What a wild year, but after months of uncertainty then months of games seemingly every other day, it's time for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
Let's run team-by-team through each of their most important acquisitions this year, starting out West and then going East by way of final standing:
Sporting Kansas City: Alan Pulido
An argument could be made for center back Roberto Puncec, who started 18 games and helped stabilize a defense that conceded 67 (!) goals in 2019, but Pulido has been worth every penny of the club-record fee Sporting paid to acquire him from Chivas de Guadalajara.
Pulido has been far more than a goalscorer, lifting all those around him with six goals and five assists in 962 minutes. He's missed time with injury and international duty, but he takes Sporting to another tier when he's available. Plus, as Sporting and MLS continue to evolve, it could prove important that they've (so far) been successful with their first big-time transfer fee paid when the next big deal comes through.
Seattle Sounders: Yeimar Gomez Andrade
Joao Paulo was the best player Seattle signed – man, it's fun to watch the Brazilian midfielder combine with Nico Lodeiro – but the Sounders were in need of another center back. Andrade has been the guy.
Xavier Arreaga has experienced ups and downs since joining last year, but Andrade has been more consistent. The Colombian has started 19 games during his debut season and will be a key part of their playoff run, starting with a tough Round One match against LAFC.
Portland Timbers: Re-signing Diego Valeri
Even when his contract status was up in the air, it was borderline impossible to imagine the Timbers without Valeri. Now, with Sebastian Blanco and Jarolsaw Niezgoda both out injured for the season, it's even more impossible to imagine the Timbers without Valeri.
The club legend returned on a deal bought down by allocation, rather than occupying a DP slot. The Timbers then signed Niezgoda (who was in great form until his injury) and Yimmi Chara (who is hitting form after a slow start). All the while, from opening day way back on March 1, the 34-year-old has still been wildly productive. He has eight goals and seven assists in 1,628 minutes.
Diego Valeri is eternal.
Minnesota United FC: Emanuel Reynoso
Minnesota surely would've made the playoffs without Reynoso's midseason signing, but he’ll be key to them making some noise in November.
The Loons only got two appearances in 2020 from reigning Defender of the Year Ike Opara and starting goalkeeper Tyler Miller had season-ending hip surgery in August. Forward Luis Amarilla is done for the year. Key players Robin Lod, Jan Gregus, Romain Metanire and Kei Kamara are all expected to miss their Round One game as they quarantine following the international break.
Can Reynoso, the creator-in-chief from Boca Juniors and someone Adrian Heath called one of the best talents in MLS, lift those around him?
Colorado Rapids: Younes Namli
Namli was the crown jewel of the Rapids’ offseason and has generally made those around him better in attack. His numbers (two goals and four assists in 16 starts) don’t jump off the page, but he’s just a solid player.
Colorado long pointed to 2020 as a year of greater flexibility and such. Namli was the big DP they brought in and they made the playoffs.
FC Dallas: Andres Ricaurte
Ricaurte is one of a few shrewd signings this year, even if Dallas haven’t really hit the form they’re capable of. Thiago Santos has been solid and Tanner Tessmann has enjoyed a breakout year after signing his homegrown deal.
LAFC: Jesus David Murillo
Sure, Murillo was only officially acquired on Oct. 14 and has only made five appearances, but it's not as if LAFC were going to miss the playoffs – even without Carlos Vela for much of 2020. But they needed another center back to give themselves the best chance to have a meaningful stay in the playoffs after the Walker Zimmerman trade.
Murillo has passed the eye test in his limited minutes as he finds form and chemistry with his teammates.
LAFC are likely to be without four key players in their Round One playoff match against Seattle, though. Diego Rossi, Brian Rodriguez, Jose Cifuentes and Diego Palacios are all on international duty this week and will have to complete quarantine before returning to action. A source said "it doesn't look great." Murillo and the defensive unit will have to step up.
San Jose Earthquakes: Oswaldo Alanis
Alanis was the club's only senior addition of the entire year, so this was an easy one.
A microcosm of the San Jose's weird 2020 season, Alanis has helped steer them to the playoffs despite a negative-16 goal difference. He even popped up with a few goals, including one in their insane 4-3 comeback win over the Vancouver Whitecaps at the MLS is Back Tournament. The Whitecaps finished one place below the Quakes, that match proving the difference in qualifying for the playoffs.
Philadelphia Union: Jose Martinez
Philosophically, perhaps no signing better represents Philly's identity shift than their offseason acquisition of Jose Martinez (after choosing to let Haris Medunjanin walk). His tenacity, ground-covering and ball-winning at the midfield's base are integral to their high-pressing ethos.
Martinez spent the entirety of his career in Venezuela before coming to the Union and wasn't a heralded signing. He wasn't even the starter heading into the season, but was given a chance in the final MLS game before a full stadium, the Union's thrilling 3-3 draw against LAFC on March 8.
Ever since, he's been a constant whenever available for the Supporters' Shield winners. He's even been voted to a few Best XI ballots as voters reveal their selections.
Toronto FC: Pablo Piatti
Toronto returned essentially the entirety of their core that made MLS Cup in 2019, so they didn't have a ton to do this offseason. They re-signed Michael Bradley to a non-DP deal, opening space to acquire Piatti.
When Piatti has been fit and in form, his partnership with Alejandro Pozuelo has been kinetic. If he's fit for the playoffs – he's nursing a calf strain that kept him out the club's final four regular-season games – he adds another dimension to the attack.
Columbus Crew SC: Darlington Nagbe
Both have missed time due to injury. When they were healthy, the Crew were a Supporters' Shield-contending team. It was seemingly more pronounced without Nagbe, though. In the 11 games that Zelarayan didn't start, Columbus won five. In the nine Nagbe didn't start, they won three.
Nagbe's press-resistant qualities make him a difficult one to replace, and Atlanta United are still searching for the right combination without him.
Orlando City SC: Pedro Gallese
Orlando brought in a number of key players this winter, including center back Antonio Carlos and No. 5 SuperDraft selection (and favorite for Rookie of the Year before the award was changed to Young Player of the Year) Daryl Dike, but Gallese has been tremendous.
The Lions haven't had consistency at goalkeeper pretty much since they entered MLS, so they went out and invested more than most MLS clubs (by way of salary and an international slot on a position most fill domestically) to land Peru's No. 1. It's worked out as expected.
Perhaps Carlos and Dike have been more productive (American Soccer Analysis' useful advanced save metrics don't love Gallese), but there's something about filling a longstanding need that leaves me favoring the Peruvian.
NYCFC: Permanent deal for Keaton Parks
Parks joined NYCFC on loan ahead of the 2019 season, then was stuck on the bench for a few months before becoming an indispensable cog in the starting XI. The midfielder's future wasn't sorted, whether it was back in Europe or not, but the US youth international returned to New York on a permanent deal this winter.
NYCFC returned the overwhelming majority of their key contributors this season. Nicolas Acevedo was one of a few acquisitions, but the Uruguayan has been limited to just one start in a packed midfield featuring the likes of Parks, Alex Ring, James Sands and more. He's one to watch for the future, though.
New York Red Bulls: Jared Stroud & Caden Clark
First, Stroud was another player who they cultivated through RBNY II. He wasn't a top, rising prospect. He went to Colgate University, played summer soccer with the Red Bulls' U-23 side then arrived in USL at age 21. Plenty of teams would have overlooked that profile. But then he tore up the USL Championship, earned an MLS contract at age 24 and got chances at the first-team level. Stroud played just 100 minutes fewer than Kaku. It's the Red Bull way.
Second, Clark is the top, rising prospect all teams search for. The Red Bulls signed him to a USL contract in preseason and before long they were desperate to get him into the first team. Once they acquired his homegrown rights from Minnesota United, he signed a contract and started his first MLS game. You may have seen more than a few headlines about this starlet. Don't expect them to go away anytime soon; he's the real deal.
The Red Bulls rose to sixth in the East, all while making a coaching change and not because their big acquisitions have been home runs. They're here because of the developmental foundation they built through those like Stroud, Clark, Brian White, Tom Barlow, Aaron Long and plenty more.
Nashville SC: Dax McCarty
Walker Zimmerman was recently named club MVP, will finish in the top two or three of MLS Defender of the Year (he's probably the favorite to win it) and would have been an excellent choice. He'll get his due.
McCarty, though, has been painfully underrated throughout his stellar MLS career. The veteran midfielder is now on his fifth team, an oddity for such a constant presence. Wherever he's gone, that team has immediately gotten better. He was traded to the Red Bulls and was integral to two Supporters' Shield-winning teams. He then was traded to Chicago for 2017 and helped lead them to their only playoff appearance since 2013. He's now Nashville SC's captain and the expansion side is in the playoffs. McCarty, 33, started 19 of their 23 games during a condensed season and didn't look like slowing down.
New England Revolution: Henry Kessler
Kessler was picked No. 6 overall in the SuperDraft and Bruce Arena, known for his veteran-based teams, has made the University of Virginia product one of his defensive anchors. That's great value. It's shades of Arena's identification and trust of Omar Gonzalez with the LA Galaxy in the early 2010s. He, too, was a first-round SuperDraft selection and immediately proved his quality in MLS.
Montreal Impact: Luis Binks
Sure, in the macro view, pointing to a center back from a team that conceded more goals than any other Eastern Conference team may be odd – but Binks’ talent is obvious.
A former Tottenham U-23 standout, Binks made 20 starts this season and slotted No. 11 in MLSsoccer.com’s 22 Under 22 rankings. By the fall he did plenty to convince Serie A side Bologna to acquire him — Bologna and Montreal are both owned by Joey Saputo, anyway. He’ll be back in Montreal on loan in 2021, a boost to the Impact's evolving defense.
Inter Miami: Lewis Morgan
Every single player on Inter Miami's roster is in contention, and plenty are deserving. But on a team with global stars like Gonzalo Higuain and Blaise Matuidi, internationals like Rodolfo Pizarro and Wil Trapp, proven MLSers like Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Luis Robles, plus highly-rated youngsters like Matias Pelligrini and Julian Carranza, it's Morgan who has been most influential to their postseason berth.
Morgan started every single one of Miami's games, the only player on the team to do so. He had five goals and eight assists, both of which are team highs. He was second in MLS in chances created and second in expected assists. Miami made the playoffs only with a win on Decision Day against FC Cincinnati. They needed every one of Morgan's goal contributions.
The 24-year-old Scotland international has enjoyed a tremendous first season in MLS.