We’re under three weeks (!!!) from the 2022 MLS season kicking off, but roster-building remains fluid ahead of MLS is Back weekend Feb. 26-27.

My man Matt Doyle is updating his annual roster check-in for all clubs, a fresh look after originally writing the piece a month ago. Eastern Conference dive is out today. Western Conference comes tomorrow.

We figured this would be a good complementary piece: Where do all 28 clubs stand in terms of Designated Player and U22 Initiative flexibility? It features some of my own reporting and understanding, plus Doyle’s expert analysis. East is below, West will come later this week.

We decided to include U22 Initiative players because these players, while not always facing DP-level expectations, come without acquisition costs factored into the cap and play a key role in the cap gymnastics all clubs must perform.

Quick housekeeping: These designations are fluid and still changing. A lot of clubs value flexibility, so there are a lot of players that could be moved on or off DP/U22 Initiative slots ahead of roster compliance day just ahead of the season.

So, don’t take this as chiseled in stone. These things are fungible, pending the contracts. Cap gymnastics is an integral skill to managing MLS rosters.

Off we go.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Josef Martinez
  • Luiz Araujo
  • Thiago Almada

Atlanta seemed to have one too many DPs for several months, as the Thiago Almada saga carried on. Velez Sarsfield announced they had transferred Almada to Atlanta for a new MLS record fee of $16 million, while Atlanta quickly issued a statement saying they had agreed to an exclusive transfer option for Almada.

Their potential problem was solved when Ezequiel Barco officially departed for River Plate on loan, opening a DP spot.

Now that Almada has officially arrived, Atlanta’s DPs are set. The 20-year-old is a rising Argentine star and should complement an attack that already features Josef Martinez, Luiz Araujo and Marcelino Moreno.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Santiago Sosa
  • Franco Ibarra
  • Erik Lopez?

ATLUTD's U22 Initiative situation includes some flexibility.

Almada joins as a Young DP, giving Atlanta the ability to have three U22 Initiative players, which should leave a spot open.

But that is “should” and not “definitely” because Erik Lopez’s move to Banfield fell through, meaning he currently has the third U22 Initiative tag. The Five Stripes are still looking for a solution on that front that would see Lopez depart and another U22 Initiative slot open.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

The Almada deal is done. Though when we had Gonzalo Pineda on last Thursday’s Extratime, he was talking about the youngster as if he was part of the team already.

But if I was running Atlanta United, would I consider being devious enough to back out of the Almada deal at the last minute then ask Uncle Arthur for a check big enough to give Newcastle United and Miguel Almiron an offer they can’t refuse to send Miggy back home?

Maybe.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Karol Swiderski
  • Jordy Alcivar

Charlotte have a handful of key signings still to make, with just their front line in flux for Miguel Angel Ramirez’s 4-3-3 formation.

The midfield is set, the defensive unit is set. Recently acquired DP Karol Swiderski is the center forward, with U22 Initiative signing Vinicius Mello the backup.

It looks very likely the next DP will be a winger, with the latest reports linking Venezuela and Granada's Darwin Machis with a move to Charlotte. At the time of writing, sources are confident that the deal gets done, but it’s not 100% official yet. Assuming it does, they still have flexibility.

UPDATE (Feb 10) – Machis will not be joining Charlotte. Sources told MLSsoccer.com that despite the $6 million deal being agreed upon and a medical completed, the deal fell through amid a reported ongoing legal case involving Machis in Spain that remains unresolved.

Jordy Alcivar is currently occupying a Young DP spot, but sporting director Zoran Krneta said he could be bought down depending on the club’s signings (and the timeline of those signings). So there’d still be room for another DP if they want.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Vinicius Mello

They also have two more U22 Initiative slots open, meaning they have room for three high-leverage additions if and when Machis gets done. I wouldn’t expect all three DP/U22 Initiative players to arrive by opening day – Krneta has always spoken about the importance of flexibility, so holding some of those assets for the summer would be the expectation – but they should stand to add a few more.

Outside of DPs/U22 Initiative, the roster seems largely complete. But we won’t know the full picture before the top-end rounds out.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

The key now is patience and rigorous assessment of what they’ve already got in-house (assuming the Machis deal gets done). Areas of perceived strength can turn into significant weaknesses once the ball is kicked in anger, and it’d be useful to have some roster flexibility come the summer window to address any sudden needs.

So I don’t think they should do anything else for now.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Xherdan Shaqiri
  • Gaston Gimenez

The Chicago Fire are again entering a new era, and for the first time under owner Joe Mansueto, they’ve got a superstar leading the way.

As first reported by MLSsoccer.com, the Fire have signed Swiss international Xherdan Shaqiri for $7.5 million from Ligue 1's Lyon. The former Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Stoke City attacker is still just 30 years old and a constant starter for his country, which has already qualified for the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

It’s a huge signing.

They also have a new head coach in Ezra Hendrickson, with the club using all of the budget/roster space freed up to start the offseason. The Fire opened two DP spots, moving on from Robert Beric and Ignacio Aliseda, though the bigger surprise is that they didn’t open three DP spots (instead retained Gaston Gimenez). In addition to Shaqiri, Chicago have brought in the likes of striker Kacper Przybylko and center back Rafael Czichos.

From what I’ve heard, Chicago are still aiming to add a Young DP (which would preserve the use of all three U22 Initiative slots) for that third slot. They could add another U22 Initiative player, too.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Federico Navarro
  • Jhon Duran

Chicago have plenty of young talent both domestically (homegrown product Gabriel Slonina headlines that), plus U22 Initiative signings Federico Navarro and Jhon Duran. Navarro joined in the summer and, with Chicago out of the playoff race, fans may not have been paying attention to how promising his first few months in MLS were. Duran, meanwhile, is a huge talent. The Fire agreed on a deal for him last winter to take effect on his 18th birthday (per FIFA's rules) and he was already named to The Guardian's annual list of top talents.

There still could yet be a third U22 Initiative spot filled.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

Shaqiri is, in theory, an ideal fit either as an inverted right winger (his natural position) or a sort of right-sided No. 10 underneath Przybylko or Duran (which is how I think he’ll be used). Can they keep him healthy for more than 1500 minutes? I genuinely don’t know, but if they do, I wouldn’t be shocked if he put together a Best XI-level campaign.

Anyway, whether Shaqiri plays on the wing or inside, what’s missing from this team is a pure stretch-the-field winger. Chicago could badly use a Jordan Morris-type out there.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Luciano Acosta
  • Brenner
  • Yuya Kubo

New general manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan inherited a Cincy roster that offered little by way of flexibility, particularly at the top end.

All three DP spots are filled, ditto for all three U22 Initiative slots. At the time of writing, none of those players have been bought down or moved on.

It may be possible for Yuya Kubo to be bought down, but there hasn’t been much dialog on that front nor have Cincy been linked with any DP-type signings this winter that would imply an opening is coming.

For whenever there is some flexibility, Albright has already spoken of his excitement to work under Cincy’s lavish budget. They already spent a reported $13 million to sign Brenner while previously having a $10 million purchase option for Jurgen Locadia that they would have had no problem triggering if the loan worked out. So keep an eye on this space.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Issac Atanga
  • Gustavo Vallecilla
  • Alvaro Barreal

Cincy have been (still are?) in the market for another U22 Initiative addition, but one of their current trio would have to leave. Vallecilla’s purchase option was just triggered, so it won’t be him. Atanga seems to be in Noonan's plans, while Barreal has been here the longest, and theoretically the most likely to leave in that event.

But they can't add without a departure in this space.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

They need good midfielders via whatever acquisition method they can come up with – DP, U22, SuperDraft, etc.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Lucas Zelarayan
  • Darlington Nagbe
  • Gyasi Zardes

The nucleus of Columbus’ 2020 MLS Cup-winning team featured their three DPs in key roles, and all remain with the club heading into 2022. It’s a winning combination, three players who complement each other quite well.

Zardes is below max-TAM, meaning Columbus could add another two U22 Initiative signings alongside Alexandru Matan. Or they could potentially buy Zardes down and sign another DP, given they’re only currently using one U22 Initiative slot here.

Pretty straightforward for the Crew heading into 2022, though.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Alexandru Matan

With Zardes measuring below the max TAM charge, Columbus could fill another two U22 Initiative slots if they so desire. Romanian youth international Alexandru Matan remains their lone U22 Initiative player at the moment.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

Trade Gyasi for a giant GAM haul – Minnesota? Colorado? – and give Miguel Berry, who’s maybe the highest-upside young(ish) 9 in the league, the conch. It’s ruthless, but it’s the type of move the Red Bulls would’ve made during the Jesse Marsch years, and moving veterans a year too soon rather than a year too late is a good policy.

In this case the Crew would get younger up top, get a massive amount of financial flexibility both via cap space and acquired GAM, and would have a no-strings-attached DP slot open to get a midfield ball-winner next to Nagbe in case Artur just can’t ever get back to his pre-injury form.

They’d have to find some depth behind Berry, but I’m of the opinion that there’s a number of undervalued center forwards out there kicking out at the bottom of certain rosters.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Edison Flores
  • Taxi Fountas

D.C. United’s offseason started a bit slow, but man did it kick into high gear over the last month.

A saga regarding the future of USMNT winger Paul Arriola, who was one of their DPs, evolved and ended with FC Dallas sending a league-record $2 million GAM up-front for the attacker. Then Wolfsburg agreed to a $7.35 million deal to acquire D.C. homegrown wingback Kevin Paredes and United acted fast on a replacement, acquiring Brad Smith from Seattle in a trade.

Along the way, D.C. signed Greek international attacker Taxi Fountas on a pre-contract agreement for the summer. But there are some reports that pending how Rapid Vienna’s Europa Conference League knockouts go, he could join earlier.

United are also linked with Ecuador international forward Michael Estrada, who is set to arrive on loan with a purchase option from Liga MX's Toluca. He could even be added to the roster this winter on a TAM deal (then if the transfer option is exercised, he’d be a DP next year).

For the moment they have an open DP spot and up to three open U22 Initiative spots (pending if the third DP is a Young DP or under max-TAM). Got all that?

Head coach Hernan Losada did ask publicly for big additions. Here they are!

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • N/A

Nothin'! Nada! Nilch! Zip!

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

Reports, rumors and whispers have had them shopping Ola Kamara all offseason. If they do end up moving last year’s Golden Boot runner-up, then the obvious play with their open DP slot would be to replace him with a DP No. 9.

Wouldn’t hate seeing D.C. spend one of those U22 slots on an under-the-radar No. 10 as well, given the issues Edison Flores has had staying healthy.

Do I have to talk about the Carlos Tevez report? I do? Ok, here’s what I’ll say: If they can get him in town for like $300k/yr to play the Ilsinho role – an off-the-bench attacking game-changer – it’s worth a shot. If, however, they are giving him a max contract, or expecting him to start, or god forbid are planning to make him a DP… just what the hell, man. Dude’s 38.

Regardless, something tells me the guy who spent a couple years in China at a reported $41 million per isn’t interested in coming to MLS on a cap-friendly deal. This is the weirdest transfer tracker hit of the window in MLS.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Gonzalo Higuain
  • Rodolfo Pizarro*

Due to the DP rules, Rodolfo Pizarro technically still counts as a DP for Miami despite the fact that he currently does not play for Miami, as he's on loan at Liga MX's CF Monterrey. There was no loan fee provided by Monterrey, which plays into why he still counts as a DP (but Miami get to absolve his contract hit from the budget). It's all very confusing but the bottom line is Pizarro is still occupying a DP spot.

Gonzalo Higuain has the other and while Miami haven't officially announced a buyout or some sort of formal exit for French midfielder Blaise Matuidi, that is happening too, opening the third spot.

I'd be surprised if Miami add another DP this offseason. A key addition is more likely in the summer. Perhaps they could make Gregore or someone else currently making over the max senior charge occupy a DP spot for half the season to save some cap space, then make their mark in the summer.

It's been quite the winter for Chris Henderson and the front office. By roster compliance day, the Herons will have moved on from Pizarro, Matuidi, Nico Figal, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Ryan Shawcross, Christian Makoun, Kelvin Leerdam, Julian Carranza, Lewis Morgan, Federico Higuain and more to completely jumpstart a rebuild, all while dealing with MLS-imposed sanctions.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Leonardo Campana
  • Emerson Rodriguez

Given how cap-friendly U22 Initiative players are on the budget, it makes a lot of sense that sanctions-hit and cap-strapped Miami filled two of their three spots this winter in Campana and Rodriguez. The talented South Americans give Inter further options in attack and both will likely play serious minutes.

Miami could still sign another U22 Initiative player, too.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

If they have the roster flexibility to pull it off, I’d like to see them spend another U22 slot on a young, playmaking winger – the type of guy they thought they were getting when they signed Matias Pellegrini two years ago.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Victor Wanyama

There are a lot of comparisons of late between the Philadelphia Union and Colorado Rapids in terms of roster-building philosophy/budget/ethos. They are the high-ends of that spectrum given the Union won the 2020 Supporters’ Shield and the Rapids topped the Western Conference last year.

Montréal aren’t too dissimilar.

They missed the playoffs last year, but performed above expectations and did so in an aesthetically pleasing, youth-driven way. Their team is quite deep all over the field, but they could jump another step if ownership invests in a Nacho Piatti/Didier Drogba/Saphir Taider-type DP alongside lone DP Victor Wanyama.

Last year, they didn’t fill their two open DP spots. Kiki Struna technically counted as one but he could very easily have been bought down instead. So we’ll see.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Matko Miljevic
  • Sunusi Ibrahim
  • Robert Thorkelsson

They have leaned all the way into the U22 Initiative and have all three spots filled, the latest being Matko Miljevic, a tri-national who has represented the US at the youth levels. His brief minutes at the end of last season were promising.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

Olivier Renard has done so well acquiring talent from within MLS that he hasn’t had to use DP slots in the spot where most teams spend them – in the attack. And I don’t think he should change that policy now.

The question is deeper in midfield, where, for the most part, Montréal only look functional rather than dominant. What would this team look like with a Best XI-caliber No. 8 in there?

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Carles Gil
  • Gustavo Bou
  • Adam Buksa

Plenty went into the Revs’ record-breaking 2021 campaign, but it’s rather easy to point at the top-end of their roster. They knocked their DP signings out of the park. Carles Gil was named MLS MVP, Gustavo Bou joined Gil in the MLS Best XI and Adam Buksa parlayed his success into a role with the Polish national team.

That trio combined for 66 goals and assists (!!!). So, yeah, if and whenever possible, you want to just run that group back.

Buksa has serious interest from abroad but remains through the winter. That’s one to watch in the summer, particularly with Jozy Altidore reportedly on his way to join the Revs. If Buksa stays, New England can use only one U22 Initiative slot because they have three senior DPs all over the max-TAM threshold.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • N/A

Currently no U22 Initiative players for New England.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

Try to win CCL. Sit tight until the summer.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Patryk Klimala

Just one DP for the New York Red Bulls, by way of Patryk Klimala. The Polish forward had eight goals and seven assists in 29 appearances in 2021, his first season in MLS.

It has been a busy offseason for RBNY, though. Winger Lewis Morgan arrived in a big trade from Inter Miami, a handful of homegrowns were signed and Carlos Coronel's loan was made a permanent deal, keeping one of last year's top GKs with the Red Bulls. They are also reportedly bringing Caden Clark back on loan after his transfer to RB Leipzig became official, while Tom Edwards is reported to be returning after a loan from Stoke City last year as well.

No word on whether reported target Luquinhas, a Brazilian attacking midfielder currently at Poland's Legia Warsaw, would be a DP or not.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Andres Reyes
  • Lucas Monzon
  • Dru Yearwood

RBNY have all three U22 Initiative slots taken up, though it's possible they could do some maneuvering to open another up if they so chose. Yearwood was previously a Young DP for the Red Bulls (arriving before the U22 Initiative was in effect).

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

I think they want to switch back to Gerhard Struber’s preferred 4-4-2 set-up this year, and right now the starting striker duo appears to be Klimala and Lewis Morgan, neither of whom have previously looked any sort of threat to win a Golden Boot at any point.

Adding a DP goalscorer and pushing Morgan back into more of an attacking midfield role makes sense to me.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Talles Magno
  • Thiago Martins
  • Maxi Moralez?

There should be a lot of flexibility around NYCFC's DP situation at the moment.

First off, with Talles Magno as a Young DP, the other two spots could be players over max-TAM ($1.62m) and the Cityzens could still use all three U22 Initiative slots, something non-negotiable for their roster build. But it's more than likely the other two spots aren't anywhere near as firm.

Maxi Moralez was re-signed this winter and his contract can be bought down off a DP spot, which was their negotiating stance all offseason before a deal was agreed upon. We'll see for sure if Moralez is a DP or not come roster compliance day and I'd assume he'll be listed as such unless another big signing comes. But he can be moved in the summer if they want to make another signing.

As for Thiago Martins, nothing has been reported yet but defenders are rarely DPs in this league. And when they are, they're almost always able to be bought down with TAM. Atlanta's Alan Franco and Houston's Teenage Hadebe come to mind as two recent examples.

So, having all three DP spots filled does not preclude NYCFC from making a big addition, particularly if reigning Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos departs at some point between now and the end of the summer transfer window (as is expected).

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Thiago Andrade
  • Nicolas Acevedo
  • Santiago Rodriguez

Just as last year, NYCFC keep all three U22 Initiative slots filled. Sporting director David Lee has been direct about the importance of utilizing the mechanism.

​​“That was clear for us, that was going to be the strategy,” Lee told MLSsoccer.com last fall. “There was never any consideration to add two (senior) DPs. We knew we wanted to add three players into this category. We firmly believed it would help long-term building a strong roster this year and years to come.”

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

Now that they’ve addressed their CB depth issue, the job is to try to win CCL. And then sit tight until the summer.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Facundo Torres
  • Ercan Kara
  • Mauricio Pereyra

New ownership took over in the summer and immediately opened new budgets for the front office, which got moving on a deal to acquire Facundo Torres from Penarol.

It took the better part of half a year to get done – EVP and GM Luiz Muzzi said the deal was “dead” multiple times – but they got their man for a reported $7.5 million transfer fee. Torres, a 21-year-old Uruguay international, could be one of the biggest talents in MLS. Orlando sure think so.

“I’d say [Torres is] in the top three most exciting young players not just in Uruguay, but in all of South America," Muzzi told MLSsoccer.com in January. "You have Julian Alvarez from River Plate, who is moving to Manchester City, maybe one or two Brazilians who are showing up well. We’re really excited about Facundo."

The Lions also acquired center forward Ercan Kara for a nominal fee from Rapid Vienna, with Kara’s contract expiring this summer. Kara will eat up the bulk of the minutes left by Daryl Dike, with Torres expected to pick up the burden left by Nani.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Andres Perea
  • Cesar Araujo

They currently have an open U22 Initiative slot, which they intend to fill, since Torres is a Young DP. Andres Perea and Cesar Araujo, a Uruguayan youth international acquired this winter, occupy the other two spots.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

It’s a safe bet that the open U22 slot is going to be spent on another attacker – preferably a young playmaker with upside, as they don’t have a true No. 10 beyond the oft-injured Pereyra on the roster.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Mikael Uhre
  • Jamiro Monteiro
  • Julian Carranza

Don’t look now, but the Union have all three DP spots filled!

Incumbent midfielder Jamiro Monteiro was joined this offseason by forwards Mikael Uhre and Julian Carranza as Philadelphia reload for 2022.

Uhre was acquired from Brondby (the same club Nashville acquired 2021 MLS MVP finalist Hany Mukhtar from). The once-capped Danish international had 24 goals and eight assists in his last 38 league appearances with Brondby, winning the Golden Boot and being named Player of the Year. Not bad.

Carranza was acquired on loan from Inter Miami as a Young DP, a low-risk, buy-low acquisition of a young player who arrived in MLS two years ago for a reported $6 million fee. It’s a very Union deal and they are quite bullish on the fit, given Carranza’s defensive metrics/actions for the Union’s tactical ethos.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYER

  • N/A

At the time of writing, Philadelphia don't yet have a U22 Initiative player. Last year it was unclear if loanee Matheus Davo was applied to the roster as such, but it’s moot now after the Union declined his purchase option.

At some point in the future, they may do what the Galaxy did with Julian Araujo and Efrain Alvarez and use some of those U22 Initiative slots to re-sign burgeoning academy talent to lucrative contract extensions. We’ll see.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

Keep those U22 slots open and shuttle the academy kids into them as they progress into larger on-field roles this year. Sign them to long-term contracts that 1) give the kids financial security, and 2) give the Union more leverage at the negotiating table when European teams come calling.

Ernst Tanner already knows all of this, of course. I’m just explaining to y’all why the above is going to happen.

DESIGNATED PLAYERS

  • Alejandro Pozuelo
  • Carlos Salcedo
  • Lorenzo Insigne

Okay. So not all of this is official yet. Jozy Altidore is still technically on the roster as a DP, but Toronto are nearing a buyout with Altidore, who will then sign with the New England Revolution. Meanwhile, Yeferson Soteldo officially headed to Tigres in what was essentially a swap for Carlos Salcedo. The Mexican international will be a DP for Toronto.

Meanwhile, Italian international winger Lorenzo Insigne will arrive this summer (perhaps you’ve heard!) as a free agent when his Napoli contract expires.

There's a clean slate for head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley.

U22 INITIATIVE PLAYERS

  • Ayo Akinola

Ayo Akinola was re-signed on a U22 Initiative deal after being out of contract in the winter. The Canadian international and homegrown forward had widespread interest domestically and abroad but eventually agreed on a deal to stay with his boyhood club.

Because Toronto’s DP situation is filled with senior players making above the maximum TAM charge (pending Salcedo’s official numbers, at least), they cannot sign another U22 Initiative player.

ARMCHAIR ANALYST: MATT DOYLE'S TAKE

Looks like they’re locked into this group, so I’m not sure any advice here is applicable. I’ll just note that I love the Akinola signing – I think he’s a 20-goal scorer if healthy.