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A Closer Look At Foreign Midfield Transfer Prospects

By Tyler Trent

Charlotte FC’s midfield has a lot of questions going into year two. With multiple player departures and options declined, reinforcement is definitely needed. Multiple midfield additions will likely happen in the offseason. In our article yesterday, we mentioned a number of players on the foreign transfer market that could be of interest to Charlotte FC. I felt like multiple players deserved a little deeper dive. Today, I’ll be going more in-depth on some of those players that could fill each of the three midfield positions next season if Charlotte is to continue in their 4-2-3-1 formation. First starting with the “6” position.

The 6

Samuel Gustafson protects the ball from a Helsingborg player. Photo courtesy of Mathias Bergeld.

Samuel Gustafson (Age 27)

The most traditional and experienced “6” mentioned in the article from yesterday was Samuel Gustafson, the 27-year-old midfielder from BK Häcken. Gustafson is a player that will cover every blade of grass (or turf) on the pitch as shown by the his heatmap for last season below.

Samuel Gustafson Heat map courtesy of SofaScore

Gustafson recently received his first callup for the senior national team of Sweden in November after his successful Allsvenskan season. He played nearly every minute for Hacken in their historic title-winning campaign. While playing as the “6” in a 4-3-3 formation, he managed to add a goal and 4 assists this campaign. However, his offensive capability is only a bonus. Gustafson is a immensely talented passer of the ball where he averaged 89% pass accuracy on the season including 83% in the opposition half. He was pretty accurate with long balls (66%) and chipped passes as well (55%) from his defensive midfield position.

Defensively, he was in the upper echelon in duel win percentage for both aerial and ground duels, both 59%. He was tidy with the ball, with only one error on the season leading to a shot for the opposing team. Overall, Gustafson is a player that can be relied on every match to show up and give his all and fight for his team. His impressive passing from deep would be a great asset for Charlotte FC if he was to come in and compete with Brandt Bronico and Derrick Jones. With a 1.1-million-dollar price, it could be an immediate upgrade at defensive midfield if he was able to transition and would provide a lot of depth at the “6”.

Johnny battles for a ball against an América de Cali player. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Johnny (Age 21)

João Lucas de Souza Cardoso, better know as Johnny, was born to Brazilian parents in New Jersey who returned to Brazil when he was 3 months old. He grew up in academies of Criciúma and Avaí before moving to Internacional in 2014. In 2019, he finally got his chance with the first team and made his mark. In 2020, he received his first cap for the United States senior national team after playing previously with the U-23 team.

Last season in Brazil, Johnny played both the “6” and the “8”. However, he shines in his defensive actions and work rate. He led the league in interceptions and dominated in defensive actions and shot blocks as shown in the below radar. He was good in duels as well and ranked highly in expected assists and progressive carries compared to the rest of the Brasileiro Série A midfielders.

Radar courtesy of Ben Griffis.

Johnny would provide a good utility signing capable of playing both the “6” and the “8” similar to what Brandt Bronico did last season. He has shown the tools capable of playing both at a high level in Brazil. However, he only started 45% of Internacional’s matches last season. He could be looking for more playing time and has rumored interested from some European clubs. If Charlotte was able to secure him for around his estimated value of 2.6 million dollars

“The 8”

Bilal Hussein for AIK. Photo courtesy of AIK.

Bilal Hussein

Bilal Hussein was born in Stockholm, Sweden, to Somali parents. He joined the AIK academy system in 2014 before breaking into the first team squad in 2018. By 2019, he was making regular appearances for the first team and became a regular starter in the following seasons as he began to make a name for himself in Sweden. Hussein was a regular for both the U19 and U21 Swedish national teams, but has yet to receive a call up for the senior team.

While he is capable of playing both the "6" and the "8", Bilal's strength is very much at the "8" being able to link up play with his teammates ahead of him and progressing the ball forward. He loves to play the ball into runners in the box from the 30-40 yard range and provides a really nice curled in ball for the runner to attack. He is very tidy with the ball and has a great first touch. Hussein is a great crosser of the ball and hits a very accurate long ball as well. He led all midfielder in short and medium range passing and ended the season with a 91% overall pass completion percentage.

In MLS, Hussein may not be suited for the physical play expected of a "6". However, game film and stats point to him being excellent in a slightly more advanced role where he won't be required to use his strength as much. Hussein would thrive in an environmental where he is able to pass the ball and not be required to be an enforcer, nor a major scoring contributor to the team. Currently valued at 2.1 million dollars, he would be a great addition to the Charlotte FC squad as an "8" that could provide the much needed link-up play that Charlotte was at times missing last season.

Radar courtesy of Ben Griffis.

Sergio Peña on the ball for Malmö. Photo courtesy of Andreas Hillergren/TT

Sergio Peña (Age 27)

Sergio Peña is another midfielder dominating the Swedish Allsvenskan. The 27-year-old Peruvian midfielder came through the youth system of Alianza Lima before breaking into their first team in 2012. He later was transferred to Granada and played with their B team, their first team, and also out on loan. Peña has been a bit of a journeyman playing in home country of Peru, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and now Sweden for Malmö.

Peña ranks very highly compared to other central midfielders in Sweden. However, he only started 57% of Malmö's matches in the league in a very congested squad of midfield talent. The radar below clearly show that Sergio is a very rounded player capable of a wide range of passing, dribbling, and with solid defensive contribution including the best possession adjusted tackles & interceptions for all central midfielders in the league. His passing percentages fall in a similar line to the previously mentioned Bilal Hussein with Hussein edging him slightly in that department.

Sergio Peña Heatmap courtesy of SofaScore.

Valued at the same price as Bilal Hussein, 2.1 million dollar, both are quality options that provide an elite level of passing, with Hussein edging him slightly. However, Peña is much more willing to get involved in the dirty work of midfield. Both would provide a boost to Charlotte FC's midfield, but Peña would likely contribute more to the slightly more to the attack.

Radar courtesy of Ben Griffis.

The Hybrid 8 and 10

The players below have been played in a number of positions in their young careers. While all three have most recently been played at the "8" position, they have shown the quality and characteristics to fill the attacking midfield role as well.

Carlo Holse celebrates a goal. Photo courtesy of Rosenborg BK.

Carlo Holse (Age 23)

The Danish Holse has made his name is Norway after leaving FC Copenhagen in 2020. A former academy player for the club, he made a few odd appearances in his three season with the first team squad before being sold fairly cheaply to Rosenborg. Since leaving Copenhagen, Holse has proven himself to be a very valuable and flexible player.

Holse has been a jack of all trades, playing every outfield position other than centre-back and right-back. While most of his appearances have come at right-wing, this season he has been playing in the midfield of a 3-5-2 formation which has allowed him some freedom to float around the pitch, but with an emphasis on the left. I've included him in this hybrid category of the midfielder deep dive as he has proven he is capable of playing in numerous positions at a high level. However, I think his best position is in an attacking midfield role. The radar below shows his absolute domination in assisting statistics compared to other midfielders in Norway this season. This season was a down season in goal-scoring for Holse compared to the previous season. This is likely due to him playing in a left midfield role compared to playing much of last season at right-wing which allow him to cut in on his strong left foot to finish. However, he made up for his decrease in goals with 16 assists this season.

Carlo Holse is currently estimated to be worth approximately 1.7 million dollars. This is a relatively low fee for a player with as much offensive production with strong finishing as Holse provides his team currently.

Radar courtesy of Ben Griffis.

Yasin Ayari models the AIK kit. Photo courtesy of AIK.

Yasin Ayari (Age 19)

Yasin Ayari is possibly the hottest prospect mentioned in this article. A member of the AIK academy from the time he was 8 in 2012 to 2020, Ayari was able to break out this past season for AIK's first team. He appeared in 24 games scoring 4 times and adding two assists. Ayari was born to Moroccan and Tunisian parents in Solna, Sweden, an urban area of Stockholm.

Ayari is a midfield player that is going to work hard and fight to win back the ball when out of possession and look for a positive pass forward when he has the ball. Ayari likes to play up the field and look to play dangerous balls forward to his teammate and has the confidence to go for goal himself. He has an excellent first touch which allows him to quickly move the ball forward.

While his stat sheet isn't the most impressive compared to some of the other players mentioned here, Ayari has an intangible air about him where you are always excited to see what he is going to do with the ball when he receives it. As shown in the chart below, he was a well rounded midfielder last season and definitely made an influence when he was involved. At this point his career, Ayari would likely be a project midfielder with a very high ceiling. At his currently estimated 3.2 million dollar value and with reported interested from teams in Europe, Ayari is on the rise. He could be a prime candidate for a Young Designated Player or U22 initiative spot on Charlotte's roster. However, with only one pro season under his belt, it could be a risky move as well.

Radar courtesy of Ben Griffis.

Hugo Vetlesen celebrates a goal. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Hugo Vetlesen - Age 22

Hugo Vetlesen came up through Stabæk in Norway making regular appearances for them until 2020 when he was transferred to Bodø/Glimt. While he had a good season in 2021, he really broke out this past season with 16 goals and 12 assists. While this is an outlier in his statistical history, he has always performed well in Norway. This season Bodø/Glimt scored a massive 86 goals in their 30 league games, due to large part to Vetlesen's contributions.

Vetlesen is a similar player to the previously mentioned Ayari when it comes to his attacking attributes. He like to take shots and play smart passes in the final third. However, he won't offer as much in attack and buildup compared to some other players in this article. He is a strong dribbler that will take on players after receiving the ball with his great first touch and often a clever touch around the defender. While Vetlesen will track back for his team, his strengths really are up the pitch with the ball at his feet. So while he plays as more of an "8" for his team currently, I think he would make a much better "10" for Charlotte FC with strong midfielder playing in behind him.

At an estimated 1.3 million dollars, Vetlesen could be a steal for Charlotte if he was available around that estimated price. Vetlesen has a lot of European competition experience as Bodø/Glimt has began to make a name for themselves over the past two seasons with big wins over Roma, AZ, and Celtic. He also recently made his debut for the senior Norway national team in November.

Radar courtesy of Ben Griffis.

The 10 While Charlotte seemed to find a solution with Karol Świderski filling in as an attacking midfielder for the team to end the season, finding other players capable of playing that role at a high level is still important. With the impending arrival of forward Enzo Copetti, we could see that become Karol's primary position for Charlotte. It remains to be seen where Charlotte would prefer to use Świderski.

Franco Cristaldo celebrates in his classic fashion. Photo courtesy of CA Huracán.

Franco Cristaldo - Age 26 Franco Cristaldo was passed around by Boca Juniors throughout his youth until finally finding his feet at Huracán while on loan there in 2020. In 2022, they made that move permanent and he had the best season of his career scoring 14 goals and providing 5 assists for a strong Huracán team in Argentina. While 8 (100% conversion rate) of those goals were from the penalty spot, he was effective in multiple areas of the pitch. Cristaldo was involved in 54% of his team's goals last season in the league.

Cristaldo is a player with a lot of flair who will play hard for his team and fight for balls in the midfield. He is effective in the attacking half with his strong dribbling skills, aerial prowess, and wide passing range. Cristaldo has all the marking of an excellent MLS designated player level attacking midfielder. The radar below shows he was well rounded compared to other midfield players in Argentina last season as he played a massive 3,787 minutes last season.

However, as mentioned in the previous article a deal could be close to complete with Grêmio to transfer the player to Brazil. If that deal falls through, Charlotte should be considering Cristaldo as a potential player to bring into the squad. The biggest risk is Cristaldo has only played at this high of level once in his career at the age of 26. Some of that could be due to being constantly thrown into new team environments each season on loan, however, it could still be a concern when spending the amount of money that would be required to secure the player. While his estimated value is 6.3 million dollars, the reported figure for the Grêmio transfer was closer to 4.5 million dollars. Rumors as late as last yesterday suggested that the deal between Grêmio and Huracán may not happen, which could leave Charlotte an opening if they were interested in the player.

Radar courtesy of Ben Griffis.

Iliman Ndiaye kisses the Senegal badge at the World Cup. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters.

Iliman Ndiaye - Age 22

Born in France to Senegalese father and French mother, Ndiaye's journey to playing for Senegal at the World Cup has been anything but ordinary. He was moved through multiple acadmies before ultimately winding up at Boreham Wood in England's 5th division. He never made a first team appearance for Boreham Wood, but continued to work hard and make a name for himself with non-league side Rising Ballers. Despite never making a first team appearances for Boreham Wood, Ndiaye was able to make a name for himself through their youth system and his time with Rising Ballers. Ndiaye was signed by Sheffield United who at the time were a Premier League team. Ndiaye finally got his opportunity for Sheffield when they were relegated to the Championship for the 2021-2022 season and he has taken that opportunity and continued to make a name for himself.

Radar courtesy of Ben Griffis. Ndiaye has scored 9 goals and added 2 assists this season for Sheffield United. In the World Cup, he made 3 appearances and provided an assist in the win against Qatar. He is capable of playing an attacking midfield role as well as up top. His strengths are definitely better suited to playing in the attacking midfield role. He is a deceptively strong dribbler with a high work rate and excellent finishing skills. At times, he remind me of what Świderski brings to the game for Charlotte. He's equally dangerous with either foot and for headed goals. His biggest weakness is in aerial duels, but playing as an attacking midfielder should limit how many times he is involved in one.

Iliman Ndiaye Heatmap courtesy of SofaScore.

He is currently valued at around 3.7 million dollars, however, his value could see a World Cup bump while also playing a good season for 2nd place Sheffield United. Illiman Ndiaye could be brought in as young designated player to replace Jordy Alcívar who recently returned to Ecuador and freed up both a designated player spot and an international spot.

All player values have been sourced from Transfermarkt – they are not representative of actual transfer fees that would be required to sign a player and, in many cases, will be lower than the actual value of the player.

The transfer market is much more difficult than looking at players values. This article does not take into account player salaries and intangibles.