Entrusted with completing the most complex and expensive transfer deal in team history, Minnesota United technical director Mark Watson twice traveled 6,000 miles south last winter to Argentina. He refined his rudimentary Spanish and adjusted his biological rhythms, all in pursuit of Emanuel Reynoso.
After a pandemic-induced pause and nearly nine months later, it was the 24-year-old attacking midfielder himself who got the $5 million transfer done with his famed Boca Juniors club.
Reynoso sacrificed some salary, refused a larger offer by a Brazilian team late in the talks and firmly told Boca management he wanted to leave sprawling Buenos Aires and soccer-crazed Argentina for Major League Soccer in a faraway place called Minnesota.
“This deal doesn’t get done without him wanting to make this happen,” Watson said. “This is what he wanted.”
The deal, officially announced Tuesday, “could have and probably should have fallen apart,” Watson said, because of several complicating factors, notably the sheer weight of negotiations that stretched so long.
Also included: Boca Juniors’ $10 million-plus starting point and its reluctance to sell a gifted player during a chase to catch Superliga rival River Plate. Delicate discussions that involved Reynoso’s hometown Talleres team, which owned a piece of his rights, as well as agents and Argentina’s soccer federation. The country’s serious devaluation of its peso in recent years didn’t help the deal’s economics, either.
When Watson believed an agreement was close, Reynoso played one of his best games, increasing his club’s reluctance and upping the price.
Not long after the nearly completed deal fell apart in late February, the pandemic hit in March, shutting down soccer worldwide.
Watson and the Loons persisted, converting their claim to Reynoso’s MLS “primary discovery” rights to land their third and final allowed “designated player.” They believe he can be their star attacking and playmaking “No. 10” midfielder, also wearing that number on his jersey as have many of the game’s greatest, including Pele, Maradona and Messi.
Reynoso had one goal and three assists in 18 Superliga games in 2019-20.
“He’s used to playing under enormous pressure,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said. “Whatever comes his way, the MLS is not going to be a problem.”
The Loons’ interest and determination impressed Reynoso, who did his own research. “He googled ‘Minnesota,’ ” Watson said.
MLS’ growth impressed him, too, with its shiny new stadiums and upgraded talent that includes a growing number of young South Americans. Among them are childhood pal and former Boca Juniors teammate Cristian Pavon as well as his former Boca coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, both with LA Galaxy.
Reynoso and Watson first met in January. The Loons hired an agent to guide and interpret for Watson as he moved around Buenos Aires’ dense soccer scene and places he wouldn’t go alone among its 15 million people.
Online, Reynoso learned about Allianz Field and a Loons roster that includes young South Americans Luis Amarilla and Thomas Chacon. He learned of their Blaine training facility and that Minneapolis was known for its lakes.
Reynoso asked if Minnesota was a safe place for him and his 2-year-old daughter. The topic was revisited when riots hit Minneapolis after police killed George Floyd in May.
“I came here because the club showed a lot of interest in me,” Reynoso said through an interpreter in a video conference call Tuesday. “Their pursuit showed how much they wanted me here. That made me really excited to be here.”
After last season, Loons executives compiled lists of players worldwide whom they could afford and considered talented enough to push the franchise forward after its third MLS season brought its first playoff appearance.
Always near the top: Emanuel “Bebelo” Reynoso, who left home in Cordoba, Argentina, for Boca Juniors in 2017.
The team identified him from South American scouting trips in years past. Club officials followed his every game through Italian company Wyscout, which provides video and analytics to teams worldwide. In Argentina last winter, Watson watched Reynoso play in person three more times.
“I don’t think he has played a game the last two or three years we haven’t seen every touch he has made,” Heath said. “We’re very aware of what we’re getting.”
Heath called Reynoso’s MLS debut as a second-half sub Wednesday at Houston “excellent” and said, “We know we got a good player.” New teammate Marlon Hairston called Reynoso “a different class” after he watched him play 20-plus minutes.
Watson said Reynoso checks every profile quality the team sought: He’s young, driven, versatile, has technical ability, runs all day and is left-footed, too. Watson knew 10 minutes into their first meeting Reynoso was the right fit.
“There were opportunities to look in another direction,” Watson said. “But we kept coming back to Reynoso.”
Days go by
Watson took two trips to Buenos Aires, totaling three weeks, in January and February but came home without a deal. Boca Juniors’ recently elected new management — including former Boca superstar midfielder Riquelme, who maybe saw a little of himself in Reynoso — didn’t want to let him go.
Riquelme was Boca’s greatest player in a club history that includes legendary Diego Maradona. Both wore the important No. 10 jersey, a position where Heath envisions Reynoso playing farther up the field as both playmaker and scorer than he sometimes did for Boca.
Watson spent days in meetings negotiating with Riquelme and other Boca officials. He also waited for responses while he individually provided Heath, CEO Chris Wright and owner Bill McGuire back home with daily updates.
With his Argentine guide, he sometimes scouted three games a day while he waited, searching for other talent from morning to night in a culture where dinner isn’t served until 11 p.m. or midnight.
“I normally eat at 7 and I’m asleep by 9:30,” Watson said, “so that took some getting used to.”
Riquelme doesn’t speak English, and Watson’s Spanish still isn’t what he’d consider conversational.
“My Spanish needs improvement,” Watson said. “It certainly is better now than it was.”
Consider him sold
But Riquelme, the Boca Juniors coach and Reynoso all spoke the same language clearly in pivotal discussions in February. That’s when Reynoso said he wanted to leave the club and its intimidating, sold-out 54,000-capacity stadium nicknamed the Bombonera — the Candy Box — for a new opportunity in MLS.
“I was sold, I was interested right away,” Reynoso said. “I did have a conversation with the people at Boca to let them know this is something I wanted to do. I’m so grateful to Mark and everyone with Minnesota who helped make this happen. It was a lot of work, it was a long process and I’m just really excited to be here.”
Heath called Reynoso’s conversations a leap that persuaded Boca to do the deal after such a long time coming.
“That’s a big step for any player, any club,” Heath said. “But for a player at a big club like that in Argentina to say ‘I want to leave,’ you’re putting your future in jeopardy. He was very firm, and once we made the decision we were going to try to bring him here, he was all in.”
Heath called the deal “more done than dead” many times over because Reynoso and his agents were adamant it would get done.
Watson said he knew early in his first trip to Buenos Aires that this “wasn’t a 48-hour thing” in which he’d fly so far south and return so soon with the player. Watson called the signing “a testament to our club and our league to get a player at this age, playing at that level, for such a big club.”
Heath knew it, too.
“It would have been great to have this done a few months ago,” Heath said. “But it turned out right for everybody. The player got what he wanted. We’ve got what we wanted. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of something very special.”