Man, I'll just go-ahead and say it: There are too many words below for an intro.
But a quick explainer to this extremely straightforward, silly and unscientific exercise below: The offseason is a time for optimism. You can talk yourself into plenty of moves on a computer screen.
We'll see how they all look when games get underway April 16, but there's a healthy amount of optimism in this story. There are, admittedly, a lot of grades in the B-range. Benefit of the doubt, as they say.
Atlanta, after a disappointing 2020, entered the winter facing a crossroads. They end the offseason having checked off all the boxes they needed.
They began by appointing Gabriel Heinze, among the brightest young managers in South America. It was widely hailed as a great hire, though not a scientific analysis, nor 100% predictive that he'll be great, of course. They then supplemented his squad by acquiring River Plate midfielder Santiago Sosa, a rising Argentine youth international who may be one of the more underrated signings of the offseason when we look back at it. They also added another young Argentine midfielder in Franco Ibarra, while veteran forward Lisandro Lopez provides real depth on just a supplemental roster spot.
Lastly, just on Thursday, they announced the acquisition of once-capped Argentina international center back Alan Franco. They were in desperate need of a CB and secured a big-time talent.
An impressive new manager, two budding young central midfielders, an in-prime starter in central defense, competition at right back, depth up top and a few more homegrowns in the squad is a strong window.
Expansion seasons are still quite hard, particularly so when you're building during a pandemic, but they've become more manageable in recent years for teams who maximize the assets at hand. By most accounts, Austin FC did a solid job in that.
They balanced high-talented attacking imports (namely Cecilio Dominguez and Tomas Pochettino) with proven MLS guys to make up the spine (namely Alex Ring and Nick Lima). Toss in intriguing talents like Rodney Redes, Jhohan Romana and No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Daniel Pereira, and Austin seem to have the ingredients to make a push for the playoffs in year one.
Moreover, Austin were deliberate in what they wanted. Head coach Josh Wolff was hired before any player got signed, as he and sporting director Claudio Reyna worked to identify the profiles of players that would best fit the system.
Second, I love that they kept their third DP spot open to use midseason. The team looks solid on a whiteboard, but who knows what unforeseen wrinkles may appear as the real games come along. Just like Nashville did last year, they're staying flexible. Maybe just like Nashville, that DP spot will be used on a center forward, too.
Chicago were among the teams that missed the playoffs who prioritized continuity this winter, hoping for natural progression in the group, with just a few alterations, will result in vaulting over the playoff line.
The Fire signed only three players for this season and only one has a real chance to be an opening day starter: right back Jhon Espinoza. Bulgarian youth international winger Stanislav Ivanov would have had a chance as well, but he picked up an injury in preseason and is out for a number of months.
Both of those players look like solid talents, while forward Chinonso Offor is a bit more of an unknown as he embarks on his MLS career.
FC Cincinnati are taking big swings. Can't knock 'em for ambition this winter.
They acquired Brazil youth international forward Brenner from Sao Paulo for a reported $13 million, making him among the league's most expensive signings ever, then brought Luciano Acosta back to MLS from Atlas as two DP additions. They also added a proven MLS left back in Ronald Matarrita, then signed winger Isaac Atanga and center back Gustavo Vallecilla.
That's as many as five new starters, two of whom carry MLS experience.
The only thing keeping this from being an A is the distance between the floor and ceiling with FC Cincinnati's outlay, as well as seeing how the pieces fit. Brenner looks a huge talent, but the expectation (at his pricetag) is an immediate star-like impact. That's not easy to place on a 21-year-old who's adjusting to a new league. Acosta has to prove he's closer to the 2018 Best XI version of himself than the 2019 version who was ultimately dropped from D.C. United's starting XI by season's end.
They are also set to trade away Frankie Amaya, who sources tell MLSsoccer.com is heading to the New York Red Bulls. The 2019 No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick wanted out, but he will leave a hole in central midfield after starting 21 of the club's 23 games last year.
Keep an eye on Atanga. Obviously his acquisition garnered fewer headlines than Brenner and Acosta, but his profile is intriguing for MLS. The analytics folks at Smarter Scout are high on him, while a Premier League scout told me he was among his list of players who would be smart signings for an MLS club.
The Rapids continued doing things the Rapids way this winter.
Five of their six signings are aged-20 or younger: Two came from their academy, two came originally from the academy of other MLS clubs and the fifth was selected with the No. 3 pick in the SuperDraft. Their lone senior addition was landing Michael Barrios via trade from FC Dallas, giving the Rapids another option in attack and something a bit different than what they've got on the right flank at the moment.
Colorado are among the deepest teams in the league, with plenty of young players looking at regular minutes and hoping for their chance behind the regulars. The Rapids have been on a steady upward trend for a few seasons and have their sights set on more of the same in 2021.
It's almost cliche at this point to heap praise on Columbus' offseason. We're all doing it. We're all blending together. At some point, someone is going to turn cynical just to have a dissenting opinion.
That will not be me.
In salary cap leagues across all sports, MLS included, championship teams almost always become a bit weaker. Usually best case scenario is keeping the team together, with other clubs looking to pry pieces away while new contracts and bonuses become harder to fit under the cap. The cap monster comes for you, as Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko says.
But not this year and not for Columbus. Not only did they keep their entire MLS-cup winning core, they went out and added the consensus best free agent (Kevin Molino), perhaps the most overqualified back-up forward (Bradley Wright-Phillips), a Romanian youth international attacker (Alexandru Matan) and more.
Hey, remember that good ol' Bryan Reynolds saga, which feels like happened a year ago now? His move to AS Roma on deadline day of the European winter transfer window was the big headline for FC Dallas, but it wasn't their only good bit of business.
Dallas underwent a shakeup on the wings, trading Michael Barrios (to Colorado) and Fafa Picault (to Houston) while signing Jader Obrian and Freddy Vargas. Obrian was leading the Colombian league in goals before his transfer. If he can be a reliable secondary scoring option from the wing for Dallas, it's a huge boost to the center forwards.
A lot of this depends on head coach Hernan Losada, his system and what the talent looks like. Admittedly D.C. United didn't chase big names with big pedigrees, but that doesn't mean they won't be set for an improvement in 2021.
D.C. retained all of their key players from 2020, with Paul Arriola returning early from a loan to Swansea City after an injury and the club adding some intriguing players after appointing Losada.
By most accounts, it looks like Losada will play a 3-5-2. D.C. added another two center backs (Michael DeShields and Brendan Hines-Ike) as well as a handful of forwards (Jovanny Bolivar, Kimarni Smith and Nigel Robertha) to facilitate that change.
United have talent, in Edison Flores, Arriola, Julian Gressel and many others, though a few questions, particularly at the start the season without the injured Bill Hamid, Steven Birnbaum and Arriola. Will Flores excel as a No. 10? Which two forwards start? When both are fit, what's the best way to get Gressel and Arriola on the field together?
The Dynamo addressed a few needs this winter and did so deliberately by mining in-league additions. In various trades they acquired Tim Parker (from the New York Red Bulls), Fafa Picault (Dallas), Derrick Jones (Nashville) and Maxi Urruti (CF Montréal), then added Joe Corona (in the Re-Entry Draft, formerly of LA Galaxy ... and Austin FC for about 15 seconds).
A bunch in, a bunch out for Tab Ramos' second season in charge.
Parker and Corona/Jones are probably the most important of the business to beef up the defense and defensive midfield. Transition defense was not a strength in 2020. The attack should be fine again in 2021, a more egalitarian approach rather than the recent reliance on Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis.
Is it enough to make up the gap between them and the playoff line?
Last season's top regular-season Western Conference team got stronger this winter. SKC signed midfielder Remi Walter and defender Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, all while elevating three academy standouts to the first team.
Walter can start at either the No. 6 or No. 8 in Kansas City's midfield, giving Peter Vermes more flexibility in rotating his stable of options at the position. He's a former French youth international and, at 25 years old, is entering his prime. Isimat-Mirin also has plenty of experience in Europe, featuring for the likes of PSV, Monaco and Besiktas. He's likely to partner Roberto Puncec in central defense.
They permanently acquired Murillo, who continues his solid partnership with Eddie Segura in central defense. They then added South Korea international right back Kim Moon-Hwan, locking down that position, with Tristan Blackmon an overqualified backup at both spots. Solid business.
LAFC also traded for promising MLSers Marco Farfan and Corey Baird. Baird, in particular, could thrive in LAFC's system and playing between stars Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. Potential home run. They have depth all over the field, as well as top-end talent. They're widely picked to lead the Western Conference for a reason.
Keep an eye on what happens with Brian Rodriguez this summer, as the DP is on loan in Spain with UD Almeira. The deal includes a purchase clause. If he goes, who comes in with that final DP spot?
The Galaxy, out of necessity, were busy this winter. Their big get isn't a player at all – it was the appointment of head coach Greg Vanney.
Vanney helped build Toronto FC into the powerhouse they are today, taking over when they hadn't had any success to speak of, and is now tasked with helping rebuild the Galaxy.
They acquired as many as six new starters, including sweeping changes to the backline and goalkeepers. Irish international Derrick Williams comes to anchor central defense, Jorge Villafana at left back, Jonathan Bond in goal and a clearer path for Julian Araujo to start at right back.
The expansion season didn't go quite to plan and it's not easy maneuvering around for sweeping changes in year two, but Miami found a a way to get a number of presumed starters on board.
Defensive midfielder Gregore looks a perfect fit at the base of midfield next to Blaise Matuidi and behind Rodolfo Pizarro, a prototypical hard-nosed, ground-covering ball-winner. (Three hyphens!) Outside backs Kelvin Leerdam and Kieran Gibbs (joining this summer) will add to the defensive unit, while Joevin Jones will too, pending where new head coach Phil Neville plans to use him.
The word out of Miami camp both on and off the record is that Neville has got the squad to buy in to his methods and philosophy.
Minnesota's offseason unfolded a little slower than fans may have hoped for, but it looks like they'll reach their end destination of a handful of attacking replacements.
They already acquired forward Ramon Abila from Boca Juniors, a proven goalscorer. The last time they signed a player from Boca Juniors it worked out pretty well in Emanuel Reynoso. Abila even noted Reynoso being in Minnesota made the move all the more appealing.
The Loons are also in talks to sign Argentine winger Franco Fragapane, which would help fill the void left by Kevin Molino's departure.
There was plenty of change in Montréal this winter, though much of the on-field alternations came before Wilfried Nancy took over as head coach for Thierry Henry. There's a lot of mystery about just how the pieces will fit and what tactics Nancy favors.
Montréal's offseason of change was headlined by the arrival of Bjorn Johnsen, Djordje Mihailovic, Kamal Miller, Kiki Struna and more. It's a good bet at least those four will be first-choice starters.
Johnsen has had a number of stops in his career, but has scored goals everywhere he's been, including with Norway's national team. Mihailovic was acquired in a blockbuster trade and will be tasked with providing quality service to Johnsen. Struna and Miller headline a revamped defense.
Montréal made the Play-In Round for the playoffs last year and will be among the chase once again.
Since their expansion season was a big success, Nashville didn't face many needs this winter.
Jhonder Cadiz and Handwalla Bwana were acquired late into the 2020 season and their impact will be felt more in 2021. Their big acquisition was Uruguay youth international winger Rodrigo Pineiro, who spent a couple years at the same club that produced Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez. Good pedigree.
The Revs possess a different quality when Carles Gil is available, that much was certain on their playoff run. But that's not unique: Every single team in the world is lesser without their best player.
New England's other areas in need of improvement were all addressed this winter, with Christian Mafla coming in at left back, Wilfrid Kaptoum in central midfield and Arnor Ingvi Traustason another option on the wing. They made a handful of other squad additions as Bruce Arena kicks off his second full season in charge.
The Revs should expect to be among the most competitive teams in the Eastern Conference, provided a full season of health from Gil.
After trading away Alex Ring and Ronald Matarrita, as well as the opening of one DP spot plus the potential for another, and the reported start of a new U-22 player initiative ... there were big expectations around NYCFC's offseason. So far, it's underwhelmed.
Malte Amundsen, Chris Gloster and Alfredo Morales are the club's only senior additions. Amundsen is expected to take over the starting left-back gig, Gloster has a chance to reboot his promising career and Morales is another strong addition to an already strong central midfield group.
Homegrown winger Andres Jasson has the inside track to start at left wing, which is exciting, but with Heber still injured another few months, they have four healthy attackers for three spots and exactly one center forward at the moment (Taty Castellanos).
The best part about this? None of this matters, including this silly grading exercise, if they kill it during the last month or two of this window or the beginning of the summer window, which opens in early July, or if a handful of their homegrowns take big strides early in the season. There's plenty of time and NYCFC still have a solid baseline of talent.
A lot of what was written in the D.C. United section applies here as well: Just because RBNY didn't acquire players with big profiles and pedigrees doesn't mean there won't be an improvement. Just like with D.C., a lot will come down to the new head coach.
Gerhard Struber is set to dial up the club's high press/transition ethos, so they went out to find players who are best set for that style.
Brazilian forward Fabio has a good goal record in Brazil's second tier, while center back Andres Reyes and midfielder Youba Diarra were recently considered big-time prospects. Reyes' purchase option wasn't picked up by Inter Miami and injuries have so far hampered Diarra's career with RB Salzburg. They could flourish with RBNY.
A week before the season started, to accentuate the earlier work, they look set to make a high-profile intra-MLS addition by trading for Frankie Amaya from FC Cincinnati. Amaya could thrive in Struber's system and is among the league's burgeoning young talents. They are also reportedly close to a move for Celtic and Polish youth international striker Patryk Klimala.
In some ways, it'll be a new-look RBNY in 2021.
Orlando have compiled strong work over the last three-ish windows, including the hiring of Oscar Pareja last winter, to end the club's playoff drought and put them in the conversation among the East's better teams. With that in place, they didn't have a ton to do.
Daryl Dike's loan to Barnsley (and Dom Dwyer's contract expiration) meant a center forward was definitely on the list of needs, so they signed former wonderkid and Brazil international Alexandre Pato. It's a low-risk, non-DP deal that makes it such a shrewd move. If Pato stays injury-free and keeps the form he's shown this preseason, it'll be among the signings of the season. The club also added Silvester van der Water for further competition and depth up top.
Orlando will be quite good again this year, two-deep at every position but left back at this point.
Dike's future remains among the league's most interesting storylines. There have been rumors and reports that Orlando have put a $20 million price tag on him as he's tearing up the Championship. Has he played his last game in Orlando?
It's been a slow offseason as far as incomings for the Union, and that's okay.
The offseason began with the club transferring Mark McKenzie to KRC Genk in a lucrative transfer, worth around $6 million upfront with incentives and a sizable sell-on clause. That's great business, following Brenden Aaronson's move to RB Salzburg, which was agreed upon a few months earlier.
So far they've signed just center back Stuart Findlay and midfielder Leon Flach, but this is the Philly way. Why hinder your investments in the academy by signing a handful of new players from abroad as the next crop of talents get promoted to the first team? That approach is giving Anthony Fontana first shot at taking the minutes left behind by Aaronson.
In Flach, they signed another promising youngster. He enjoyed a strong debut in the Concacaf Champions League, showing he's ready to step into the starting XI.
This isn't the roster's finished product, either. Expect a few more pieces either over the next couple of months or the summer window.
Portland's squad strength is best summed up by the fact that they remained competitive at the end of 2020 and expect to at the beginning of 2021 without two DPs. It's really difficult to do that in MLS.
This winter they appear to have gotten better defensively, with additions of Argentine youth international left back Claudio Bravo and Mexican right back Josecarlos Van Rankin. They're two-deep at every position and made an improvement to the starting XI, so that's solid.
Portland also struck a deal to permanently acquire forward Felipe Mora after a successful season on loan, another important bit of business for one of the Western Conference favorites.
With much bigger questions going off the field, one can feel for Real Salt Lake's predicament this offseason. With so much uncertainty around potential owners, it wasn't going to be a crazy offseason by way of acquisitions.
Still, the club found a way to bring in a few interesting additions. Anderson Julio joins on loan from San Luis in Mexico and, while the winger didn't excel in Liga MX, the 24-year-old starred for Ecuadorian side LDU Quito, scoring 27 goals and adding 26 assists in 134 career matches across all competitions.
Will the additions be enough to move up above the playoff line in a crowded Western Conference after an 11th-place finish last season?
The Earthquakes still lean heavily on signing players that have previously played for head coach Matias Almeyda, with their three major additions this offseason all falling under that category.
Attacking midfielder Chofis Lopez (Chivas), defensive midfielder Eric Remedi (Banfield) and right back Luciano Abecasis (River Plate) are all well familiar with Almeyda's style. Lopez is the most important of the trio.
San Jose have been at their best when they have something resembling a natural No. 10 in midfield, which Lopez provides. He'll ease the creative burden on winger Cristian Espinoza and will hope to see an uptick in his own numbers after posting 21 goals and 12 assists in 185 games with Chivas.
Also: You already know it, but Wondo forever.
Seattle have regularly used the summer window to make one more big addition, dating back to Nico Lodeiro's arrival sparking their 2016 MLS Cup run. This team is primed for that, especially after Jordan Morris suffered a heartbreaking ACL tear during his loan to Swansea City.
In the interim, last year's MLS Cup finalists will look a bit different during 2021 while still boasting plenty of talent. Central midfielder Joao Paulo's loan was made permanent from Botafogo in a big piece of business. They also added MLS veteran midfielder Kelyn Rowe and Fredy Montero, an original Sounder and their all-time leading scorer. Looks like we'll see a lot of two-striker formations in Seattle this year after growing accustomed to their 4-2-3-1.
What will the final product look like?
Toronto are a difficult team to grade.
On one hand, well, there haven't yet been any additions aside from head coach Chris Armas. This is despite a DP spot sitting vacant for a team that's used those slots on the likes of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco and Alejandro Pozuelo in recent memory. Expectations are high when this team goes shopping for a marquee player.
On the other hand … this is a talented team already with plenty of burgeoning young talent looking for opportunities. If you believe in the kids, and are making an investment in the academy, don’t block their path (and with it, your investment.) Also: Don’t sign a DP just to sign a DP. The feeling from folks around the league is that big talents will become available this summer. Take your time, see what the team looks like under Armas on the grass instead of just on a whiteboard, then decide where the team most needs an injection of quality.
I’m good with it – it's a long season – though an early CCL exit and slow start in MLS could fuel fans’ ire.
Alexandre will slot in the midfield and is lauded by those at the club for his passing, deep-lying playmaking and ability to progress the ball. While he played all over for Botofogo in his young career, the 'Caps see him in a box-to-box role. Gaspar is seasoned in numerous top European leagues before making the move to MLS, a solid defender and passer from right back, while Caicedo is an exciting Colombian youth international winger.
The elephant in the room, though, is that Vancouver are still yet to sign a DP No. 10. While I'm all for waiting for the right target (see above with Toronto), it's been more than seven months since Inbeom Hwang was transferred to Rubin Kazan. Vancouver have been honest and public in their plans to fill that DP spot with an advanced midfielder. It just hasn't happened yet. Maybe those plans have changed, with Marc Dos Santos looking likely to start the season in a 4-4-2, but still. They have ammo for one more big swing.
The window is still open another two months, after all.