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How Pele's 'five-dimensional' Santos successor Soteldo ended up at Toronto FC

12:00 am AEST 8/5/21
Soteldo Toronto FC MLS
The Venezuela international looked set for a $20 million move to Europe but the 23-year-old playmaker has now moved to MLS at one third of the price

For quite some time, it looked like Yeferson Soteldo would be the next $20 million (£14m) star to make the move from South America to Europe's top leagues.

But in a world still feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Soteldo is the latest player to trade South America for North America, taking a pathway that is suddenly becoming tried and trusted for some of the game's top young talents.

This week, Toronto FC announced the capture of Soteldo from Brazilian giants Santos for a reported $6 million. The signing, at least on paper, appears an absolute steal, one that never would have been possible just a few short years ago.

To understand the magnitude of the acquisition, you have to understand Soteldo. The diminutive 23-year-old playmaker is a full international with Venezuela and one of South America's most promising players.

He's already been named to a Copa Libertadores Best XI, all while wearing the iconic No.10 Santos shirt once worn by the legendary Pele.

So, how did Toronto FC sign a legitimate star for a fraction of his original price?

"I think your reputation, a lot of times, precedes you and word of mouth is massive and very influential," Toronto FC General Manager Ali Curtis tells Goal.

"I think it took some time to have certain players pave the way but that that viral messaging, that word of mouth, has gotten out that playing at some of these clubs in Major League Soccer is not only a place where you can develop but also a place where you can thrive.

"That reputation, that perspective, is only getting bigger and stronger, so I think he had a sense of what this was before we even got on the phone with him. 

"Once he heard that we had an interest, he spoke to people within the league that he has relationships with and got an understanding of how we're built, what our goals are, what we're trying to achieve, and how. What we then tried to do as best we could was articulate how we view ourselves. 

"We try to invest in our club in a big way. At the same time, we operate as a small family and we tried to explain everything there is to know about our environment and how we treat our players and their families, how we go about our work, and I think that that's exciting for him.

"So, it was a good fit."

This deal has taken some time and, most importantly for Toronto FC, a little bit of luck.

Soteldo, who stands just 5'2'', hasn't had the easiest path towards the top. Like all diminutive stars, Soteldo is inspired by Lionel Messi, going so far as to name the first of his three children Thiago Mateo in honor of the Barcelona star's two kids.

And, like Messi, Soteldo's beginnings were humble, as he had to prove himself time and time again, establishing himself as a player that can mix it with much bigger opponents.

He began his career with Zamora in his native Venezuela before moving to Chilean side Huachipato. After just 29 games, he was loaned out to Universidad de Chile, putting the then-20-year-old attacker in a bigger shop window for some of South America's biggest clubs.

It was Santos who snapped him up in January 2019 and Soteldo began to shine immediately, scoring 18 goals and providing 16 assists in 85 matches, while helping the iconic Brazilian club reach the final of last year's Copa Libertadores.

Naturally, such impressive form earns interest. Among those linked to Soteldo were Atlanta United but they were unable to complete a reported $19m (£13.6m) deal for Soteldo in June 2019. 

Al-Hilal were also among his suitors, with Soteldo reportedly turning down the Saudi powerhouse in order to wait out a European move, and there was talk of a transfer to Everton for the attacker, who has said that he dreams of one day playing in the Premier League.

All the while, though, Curtis and Toronto FC continued to scout Soteldo both before and during the coronavirus pandemic, despite all the uncertainty surrounding the transfer market.

"Right away, we saw a player that we felt was a difference-maker and could create goals, either for himself or for others," Curtis says. "That makes your team dimensional. He's dynamic in terms of his power and being able to get the ball in the channel on the outside but to also come inside and combine with his teammates.

"We really saw this four and five-dimensional player that was playing for a big club in Brazil, one who had played in big games and had some big moments. We felt good about what he could do from an individual standpoint and how he fit well within the team concept in Santos.

"But we also knew he was a player that, while young, already had a lot of experience. He wore the Santos shirt of the best player that's ever played this game, in Pele. It's an honor, it's a privilege, but it's also a massive responsibility, especially for a player of his age. And he handled that extremely well."

In recent weeks, what always looked like an impossibility suddenly became reality for Curtis and Toronto FC, as Soteldo was placed on the market.

Brazilian football, perhaps more than most other leagues, has been hammered by the coronavirus pandemic. Clubs all over the country have seen their finances crumble during the last year-and-a-half, forcing sales that may not have happened in years past.

Fluminense starlet Kayky was "sold to Manchester City like a couple of sacks of soybeans" due to the club's financial trouble. His teammate Metinho looks set to follow him to the Etihad, while Brenner, one of Brazil's more highly-regarded strikers, preceded Soteldo's move to MLS by joining FC Cincinnati from Sao Paulo earlier this year.

And, while those clubs are all struggling, Santos' financial issues are in a different stratosphere. 

Due to the issues caused by the pandemic, Santos had yet to pay the funds owed to Huachipato as part of the original deal to sign Soteldo. As a result, the club was facing a transfer ban, leaving them unable to sign new players until Huachipato got their cut.

And so Soteldo was promptly sold, commanding just about a third of the fee the club demanded for him just two summers ago, not due to diminishing performances or value but rather necessity. Indeed, as part of that deal, Santos will collect only $1m (£700,000), with the rest going to Huachipato in order to pay off existing debts.

It's not just Brazilian clubs feeling the effect of the pandemic on their finances either, as clubs all over the world are struggling to balance the books. MLS teams are certainly not immune.

Without fans in stadiums, clubs have lost money as ticket sales remain a major source of the league's income. But, due to the league's single-entity structure and the relative stability of American sports in general, MLS is a league in prime position to go bargain hunting for players like Soteldo and Brenner as clubs all over the world are being forced to sell.

"With challenges, there are opportunities," Curtis says. "There are clubs throughout the world that aren't positioned in a way that they can withstand the pandemic and you look at different opportunities to see if there's a way in which you can manage this in a fiscally responsible way.

"You continue your scouting, you continue your conversations, but because everyone is not generating the revenue that they typically do outside of pandemic, the transaction prices are different and reflective of that."

The most difficult part of the deal, as it turns out, was hammering out the details, with TFC president Bill Manning saying Thursday that the club's leadership "started out one day at 10am and went to 1am to finish out this deal".

There was still the task of convincing Soteldo to sign up which, as Curtis said, wasn't too difficult. He pointed to word of mouth as a key factor, and it certainly was in this case.

Soteldo is international teammates with Toronto FC winger Erickson Gallardo, as well as Atlanta United star Josef Martinez, a player that has rejected overtures from Europe himself to sign a long-term contract that commits him to Atlanta.

Soteldo also will have looked at players like Miguel Almiron, Martinez's former teammate, who used Atlanta as a springboard towards Europe. He'll look to the likes of Alphonso Davies, Tyler Adams, Bryan Reynolds and Brenden Aaronson too, as they are all local players that are now playing at top European clubs.

“[Martinez's] influence was big for me,” said Soteldo. “We’ve known each other since we were kids. I remember seeing him playing in Caracas and I was a ballboy passing the ball to him... Everything he has done is wonderful for himself and also for Venezuelan soccer. He has opened the door for a lot of Venezuelans to come to MLS.

"My role right now is to keep working hard, try to do the same things, and make history with Toronto FC."

With the move, Soteldo now joins a Toronto FC team that looks set to contend for yet another MLS Cup. He joins an attack featuring 2020 MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo, U.S. men's national team striker Jozy Altidore and up-and-coming striker Ayo Akinola.

He's only just arrived, but there are always going to be expectations for a player with the pedigree and resume of Soteldo. But Curtis' only expectation is excitement.

"We want him to be himself," Curtis says. "We want him to let his hair down, to enjoy his football, to embrace us and for us to embrace him. We're looking forward to having him in our family, to integrate his family within ours.

"There's a lot of work ahead of us, but it's exciting. I mean, he's a really high caliber quality player. There's no doubt he's going to help us and make us better in multiple ways that we'll only be able to see once we can get him going.

"But there's a lot to be excited about for him now, over the next couple of months, then over the next couple of years and then so on and so forth. That's exciting."