At a breakneck pace, MLS clubs are navigating the winter transfer market in search of game-changing additions.
Now, the good news is the league's Primary Transfer Window remains open until April 23 – there's still plenty of time to get deals done. But there's also urgency, as Matchday 1 is roughly three weeks away and preseason foundations are being laid.
Assessing the landscape, here are five clubs that face burning/pressing questions. For emphasis, we're holding ourselves to five… it's been a long week 😅!
What's the plan?
As Europe's Deadline Day passed Thursday, Charlotte FC emerged with just one Designated Player for Year 1 under head coach Dean Smith. The key details for those who weren't glued to the updates:
Swiderski was Charlotte's best player over the last two seasons, yet made no secret of his desire to return to Europe. Józwiak, meanwhile, never panned out.
This all leaves Argentine striker Enzo Copetti as Charlotte's remaining DP. Can he find a sophomore bump in Smith's system after being limited to 6g/2a in 26 games last year? If Copetti gets some DP-quality help, that answer is likely "yes."
Another layer to track: Charlotte's U22 situation.
Neither move is announced, but they're expected to transfer striker Vinicius Mello to Serbian top-flight side FK Čukarički and promote midfielder Nikola Petković from their MLS NEXT Pro team Crown Legacy FC. That would leave Petković and winger Kerwin Vargas with U22 tags, plus the ability to sign a third U22 player – maybe a left-footed center back or right winger, as the club's publicly stated they're targeting.
With all these moving pieces, Charlotte fans are understandably looking for answers. But we know ownership is willing to spend – Charlotte reportedly offered $10+ million for rising Danish midfielder Albert Grønbæk before he re-upped at Bodø/Glimt – and there are two-and-a-half months left in the transfer window.
What we're saying: Charlotte have hit the reset button on the top end of the roster and they need to get these next moves right.
Who replaces McGuire?
After a wild 24-hour transfer saga, Duncan McGuire got his move to Europe (and pay raise) after all. Specifically, a six-month loan with a purchase option to Blackburn Rovers in England's second division.
It's the latest chapter in a sensational story for McGuire, who 12 months ago was in preseason camp with Orlando City SC after being selected No. 6 overall (first round) in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft out of Creighton University. Flash forward and McGuire was an MLS Young Player of the Year finalist, contributed 15g/3a in 37 matches across all competitions and made his US men's national team debut. Not too shabby for a 22-year-old rookie.
As for the situation McGuire's entering, Blackburn are 18th in the Championship and eight points clear of the relegation zone. They've leaned heavily on Sammie Szmodics to provide goals, so there should be opportunities to prove he belongs. And if things don't pan out, McGuire could always return to Orlando this summer.
But in the immediacy, Orlando need to find a No. 9 replacement. Last summer, remember McGuire's ascension meant the club was comfortable with transferring DP striker Ercan Kara to Turkish Süper Lig club Samsunspor. That leaves youngsters Ramiro Enrique and Jack Lynn as strikers in the depth chart. Enrique was solid last year, producing 4g/2a in 30 matches, while Lynn won the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Golden Boot award.
They need more, though, right? Given their roster construction, a Young DP striker or a "restricted" DP are two likely outcomes. There are also reports linking them to Colombian international and Atalanta (Serie A) forward Luis Muriel, who's out of contract this summer.
Whoever comes in the door, they'd join senior DPs Facundo Torres and Martín Ojeda as figureheads in the attack, as well as free-agent addition Nicolás Lodeiro and winger Iván Angulo. Orlando, who finished second in MLS last season, have a strong core. Let's see how the club supplements it to maximize their potential in 2024.
Barreal remains, but for how long?
In terms of major outgoings, the first FC Cincinnati-related shoe dropped on Jan. 10 when Brandon Vazquez was transferred to CF Monterrey for reportedly a $7.5 million fee with $1 million in add-ons and a sell-on clause. The USMNT striker is already producing for the Liga MX powerhouse side, too.
The second major shoe? That will seemingly have to wait.
We're referring to left wingback Álvaro Barreal, who was linked to a host of European top-flight teams before Thursday's European deadline passed. A deal never materialized and the Argentine standout seems set to report to preseason camp (he was out sorting an immigration issue) and start the year with the defending Supporters' Shield champions.
The windows in Argentina, Brazil and Turkey – to highlight a few – remain open a while longer, so something could materialize. But my money is on a summertime move to Europe and all indications are Barreal and the club are aligned, trying to find a move that suits all parties when the time is right.
Speaking of wingbacks, right-sided standout Santiago Arias has officially signed with Brazilian side Bahia. The Colombian international was really solid in 2023, and while Cincinnati have Bret Halsey and Alvas Powell in the squad, the position could use strengthening (and an upgrade) for a long, ambitious year ahead.
There's also Cincinnati's continued pursuit of Viktoria Plzeň midfielder Pavel Bucha, a former Czech youth international. Our understanding is the deal remains on track and it's just a matter of finalizing details. Related: Bucha's expected arrival adds further fuel to the fire that Junior Moreno will depart the club.
Then there's striker, where Cincinnati have already added free agent Corey Baird to pair alongside Aaron Boupendza. Yet is the MLS veteran a 1:1 replacement for Vazquez? I lean slightly towards "no," even though Baird seems like a fantastic fit for head coach Pat Noonan's system. If the salary-cap space works out, maybe there's another move in the works.
Yes, it's a decent amount of change in Cincinnati (don't forget they brought in marquee free agent CB Miles Robinson after Yerson Mosquera's loan expired). When the dust settles, let's see how much they've improved.
Bouanga contract, more moves, Vela status?
To get to brass tax: Reports indicate that Bouanga and LAFC are discussing a new contract, welcome news to anybody (raises hand) who enjoys watching the 2023 MLS Golden Boot winner and MVP runner-up. For a good while there, it seemed like Bouanga was insistent on wanting to return to France – he voiced as much. But an outgoing (read expensive) transfer never materialized and he remains in SoCal, potentially with a pay raise coming his way.
Elsewhere, there was a stretch where LAFC were on the one-signing-a-day plan. The three rapid-fire announcements:
All signs point to LAFC remaining busy, too. They're reportedly bringing old friend Eduard Atuesta back, arriving on loan from Brazilian top-flight side Palmeiras. The former MLS Best XI midfielder was awesome during the club's early days and should inject quality.
As for other moves, a backup goalkeeper to Hugo Lloris, left-back depth alongside Campos, midfield depth and sorting Carlos Vela's future are big buckets to address. On the Vela topic, the last update was the club continues to negotiate with their longtime captain and his representatives on a new contract. And let's not forget that LAFC have two open DP spots (Bouanga is their only DP under contract), so there's room to make big swings – be it for Vela's return, if there's real juice to the Divock Origi reports, or something else.
Zooming out, LAFC have seen 22 (!) players leave/arrive for the new season. That number could feasibly push 30 as the roster fills out, with Steve Cherundolo's side pursuing a third straight MLS Cup appearance
Will it be enough?
That's a lot of cash.
All winter, Chicago have made no secret of wanting to add a DP No. 9. And it appears they have their guy in Gent standout Hugo Cuypers, who was the Belgian top-flight's leading scorer in 2022-23 and has 51g/15a in 90 matches for the club. He's been scoring for fun in this year's UEFA Europa Conference League, too.
The 26-year-old's résumé seems to check the boxes. And the reported $12 million fee, which could rise to $14 million overall with add-ons, would smash the Fire's previous club record from when they landed star midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri for a reported $7.5 million in 2022 from Ligue 1's Lyon. That's a top-10 figure in MLS historical terms.
On paper, a player with Cuypers' quality and track record – combined with Shaqiri, homegrown standout Brian Gutiérrez, Chris Mueller, Maren Haile-Selassie, etc. – should be enough to push Chicago back into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. They haven't participated in that competition since 2017, a painful waiting game for the club's fan base.
Even more, there's smoke around the Fire possibly opening a second DP spot, working with Jairo Torres to facilitate a move abroad. The Mexican midfielder/winger simply hasn't panned out for Chicago, producing just 0g/2a in 36 matches since arriving from Liga MX's Atlas FC. Bear in mind that Torres has been a Young DP and Chicago already have all three U22 spots filled, so that limits the type of player they could add in a post-Torres world. The simpler version is there's potentially another big lever to pull beyond Cuypers.
Add this all up, plus Chicago bringing in pieces like left back Andrew Gutman and center back Tobias Salquist, and there's legit hope playoff soccer awaits. Don't forget how they've been strongly linked to free-agent midfielder Kellyn Acosta as well. Where will the USMNTer end up now he's officially left LAFC?