoring debut against Chicago Fire got the former Hornet off and running, and he finished the campaign with nine goals from 16 appearances.

He has gone on to rack up 46 goals and 18 assists in 74 appearances for the Crew, helping the club to the MLS Cup in 2023 and earning the MLS Cup MVP award in the process.

10 – Gabriel Pec – $10 million

Los Angeles Galaxy only signed Gabriel Pec from Vasco da Gama in January, but already the Brazilian attacking midfielder has begun to justify his $10 million price tag.

Pec has scored nine goals and registered seven assists in 21 appearances for Greg Vanney’s side in MLS this season, helping fire the Galaxy into contention for top spot in the Western Conference.

Able to play on either flank, Pec has demonstrated a level of consistency as a scorer and creator that could see the Galaxy make a hefty profit if the 23-year-old is sold any time in the near future.

8 – Alejandro Pozuelo – $11 million

Alejandro Pozuelo had big boots to fill when he joined Toronto FC from Genk in an $11 million deal in 2019.

The former Swansea City and Real Betis midfielder had been signed to replace recently departed club legend Sebastian Giovinco.And initially Pozuelo didn’t disappoint.

He scored 23 goals in his first two seasons with Toronto, earning the 2020 MLS MVP award while also leading the league in assists.

He struggled to maintain that level of performance, though, and was sold to Inter Miami in 2022. Now 32, he plays for Al Jazira in the UAE Pro League.

7 – Luiz Araujo – $11.8 million

The $11.8 million Atlanta United paid for Luiz Araujo in 2021 always looked like a steep and risky fee.

The Brazilian winger came with a Ligue 1 winners’ medal from his time with Lille, but he’d scored only four goals and provided just two assists the previous season, and at 25 years of age he was hardly a youngster with room to grow and develop.

Araujo showed glimpses of his talent in MLS, most notably with a stunning solo goal in a 4-0 win over FC Cincinnati in his first season with the Five Stripes.

But on the whole, Araujo’s output was disappointing and he returned to Brazil in 2023, sold to Flamengo for $9 million.

5 – Rodolfo Pizarro – $12 million

Rodolfo Pizarro became just the second Designated Player in Inter Miami’s history when he signed for David Beckham’s upstart MLS venture in 2020.

And it was a signing that almost landed the club in hot water, with Monterrey complaining to FIFA over Inter’s conduct in their pursuit of the player.

Miami’s desire to acquire Pizarro was backed up by his pedigree – the Mexico international was a two-time CONCACAF Champions League winner and had recently won a Clausura title in Liga MX. He proved to be worth the effort early on, too, earning an MVP nomination at the end of his first season.

But Pizarro’s form petered out. He was loaned back to former club Guadalajara before moving to AEK Athens in Greece last year after his Miami contract was terminated by mutual agreement.

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5 – Hugo Cuypers – $12 million

At 27, Hugo Cuypers has enjoyed something of an itinerate career. After a senior debut with Standard Liege in his homeland, the Belgian has had spells in Greek and French football before a return to Belgium with Mechelen in 2021.

Back in the Belgian top flight, Cuypers attained a reputation as one of the league’s most prolific scorers, earning a club-record switch to the Chicago Fire earlier this year after scoring 45 goals in 69 games for Gent.

He packed his scoring boots for the move across the Atlantic, too, with nine goals in 22 games thus far for the Fire.

4 – Brenner $13 million

Brenner’s time with FC Cincinnati was brief, but the versatile Brazilian forward was productive in a little over two seasons in MLS.

A $13 million arrival from Sao Paulo ahead of the 2021 season, the former Brazil youth international scored on his debut for Cincy and went on to bag eight goals in his first campaign and 18 in his second.

Brenner struggled to settle Stateside, however, and requested a transfer during the 2022 season. His request was initially denied and his goals helped Cincy clinch a first-ever play-off berth.

Still discontented early in the 2023 season, Brenner reiterated his desire to leave and, in April, was sold to Udinese for $10 million.

3 – Esequiel Barco – $15 million

Atlanta United set a new MLS transfer record when they signed Esequiel Barco from Argentinian side Independiente in 2018 and the winger earned All-Star selections in each of his first two seasons with the club.

But while Barco remained a key contributor over four seasons with the Five Stripes, he was never quite the star his initial fee suggested Atlanta had hoped he’d become.

When Atlanta won the MLS Cup in 2018, he was only a substitute; likewise when they won the Campeones Cup the following season.

Barco was loaned to River Plate in January 2022, with the move made permanent back in January.

2 – Pity Martinez – $15.5 million

Atlanta broke their own MLS transfer record a year after the Barco signing when they paid $15.5 million to buy Pity Martinez from River Plate.

The classy midfielder was the reigning South American Footballer of the Year and he impressed in his first MLS season, scoring five goals and registering nine assists to earn a spot on the All-Star team as Atalanta lifted the US Open Cup.

But Martinez was unable to maintain his initial impact. He was sold to Saudi Pro League club Al-Nassr for $18 million after just 18 months in MLS.

He went on to score 13 goals and register 10 assists in 53 games for the Saudi side before a return to River Plate in 2023.

1 – Thiago Almada – $16 million

When the MLS transfer record fell once more in 2022, it was Atlanta again who set the new high mark, this time with the $16 million signing of Thiago Almada from Velez Sarsfield.

Almada’s capture was seen as something of a coup not only for Atlanta but for MLS as a whole, with the diminutive creative midfielder wanted by major European clubs before his arrival Stateside.

Almada capped a stellar first season with the Five Stripes – in which he six goals and registered seven assists as he was named MLS Newcomer of the Year – by winning the World Cup with Argentina.

He was the MLS Young Player of the Year after his second season and he’d began the 2024 campaign with six goals from 16 starts for Atlanta before he was sold to Botafogo in Brazil for a fee potentially rising to $30 million.

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