As Major League Soccer's 28 clubs have constructed their rosters for the 2022 season, free agency has allowed for smart pickups that are bound to make a meaningful impact.
But it's important to remember not all free agents come in the same shape and size. Some are Day 1 starters who are natural fits for a club's system, while others are more depth pieces that round out a roster. And, of course, there's a group in between.
Focusing on players joining new clubs (not returners on new deals), here are eight of the best free-agent signings of the offseason so far. And here's the full remaining list, which started at over 120 players strong.
2021 club: Real Salt Lake
2022 club: Seattle Sounders FC
How much more can I even say here? There’s a relatively airtight case to make that this is the best free-agent signing in league history. Albert Rusnak is 27 and coming off an 11-goal, 11-assist season on a team that had far fewer options in attack and far fewer ways to offer protection behind him. I mean, sometimes that doesn’t matter and you can just hang around until penalty kicks without worrying about passé things like “shooting the ball” and win anyway. But generally, you’d rather have more options.
Rusnak won’t face the same pressure to be The Guy in Seattle and should have the freedom in attack and the versatility to be an immediate fit who's immediately impactful. Seattle are stacked and primed for a special season if the pieces around Rusnak can stay healthy.
2021 club: Minnesota United FC
2022 club: Atlanta United
All you really need to do to understand the kind of impact Ozzie Alonso can have on a team is look at any post about him and see the litany of comments ranging from “come home Ozzie” to “I would trade one of my kids to have him back.” His tenacity and his ability on the ball in midfield, even at an increasing age, are the attributes fans covet and the exact kind of shock to the system Atlanta United’s midfield desperately needs.
He may not go more than 1,600 minutes this year, but he can help control a game at any moment, can act as an on-field lieutenant for former teammate Gonzalo Pineda and can be a leader in the locker room. Even if that means being a bit old school at times. 20-year-old Jackson Conway found that out the other day when Ozzie demanded Conway take his hat off inside the Atlanta training complex. Conway said he obliged because you can’t tell a league legend like Alonso no.
Alonso, at age 35, put together a decent 0.47 goals added season last year while finishing in the top quarter of the league among midfielders in passes, pass completion, progressive passes, progressive carries, interceptions and blocks. He’s a perfect fit for what Atlanta need right now and just about the best free-agent signing they could have made.
2021 club: Portland Timbers
2022 club: Houston Dynamo FC
According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, Steve Clark was the sixth-best goalkeeper in the league last season just behind Maxime Crepeau and Brad Guzan. He was the seventh-best shot-stopper right behind Carlos Coronel and Guzan. And – you may know this already – he’s been to MLS Cup a couple of times, including last year with Portland.
Any time you can pick up that level of protection at goalkeeper on a free agent deal, you’re finding good value in a salary cap league. Houston are quietly acquiring smart pieces under new GM Pat Onstad, and Clark's addition makes them immediately better.
2021 club: Atlanta United
2022 club: FC Cincinnati
Speaking of goalkeepers, Cincinnati quietly pulled off one of the better steals of the offseason when they pulled Alec Kann away from Atlanta United. Kann has been deserving of a starting spot somewhere for a while now and Cincy offered him a chance to leave his hometown club to get it.
Kann played 450 minutes last season. But his goals added and shot-stopping metrics were better than Andre Blake and Matt Turner. Small sample size, sure, but that’s an impressive sample. If we extend that sample back to 2017, Kann’s first year with Atlanta United, it puts Kann at 2,343 minutes and second in goals added per 96. The only keeper better on average has been Turner, who seems to be somewhat highly regarded. Again, not the biggest sample size. Again, an extremely impressive sample.
I’m eager to see how Kann performs with a full-time starting gig. At this point, it’s fair to assume he’ll get plenty of shot-stopping opportunities with Cincinnati. Hopefully, he keeps them in a few more games.
2021 club: Sporting Kansas City
2022 club: LAFC
Along with Kellyn Acosta, Franco Escobar and Maxime Crepeau, Ilie Sanchez is part of a new group of LAFC players brought in to help shift LAFC away from a chaotic neutral alignment. Let's call it The Great Steadying.
Crepeau is the most impactful of that group, but Sanchez might quietly be second. The 31-year-old Spaniard has 144 MLS games under his belt and posted a solid 1.12 goals added season last year. He finished in the 86th percentile among midfielders in pass completion while finishing in the 99th percentile in pass attempts – and a good chunk of those passes were progressive. Meanwhile, he finished in the 70th percentile in interceptions, the 95th percentile in clearances and the 97th percentile in aerials won. Some of that might be a teensy-bit influenced by how he slid to center back for a while last year, but who am I to punish a guy for versatility?
Plus, everyone in Kansas City kind of seems to love him. Seems like a bonus. Especially when you’re trying to take Eduard Atuesta’s place after the Colombian was transferred to Palmeiras. That responsibility isn’t all going to be on Sanchez of course, but LAFC are hoping he can add significantly to the whole becoming greater than the sum of the parts in a way that 2021's group never did.
2021 club: New York Red Bulls
2022 club: Nashville SC
Sean Davis joins an already deep midfield and presumably makes it better both on and off the field. The former Red Bulls captain is coming off a solid year (1.14 goals added) and should get to relax a little bit more under Gary Smith’s system that is just a little bit less RBNY about everything. He feels like a perfect fit for this team and if Nashville continue their linear progression from year one to year two to year three, Davis may be a big reason why.
Davis’ (Red Bulls-influenced) numbers put him in the 70th percentile or higher among midfielders in tackles, interceptions, blocks, clearances and aerials won. Just think, if you get through a midfield with some combo of Randall Leal, Anibal Godoy, Dax McCarty and Davis, you still have to get by Walker Zimmerman and Joe Willis. I’m going to guess Nashville won't give up a whole lot of goals in 2022. Again.
2021 club: Toronto FC
2022 club: New England Revolution
It’s not the most outstanding signing on this list, but it’s a solid signing. Despite being on a struggling Toronto team last year, Omar Gonzalez still put up a slightly above average 0.5 goals added. He’s not going to be asked to be more than that this year and can immediately fit into Bruce Arena’s culture as a depth piece.
2021 club: Columbus Crew
2022 club: Charlotte FC
Speaking of veterans, Charlotte filled their seemingly-now-required expansion team veteran defender quota by snagging right back Harrison Afful after his Columbus Crew run. The 35-year-old Ghanaian didn’t have a Best XI season last year, but with 164 regular-season appearances under his belt, he’ll offer a valuable locker room presence to a team finding its way in the league, as well as a steady on-field presence when needed.
Look, when you sign one of the most productive players at their position in league history, you’ve done something right in almost any circumstance.
Still out there: Daniel Royer, Nick DeLeon, Ilsinho
Your team could maybe join this list too if they want.
Daniel Royer is still out there waiting to rebound from a couple of tough years and start making people feel bad about allowing Daniel Royer to score on them again. Nick DeLeon is still there waiting to help you terrorize Atlanta United fans.
Ilsinho is still out there! Ilsinho! Beloved fan favorite and MLS legend Ilsinho! This section is honestly a big smokescreen designed to get someone to sign Ilsinho. Someone please sign Ilsinho. I really, really need someone to sign Ilsinho.