MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Eastern Conference: Which clubs have DP and/or U22 Initiative flexibility?


With the Primary Transfer Window closing on April 24, some MLS clubs still have the flexibility to make changes (or hold those resources for the summer).

Designated Player and U22 Initiative slots are the most high-leverage ways for teams to spend (both in terms of salary cap assets and literal dollars). They're central to squad building.

Let’s check in with all clubs’ DP/U22 Initiative situation. Eastern Conference today, Western Conference tomorrow.

But first, a macro-view of the rules (and view the 2023 MLS Roster Rules and Regulations for more minutiae):

  • All teams are allowed up to three Designated Player slots. DPs can be paid whatever you want and then hit the cap at a fixed rate. Senior DPs (24 and up) hit the cap at the Maximum Salary Budget Charge ($651,250 this year).
  • Young DPs hit the cap at a much smaller budget charge. Young DPs aged 21-23 are $200,000 on the cap, while Young DPs 20 or younger are $150,000.
  • U22 Initiative signings hit the cap at a fixed rate as well and have to be 22 years or younger for the entirety of the year signed (i.e., if a player turns 23 during the season, he would be ineligible for the slot).
  • The salary for an eligible U22 Initiative player cannot be more than the Maximum Salary Budget charge, but whatever they’re paid, they hit the cap at $200,000 (aged 21-25) or $150,000 (aged 20 or younger).
  • All clubs have one U22 Initiative slot no matter what. Clubs can use three slots as long as all three DP spots aren’t senior players above the Maximum Targeted Allocation Money Amount ($1,651,250).
  • DPs: Thiago Almada, Giorgos Giakoumakis, Luiz Araújo
  • U22s: Santiago Sosa, Erik Lopez, Franco Ibarra
  • Flexibility: Could change in the summer

As president/CEO Garth Lagerwey and the front office continue to change the roster in this new era, Atlanta's high-leverage mechanisms are in a good spot. But there’s plenty of flux on the horizon.

Thiago Almada has been the best player in the league over the first six matchdays and has been everything you want in a DP… but it’s increasingly likely he's transferred abroad this summer (potentially for a league-record fee). The way Atlanta’s DP/U22 Initiative group is structured, they would need to replace Almada with a Young DP (or someone under max-TAM).

Forward Giorgos Giakoumakis arrived this winter and winger Luiz Araújo is in his second full season. Both have budget hits well over max-TAM.

Whenever Marcelino Moreno (currently on loan at Brazilian Serie A club Coritiba) leaves on a permanent deal, that’ll open up further flexibility under the cap as well. They had to do some serious maneuvering to work Giakoumakis in as a DP due to the charge they’re holding on Moreno while he’s on loan.

As for the U22 Initiative outlook, Erik Lopez was linked with a move away all winter, but the Paraguayan forward is still on the books. The club’s most recent U22 signing, Edwin Mosquera, left this winter on loan to Argentina's Defensa y Justicia, only a few months after he arrived. The U22 Initiative is one way for big-spending clubs (like Atlanta) to add discretionary spending in a cap-friendly manner.

  • DPs: Luciano Acosta, Brenner, Obinna Nwobodo
  • U22s: Álvaro Barreal, Marco Angulo
  • Flexibility: U22 slot, possibly more in the summer

FC Cincinnati’s DP/U22 Initiative situation is a damn-near-perfect use of those slots, and they have one newly-opened U22 slot still to use.

Luciano Acosta is among the very best players in the league, while Brenner delivered a superb 18g/8a last year. Obinna Nwobodo arrived midseason last year and was a driving force in improving the club’s biggest weakness (conceding goals).

Cincy were able to use a DP spot on a defensive midfielder because of the balance elsewhere on the roster (and the success of their two attacking DPs alongside 2022 MLS Best XI presented by Continental Tire striker Brandon Vazquez).

FCC are likely to open a DP spot with Brenner’s future lying in Europe, perhaps as soon as the summer. They’d need to sign a Young DP to keep all three U22 Initiative slots. Expectations should be high for that final spot whenever it’s filled, mindful of the club’s recent ability to identify talent as well as ownership’s history of spending.

The U22 Initiative slots are led by Álvaro Barreal, who signed a contract extension this year. Highly-rated Ecuador international midfielder Marco Angulo was signed this winter and occupies a second slot. And the third slot is open via the departure of Isaac Atanga, who was on loan in Turkey but has now been transferred to Norway's Aalesunds FK.

  • DPs: Enzo Copetti, Karol Swiderski, Kamil Józwiak
  • U22s: Kerwin Vargas
  • Flexibility: None

Charlotte FC have all of their slots filled, starting with an attack-focused group of three senior DPs: Enzo Copetti, Karol Swiderski and Kamil Józwiak.

Copetti was acquired this winter and has two goals so far early in his MLS career. Swiderski was the club’s first senior DP, while Jozwiak arrived last year during their expansion season. Józwiak cannot be bought down at the moment, limiting the club to one U22 Initiative slot.

That slot is occupied by Kerwin Vargas. The 21-year-old Colombian winger has 1g/1a in 320 minutes this season.

Charlotte originally planned for Vinicius Mello to be on a U22 Initiative slot, but the club pivoted given constraints. Serbian international midfielder Nikola Petkovic, signed to Charlotte’s MLS NEXT Pro team (Crown Legacy FC) this winter, is a likely candidate to move onto the first team via a U22 Initiative slot when space is available in the future.

  • DPs: Xherdan Shaqiri, Jairo Torres
  • U22s: Federico Navarro, Georgios Koutsias, Alonso Aceves
  • Flexibility: DP slot

Either over the next few weeks or in the summer, Chicago Fire FC can add another DP. The club have been looking for the right player/deal for the last few months, but nothing has gotten over the line.

Xherdan Shaqiri and Jairo Torres are the club’s current two DPs. Both were signed last year. Torres is a Young DP, meaning the club can do whatever they want with the third DP spot and remain roster compliant.

Chicago have experienced a lot of U22 movement throughout the Primary Transfer Window. Colombian international Jhon Durán was transferred to English Premier League side Aston Villa for a base $18 million transfer fee, then Greek forward Georgios Koutsias and Mexican left back Alonso Aceves were signed.

That duo joins holdover Federico Navarro to fill the Fire’s U22 Initiative slots.

  • DPs: Cucho Hernández, Lucas Zelarayán, Darlington Nagbe
  • U22s: Alexandru Matan
  • Flexibility: None

The Columbus Crew have all of their DP/U22 slots filled, with three senior DPs and one U22 Initiative player.

Star attackers Cucho Hernández and Lucas Zelarayán are joined by MLS veteran Darlington Nagbe as DPs. Zelarayán and Nagbe were part of the club’s MLS Cup 2020-winning team, while Cucho arrived in a club-record deal worth around $10 million last summer from Watford.

Cucho and Zelarayán are viewed among the best attacking duos in all of MLS. Nagbe has won MLS Cup titles at Columbus, Atlanta and Portland Timbers.

Alexandru Matan is the club’s lone U22 Initiative player, filling their only slot available. Matan was cast away under the previous regime and loaned to Romanian club Rapid Bucuresti. But he’s been a player reborn under new manager Wilfried Nancy, delivering on the talent that led to regular appearances with Romanian youth national teams and convinced the Crew to sign him.

  • DPs: Christian Benteke, Mateusz Klich, Taxi Fountas
  • U22s: Chris Durkin
  • Flexibility: None

D.C. United went to Europe to fill all of their DP and U22 Initiative slots, so they're set for the near future.

The club's DPs are striker Christian Benteke (signed from Crystal Palace), midfielder Mateusz Klich (signed from Leeds United) and attacker Taxi Fountas (signed from Rapid Wien). All three were signed within the last three transfer windows.

Benteke has three goals so far this season, while Klich has quickly adapted to life in MLS. Fountas made his 2023 debut two weekends ago after missing the first handful of games with an injury.

With the trio all being senior players over max-TAM, D.C. only can use one U22 Initiative slot. That is occupied by Chris Durkin, a former homegrown midfielder the club re-signed last year from Belgium's Sint-Truiden.

  • DPs: Leonardo Campana, Rodolfo Pizarro, Gregore
  • U22s: Emerson Rodriguez (loaned)
  • Flexibility: Possible DP buydown, U22

Continuing their roster overhaul theme of the last couple of seasons, Miami’s DP/U22 Initiative situation is in flux. Leonardo Campana, who was on loan as a U22 Initiative signing last year, was acquired permanently from EPL side Wolverhampton Wanderers and moved to a Young DP spot.

Rodolfo Pizarro surprisingly returned from a loan to Liga MX's CF Monterrey and remains in the Miami first team. Gregore, the club captain, is currently holding the third DP spot but is . With Campana as a Young DP, Miami can use up to three U22 Initiative slots.

If a new DP were to arrive – let’s say, I don’t know, maybe the greatest player of all time when his Paris Saint-Germain contract expires this summer – Miami could buy down Gregore to make room.

Colombian winger Emerson Rodriguez is their only U22 Initiative slot at the moment… and he’s loaned to Liga MX’s Santos Laguna until the end of the season.

  • DPs: Victor Wanyama
  • U22s: Sunusi Ibrahim, Robert Thorkelsson, Matko Miljevic
  • Flexibility: Two DP slots

CF Montréal, once again, have flexibility at the top of their roster since just one DP spot is in use. They have all three U22 Initiative slots filled, though.

Victor Wanyama is Montréal's lone DP. He was out of contract in the winter, but both parties found an agreement for the stalwart midfielder to return.

They could fill their other two DP spots, but one would have to be a Young DP or a senior player under the max budget charge to retain the use of all three U22 slots.

Forward Sunusi Ibrahim, 20, scored four goals in his debut MLS season (2021) but didn’t find the back of the net last year. Center back Robert Thorkelsson is still awaiting his first MLS start and Matko Miljevic seems set for a regular starting role once he returns from injury.

  • DPs: Hany Mukhtar, Walker Zimmerman, Ake Loba (loaned)
  • U22s: None
  • Flexibility: U22 slot(s), In-flux DP spot

The starting point at the top of Nashville SC’s roster is DPs Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman, as good a foundational duo as any in the league.

Mukhtar won the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP award and was named Best XI each of the last two seasons; Zimmerman won back-to-back MLS Defender of the Year awards (2020, '21) and has been named Best XI in each of his three seasons in Nashville.

Both players are under contract long-term.

Their third DP spot is still technically occupied by club-record signing Ake Loba, who is on loan at Mazatlán in Liga MX. The fine print for why he still counts as a DP is that his transfer fee spent is significantly higher than the loan fee received, and until he leaves on a permanent basis, he’ll count as a DP.

Mazatlán have a purchase option in the deal, plus Nashville can still negotiate a fee with other interested clubs, but Mazatlán have the first right to match that fee and keep Loba if they choose. So, a DP spot could be opened this summer.

Nashville don’t have any U22 Initiative players. Rodrigo Pineiro was the club’s only foray into that mechanism, but the Uruguayan winger left for Chilean side Unión Española.

  • DPs: Carles Gil, Gustavo Bou, Giacomo Vrioni
  • U22s: Dylan Borrero
  • Flexibility: None

Led by 2021 MLS MVP Carles Gil, the Revs have all three DP spots filled. Gil is under contract long-term and has 22g/50a in 106 MLS appearances. Forwards Gustavo Bou and Giacomo Vrioni are the club’s other two DPs.

Bou is under contract through the end of the season, potentially opening future flexibility. Vrioni was signed from Italian side Juventus last summer and hasn’t quite found his form in MLS yet.

The Revs have no U22 Initiative slots open.

While forward/winger Dylan Borrero has been a success, sporting director and head coach Bruce Arena said he still prefers to have three senior DPs (and thus only one U22 Initiative signing).

Borrero was signed last spring for $4 million from Brazil's Atletico Mineiro and has since graduated into the senior Colombian national team.

  • DPs: Dante Vanzeir, Luquinhas
  • U22s: Andrés Reyes, Dru Yearwood
  • Flexibility: DP spot, U22 spot

The New York Red Bulls bolstered their squad with a key DP signing this winter and still have the flexibility for more. They have open both a DP spot and a U22 Initiative slot.

Forward Dante Vanzeir was acquired from Union SG in Belgium this offseason for a fee that could potentially become the club's record expenditure if add-ons are hit. He joins Brazilian attacker Luquinhas as the club’s two current DPs.

Center back Andrés Reyes and central midfielder Dru Yearwood are RBNY’s two U22 Initiative players.

Both Vanzeir and Luquinhas are senior players above the maximum budget charge, meaning if they want to use more than one U22 Initiative slot, any potential third DP would have to be a Young DP or someone under the maximum budget charge (and I’d bet they would like to use more than one U22 slot).

  • DPs: Talles Magno, Santiago Rodríguez, Thiago Martins
  • U22s: Gabriel Pereira, Thiago Andrade (loaned)
  • Flexibility: U22 slots

After the return of Santiago Rodríguez on a permanent transfer, NYCFC have all three DP spots filled.

Rodríguez joins forward Talles Magno and center back Thiago Martins as DPs. Magno had a breakout 7g/10a last season as is among the highest-rated young players in the league. Thiago was acquired last year, one of the league’s few DP center backs.

NYCFC have been intentional in utilizing their U22 Initiative slots and have flexibility on that front this season. Brazilian winger Gabriel Pereira is their only U22 player on the books, as Thiago Andrade got loaned back to the Brazilian top flight this week. Let's see what they have in mind.

  • DPs: Facundo Torres, Martín Ojeda, Ercan Kara
  • U22s: César Araújo, Ramiro Enrique, Gastón González
  • Flexibility: None

Orlando City did some maneuvering around the top of their roster this winter to open another DP and U22 Initiative slot, filling both.

Martín Ojeda was acquired from Godoy Cruz in Argentina after previous DP Mauricio Pereyra signed a new contract to open the slot. Central midfielder Junior Urso left on a mutual contract termination, freeing further cap space.

Ojeda joined Facundo Torres and Ercan Kara, who were both signed ahead of the 2022 season. Torres, Orlando’s club-record signing, is a Young DP, allowing the club to use all three U22 slots.

César Araújo and Gastón González were signed last year, though González suffered a season-ending ACL injury in his final game before joining Orlando. He made his MLS debut this season, while Araújo immediately won a starting spot.

Orlando signed Argentine attacker Ramiro Enrique to fill their last U22 slot this winter.

  • DPs: Mikael Uhre, Daniel Gazdag, Julián Carranza
  • U22s: None
  • Flexibility: U22 slot

The Philadelphia Union have three DPs for the first time in club history after re-signing Daniel Gazdag to a contract extension this winter, officially making him a DP.

Club-record signing Mikael Uhre arrived last winter, shortly after Julián Carranza. Carranza’s loan from Inter Miami was made permanent in the summer.

Philly’s three DP spots make up their attacking triumvirate, who combined for 49g/25a (!!!) in 2022.

With the Union’s glut of academy talent, they’ve yet to dip into the U22 Initiative. I’d imagine this is an area they’ll explore more in the future, be it external additions to increase depth via the cap-friendly mechanism or re-signing talented homegrowns to a second contract (like San Jose Earthquakes did with Cade Cowell and the LA Galaxy with both Julián Araujo and Efraín Álvarez).

  • DPs: Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Jonathan Osorio
  • U22s: Ayo Akinola
  • Flexibility: A fair amount, but it's complicated

Italian international wingers Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi highlight the top of Toronto FC’s roster.

Insigne’s time at the club has been marred by various injuries, as he’s been limited to just 34 minutes so far this year, but Bernardeschi has been among the league’s very best players since his debut last summer. Bernardeschi, 29, has 11g/5a in 19 MLS appearances. He’s scored or assisted on five of Toronto’s eight goals so far this season.

The Reds' third DP spot is currently filled by Jonathan Osorio, though if the club wanted to add another DP, he could be bought down. So there’s flexibility here.

That ties into their U22 Initiative situation. As currently constructed, they could add two more players on U22 slots. That would remain the case if they end up adding a Young DP. If they add a senior DP above max-TAM, they would be restricted to just one U22 slot.

Homegrown forward Ayo Akinola is the club’s lone U22 Initiative player at the moment. The Canadian international has 15g/2a in his MLS career (68 appearances, 36 starts), making his first team debut in 2018.