The MLS offseason is in full swing. Players are being transferred, traded and signed. Rumors, both fake and true, are being lobbed from all angles. Silly season is a year-round business, but this is when it takes center stage.
Oh, yeah. Preseason begins in the middle of January. The 2022 regular season starts in two months, with Feb. 26 openers the earliest in league history. Things are happening all across the league, but these are five teams to keep an eye on.
I'm going to leave Charlotte FC out of this one. Obviously they will be the center of the offseason, likely to sign another 10-12 players, including multiple Designated Players. But we all knew that already and we'll cover them a ton leading up to their inaugural match.
The first offseason under sporting director/head coach Bob Bradley is here. A ton of big names are either already out or on the way out. It looks like Italy and Napoli star Lorenzo Insigne is coming. Toronto are a club with a track record of big spending.
This winter should be good. With Bradley in and the Insigne reports on fire, it already is.
First, the outs:
- Jozy Altidore seems set to depart, likely as a buyout.
- Yeferson Soteldo is reportedly on his way out as well, with a return to Brazil seeming likely.
- Center back Omar Gonzalez is already gone, left back Justin Morrow retired and a further 10 players were either out of contract or had their option declined.
- Rising homegrown and Canadian national team striker Ayo Akinola is among those out of contract.
- 17-year-old Canadian wonderkid Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty trained with Liverpool and Arsenal this offseason, with the possibility for offers to come this winter from clubs interested (he can't transfer until at least the summer when he turns 18).
The potential for incomings:
- The Insigne offer and interest are real. He's out of contract with Napoli in the summer and turns 31 in June. He remains a constant with Italy's national team as they won the Euros last summer and look to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. The latest reports say a deal with Toronto and Insigine has been agreed and he'll join in the summer. Huge, huge move.
- If Soteldo leaves, Toronto would have another DP spot open. The club have spent big in acquisition costs on DP spots in the past, like Alejandro Pozuelo ($11 million), Soteldo ($6 million), Michael Bradley ($10 million) and Jermaine Defoe ($10 million).
- Theoretically, they could either sign a Young DP or keep that third spot open to utilize three U22 Initiative slots.
Bob Bradley also has a great reputation for development. When preseason opens, we'll see which youngsters are benefitting early from his coaching, plus how he plans to best use his son and club captain Michael Bradley.
New owner, new general manager and (soon-to-be) new head coach. There are three open DP spots and big promises coming from the club since the ownership change in the summer. It's a big offseason in Houston.
Houston's coaching vacancy remains open, with The Athletic reporting former Mexico youth international head coach Jaime Lozano is among the candidates. Where their coaching search lands will provide a window into what to expect from the remainder of Houston's offseason, by way of player profiles and likely tactical identity.
As for the players, Houston have a clean slate on the DP front. New managing owner Ted Segal has noted that the sporting department will have "ample" resources to improve the team. New GM Pat Onstad has been in Mexico scouting potential targets and, as such, the Dynamo have been linked with several big-money moves with Liga MX players. We'll see what ends up being real and what ends up being fake.
Houston have a pretty solid defensive core. Tim Parker and Teenage Hadebe are likely the tandem in central defense, goalkeeper Steve Clark was signed as a free agent, while Matias Vera is among the league's underrated defensive midfielders. Add a couple of attacking DPs to the likes of Fafa Picault, Corey Baird and Darwin Quintero? Things could get better quickly with the right moves.
Update, Dec. 30: MLSsoccer.com can confirm multiple reports that Paulo Nagamura will become Houston's next head coach. He spent the last few years as head coach of Sporting KC II. So one domino has fallen; What's next on the player front?
A lot written in the Houston section applies here: Orlando are under new ownership and look to have three open DP spots, depending on where re-signed attacking midfielder Mauricio Pereyra is come roster compliance day. That's very exciting.
They differ from the Dynamo's situation in that they already have a highly-respected MLS head coach in Oscar Pareja as well as a strong foundation in the squad, finishing above the playoff line in 2021 (tied on points for fourth, though finishing sixth on tiebreakers). They didn't get much out of DPs Nani and Pereyra down the stretch, either. Nani has departed and Pereyra is returning on a one-year deal.
With the spending power in new ownership, Orlando could be set for a big step forward. Their center-back tandem of Antonio Carlos and Robin Jansson is among the top in the league, while Junior Urso, Sebastian Mendez and Andres Perea form a very strong central midfield trio.
Expect the DPs to be of the attacking variety.
The reigning champs have some work to do this winter.
Taty Castellanos and James Sands will almost certainly depart NYCFC in the coming weeks, leaving two gigantic holes to fill. Castellanos was the 2021 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner, while Sands has been a plug-and-play starter at either DM or CB for the last few years. Unlike a forward such as Castellanos, it's not always so obvious to see what they'll be missing in Sands. But he may well be just as hard to replace (and impossible to replace for the same value) as a homegrown signing in the USMNT player pool who's as calm and reliable as a veteran.
Seeing where Castellanos and Sands end up (and for how much) will be part of the intrigue around this club. Then, it's about how NYCFC will replace them.
In attack they've got Talles Magno, who was acquired for a reported $8 million last spring and is a Brazilian youth international. With an injury, some adjustment period and slotting behind several key players in attack, he didn't show his true form last season – but the 19-year-old should have every chance to do so in 2022. There's also Thiago Andrade, another livewire winger, as well as Santiago Rodriguez, who earned a starting role down the stretch and should have an elevated importance with Jesus Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi gone.
None of those three players are natural center forwards, though. Heber is on the squad and a viable option, but with an open DP spot and a bunch of allocation money, there's room for more. This team hasn't been shy to spend big when they see fit, with Magno's reported $8 million fee just north of the reported $7 million they spent to acquire Alexandru Mitrita.
There's also the future of 34-year-old attacking midfielder Maxi Moralez, who is currently out of contract. And they would prefer to solve these problems as soon as possible with the 2022 Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 looming in mid-February, with more meaningful games at the front end of the year than last season, when they knew they could be patient and wait out deals for Magno, Andrade and Rodriguez, all of whom arrived between April and June.
LAFC are officially in a new era.
Of the matchday squad from their inaugural match in 2018, only Carlos Vela and Latif Blessing remain. Of their record-setting 2019 core, only those two plus Eddie Segura remains. (Brian Rodriguez was acquired during that season and made just five starts, while Diego Palacios played just twice after signing in the summer as well.)
Bob Bradley is now in Toronto. Diego Rossi is on loan at Fenerbahce. Walker Zimmerman is in Nashville, where he's become a back-to-back MLS Defender of the Year. Eduard Atuesta was just transferred to Brazil's Palmeiras. Mark-Anthony Kaye and Steven Beitashour are in Colorado. Tyler Miller is in Minnesota. This was just two years ago!
LAFC have a head coaching vacancy, which they are reportedly looking toward South America to fill. They have one open DP spot with Rossi gone and potentially two if Rodriguez leaves. There's a bunch of allocation money from recent moves as well as academy talent coming-of-age and likely to earn first-team minutes in 2022.
This is a transformational offseason for the Black & Gold.