It's been something of a slower offseason than normal around MLS as far as big acquisitions, with the COVID-19 pandemic at the root of a myriad of factors that are making big-money, inter-continental transfer deals even more arduous.
Across the league, a number of Designated Player spots remain vacant as clubs plot a strategic wait-and-see-game for 2021.
One club, in particular, though, has been bucking that trend to an eye-catching effect.
FC Cincinnati took another big swing on Wednesday, acquiring former D.C. United star Lucho Acosta from Liga MX side Atlas. The 26-year-old former D.C. United midfielder returns to MLS after two seasons in Mexico.
Before diving into the minutia, both on the pitch and off it as Acosta occupies their likely final Designated Player spot, focus on the macro. After finishing bottom of MLS in each of their first two seasons in the league, Cincy have been among the league's most ambitious teams this winter.
, Cincinnati spent a reported $13 million to acquire Brazil youth international forward Brenner, one of the most expensive incoming transfers in MLS history. They had been seriously linked with ex-Atalanta star Papu Gomez and former South American Player of the Year Pity Martinez, as well as another Brazil youth international forward Lincoln.
Cincy are pushing their chips to the middle of the table.
How does Acosta fit in Cincy?
Acosta slots in at their vacancy in attacking midfielder, their creator-in-chief. It'll look quite similar to his role in D.C. when head coach Jaap Stam rolls out his 4-3-3, with the other two midfielders taking the defensive workload, making the system look more like a 4-2-3-1 at times. Semantics.
Stam also regularly rolled out a 5-3-2, which would function in a similar capacity with Acosta the furthest forward in the midfield three, though behind two strikers with two wingbacks providing the width.
To stick with the theme of preseason, optimism as hope springs eternal, there's a world in which this helps unlock Jurgen Locadia, too, while protecting their investment in Brenner. Cincy were fourth-worst in chances created from open play in 2020, second-worst in big chances created. Acosta was fifth in the league in chances created in 2018 and top 20 in big chances created. Last season's signing to improve this area of the pitch, Siem de Jong, didn't have a single goal or assist in 793 MLS minutes.
Chance creation was a desperate area of need.
Locadia's loan ends in this summer. He's been public in his desire to stay in MLS since he got here. They've already negotiated his purchase option down from its original $10 million during the pandemic. Maybe there'll be a future for Locadia, or if Acosta and Brenner can carry the attack, the Designated Player spot currently used on Locadia could be re-invested elsewhere in the squad.
Of course, there also exists an alternative perspective.
The pessimistic view would be to suggest Acosta's 2018 was more of an outlier than predictive of future performance. A season in which he had 13 more contributions than any other in MLS, then failing to move the needle in Mexico. He had just five goal contributions over a season and a half with Atlas. Or maybe he doesn't do enough work defensively, which hamstrings Stam into defending a bit deeper out of possession than he'd like, harkening back to the dull lowlights in 2020.
It can go a few ways, but every MLS club is level in the table on zero points right now. It's time for optimism. Enjoy it. Every fan can talk themselves into their roster on paper, with the word "if" doing varying degrees of heavy lifting.
Acosta is another swing for the fences. Time will tell if that's where the ball is heading or it's a swing-and-a-miss, but at least they're taking the at-bats.