Another transfer window is in the books.
There were five clubs, however, which in my opinion stood out above the rest with the acquisitions they pulled off over the winter and into early spring:
5. Orlando City
KEY ACQUISITIONS: FW Giles Barnes, MF Luis Gil, MF Will Johnson, DF Jonathan Spector, DF Scott Sutter, DF Donny Toia
Forget about Orlando’s 4-0 laugher in Houston last weekend. The Lions are the most improved side in the league. Simply put: The players Orlando brought in are far superior to the ones who went out — always a winning formula.
Jonathan Spector (transfer from Birmingham City) is at the forefront of that list. The Lions have conceded just seven times through eight games with Spector in the lineup after giving up a league-high 60 goals last season. The 31-year-old has been flawless on the ball and snuffs out danger as well as any center back in the league. He’s also one of the few MLS defenders who have managed to shut down Toronto FC’s Jozy Altidore.
There’s also a reason head coach Jason Kreis went hard after midfielder Will Johnson (free agent from Toronto FC) in December. The Canadian midfielder’s competitiveness follows him wherever he goes, leading to results.
Further up field, Giles Barnes (trade from Vancouver) gives Kreis a legitimate attacking option who can feature in multiple spots or serve as an impact substitute.
Less-talked-about defensive additions in Donny Toia (trade from Atlanta) and Scott Sutter (transfer from Young Boys), who are currently the starting fullbacks for the club, also have been paramount in turning around the league’s worst defense.
And we’ve yet to see if midfielder Luis Gil (loan from Queretaro) can, like Johnson, find form under his former coach at Real Salt Lake.
4. Portland Timbers
KEY ACQUISITIONS: GK Jeff Attinella, MF, Sebastian Blanco, DF Marco Farfan, MF David Guzman, DF/MF Lawrence Olum, DF Roy Miller
Defensive midfielder David Guzman (transfer from Saprissa) is still settling in but he already is a staunch defensive partner — and an upgrade over Jack Jewsbury — next to Diego Chara, as well as someone capable of helping connect things in the final third.
With Guzman helping solidify things, Sebastian Blanco (transfer from San Lorenzo) offers coach Caleb Porter yet another supremely creative attacking option alongside Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe.
Less heralded defensive additions like Roy Miller (transfer from Saprissa) and Lawrence Olum (trade from Sporting KC) have already picked up priceless minutes and they could turn out to be the difference when rosters become stretched late in the season.
3. Chicago Fire
KEY ACQUISITIONS: GK Jorge Bava, MF Juninho, MF Dax McCarty, FW Nemanja Nikolic, MF Bastian Schweinsteiger
I’m still not convinced the Chicago Fire are a playoff team, but they’re miles ahead of where they were this time last season in large part due to four players who’ve arrived since December.
Striker Nemanja Nikolic’s (transfer from Legia Warsaw) has come as advertised, scoring six times in nine appearances amid exhibiting a knack for well-timed and clever runs that provide Chicago’s playmakers a focal point to play in behind opposing backlines.
One of those playmakers, Bastian Schweinsteiger (transfer from Manchester United), has had a huge impact in the Windy City since arriving three weeks into the season. The German clearly is on a different level when it comes to finding space and picking out passes that threaten the opposition.
The addition of Dax McCarty (trade from NY Red Bulls) and his ability to cover ground has shrunk the space in front of Chicago’s back line, allowing Schweinsteiger and Juninho (loan from Tijuana) the freedom to create more going forward.
Chicago’s midfield makeover has instilled both balance and a level of composure reserved for playoff-ready clubs — which is what you’d expect when adding guys who’ve won MLS Cups, Supporters’ Shields and major international tournaments.
2. Atlanta United
KEY ACQUISITIONS: MF Miguel Almiron, FW Yamil Asad, MF Carlos Carmona, DF Greg Garza, DF Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, MF Julian Gressel, MF Jeff Larentowicz, FW Josef Martinez, DF Tyrone Mears, DF Michael Parkhurst
The mass amounts of praise heaped on Atlanta United has, at times, resulted in persistent eye-rolling from those of us who are more interested in results than prognostication. That said, a hearty amount of those plaudits were justified.
Miguel Almiron (transfer from Lanus) might be the best No. 10 in the league. His numbers (2 goals, 4 assists) aren’t there yet, but Almiron, in just nine MLS appearances, has demonstrated qualities that set him apart from other pricey playmakers in MLS.
The Paraguayan’s clinical ability on the half-turn and his penchant for defense-splitting passes are a big reason why teammates Josef Martinez (transfer from Torino) and Yamil Asad (loan from Velez Sarsfield) have coalesced to become the most exciting attacking group in the East.
And that’s before mentioning Hector Villalba (transfer from San Lorenzo), whose transfer actually occurred during last summer’s transfer window.
Adding a veteran head like Chilean international Carlos Carmona (free transfer from Atalanta) in midfield has been invaluable in front of a back four that doesn’t resemble what you'd expect an expansion team's rearguard to look like.
Left fullback Greg Garza (loan from Tijuana) is a two-way defender who can run for days and fits in seamlessly with an Atlanta side that throws numbers forward in transition.
Next to Garza, center back Leandro Gonzalez Perez (transfer from Estudiantes) has been solid in his first MLS season and Michael Parkhurst (traded from Columbus) and Tyrone Mears (traded from Seattle) have made Atlanta an instant playoff contender, despite recent leaks.
1. Houston Dynamo
KEY ACQUISITIONS: MF Juan David Cabezas, DF AJ DeLaGarza, FW Alberth Elis, DF Leonardo, DF Adolfo Machado, FW Romell Quioto, DF Dylan Remick
Alberth “La Pantera” Elis (on loan from Monterrey) and the Dynamo have been a revelation in South Texas after the club finished last season three points away from the dreaded Wooden Spoon (for the worst record in MLS).
Think back to 2016. Houston’s leading scorer, a player you’d be hard-pressed to guess, had six — SIX! — goals. I like a lot of things about Andrew Wenger. His nose for goal isn’t one of them.
What’s more, the Dynamo produced a paltry 39 goals in 2016 — the second lowest total in MLS. It’s hard to win consistently if you manufacture just nine multiple-goal games in a 34-match season.
A year later, the improvement has been stark. The Dynamo are flying up front with Elis and fellow countryman Romell Quioto (free transfer from Olimpia), who’ve brought an incredible amount of energy back to BBVA Compass Stadium.
Elis’ ability to unbalance defenders and Quioto’s adeptness at stretching the opposition with his pace late in games has provided Houston with something of a rebirth in the attack. The Central American duo, along with fellow forwards Erick Torres and Mauro Manotas, already have combined for 18 goals this year compared to the 10 combined goals Houston’s strikers produced all of last season.
The attackers grab all the headlines, but Juan David Cabezas (loan from Deportivo Cali) has added another stabilizing element in front a drastically improved defensive unit that now includes veteran MLS fullback A.J. DeLaGarza (trade from Galaxy), Leonardo (Re-Entry Draft pick-up) and center back Adolfo Machado (transfer from Saprissa).
Kurt Larson is an MLSsoccer.com contributor who covers Toronto FC for the Toronto Sun and the Canadian national teams for Postmedia.