6 MLS clubs that need to sign players: Winter transfer window

This winter, several MLS clubs have acquired key players at a breakneck pace: D.C. United, Houston Dynamo FC and Orlando City SC stand out in this regard (expansion side St. Louis CITY SC do by necessity).

But some clubs have remained somewhat quiet and have key roster holes to fill. Time is ticking, too, with Matchday 1 five-plus weeks away.

Can they get deals over the line before games return on Feb. 25? Will moves get done, of the domestic or international variety? What about the game-changing Designated Players fans clamor for?

Here are six clubs that face pressure to complete transfer business, including some of the highest-profile homes MLS has to offer.

  • Key incomings: Derrick Etienne Jr.
  • Key outgoings: Josef Martinez (soon), Alan Franco, Marcelino Moreno, George Campbell, Emerson Hyndman

Garth Lagerwey is in town as president and CEO after running GM circles around the league (at Real Salt Lake and then Seattle) for about 15 years. With that, Atlanta’s transfer strategy seems to be shifting as the MLS Cup 2018 champions still chase a return to the mountaintop they reached so quickly, so lavishly when joining the league a half-dozen years ago.

Let’s not bury the lede, though: Atlanta are about to have an open DP spot as club legend and all-time leading scorer Josef Martinez decamps, reportedly via a buyout that’ll allow him to join Inter Miami CF. ATLUTD probably need to sign two strikers to complement (purposeful emphasis here) fellow DPs Thiago Almada and Luiz Araujo, bringing goals and flair to the club.

Elsewhere, Atlanta could probably use another center back (starting level or key depth) as Miles Robinson recovers from his long-term Achilles injury. Maybe they win the Alex Callens sweepstakes or sign a player of that caliber. Another attack-minded midfielder wouldn’t hurt either.

With some big contracts off the books, and some senior roster spots and cash to work with, let’s see what Atlanta have in store.

  • Key incomings: Aaron Long, Stipe Buik
  • Key outgoings: Gareth Bale, Latif Blessing, Sebas Méndez, Sebastien Ibeagha, Franco Escobar

LAFC’s midfield depth is paper-thin right now.

Kellyn Acosta, Ilie Sanchez and Jose Cifuentes – their three starters from last year’s MLS Cup-Supporters’ Shield double-winning group – remain, but there’s no guarantee that’s long-term. Cifuentes, who represented Ecuador at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, faces transfer interest from Europe. If he leaves, he’d join key depth pieces Latif Blessing (trade to New England Revolution) and Sebas Méndez (free to Brazil’s São Paulo) as departures. LAFC also have Francisco Ginella on loan through the summer at Uruguay’s Nacional.

Now, there’s no reason to doubt what co-president/GM John Thorrington and LAFC’s scouting department has in the works. They’ve moved extremely quickly (and ably) during recent transfer windows, already bringing in key difference-makers like Long (USMNT center back) and Biuk (U22 Initiative winger; rising Croatian international) this winter. The Black & Gold also aren’t afraid to spend.

A couple more notes, further showing how challenging it can be to maintain title-winning rosters:

  • Key incomings: Chris Mavinga, Memo Rodríguez
  • Key outgoings: Kévin Cabral, Derrick Williams, Víctor Vázquez, Sacha Kljestan

LA’s list of outgoing wingers may stand at 2-3 players when all is said and done this winter. Cabral was traded to the Colorado Rapids, it sounds like Samuel Grandsir might return to France for personal reasons, and Douglas Costa has been linked with a move back to Brazil’s Gremio as they return to the top flight.

That translates into certainly one DP (Cabral), likely a Targeted Allocation Money (TAM)-level player (Grandsir), and possibly another DP (Costa) all leaving Carson. It’s a key area LA must address, particularly with head coach Greg Vanney seeming adamant his preferred formation/playing style means it’s one striker – Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez or Dejan Joveljic – out there, not two.

As the Galaxy search for wingers, the key context is they face transfer sanctions stemming from their 2019 acquisition of Cristian Pavón. The simple version is they can’t sign players from abroad during the summer, so those types of deals must get finalized before the Primary Transfer Window concludes in the months ahead. LA can still complete intra-MLS moves during the summer window, but there are inherently fewer options when limited to your 28 league counterparts vs. the entire soccer-playing world (to make an obvious point).

For other areas of need, LA could use a creative midfielder after Sacha Kljestan (retirement) and Victor Vazquez (Re-Entry Draft to Toronto) both left. Their center back depth seems set as US youth international Jalen Neal steps into a bigger role.

  • Key incomings: Aaron Herrera, George Campbell
  • Key outgoings: Ismaël Koné, Alistair Johnston, Djordje Mihailovic

The biggest change in Montréal is arguably on the coaching front, after Wilfried Nancy left to lead the Columbus Crew and ex-D.C. United boss Hernan Losada shipped north for his second MLS managerial gig. We highlight that first because the prevailing logic is Nancy, during his two years in charge of CFMTL, “coached up” the group – crescendoing with their best-ever MLS campaign in 2022 (second in Eastern Conference, two points off Supporters’ Shield pace). Can Losada maintain forward momentum as he gets settled in?

On the playing front, three key players – Kone (to Watford FC), Johnston (to Celtic FC) and Mihailovic (AZ Alkmaar) – are out for a reported combined ~$18-19 million in transfer fees. New England showed in 2022 how hard it can be for MLS teams to sell and keep performing at levels that caused European teams to come shopping in the first place. It’s an open-ended question as to how Montréal solve that puzzle, and there may be further departures with striker Kei Kamara asking for a trade and lukewarm transfer rumors following defenders Kamal Miller and Joel Waterman.

That’s a long-winded way of saying this: Montréal, who commendably seem ready to give some academy products a bigger role, would still benefit from bringing in more ready-made players. Trades for Herrera (from RSL) and Campbell (from Atlanta) are good first steps on that front, but additional reinforcements feel needed.

Also: Montréal appear to have two open DP spots. They ultimately brought back midfield general Victor Wanyama after their captain looked set to exit, so that’s one DP spot checked off. But if ownership wants to spend, they have the wiggle room to do so. Historically, Montréal haven’t taken that path.

  • Key incomings: N/A
  • Key outgoings: Maxi Moralez, Anton Tinnerholm, Santi Rodriguez, Héber, Nicolás Acevedo

That first bullet point says it all, doesn’t it? NYCFC have been eerily quiet this offseason (at least on the incoming front).

Fans have an understandable level of concern when seeing how many key pieces from their MLS Cup 2021-winning team have left via one means or another. That above list doesn’t even count goalkeeper Sean Johnson and center back Alexander Callens, who are both free agents and can sign elsewhere within MLS or overseas. If Johnson and Callens leave, just three starters and two substitutes would remain from the matchday squad that brought NYCFC their first-ever trophy – only 13-ish months ago.

Now, NYCFC haven’t been entirely silent heading into head coach Nick Cushing’s first full year in charge. Tony Alfaro (free agency) offers center back depth and young Slovenian right back Mitja Ilenič has joined as well. They need a lot more than that, though, and especially key pieces up the spine (GK, CB, No. 10, striker, etc.).

The Cityzens, the most successful MLS team (points-wise) since 2016, have access to the City Football Group scouting system. They’re also known for late signings and doing so under the radar – yet there’s clear urgency for sporting director David Lee to enhance the roster and maintain the championship level that’s expected in the Bronx (and Queens in a few years!).

  • Key incomings: Matt Hedges, Adama Diomande, Víctor Vázquez
  • Key outgoings: Domenico Criscito, Chris Mavinga, Alex Bono, Quentin Westberg

We probably should have listed Jonathan Osorio up there, since the club’s all-time appearance leader is back after exploring free agency. But Toronto’s central midfield depth still leaves some to be desired, especially behind Michael Bradley in the No. 6 role. As reliable as the 35-year-old captain continues to be, it’d be asking a lot, physically speaking, for him to again approach ironman territory (Bradley played all but 10 regular-season minutes in 2022).

That’s one example of the ongoing rebuild head coach/sporting director Bob Bradley has overseen the last few transfer windows, trying to bring the MLS Cup 2017 champions back to their glory days. And there have been some experience-rich additions thus far, securing a starting-caliber center back (Hedges), No. 9 competition (Diomande) and a club legend’s return (Vázquez).

Toronto’s business isn’t completed, though. They’ve publicly stated they need a goalkeeper, left back and center back… all to further enhance a defensive group that bled goals in 2022, their 66 goals against standing as the third-highest total in MLS.

One more: Toronto have an open DP spot to use alongside Italian international forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. They’re keeping the desired position and profile close to the chest, but have stated it won’t be of a financial outlay/profile similar to when they formally added the ex-Serie A stars last summer. The Reds are seldom afraid to swing big, it should be stressed.

Also tracking…

Designated Player openings

• Chicago Fire FC: With U22 Initiative striker Jhon Duran heading to Aston Villa in the English Premier League, does Chicago swing for the fences (at striker, specifically) with their open DP spot? Club owner Joe Mansueto has shown a willingness to spend, shelling out a $7.5 million transfer fee to land midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri from Ligue 1’s Lyon last winter.

• FC Dallas: Last week, news surfaced striker Franco Jara has returned to his native Argentina after mutually parting ways with FCD. They likely won’t want to break up that front three of Paul Arriola and Young DPs Jesus Ferreira and Alan Velasco. But a DP defensive midfielder or center back? That might make sense.

• Vancouver Whitecaps FC: Vancouver didn’t retain Canadian international and leading scorer Lucas Cavallini this offseason, opening up a DP spot. Whether it’s now or in the summer, looking at their roster makeup, the Whitecaps getting a DP striker makes the most sense. If that theoretical signing is in the Ryan Gauld/Andres Cubas mold (their DP midfielders), then they’ll be golden.

New coaches

• Columbus Crew: The Crew, who seem set to soon bring striker Christian Ramirez back to MLS, have made just two signings so far (veteran wingback Jimmy Medranda chief among them). They’ve also lost three key starters from last year’s group that missed the playoffs (Artur, Pedro Santos, Derrick Etienne Jr.). As new head coach Wilfried Nancy gets settled in, it’s fair to expect movement on transfer targets.

• San Jose Earthquakes: Luchi Gonzalez is back coaching in MLS, trying to return San Jose to playoff contention. But there’s been little key roster movement so far this winter, aside from re-signing midfielder Judson. As Luchi assesses the squad first-hand and identifies needs, surely there’ll be some additions in the weeks ahead.