For 10 MLS clubs, the offseason is longer than the rest. For some, their 2019 seasons have been long over, with focus shifting to 2020.
Not all eliminated teams are created equal; every situation is different. This offseason, is it a rebuild or a retooling?
Chicago Fire: Rebuilding
There is a refreshing aura of hope around the Chicago Fire, wafting from the fresh start of new ownership, new (old?) beginnings of returning to Soldier Field plus expected Designated Player flexibility this summer. GM Nelson Rodriguez said in May that all three of their DPs are out of contract this winter and who knows how many, if any, will be on the squad come opening day next season.
The first slot opened on Tuesday when German legend Bastian Schweinsteiger announced his retirement. There will be truckloads of deserving praise coming his way from all angles across multiple continents, so in this space let's focus on the cold, hard roster implications: That sweet, sweet vacant DP spot.
It's a new era in Chicago.
FC Cincinnati: Rebuilding
For a team that had an empty roster, a closet full of TAM as well as other benefits to help offset the inherently difficult expansion process, for FC Cincinnati to already be firmly back in a rebuild by year two, now without the benefit of no bad contracts, is not ideal.
In his first window in charge of Cincy, new GM Gerard Nijkamp didn't particularly have a ton of space to maneuver in. It won't be free movement in the winter, either, but the space should be a little less claustrophobic. The attack needs a major overhaul, as FCC as a team were outscored by Carlos Vela in 2019. By three goals.
Expect plenty of change in Cincy this winter.
The good news? If Fanendo Adi departs as expected, the club will have two vacant DP slots to make big changes to the team. Ron Jans will get a full preseason as head coach of the club. He made immediate defensive improvements to a squad that ultimately conceded more goals than any side in MLS history, as they conceded one goal or fewer in four of their last five games, including three shutouts. Positive steps.
Colorado Rapids: Rebuilding
All rebuilds aren't created equal.
The connotation with rebuild is normally negative — rebuild exudes the sense of failure, that everything needs to change. The Rapids only get slapped with that term here because of how heavily they've targeted 2020, and the open DP slots now waiting to be occupied with Tim Howard retiring and Shkelzen Gashi waived.
How the club choose to fill their DP slots are huge decisions, and given the investment/importance, it cannot be classified as retooling. But the squad as a whole is fine. It's not the foundation; the DPs will finish up the foundation. But the supporting cast is in place.
After a putrid start, they played at a playoff pace from May onward. With a young core of Jonathan Lewis, Diego Rubio, Keegan Rosenberry and Kellyn Acosta, and a number of contributing Homegrowns like Cole Bassett, Sam Vines and Sebastian Anderson, the Rapids are in a good spot.
First up? Figure out how to acquire Lalas Abubakar on a permanent basis. Next? Hit on those DP slots.
Columbus Crew: Retooling
That trio joins the likes of Gyasi Zardes, Pedro Santos, Wil Trapp, Artur, Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela. That's a solid team, barring injuries. This doesn't even include injured Federico Higuain, pending on if he returns, his 2020 health and form.
This winter, it's about accentuating the core and furthering Caleb Porter's ideals. The coach essentially said all that himself... the first part, at least.
“At this stage, I’ve got all the evidence I need to make the decisions that I need to make,” Porter told Jacob Myers of the Columbus Dispatch. “And we made a lot of those in the midseason.”
Houston Dynamo: Rebuilding
On that coaching change, as pointed out by my guy Charlie Boehm, could hinge a foundational shift: Houston counterattacked their way to the playoffs in 2017, then tried to switch to a more proactive, possession-based, system the next two years in which they finished 9th, then 10th in the conference. Will they lean into transition play or double down on possession-based soccer?
The Dynamo have missed the playoffs in five of the last six years now. It's a huge offseason for the club.
Montreal Impact: Rebuilding
Coach Wilmer Cabrera's contract is not guaranteed for 2020 while the loan agreement for Orji Okwonkwo, just named the club's MVP for 2019, is set to expire. Lassi Lappalainen's loan has an option for 2020. The defense conceded the fourth-most goals in MLS this season and is due for a refresh.
Their 2020 starts early with their Concacaf Champions League qualification.
Orlando City SC: Retooling
Nani, Sebas Mendez and Chris Mueller of Orlando City | USA Today Sports Images
Despite the club parting ways with James O'Connor after a season and a half, and promised identify shift incoming, the Orlando roster doesn't need a huge overhaul.
“We have to have a style, right?” EVP Luiz Muzzi told ProSoccerUSA's Julia Poe. “We have to determine a coach and philosophically what we want to be. It doesn’t matter if we’re gonna high press, it doesn’t matter if we’re gonna play 4-3-2-1. You can change things around, but you need to have that identity. I feel like we have a chance to implement that now.”
The rebuild in central Florida happened over the last year, when the club brought in Robin Jansson, Ruan, Sebastian Mendez and Mauricio Pereyra. The defensive foundation was vastly improved from "worst in league history" to "middle of the pack." Can the club's fourth full-time head coach bring OCSC to the playoffs for the first time in club history next year?
San Jose Earthquakes: Retooling
Before looking at anything else: The Matias Almeyda-to-Monterrey CF rumors are most crucial to the club. It's a flat-out rebuild again if Almeyda departs after one enthralling season.
If he stays, it's a retooling. Let's continue under that premise.
Cristian Espinoza was plenty good in his first season in MLS, and scoring two goals on 4.94 expected goals rating, there's room for growth. The club just need to find a way to make his loan from Villarreal a permanent signing. It might take making him a DP.
Outside of that? The club could use a few tweaks here and there, but with a bit more quality and time under Almeyda, the Quakes should feel optimistic about their situation.
Sporting Kansas City: Retooling
Sporting KC's Peter Vermes | USA Today Sports Images
How does one reconcile with the following facts: Sporting KC played some of the season's most aesthetically pleasing soccer in Concacaf Champions League back in February, and through their first few games of the season. Then, they capitulated under a cascade of inexplicable individual errors and mental lapses uncharacteristic of a Peter Vermes-coached side.
It was weird.
Was the near-perfect performance at Toluca under a barrage of Ole!s from the home crowd just fool's gold? Can their ailments truly be pinned to a CCL hangover? Is this a playoff team if Ike Opara isn't traded? Is this a playoff team if their No. 9s collectively contributed league-average goal totals? Is this a playoff team if Daniel Salloi and Gerso don't underperform their xG by a combined -11.68? How many of the above needed to change? Just one?
It's still weird.
Vancouver Whitecaps: Rebuilding
Like Cincinnati, it's not ideal to undergo a rebuild in back-to-back years, but it looks like the Whitecaps are headed for more wholesale changes.
The good news? They have found a defensive core between Maxime Crepeau, Doneil Henry, Derek Corneilus and Ali Adnan, as well as midfielder Hwang In-beom. There are a ton of questions about the attack this winter, though.
Fredy Montero scored a career low (8) in goals while Joaquin Ardaiz didn't score once in 408 minutes. They began the season as two of the club's three DPs. The wingers Vancouver signed this offseason didn't quite work, either, leaving the club bare up top.
It'll be a front-footed focus this winter and it simply cannot be understated just how many problems a 15-goal-per-season striker either solves or distracts attention from. Just ask the New England Revolution what two big-time attackers can do to a club. Just ask SKC what might have been with an above-average striker. The list goes on and on.