Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst

Armchair Analyst - 2021 - East Shopping List

The silly season feeding frenzy hasn't really started yet outside of one or two teams, but it's coming. It always does. And so here's what's at the top of the shopping list for every team in the Eastern Conference.

Just note while these moves can be agreed upon now, they won't be made official until the MLS transfer window officially opens February 10. It will then stay open until May.

And away we go:

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - ATL

Atlanta United

Any reasonable offseason analysis of the Five Stripes had "a new head coach and a cultural renaissance" as the No. 1 offseason priority for 2021, and the hope is the addition of Gabriel Heinze and the return of Paul McDonough to a front office role will provide exactly that. You could certainly make an argument getting the coaching hire right is more important than any single signing they might make (to be clear: I would argue exactly that), as the roster itself is actually pretty good.

That said, there are obvious holes to fill.

My Suggestion: The biggest hole is the one they didn't fill last year: a ball-playing, tempo-setting central midfielder to replace Darlington Nagbe.

To that end they have been credibly linked to Ecuadoran CM (he's either an 8ish 6 or a 6ish 8) Moises Caicedo. Caicedo is just 19, and is considered one of South America's biggest upcoming talents, and yeah, that means Atlanta will have to beat out multiple EPL clubs (Brighton seem to have the inside track) to get his signature. It is an ambitious ask.

If they can't land Caicedo, they could turn their sights back to out-of-favor Boca Juniors central midfielder Agustin Almendra. The 20-year-old has barely played since October and would likely cost more than Caicedo (there's a mark-up when you buy from Argentina or Brazil), and it is fair to question if he'd actually be DP-caliber.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - CHI

Chicago Fire FC

Chicago made a bunch of moves last winter and got a lot of them right. And so they played a lot of good and entertaining soccer under head coach Raphael Wicky, who is justifiably back for Year 2.

The one part of the field in which they played bad (but still entertaining) soccer was their own defensive third. Francisco Calvo, now entering his fifth year as a starter in MLS, remains shockingly error-prone. That has to be the first place to look.

My Suggestion: Ligue 1 is in some financial trouble given the failure to get a TV deal done, so there are bargains to be found — especially for players on expiring deals. Big Damien Da Silva, who's played some quite good soccer for Stade Rennais over the past three years, is one such center back.

Chicago might have to wait for the end of this transfer window to actually get him with Rennais in the hunt for a Champions League berth, but he'd be worth it. And at 32, he wouldn't cost much, and is at an age where he'd likely have two or three years left in the tank.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - CIN

FC Cincinnati

Third season, third rebuild? Basically none of the new signings Cincy made last winter worked out, and one of the few bright(ish) spots from last year's team, left back Andrew Gutman, is now in Atlanta. There are so many needs here it's almost impossible to pick one.

But pick we shall, and we'll pick while keeping something in mind: manager Jaap Stam has generally preferred to play a 4-3-3 over the years, but inherited a team that somehow had zero wingers.

My Suggestion: They've added a couple of wingers since Stam got there in Alvaro Barreal and Ben Mines, but not exactly Carlos Vela + Diego Rossi level. They need to get themselves a guy who can do some damage.

Rumors have linked them to Lincoln, a 20-year-old Brazilian attacker who can play all across the front line, but is probably most at home as a center forward. I like it in theory, though there are always questions when splashing out to buy young players, and then there are further questions when you haven't demonstrated the infrastructure necessary to first settle those players in, and then get them to improve.

Is it triply concerning that the "can play all across the front line, but is probably most at home as a center forward" tag can also be applied to Jurgen Locadia and Yuya Kubo, neither of whom ever really settled in? It sure is.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - CLB

Columbus Crew SC

The Crew already did the bulk of their work, and did it by operating within MLS as they signed both Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kevin Molino as free agents. BWP led MLS in G+A/90 in the regular season, while Molino was among the league leaders in that stat in the postseason.

So the MLS Cup champs have only gotten stronger. If you blinked you might have missed it, but it really did happen.

My Suggestion: There aren't any areas of weakness in this roster, though right back can get thin real quick if Harrison Afful (he's 34 now) suddenly gets old, and this year's avalanche of FIFA dates is sure to put a dent in the Crew's attacking depth. Caleb Porter and Tim Bezbatchenko should expect wingers Molino, Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne, Jr. to all head out on international duty quite a bit

So they need to add at least one more winger. They don't have to swing for the fences here, just someone who can soak up some minutes during the depth of the summer. And if they can drop back to RB in a pinch, that'd be nice, too.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - DC

D.C. United

Scroll back up to the Atlanta blurb and read the part about how they need a club renaissance on and off the field, and how whatever head coaching hire they make is likely to be more important than any signings they make this offseason. Just sub in "D.C." for "Atlanta" and use that blurb here.

The big difference, obviously, is D.C. have yet to make a coaching hire and that their remaining roster is not quite as good as Atlanta's. But it should still be better than it was in 2020.

My Suggestion: They need to get a real right back in order to move Russell Canouse back to d-mid full-time. I've made this point elsewhere, but that won't stop me from making it again here: The only period of sustained success they've had over the past four seasons came when Canouse was the full-time d-mid during the second half of 2018. That was not an accident; he should start there in 2021. Write that in pen.

The alternative to going out and getting a RB in the window is to convert either Julian Gressel or Paul Arriola to that spot. Both guys have played it before, and both are probably natural wingbacks — a position with a metric ton of overlap (no pun intended) with modern, attacking fullbacks. Moving one of those guys there makes a ton of sense to me.

So does adding another CB. If one of Gressel or Arriola says "sure, I'll commit to the switch to right back" then adding a starting-caliber CB instantly becomes the No. 1 priority.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - MIA

Inter Miami CF

Ooof. Rebuild the front office, hire a coach, adjust the culture that was just a mess in 2020. Inter did make the playoffs, but they certainly were not the team many thought they would be. That obviously includes the ownership group, which is why there's been so much offseason turmoil.

So as with Atlanta and D.C., figuring that part out is the offseason's main task. But the on-field product needs quite a bit of attention as well.

My Suggestion: Same as it was during the summer transfer window: Get an actual No. 10. Rodolfo Pizarro is super-talented and is an asset, but he's not a chance-creating engine you run the attack through. He is at his best in a secondary or tertiary role, one where he's able to exploit the gaps created by others and/or just combine a bit rather than pull strings.

The good news for Miami is, despite being maxed-out on DPs, there may be some flexibility with altering the status of 20-year-old DP Matias Pellegrini. So that could open an avenue for Inter to add another DP slot and/or to go out and buy the best damn 18/19/20-year-old No. 10 they can possibly find.

Thiago Almada, come on down!

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - MTL

Montreal Impact

Montreal, like Columbus, have already done a good bit of work within the league this offseason. That's good. What's not so good is that, very much unlike Columbus, the Impact are not adding to a championship-caliber group, and also very much unlike Columbus, it's unclear what head coach Thierry Henry's preferred formation and principles of play are. That needs to be ironed out.

Because of the above I'm just kind of throwing darts, and the truth is that Montreal need help all over the field.

My Suggestion: They need the most help on the backline, no matter what their formation is or principles of play are. Montreal managed to concede 43 goals in 2020 — worst in the East — while toggling between a back four and a back five, and it's hard to say that anyone aside from teenager Luis Binks distinguished themselves.

I wonder if Eliaquim Mangala could be persuaded by Henry to cross the pond. He's at a similar stage in his career Victor Wanyama was last year, and is in the final few months of his contract with Valencia. He'd be a good fit.

Know who else would? David Luiz. Do it for the memes, Thierry.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - NSH

Nashville SC

Nashville were by far the more successful of last year's expansion teams and, if you're just judging by playoff performance, the second-most successful expansion team in MLS history. They got a ton of stuff right, including and especially their deep-lying midfielders, backline and goal. That rock-solid defensive structure allowed them to survive months of underperformance from the attack

Said attack did improve, but it's far from the team's strong point.

My Suggestion: I feel the same way about Hany Mukhtar as I do about Pizarro: He's obviously talented and an asset. By the time the playoffs rolled around he was showing significant improvement and made a couple of plays, against both Miami and Toronto, that suggested better things were coming.

But as with Pizarro, he never looked like the type of No. 10 you run an attack through, and often struggled to pick the locks against a set defense. He usually seemed more at home floating away from the ball and into space rather than demanding the ball and organizing things.

That hasn't stopped Nashville from going after another winger, as reports have them inking Uruguayan youth international Rodrigo Piniero. That is fine and good — Piniero is a talent, and "too much talent" is the exact problem you want to give the head coach. But the work shouldn't stop there if they want an elite attack to match their elite defense.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - NE

New England Revolution

The Revs played really good soccer and got really close to a sixth trip to MLS Cup before getting just clobbered by Columbus in the Eastern Conference Final. It was a combination of the two most obvious factors: tactical and personnel. The Crew were just better on both fronts.

The good news is the Revs have already been busy upgrading. They added a left back in Christian Mafla and a central midfielder in Wilfrid Kaptoum, and are getting Luis Caicedo back from injury. If you're better and deeper at both fullback positions and in central midfield, you will control more games — even against really good teams.

I suspect their biggest offseason moves are mostly complete.

My Suggestion: If their biggest offseason moves are, in fact, complete, then it's just a matter of padding out that backline. New England need at least one more center back, and preferably one who's a monster defending set pieces. That was the Revs' most obvious Achilles' heel in 2020.

If their big offseason moves aren't actually complete, then I could see the Revs adding a high-level attacking midfielder to the mix. As I said after that Revs loss to Columbus, DP striker Gustavo Bou was a problem. He offers little in build-up and nothing defensively, so you're essentially playing 10v11 in two phases of the game with him out there.

When the Revs are in control of games Bou is worth it — he can be a match-winner, and was in the playoffs. But against the very best he becomes an anchor, a true luxury player.

I don't think it'll happen, but I could definitely see the argument for adding another elite midfielder (or winger, and pushing Carles Gil inside to the 10) and using Bou as a 9 in a 4-2-3-1 rather than a second forward in a 4-4-2.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - NYC

New York City FC

Another really good regular season followed by another memorably devastating playoff exit. It happened under Patrick Vieira and Dome Torrent, and now it's happened under Ronny Deila. Most of it has come with the same core of veteran players.

That core got whittled down this offseason, though, as Ronald Matarrita and Alex Ring were both traded. Ring's replacements were already on board, but there's an obvious need at left back now.

My Suggestion: They should, uh, go out and get a left back. The only one on the current roster, Gudmundur Thórarinsson, didn't scream "long-term solution!" in his limited minutes and doesn't have the resume to suggest that was just a new league/weird year adjustment period. 

It will be hard to replace Matarrita, who was one of the best in the league, but NYCFC have a massive amount of allocation cash thanks to the trades of Matarrita and Ring, as well as the sale of Joe Scally. They should be able to go find themselves a starter — maybe Uruguayan international Gaston Silva, who's in the last few months of his contract — without breaking the bank.

Speaking of Uruguayans, it does look like 20-year-old attacking midfielder Santiago Rodriguez is on his way to be Maxi Moralez's heir as well as a part-time winger. That is good, though they do need more wing depth and another center back as well.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - RBNY

New York Red Bulls

The message I've gotten from folks around the league is the Red Bulls are "open for business." I think that's correct. There are no sacred cows on this team, and even if there were... Dax McCarty's gone, Sacha Kljestan's gone, Luis Robles is gone and Bradley Wright-Phillips is gone. Kemar Lawrence, Michael Murillo and Matt Miazga are gone. Homegrown role players Derrick Etienne, Jr. and Alex Muyl are gone.

What I'm saying is if the Red Bulls feel like they need to make moves, they will make moves.

And this team needs to make moves because the roster, as it's currently constructed, probably isn't suited to playing out of Gerhard Struber's preferred 4-4-2 diamond (or less-preferred-but-he-still-used-it-a-bunch-3-5-2).

My Suggestion: I would actually suggest they keep a lot of this roster together! The thing standing between the Red Bulls and multiple trophies over the past five seasons wasn't that their team and tactics weren't good enough, but that they were lacking one or two high-end difference-makers.

I think there's a little bit more distance between them and silverware now, but... maybe not? They took it to Columbus like no one else managed to in the postseason, and looked to be, as always, a piece or two away.

Assuming it is a two-forward set-up, one of those pieces has to be a forward. The problem here, though, is I have no idea what RBNY's approach to the transfer market will be. I have heard they intend to open up the checkbook for Struber — I don't believe he'd have taken the job if not — but at the same time, their recent history suggests they'll try to survive on European cast-offs from third-tier leagues before finally realizing the guys they bring through their USL team are better and cheaper than that.

So I don't know. I'd like to think they could make a run at Kaio Jorge, the 18-year-old Brazilian No. 9 who's been tearing up the Copa Libertadores for Santos, but that would take an eight-figure transfer. It's the kind of move they could make, but not the type of move they have made. Far from it.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - ORL

Orlando City SC

The most pleasant surprise in MLS was also one of the most stylish. The Purple Lions played a lot of good soccer in getting to the final of the MLS is Back Tournament, and then in getting to the playoffs for the first time in team history. Once they got to the playoffs, there wasn't much style to be found, but they did gut out a first-ever playoff win.

All-in-all a successful season. Teams like this don't have many holes.

My Suggestion: They do have some holes, though, and for Orlando City it was obvious that both the results and style — especially the style — were going to be worse once left back Joao Moutinho got hurt late in the summer. Once he was out, they went from one of the league's best possession sides to one that almost exclusively did work on the counter. So they really do need a back-up LB who can get forward and move the game around a little bit.

Yes, this roster is so well-constructed that the biggest need as of right now is a back-up LB. Luis Muzzi, take a bow for signing so many good players, and Oscar Pareja, take a bow for doing such a good job of integrating them and improving them.

With all that said... I really hope Orlando keep the powder dry and are ready to make a move for a top-end attacking DP during the summer window. With Nani fading out down the stretch for two straight years and Mauricio Pereyra more of a facilitator than an outright match-winner... look, those guys are good, but Orlando's DPs aren't of the sort you need if you're going to win MLS Cup.

Wait for the summer on that one, though.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - PHI

Philadelphia Union

When you've sold about $15 million worth of Best XI Homegrowns to Champions League teams (Genk's not in it this year, but are running a strong second in Belgium and are a good bet for the 2021/22 version of the UCL), you have definitely opened up some gaps in your starting lineup. And with most teams, the answer would be, I think, "don't worry, we're getting you a couple of guys."

The Union are not most teams. I think it's unlikely they go out and spend big on a replacement for Brenden Aaronson or Mark McKenzie, and while that makes Jim Curtin's job harder, it makes my job a lot easier because damn, the Union are fun and interesting to follow and write about.

My Suggestion: I'm guessing Anthony Fontana will get the first crack at taking Aaronson's minutes, while Jack Elliott will just slide back into the central defense alongside Jakob Glesnes. The other option — and I've been kind of joking about this and kind of not — is they could turn giant 19-year-old d-mid Cole Turner into a center back. That feels like a natural move to me.

The rest of the depth chart beyond Fontana at the 10 and Elliott, Glesnes and Turner at center back is filled with literal children, 16 and 17-year-old Homegrown signings who are a year/several years away. So I would hope the Union are planning to sign a veteran or two either from within the league or up from the USL as "break in case of emergency"-types.

Top of the shopping list for each MLS Eastern Conference team | Armchair Analyst - TOR

Toronto FC

They got so close, and then everybody got hurt and they broke down. And then the playoffs, and.... woof. That was not good. Toronto spent a long time looking like the best team in the league and a good bet for at least one trophy, and in the end went home with nothing. Now they're looking for a new coach and the start of a new era, but have largely the same players.

That might be a good thing, since that group includes the MVP, one of the breakout young players of 2020, a veteran midfield with multiple players in their prime, and two excellent right backs.

What it doesn't include is a goal-scoring, match-winning winger and any kind of defensive depth.

My Suggestion: Suggestion No. 1 is to bring Justin Morrow back, but manage his minutes a little better. Suggestion No. 2 is to lean into the move I've long been urging: the shift of Liam Fraser from d-mid to center back. Fraser's approaching his mid-20s now and needs to play, and he's looked good at center back in limited minutes before. Greg Vanney was hesitant to use him there; whoever Vanney's successor is should not be. Suggestion No. 3 is to hope Achara comes back healthy and can be that goalscoring winger they've been searching for.

Notice how I'm being really conservative with my suggestions so far? That's because I doubt TFC have any sort of room under the cap. They might move someone, but their biggest-salaried guys are untradeable either for good reasons (they're in their primes and are essential pieces of a team that almost won the Supporters' Shield) or bad reasons (they are past their primes, are frequently hurt and are on salaries nobody else would touch with a 10-foot pole).

The state of the roster means they need to get improvement from within and to add some LB and CB depth. Those are the priorities. If, after all of that, they have enough room under the cap after that to go after a DP, it'll almost certainly be a Young DP because of the smaller cap hit.

Given all those parameters, Gabriel Veron of Palmeiras would be the absolute best signing they could plausibly make, but I just stretched the definition of the word "plausible" beyond the breaking point.

So I guess my suggestion is to just sit tight for a window. Maybe one of the kids will bail you out and your needs by the time you hit summer will be very different than your perceived needs this winter.