Let it be said, loud and clear: The first-ever free agency signing in MLS history was a damn good one. Sporting KC badly needed speed and creativity on the flank, and they went out and addressed that need with the signing of now ex-Montreal winger Justin Mapp.
Mapp, a 31-year-old who's been in MLS since 2002 (!!!), is a classic winger. He's not a converted playmaker like Graham Zusi or a goal-scoring wide attacker like Krisztian Nemeth. He is a guy who stretches the field both vertically and horizontally, can whip a cross in with either foot, and will murder most fullbacks who get stranded on an island and asked to deal with him 1-v-1:
Sporting were missing all of that last year, especially as they moved to a tactical scheme that had them sitting deeper. In Benny Feilhaber they have one of the league's great through-ball artists, so naturally Peter Vermes's goal in attack was to try to pull the opposing defense up higher and open up space in behind.
It worked well enough -- Sporting won a US Open Cup and came within a fraction of an inch of knocking the Portland Timbers out of the playoffs, but neither Zusi nor Nemeth put relentless north-south pressure on the opposition. Jacob Peterson, the third man in the winger rotation, often does, but he lacks Mapp's ability to connect the final pass.
So this is problem No. 1 solved for Sporting, provided Mapp is healthy and available for about 2000 minutes across all competitions (there's a natural worry about that, given the boatload of time he missed in 2015 with arm and foot injuries). Problems No. 2 and 3 are the need for serious depth at d-mid and center back, and figuring out a way to be better defensively on set pieces.
The other big issue? Some goal-scoring depth and a backup No. 9 who can give Dom Dwyer the occasional rest. I'm going to assume Robb Heineman wasn't bluffing with this:
Magee would be a bigger injury risk than Mapp, and he's much more of a second forward than a target forward who does all the dirty work. If they pick him up they'd be getting half their answer -- Mike Magee scores goals, right? That's a valuable commodity.
But they'll have to make sure they save some cap room for a big, strong No. 9 as well. There were times this past year when Sporting were reduced to lumping it into the box on repeat, and nobody was there to win the first ball. Addressing that remains paramount.
Portland Wheel And Deal
If you've just won an MLS Cup you probably don't have all that much to worry about in rearranging the roster. That is in fact the case for the Timbers, who very much understand their identity comes from their spine -- the central defense, the new-look central midfield, and Fanendo Adi bossing people up top.
Even with that solidity, there have already been three notable moves this offseason from the champs. First they declined to bring back their third center back, Norberto Paparrato. Second they exposed back-up forward Maxi Urruti in the Re-Entry Draft, subsequently losing him to FC Dallas. And third, they sold left back Jorge Villafaña to LigaMX's Santos Laguna for a fee reported to be in the neighborhood of seven figures.
Let's work in reverse order. Losing Villafaña stings on a certain level since he was superb down the stretch and into the playoffs, locking down his side so completely that even Fabian Castillo was rendered ineffective. Fullbacks who defend like that aren't a dime a dozen.
However... the reality is that everybody in the world of soccer has a price. Villafaña gave Portland two good years, and now they've turned a tidy profit on him. That's how business works.
They'll hope to do something similar with Chris Klute, who they immediate acquired from Columbus Crew SC in the aftermath of MLS Cup. Two years ago with Colorado Klute was arguably the best left back in the league, earning himself a national team camp and scads of praise. But he didn't adjust well to the regime change at the start of 2014, losing his starting job, being flipped to right back, and eventually migrating to Ohio to become a fulltime backup.
It's a weird career path for a guy who's just 25 and can do this:
This is a shrewd pick-up from the Timbers. If Caleb Porter can do for Klute what he did for Villafaña, both sides will benefit.
Replacing Urruti probably won't be as easy. The Argentine never became the Inzaghi-esque goal machine he was billed as, but he's a great change-of-pace alternative to Adi and sometime around September of this year realized that he would not die if he passed that round thing at his feet instead of shooting it each and every time he came within a nautical mile of goal.
Perhaps this means Lucas Melano will get more time up top, but I think it's more likely that Portland try to identify another, cheaper fox-in-the-box option, as Melano has proved too valuable as a starting winger. The usual route for the Timbers leads them down to South America, but this is worth noting: their second-round draft pick last season, Kharlton Belmar, was the USL rookie of the year with Timbers 2. He scored 12 goals in 28 games and, like Urruti, is a forward who puts more pressure on defenses off the ball than he does with it.
That leaves central defense, where second-year player Anthony Manning is now the only back-up for the incumbent starters (unless Paparatto returns, which -- as Chris Rifer pointed out on Twitter -- is actually a possibility). He's yet to play an MLS minute, so it'd be a little bit of a shock if he goes into preseason as the presumptive third central defender on the depth chart. They'll go out and get a more expensive replacement.
And they'll have room to do so, since it looks very much like Will Johnson has played his last in Rose City. The cap flexibility his departure would allow is almost certainly not going to be put to use in midfield. Portland are set there, and they know it -- they've got a shiny new Cup to show as much.
Did Dallas Get Their Man?
We don't do salary cap math here, but a little Googling will show you that FC Dallas cleared a giant, honking chunk of space when they declined options on David Texeira and Michel, while letting Blas Perez walk away and seeing Bakary Soumare retire. They're also, according to reports, about to ship Dan Kennedy to the Galaxy for draft picks. It's almost unfair that a team so good suddenly has so much space to play with.
Getting Urruti cuts into a chunk of that, and re-signing Walker Zimmerman (he's no longer on a Generation adidas deal) will take up a bit more, but they've still got a lot of flexibility. That's what happens when you build so much depth from within.
The question I have is whether Pareja brought Urruti in to reprise his Portland role as a super-sub. Is it that, or does Papi see the 24-year-old Argentine as a starter?
I have my doubts about the latter, even if Urruti's per-minute numbers are starting quality. He has 15 goals and 5 assists in just over 2600 career MLS minutes, but there's a reason he's been in-and-out of various lineups for the bulk of his career and there's a reason he's on his third MLS team in three seasons. Urruti finds gaps, but he doesn't do the type of hold-up work that Perez excelled at -- the type that brings guys like Castillo or Michael Barrios into the game, or takes some of the playmaking burden off of Mauro Diaz -- and it remains to be seen whether or not his late-season spurt of creativity was a blip or the start of a trend.
This isn't to say that Urruti hasn't been a useful player; he's clearly been more than that. But he's not been the answer at any of his stops, and it'd be somewhat of a surprise if Dallas saw him as that. They have the room and the TAM to go big on a guy like Kenwyne Jones or Xisco, both of whom are out of contract in June, and they've seen firsthand over the last two postseasons how crucial it is to have an elite goalscorer leading the line.
I'll be writing this round-ups periodically throughout silly season, trying to make sense of who's building what and where. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section below -- I can't promise I'll be around to answer them, but I'll try to address them in future columns.