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CONNOR: Two Virginia men’s soccer alumni secure transfers in Europe — who will have a bigger impact?

How Daryl Dike and Joe Bell are beating the odds by playing professional soccer in Europe

<p>Once key pieces on the Virginia men's soccer team, Joe Bell and Daryl Dike are excelling in their professional endeavors.</p>

Once key pieces on the Virginia men's soccer team, Joe Bell and Daryl Dike are excelling in their professional endeavors.

Former Virginia men’s soccer stars Daryl Dike and Joe Bell made big European moves this transfer window during the month of January. Both were key players in the 2019 campaign that saw Virginia reach the final round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Dike, who spent two seasons with the Cavaliers before turning professional, was sold from Orlando City to West Bromwich Albion in England’s EFL Championship for $9.5 million dollars this January, making him the fifth most expensive outport in Major League Soccer’s history. Although West Bromwich Albion is in the second division of English football, the league is still considered to be one of the better leagues in Europe due to the quality of the teams and players. 

This is not Dike’s first time in the English Championship, however. After being drafted by Orlando City in the 2020 MLS Draft, he was loaned out to Barnsley for the second part of the 2020-21 season, where he won EFL Championship player of the month in March. While there was a 20 million dollar release clause at the end of the season, Barnsley decided not to trigger the option and sent Dike back to Orlando City.

Joe Bell opted to avoid the MLS Draft, signing for Viking FK in Norway’s top-flight right out of college after the 2019 season. The New Zealander became a mainstay for Viking, playing 58 games over two seasons with the team and helping them place third in the league in 2021 — the highest the team has finished in the top-flight since 2007. His stellar performance in Norway made it clear that he would be a top target for other European leagues. Viking accepted a $1.21 million dollar bid from Danish top-flight side Brøndby IF, making him Viking’s ninth most expensive outport, and Brøndby’s eleventh most expensive import in history. 

It’s rare for this generation to see male college soccer players sign and play for top-league European clubs. The only names that stick out are Leeds United’s Jack Harrison, who played for Wake Forest, Manchester City’s Zach Steffen from Maryland, and DeAndre Yedlin, who has just returned to the U.S. for Inter Miami after playing for European top-flight teams since 2015. Despite this lack of representation, Virginia had two after the 2019 NCAA season.

Both players are having success on their national sides as well. Dike helped the United States win the Gold Cup over Mexico this past summer, scoring a brace against Martinque. Bell was called up to New Zealand’s side for their latest games against Jordan and Uzbekistan while the team awaits their World Cup Qualifying games in March. New Zealand is considered to be the favorite of the Oceania World Cup qualifying tournament, which would earn them a spot in the intercontinental playoffs for a World Cup bid this summer. If both the United States and New Zealand qualify for the World Cup, there is a chance we could see both Bell and Dike on the world’s biggest stage later this year.

Unfortunately, Dike suffered a hamstring injury on his debut for West Brom that will leave him sidelined until mid March. At the time of his transfer, the team was facing a promotion battle, being a few points away from sixth place in the EFL Championship, which would qualify them for promotion playoffs. The winners of those playoffs are promoted to the Premier League. 

Bell joins Bröndby’s Danish Superliga campaign positioned third in the league, only a few points off of first place FC Midtjylland. If they maintain their pace, Bell could help Bröndby secure a spot in the Europa League, or even Champions League if the team finishes first in Denmark.

Both of these feats are difficult, but the clubs wouldn’t bring Dike and Bell in if they didn’t believe the players couldn’t contribute to the campaign. Which Cavalier will have a bigger impact at their club? 

In the short run, the obvious answer is Joe Bell considering the injury to Dike. Dike being out significantly hurts West Brom’s chances at promotion as its starting striker, Callum Robinson, is only averaging around a goal every five games — a level of productivity Dike was supposed to upgrade. Meanwhile, Brøndby was on a six game winning streak in the Superliga entering Bell’s first-expected game with the club. Although Brøndby is having more relative success than West Brom, the club just sold star midfielder Morten Frendrup to Italian-side Genoa, leaving a position of need in their midfield and an opportunity for Bell. 

After Dike’s injury on debut for West Brom, the club only scored one goal in the six following EFL Championship games, significantly decreasing its chances of promotion from the start of January. Whether or not Dike would have changed this if he remained healthy is speculative, but losing a starting striker can easily be seen as a reason for a club struggling to score.

A way to predict the player’s potential impact and value for their team is to look at how much they are worth compared to other players in their leagues. While Bell is currently valued at $1.32 million dollars compared to Dike’s value of $11 million dollars, this doesn’t take into account the difficulty and quality of the league. The average value of a player in the Danish top-flight is $801,000 dollars, while the EFL Championship average player is worth $2.13 million dollars. While Bell is around 65 percent more valuable than the average of other players in the Superliga, Dike is more than 400 percent more valuable than the average Championship player. Further, Dike is the 13th most valuable player in the Championship and tied for most valuable player on his team, while Bell is No. 52 in the Superliga and the tenth most valuable player on his team.

Even though this is purely based on how much the player is worth in the market, it can give us a sense on where Bell and Dike stand based on the skill-level of the league. It is likely that West Brom will be more dependent on Dike than Brøndby will be on Bell. However, the English side won’t reap the benefits of Dike’s abilities until next season most likely.

It’s also worth mentioning the security of the clubs. In recent years, Brøndby has been run much more smoothly than West Brom, as the English side were relegated from the top-flight in 2021. It’s possible the team’s lack of consistency can hurt Dike’s production and play. Bell started his first Superliga game for Brøndby Feb. 20, earning a solid game-grade of 7.6 by FotMob. He then followed up his performance with a win against SønderjyskE, finishing as the third highest rated player of the match. As of now, it looks like Bell will be a mainstay in the Brøndby starting-11. While Bell is expected to be a great signing for Brøndby, Dike has the potential to be a game changer for West Brom — the key word being potential, not expected, due to the unstable nature of the club.