This is why they call it the silly season. Since the transfer window opened just a few weeks ago, MLS teams have done the usual wheeling and dealing to improve their rosters and address their midseason needs. But if this year’s action seems a little crazier to you, you’re not crazy.
Five teams have added six Designated Players, an unprecedented midsummer binge since the roster exemption was introduced five years ago. Several other teams have added big names that they’ve slid in just under the DP threshold, but they’re players who nonetheless will be expected to play big roles.
Trading has come fast and furious all over the league, almost completely thanks to Aron Winter’s massive rebuilding project. Since First Kick weekend, Toronto FC have added 13 new faces and shipped off seven in an overhaul so complete, they’ll break the record for most players to see the field in MLS history the next time one of their new acquisitions take the field — which is highly likely on Saturday at RFK Stadium.
Winter has been so prolific, in fact, he makes Mo Johnston look downright stubbornly nepotistic. In the meantime, Dom Kinnear and his former assistant John Spencer have helped each other out on the trade wire, a two-time MLS Cup MVP has changed addresses twice, two major CONCACAF stars have joined the league and a flurry of action has seen all but four teams add significant parts. And the deals are just getting started.
Welcome to MLS in the DP Era. The financial constraints are still in place for the league’s teams, but they’re softening. And it’s getting a little easier to start looking abroad for pieces to add.
The reasoning here is pretty obvious. Teams have identified certain weaknesses by midseason and are looking for ways to plug holes to make themselves more competitive. That’s especially true for clubs involved in deep runs in the US Open Cup, or entering the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. (How about a high five for that one, by the way. MLS is maxed out with all five eligible teams in the competition for the first time, an awesome accomplishment.)
But there’s an ugly flipside to all this wheeling and dealing. As exciting as it is for Houston fans to see a powerful striker like Carlo Costly join up, as cool as it is to see a savvy veteran like Pável Pardo carry the Tri torch in Chicago, as unbelievable as it is to see Dwayne De Rosario on his fifth team, and as fun as it is to see any of these new players join the league or old players find new homes, one fact remains.
Virtually never in the history of the league has a team made a big splash in the middle of the season and gone on to win MLS Cup.
Only one team can even make a claim to have done that successfully — D.C. United bringing in English Premier League-schooled Jaime Moreno in MLS’ inaugural season and riding him to the first-ever league title. And there’s an argument to be made that the arrival of Christian Gómez toward the tail end of the 2004 season helped DC win their fourth title, but he was hardly touted as a marquee acquisition.
But go back and take a look at all the major signings and trades made by teams in midseason, and you’ll find a history of deals either took more than a season to pay off (Kyle Beckerman for Mehdi Ballouchy, anyone?), big acquisitions that either disappointed massively (Denílson) or didn’t quite work out in the end (Blaise Nkufo, Geovanni).
There are a few big-name deals that nearly got teams over the hump. Roy Lassiter to DC from Tampa Bay in 1998, for instance, helping United get to within a game of MLS Cup. Clint Mathis getting sent from LA to the MetroStars in 2000, helping his new team to its best finish in club history and a game from the championship.
The Chicago Fire picked up Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Brian McBride in back-to-back summers only to hit a roadblock in the Eastern Conference championship each year, and even the arrivals of Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez couldn't lift the Red Bulls to anything but the best regular-season record in the East last year.
Perhaps the most dramatic instance was the 2002 megadeal that saw New England acquire Daniel Hernandez, Brian Kamler and Diego Serna from the MetroStars for Mamadou Diallo, Andy Williams and Ted Chronopoulos. That trade so changed the Revs’ moribund fortunes — as did the promotion of Steve Nicol to head coach — that the squad rode its new recruits to within seven lousy minutes of the title on its own field.
But this isn’t about a trip down memory lane. As we said, the DP Era has changed the rules. You can try to trade your way to better chemistry — which has worked for a ton of teams over time — or you can try to infuse your squad with higher-priced name talent from abroad for an immediate payoff.
Either way, it’s an enormous challenge for the teams that are throwing caution to the wind. Designated Players may get the fans in the seats and, ideally, make your team better. But again, no team with a DP on its roster has ever hoisted MLS Cup either.
Mathematically, both of these trends will end soon. All but six MLS clubs currently have at least one DP on their roster and all but four, as mentioned earlier, have swung major in-season deals.
Regardless, history says that building something takes time. When you add parts in stride, it’s not always easy to adjust on the fly and incorporate new faces, no matter how good they are. For all of the excitement around all these midseason changes, it usually requires patience and time to get all the parts clicking.
This isn’t to say that new faces shouldn’t get you excited. They should. Change is good, and hope springs eternal for every team that is flushed with some fresh energy. But as silly as this season is, it can often require a cold dose of reality to ground you.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.