MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Are big-money allocation trades worth it? Here's what recent history says

Mark-Anthony Kaye LAFC cele

The Colorado Rapids have long been active in the trade market for proven MLS talent, be it young or old – and they just made their most expensive move yet.

Colorado acquired Canadian international midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye from LAFC in a blockbuster trade on Tuesday for $1 million General Allocation Money, a 2022 international roster spot and further performance-based incentives. Kaye, a 26-year-old All-Star, is a big coup for the club.

It's not the first time they've been involved in a deal like this, as they've held a clear strategy in finding deals in the trade market. Kellyn Acosta, Auston Trusty, Keegan Rosenberry, Lalas Abubakar, Diego Rubio and Andre Shinyashiki (Colorado acquired the No. 5 pick in the 2019 SuperDraft to select him) are all key players on the current roster who were acquired via trades. They even had to send Toronto FC some GAM for the rights to appoint Robin Fraser as head coach.

While Kaye's performances will determine the verdict for this specific deal, big trades for proven MLS talent seem to largely be a good investment in recent seasons, particularly for non-attackers. It may be difficult to define "big," but for the sake of this story, a value of at least $650,000 xAM is the bar.

I don't want FC Cincinnati to catch a stray here, so let's not dive too deeply into why we're going to look past their expansion offseason, which involved its shortcomings. That removes trades for Fanendo Adi ($850,000 xAM), Kendall Waston ($750,000 xAM), Greg Garza ($450,000 xAM) and Nick Hagglund ($300,000 xAM + No. 1 spot in Allocation Order, valued roughly around $350,000 xAM) from the pool of examples.

Best practices since 2019

Below are some notable trades within MLS that meet or exceed the $650,000 xAM bar.

Clubs (season)
Walker Zimmerman (D)
LAFC to Nashville (2020)
$900k GAM (+ $350k incentives), int'l roster spot
Anibal Godoy (M)
San Jose to Nashville (2020)
$650k GAM
Auston Trusty (D)
Philadelphia to Colorado (2019)
$600k xAM (+ $150k GAM incentives)
Lalas Abubakar (D)
Columbus to Colorado (2019)
$400k GAM, int'l roster spot
Ike Opara (D)
Sporting KC to Minnesota (2019)
$1m TAM
Djordje Mihailovic (M)
Chicago to Montréal (2021)
$800k GAM (+ $200k GAM incentives)
Alex Ring (M)
NYCFC to Austin (2021)
$750k GAM (+ $500k GAM incentives)
Darlington Nagbe (M)
Atlanta to Columbus (2020)
$1.05 xAM (+ incentives), int'l roster spot
Tim Parker (D)
RBNY to Houston (2021)
$450k GAM (+ $600k GAM incentives)

Fueled in part by expansion-boosted GAM, Nashville SC have fared really well in the trade market, both with big and small investments. Walker Zimmerman was their crown jewel, stepping in to lead a historic defense for a first-year club while being named MLS Defender of the Year. Anibal Godoy proved a perfect midfield partner for Dax McCarty, who was acquired for just $100,000 xAM. Alistair Johnston and Alex Muyl similarly didn't qualify for the big-trade threshold, but proved to be shrewd investments.

Colorado also have numerous examples to point to, mining the trade market and finding deals for a number of key players. Trusty, who didn't quite live up to his ability in 2020, has been among MLS' best defenders in 2021. Abubakar has impressed as he enters his third season with Colorado (with the first being on loan). They hope Kaye will fall under "best practices" before long, and he's their most opulent acquisition in the trade market to date.

Darlington Nagbe just keeps winning wherever he goes. The Columbus Crew traded for the veteran midfielder and he was a key cog in their MLS Cup 2020 victory, though he was unavailable to compete in the final. Still, just yet another trophy for Nagbe.

Ike Opara hasn't played an MLS match since pre-pandemic times, but even if he doesn't play another game for Minnesota United (which seems likely), he won Defender of the Year in 2019 and helped pioneer their change from bottom dwellers to Western Conference threat.

Alex Ring – Corey Baird

Perhaps it's a bit early, but Austin FC's trade for Alex Ring this winter at $750,000 GAM (with incentives, that could rise an additional $500,000 GAM) seems to have been money well-spent. Ditto for CF Montréal's acquisition of Djordje Mihailovic, who's thriving in a new market with new responsibilities. Teammate Mason Toye is also enjoying a strong 2021 after struggling to find his feet immediately upon his trade from Minnesota to the Canadian club in 2020.

Early returns on midfielder Frankie Amaya leaving FC Cincinnati have been promising at times, but it's a bit too early to chalk this one up as a win for the New York Red Bulls as he cycles out of their starting XI here and there. We need a bigger sample size for LAFC's acquisition of Corey Baird from Real Salt Lake, too, before ruling one way or the other. Last year didn't go great for Julian Gressel (D.C. United sent Atlanta United $750,000 TAM + potentially another $350,000 in incentives), but it didn't go great for most players at the club. This year has been much better, and Gressel seems to be on the Trusty trajectory of justifying the outlay before long.

Early TAM era? Not great ROI

In the years following the introduction of Targeted Allocation Money, teams were figuring out how to most efficiently make use of the new salary cap mechanism. There were quite a few big-(allocation)-money trades that didn't provide a strong return on investment.

Here are some prominent ones.

Clubs (season)
David Accam (F)
Chicago to Philadelphia (2018)
$1.2m xAM
Justin Meram (F)
Columbus to Orlando (2018)
$1.05m xAM
Dom Dwyer (F)
Sporting KC to Orlando (2017)
$900k xAM (+ $700k xAM incentives)
Fanendo Adi (F)
Portland to Cincinnati (2018)
$850k xAM (+ $100k xAM incentives)
Christian Ramirez (F)
Minnesota to LAFC (2018)
$800k xAM (+ $200k xAM incentives)
Kendall Waston (D)
Vancouver to Cincinnati (2018)
$750k xAM and int'l roster spot

FC Cincinnati's missteps were already highlighted above, while Orlando and Philadelphia both took a few big swings that didn't get over the fence. Dom Dwyer had only 24 goals in 67 games for Orlando before an injury derailed his time in Florida, while Justin Meram had just one goal and three assists in 17 games for the club. Christian Ramirez, who's now playing in Scotland, never quite fully took over as starting center forward under Bob Bradley for LAFC.

There were, of course, exceptions that support the viability of this strategy when used correctly.

During that time, Nagbe's trade from the Portland Timbers to Atlanta United was the notable exception. He was acquired for more than $1 million in xAM, led the team to MLS Cup in 2018, then the US Open Cup and Campeones Cup in 2019 before being traded to Columbus for a similar outlay. Two seasons, three trophies and allocation money restored in a future move. Atlanta are still working to replace his impact.

Parker joined the Red Bulls for $500,000 xAM from Vancouver, and Felipe also worked well for RBNY. Parker was an integral member of their Shield-winning side in 2018, as driven by the defense, before being traded this winter to Houston for a potential profit. Zimmerman's first trade to an expansion team, for $500,000 xAM + the Allocation Order's No. 1 spot, was a great investment for LAFC.

Darlington Nagbe

Key takeaway

There's no definitive way to excel in MLS, nor is there one singular way. But investing allocation money in the right MLS-proven players seems to have a decent recent track record. For teams that generate allocation money from transfers abroad or trades within the league (for players or assets alike), it makes it all the more palatable to siphon some for trades. Colorado know they're set to get a boost of GAM from the impending sale of left back Sam Vines to Belgium's Royal Antwerp, for instance.

Teams achieve success with balance across their budgets and in their roster. The Crew won last year's MLS Cup with a high-end DP (Lucas Zelarayan), a high-priced trade (Darlington Nagbe) and a roster lined with veterans (Gyasi Zardes, Jonathan Mensah), as well as youngsters (MLS Cup breakout star Aidan Morris, Milton Valenzuela).

The bottom line for all the different avenues? Finding the right player to invest in, however they may come around.