Jhon Duran's journey from MLS to Aston Villa could make him Colombia's next great star

How 'special' Jhon Duran caught the eyes of scouts (2:02)

Chicago Fire Technical Director Sebastian Pelzer recalls when he first saw Aston Villa's Jhon Duran. (2:02)

Every week, our own Luis Miguel Echegaray offers his latest thoughts and permutations from the world of football. You have the analysis, now comes LME's commentary.

Welcome to The Tap-in.

This week for the international break, a deep profile of Aston Villa's 19-year-old striker and Colombia international Jhon Jáder Durán.

After failing to qualify for last year's World Cup in Qatar, Colombia's upcoming friendly matches against South Korea and Japan come with a very clear objective, one that's been the case for a while now.

"What's important to me is to bring back a strong team with a winning mentality," said Colombia manager Néstor Lorenzo in his introductory news conference last December. "I think the beginning of this project, therefore, is very important. To put together a strong team and be able to play forcefully."

Lorenzo, who replaced Reinaldo Rueda, had been José Pékerman's assistant for several years with Los Cafeteros. Under Pékerman and Lorenzo, Colombia qualified for the World Cup in 2014, the team's first appearance in 16 years. They reached the quarterfinal stage before exiting at the hands of hosts Brazil. After qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Colombia also made it to the knockout stages, losing to England in the round of 16. In between these tournaments, the team finished in third place at the 2016 Centenario edition of Copa America.

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"We have excellent players and excellent people here. The only thing that we need to do is get them all to be part of a project and to understand that playing for the national team is the most wonderful thing that can happen to you," Lorenzo said.

This aforementioned project is not just reliant solely on the first team. It's a multidimensional scheme that begins with the young players coming out of the youth academies as well as products from the domestic league.

Colombia, therefore, are ready to write a new page in their novel and reclaim the status of this team. Style, passion, resiliency and flavor. There is a sense across the country that this is indeed a renaissance in the making.

"Failing to qualify for the World Cup knocked the growing confidence of many Colombian fans but overall, football in this country is in a good place," said South American football expert and Colombia-based Simon Edwards. "More talented young players are moving abroad earlier and benefiting from the experience.

"Colombian football is now moving 18- and 19-year-olds directly to Germany, Belgium and England as well as the more typical destinations of Spain and Portugal," added Edwards, who is also the South America director for ISC, an agency specializing in talent management and sports marketing.

He added: "While Colombian football doesn't yet have the obvious heir to James Rodríguez or Radamel Falcao, these and others have shown the world what Colombian talent can do and many more players are getting the opportunity at the highest level."

One of these players is Jhon Jáder Durán, whose story -- even at 19 years old -- is an inspiring tale of football development and everything Edwards is talking about. Durán, now at Aston Villa after joining from the Chicago Fire in January, also represents Lorenzo's sentiments of "mentality" and alongside other young prospects, Colombia can hopefully look ahead to a future that brings bright results. For Villa, Durán -- who started his football career at Envigado -- represents the future and a fountain of possibilities for young South American stars who have never had a better chance at making it in Europe and beyond. It's early days but if patience is applied, the riches of this work can be seen throughout many years to come.

"I am so happy to be at this great club [Aston Villa], this great fan base, because the supporters are amazing, and I'm ready for this new challenge ahead of me," Durán told me from his hotel in Seoul, as he is also a vital part of the Colombian squad's resurgence under Lorenzo.

But his story is not finished, because that would be ludicrous to suggest. This is about a teenage footballer from humble beginnings, an Afro-Latino kid from Medellín whose journey -- both in Europe and beyond -- has just begun and what's even more emphatic is that alongside his own path, there are many others emulating the same ambitions.

Shortly after arriving at Aston Villa, Dúran sat in an empty, chilly Villa Park as the giant screen turned on, showing an always-well-groomed Juan Pablo Ángel, Villa's first ever Colombian striker and an icon with the Premier League club.

"Jhon Jáder, brother. It's my pleasure to welcome you to your new home," said Ángel, as an emotional Durán watched in awe. "Right there where you are sitting in the Holte End, I have some of the greatest memories of my career ... you have all the technical qualities of a footballer to create a great legacy. Not only at the club but the league that you've just entered. In all aspects of Aston Villa, I wish you the best of luck, that you are full of success, and that for us, you fill us with happiness."

As Ángel concluded his monologue, one he wrote himself, Durán was left speechless, knowing the gravity of the moment and equally appreciating the fact that this was not only a celebration, it was an opportunity for him, for Colombia and everyone that has supported him along the way.

"It was an incredibly emotional moment for me, that Juan Pablo -- such a great ambassador for the club -- sent that video message and the club made it happen," said Durán, reflecting on the day. "It also inspires me to do things here just like how he did...or perhaps even better."

What most people don't realize from the video, however, maybe even Ángel himself, is that Durán has been watching and studying videos of Ángel since he was a youth player at Envigado.

"We would constantly sit in a room and watch videos of different strikers, their movements, their characteristics...including Juan Pablo Ángel, when he was at River Plate and Aston Villa," said Wilberth Perea, one of the most important people in this story.

Durán arrived to Envigado at age 11, but it was his time with Perea that really changed everything. Now an assistant coach with Envigado's under-20 squad, Perea worked with Durán when the player was 14 years old in the U15s division.

The club is based in the southeast of Medellín and plays in the Colombian first division, but this isn't just any club. This is a fountain of Colombian youth royalty as they proudly call themselves the Cantera de Héroes (the academy of heroes). No club in the country produces such talent. From Fredy Guarín (Porto, Inter Milan), Juan Fernando Quintero (River Plate, Atlético Junior) and the one and only James Rodríguez, their reputation for young talent speaks for itself.

The club's history is as tumultuous (specifically in the '90s and early '00s) as it is prosperous, but in 2023, this club -- despite not possessing the goliath reputation of other Medellín teams like Atlético Nacional -- still claims a strong franchise and their philosophy, like the town's mantra, is simple: The people are first.

"When we recruit players to the academy, the first thing we do is look at the human being, not the player," says Perea, whose qualities as a coach are so intricate, any European club would be lucky to have him as an educator. "Then we look at the player that we want to mold. To build the player, you first have to understand the person.

"All their idiosyncrasies, where they're from, etc. ... and this will help us understand how to build a plan for the footballer -- this is a theory that's based on treating everyone the same but at the same time, teaching them differently. What I mean is that even though everyone has a right to be treated the same, with the same respect and attention, what one person needs and their development is different to someone else.

"So as a coach, I have to create processes that are totally different, and really, it's because the spontaneity of a player's character cannot be taken away. If anything, it's why we bring them to the club. From what has already been built ... we just keep building."

Durán is the ultimate example of this theory.

"It wasn't just Ángel who we studied. From Romelu Lukaku to Radamel Falcao, Jhon and I would sit and discuss how these players do things," Perea added, whose assistant at the time happened to be James Rodríguez's dad, Wilson James Rodríguez. "But I would also realize how fast he would take in the information and find a solution.

"I would say, 'how would you solve this problem, Jhon?,' and he would reply, 'ah, boss. I would solve it like this, I think.' Then we would go on the pitch and apply this process in such an impressive way. He would take it in very quickly and it's why this facilitated his development. After every training session, in fact, we would stay longer for 45 minutes. Just to work."

Everything was dissected. Everything. From his stance and speed to how he would hold a ball or face an opponent, nothing was ignored. Perea reminds us that Durán didn't even start as a striker, he was a winger first but the coach persuaded the directors that all his attributes were best suited for a center forward role.

They agreed and in time, all these decisions and practices came to fruition as he ended his U15 season in 2018 as the captain and team's top goal scorer, netting 30 goals in the age group's tournament. He also led the club as champions in the local Antioqueña competition, also scoring 30 goals. In that final game, Durán needed three goals to equalize the tournament's Golden Boot tally, which was also occupied by his good friend and CD Estudiantil's Tomás Ángel, Juan Pablo's son.

Durán didn't score three goals in that final match. He scored four and took the prize home.

Around this time is when the national team setup picked up on the young man's talent and became more involved in the youth squads. He was still only 15 and was now part of Colombia's U17 squad, and played two matches in the South American championships in Perú in 2019. That same year, he made his debut for Envigado's senior team and became the second-youngest goal scorer in the Colombian first division.

Something special was brewing.

"He is an extremely talented player, ever since he was a kid," said Santiago Aristizabal, an expert and veteran Colombian reporter, who specifically focuses on academy players across the country. "Perea and his staff knew he was talented, but they worked hard on his technical ability and overall football abilities. At 15, the aim was to play professionally in the older setups, even just a few minutes, because they knew of his potential. He didn't just have potential, he had proper support from a very early age.

"Then, Envigado had a great season alongside his good childhood friend Yasper Asprilla [who plays for Watford in the Championship] and his development kept growing... he is a player that's very able, physically, mentally, and understands the game very well. He is also very hungry, he is passionate. That hunger to win is his most important trait. He has no problem competing in whatever context."

"Here in Colombia, especially those who follow the youth setups, are very happy because we feel he can make history. In the Premier League and of course, the national team. His youth process has been halted, mainly 'cause of the pandemic and his move to Villa (Durán was not allowed to take play at the South American U20 championship in January and February, but the team finished third and qualified for the U20 World Cup) but even so, the Colombian fan knows his quality and that's why he's in the senior team right now.

"As for Villa, we love to follow the club here in Colombia. Back then because of Juan Pablo Ángel but now obviously because of Durán. It's one of the biggest clubs from England...we watch all the games and have high hopes that he will do very well."

Perea's role was so crucial that he also predicted his next move from Envigado should be MLS, a league that has fast become a platform for nurturing young South American talent, especially from Colombia. The examples are endless, but Juan David Mosquera (Portland Timbers) and Dylan Borrero (New England Revolution) are young players currently thriving in MLS. They are also part of the national team's roster in this international break.

"I said it way back, I certified it! Durán's next step after Envigado needs to be the United States," said Perea, reflecting on his notes from back then. "Why? Because of his characteristics, because of how he knew the game...he has everything in his arsenal to become a big player. Mentally, he is so strong and when he sets an objective, he does it."

Well, it just so happens Chicago agreed with Perea and in 2020, the club began its process of communication between them and Envigado, notably Perea.

"I was just there [in Colombia] looking for Carlos Terrán (who also joined the Fire) but then later in the game, a young boy got subbed in," said Chicago Fire's technical director Sebastian Pelzer.

He was there at Envigado, scouting for talent and accidentally discovered Durán.

"Right there, you could see his physical ability. He had two or three one-on-ones on the wing, and you could see what he was able to do. His jumping, his acceleration," said Pelzer, a former player in his native Germany. "As the weeks went on, the more you watched of him, the more you could see what his path would look like. But that the path came that quickly? Nobody expected it to come that fast."

In 2021, at the age of 17, Chicago announced his signing and he became at that point the youngest international signing in MLS history. Last year, however, when he turned 18, Durán officially joined the club and made his Fire debut in February 2022 against Inter Miami. A few months later, he scored his first goal for the club against FC Cincinnati.

This is when Europe started to take note, including Aston Villa.

"There were many clubs interested, those from England and Europe that were mentioned in the media," said Pelzer, who started seeing the growth in interest, but in the end Villa were the most aggressive and came with a firm offer. "In the end, if you look at the journey...if you look at the games that Jhon played for us, it wasn't long.

"He was in Chicago for a year but played within a couple of months and a couple of games, and in those games he stood out...and we had interest. [Villa sporting director] Johan Lange showed real interest and from that perspective, they got a fantastic player."

The business side of Durán's pathway to the Premier League has helped all three clubs. Chicago secured his transfer from Envigado for a reported $2.5 million, a tremendous financial boost for the Colombian club. In turn, Chicago sent Durán to Villa for $18 million guaranteed, with another $4m if certain performance metrics are met. Chicago also kept a percentage on any future transfer of Durán.

Durán's deal was also the third most expensive outgoing transfer in MLS history after Miguel Almirón (Atlanta United FC to Newcastle United for $26m) and Alphonso Davies (Vancouver Whitecaps to Bayern Munich, $22m), both of which were in 2019.

All in all, Durán's transfer history is a good example of three teams from three very different places creating a pathway for a young Colombian player with big dreams. What happens next is anyone's guess, but so far, it has been a good road.

As Durán sits in his hotel room in Seoul, preparing to face Son Heung-Min and a South Korea team that made it to the round of 16 at last year's World Cup, he contemplates scoring his first goal for Villa, continuing to learn under Unai Emery (a manager he can't speak highly enough of) and making a big statement in Europe and on the international stage.

"I just have to keep learning. From the staff, from my teammates, and soak in all the good things from each one. My goals will come soon. I'll keep working hard for it and I'll celebrate the same way I always do," said Durán, with a big smile on his face.

The future is bright for Jhon Jáder Durán, but it's also unpredictable and when it comes to what happens next, the only person who can determine that is Durán himself. Whatever happens, the most important factor to remember in this young man's story is that his success and work ethic is a product of a nurturing support system -- notably at Envigado -- that allowed him to flourish at such a young age.

Durán's arrival at Villa and the Premier League is a combination of what happens when education meets dedication and smart, diverse, open-minded scouting mixed with the intangible act of faith in a person, not the system, come together to form a story of high reward.

When it comes to success for Colombian players and the national team, or any other South American entity, one thing is for certain: it takes a village.