1205-5Teams-toWatch

With the World Cup in full swing, MLS clubs continue to plan for the 2023 season.

It’s still early in the offseason and teams have plenty of work to do before league games return on February 25. Rosters are far from complete.

Below I’ve highlighted five of the most interesting clubs to watch in the months ahead.

I’ve excluded St. Louis CITY SC because, obviously, expansion teams are the belles of the ball as they assemble their inaugural roster. Inter Miami CF are left out because their big changes could be in the summer by remaining in the Lionel Messi sweepstakes.

Toronto still have an open Designated Player spot. They need center backs, goalkeepers, fullbacks and central midfielders. They have a few really talented young homegrowns in midfielder Jayden Nelson and fullback/winger Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, both of whom could move on to Europe.

It’s going to be very, very busy as head coach/sporting director Bob Bradley further reshapes the squad.

Toronto are also one of the biggest-spending teams in the league. Last year they turned two open DP spots into Italian international forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. I can safely assume they’ll swing big with this vacant DP spot.

Outside of that DP opportunity, Bradley and Co. aren’t going to stand idle. A ton of players have departed since Bradley took over last winter. A cadre of young players got minutes last year… and most have been shipped off. From starters to depth pieces, it’s a complete overhaul.

Toronto could bring in another six starters to supplement a core that includes Insigne, Bernardeschi, fullback Richie Laryea and midfielders Michael Bradley and Mark-Anthony Kaye.

Toronto are likely to be busy in the free agent market, not just in trying to re-sign midfielder Jonathan Osorio, but also in looking at other targets, including some bigger names. They could continue to be active in the trade market as well.

The Parleh’s Michael Singh reported Nelson is likely to be transferred. Sources have told MLSsoccer.com for a long time Marshall-Rutty has suitors, and most recently there were talks with Belgium’s Club Brugge over the summer.

After perhaps their best-ever season, finishing second in the Eastern Conference while playing a fun, front-foot style… CF Montréal face a ton of questions this winter.

Star midfielder Djordje Mihailovic is leaving to join AZ Alkmaar. Versatile defender Alistair Johnston has finalized a transfer to Celtic. Defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama, their lone DP in 2022, is out of contract. Ismaël Koné has finalized a move to Watford. Head coach Wilfried Nancy (my vote for Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year) is likely to leave and join the Columbus Crew.

To do the simple math: Montréal likely have to replace their up-and-coming manager, best attacker, only DP, a Canadian international defender and a wonderkid midfielder. Good luck!

Montréal will have a bunch of allocation money to enhance the group. In recent years they’ve been very good at acquiring talent via intra-league trades (Mihailovic, Johnston, Kamal Miller). The General Allocation Money (GAM) they receive from these transfers will be useful in replenishing key spots.

Montréal will have all three DP spots open, should they pursue that route. There can be significant additions, but first up is probably the coaching search. Then CFMTL need a new goalkeeper, a few midfielders and defenders, plus a game-changing attacker.

Oh, Montréal also have a new logo again!

The Portland Timbers are continuing their transition from one era to the next. Club legend Diego Valeri has already left, while Argentine centerpiece Sebastián Blanco, who turns 35 in March, is drifting past his prime. D-mid Diego Chara turns 37 in early April, while goalkeeper Steve Clark left last offseason for Houston.

This winter will provide further outgoings as the Timbers continue to overturn the roster. Plenty of teams are interested in trading for midfielder Eryk Williamson, it should be noted.

As for incomings, Portland just completed their club-record transfer by signing Brazilian attacking midfielder Evander from FC Midtjylland in a deal worth around $10 million. The 24-year-old currently leads the Europa League in assists and now stands among MLS’s most talented players, the new face of Portland's attack.

Portland can also buy down striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda’s budget charge to free up another DP spot. While Felipe Mora restructured his contract, Portland are in the market for another forward. There are likely to be defensive additions as well.

The Timbers missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in 2022 after hosting MLS Cup in 2021. They want to get back to those heights.

The reigning Supporters’ Shield winners and MLS Cup champions got to celebrate for a bit – and probably still are – but had to get stuck into their long list of offseason priorities.

First, they had five key squad players out of contract. LAFC have already re-signed defender Ryan Hollingshead, but Sebastián Méndez, Franco Escobar, Eddie Segura, Sebastien Ibeagha and Cristian Tello are all currently out of contract.

Next, rising midfielder José Cifuentes is likely to depart for Europe in a lucrative transfer. The Ecuador international just wrapped up a breakout season and has plenty of suitors abroad. That would create a big need in the midfield (more pronounced if compatriot/World Cup teammate Mendez doesn’t return).

Then, what happens with superstar forward Gareth Bale? The 33-year-old seemed to quell retirement talk after Wales’ World Cup participation, but is only on a guaranteed deal through next summer. Will LAFC pick up his option to make him a DP?

These are only questions surrounding potential outgoings!

As for incomings… if Bale doesn’t come back (or that option isn’t picked up in the summer), then LAFC should have a DP spot open (depending on what, exactly, happens with Tello). Forwards Carlos Vela and Dénis Bouanga are their other DPs.

They’re likely to need some replacements around the roster as is, defending several titles and juggling Leagues Cup/Champions League/Open Cup. We saw general manager John Thorrington find success with just about every move last season, turning to the MLS-experienced market during the offseason before mainly layering in high-profile names during the summer.

Also: What happens at goalkeeper since starter Maxime Crépeau is out with a long-term injury (broken leg)? We saw John McCarthy achieve legendary status in MLS Cup when subbing on, but do they give him the full-time gig for now?

There are a lot of key decisions Thorrington must sort. LAFC won’t want to rest on their laurels and have shown a willingness to spend, with players desiring to join what they’ve built.

For whatever valid criticisms can be thrown Chicago Fire FC’s way in recent years, one thing is clear: They take big swings under owner Joe Mansueto. And they have an open DP spot this winter.

For their first two DP spots, Chicago paid $7.5 million for Swiss international midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri and $6 million for Mexican winger Jairo Torres last year. Who will the third DP be? With Torres being a Young DP, they have no restrictions on where to use this one.

The Fire are looking for a forward this offseason to add to an already opulent attack that struggled in 2022. The club, under first-year head coach Ezra Hendrickson, scored just 39 goals. That was second-worst in MLS ahead of Wooden Spoon "winners" D.C. United.

That DP spot isn’t the only high-leverage mechanism Chicago can use, as there’s one more U22 Initiative slot open. Their current two spots are filled by Colombian wonderkid forward Jhon Durán (signed for $2.5 million) and Argentine defensive midfielder Federico Navarro (signed for $5 million). 

The U22 Initiative is one way for big-spending clubs to leverage discretionary spend, especially with importing international players, as the transfer fee isn’t calculated into the budget charge and the contracts hit the cap at $200,000.

Chicago will also receive an allocation money boost from their club-record transfer of homegrown goalkeeper Gaga Slonina to Chelsea. Another US youth international from their academy, Chris Brady, seems poised to take the starter’s spot.

The Fire have needs along their defensive unit, too. It’s another busy winter in the Windy City.