As we near the end of the regular season, the time is ripe to weigh which squad moves made by MLS clubs have borne the juiciest fruit.
Bear in mind, this is not a straight production and performance ranking of the best transfers made. Fit and influence in a new team is also highly important to winning, so the same goes here.
League general managers have done such a fine job adding impact pieces to their roster puzzles that our honorable mentions collection is exhaustive and hard to argue: Adama Diomande, Cory Burke, Rod Fanni, Benny Feilhaber, Aleksandar Katai, Darlington Nagbe, Cristian Penilla, Darwin Quintero, Diego Rossi, Johnny Russell, Danilo Silva, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Walker Zimmerman.
No. 10: Felipe Gutierrez
Felipe Gutierrez | USA Today Sports Images
I went back and forth between Gutierrez and Russell for this spot, but in the end, had to give it to the Chile veteran because of his clear advantage in replacement value. After all, he moved out of his optimal position to bring a new flavor to Benny Feilhaber's old spot.
He's enjoyed easily his best offensive season since leaving his homeland six years ago while remaining one of the top tacklers in the MLS. The clincher? Sporting KC are a Supporters’ Shield-esque 9-3-3 when he starts, and a middling 6-5-5 when he doesn't.
No. 9: Kei Kamara
The Vancouver striker is hardly a silent or sneaky guy, and yet somehow, he's quietly put in the second-best season of his career. Kamara has given the Whitecaps the cobra's head they've lacked since Camilo departed after the 2013 season, potting 14 goals (six of them game-winners, good for third in MLS) to go with five assists.
He's provided all that production in fewer than 2,000 minutes, and the team simply doesn't run as smoothly when he's not on the field (1-3-2 when Kamara doesn't play). And for all of his on-field value, it might actually pale in comparison to the advanced tutelage he's offered to Alphonso Davies.
No. 8: Kim Kee-hee/Tim Parker/Milton Valenzuela
You know I love a good cheat pick, and this one's a tripleheader. Let's call it the "Wins Above Replacement" backline crew, to steal a baseball term. Simply put, their teams all would have suffered a significant amount if forced to turn to the next guy on the depth chart.
A safety officer on and off the ball, Kee-hee has stepped into the heart of a Seattle defense that had developed what you might call “Roman Torres problems.” The Sounders have logged 13 of their 15 wins and conceded less than a goal per game when the South Korea defender starts.
Over in New York, Parker has proved the perfect partner to Aaron Long on a team that often forces their center backs to fend for themselves on the run. The Red Bulls are 1-3-1 while allowing two goals per game when the hometown boy has sat this season.
Finally, Valenzuela has given Columbus Crew SC great balance in both directions. Looking north-south, the young DP is a top tackler who also stands third in the league among defenders in key passes. And by outproducing the left wingers that have played in front of him, he's also scared opponents off of crowding Harrison Afful's side.
No. 7: Kaku
GOAL: Kaku cuts and places the opener into the bottom corner
A lot of fingernails got chewed to the quick when the Red Bulls dealt away Sacha Kljestan, but that quickly became old news once the season started. Alejandro Romero Gamarra, better known as Kaku, fit right in with the Supporters’ Shield contenders right away in his debut MLS season (no small feat), making sure Bradley Wright-Phillips would not go hungry up top.
The playmaker dribbles past defenders, hits a mean splitting pass, gives up the ball far less than one would expect from a final third operator and presses like a demon, a certain requirement at Red Bull Arena. Because of all this, he stands tied for fourth in the league with 14 assists, and all five of his goals have been game-winners.
No. 6: Saphir Taider
It has become quite de rigueur of late to moan about how underrated Nacho Piatti is up in Montreal. These complainers are not wrong, but I've got hot news for them: The three-time All-Star and 2016 Best XI honoree is not even the most underappreciated player on his team.
It says here that distinction goes to Taider, the do-it-all midfielder who’s the main difference in a side that has already surpassed last year's point total by four with two games remaining. The Algeria star is second on the team with seven goals and third with eight assists by running their bread-and-butter counter, and gets stuck in defensively without fouling much. Without Taider, Montreal aren't even in the playoff race.
No. 5: Raul Ruidiaz
The Peru striker only arrived at midseason, but his transformative powers have not gone unnoticed. Due to another Jordan Morris injury setback, Seattle coaches and fans spent the first four months of the season bemoaning the lack of an attacker who could stretch the field and unnerve defenders.
That all ended with the arrival of Ruidiaz, who give defenders fits, which in turn affords Sounders orchestrator Nico Lodeiro both space and a top target. Yeah, he's bagged seven goals in 12 games, and that's great. More importantly, Seattle are 10-2-0 with two goals scored per game when he plays (vs. just under a half-goal per game without him on the field).
No. 4: Borek Dockal
Borek Dockal | USA Today Sports Images
Oh boy, did Philadelphia Union fans seemingly cry out forever for a No. 10 to bridge their fine midfield and routinely starved attack. All those prayers were finally answered with the loan move that brought crystalizing force Dockal to Philly.
Though it took the Czech playmaker several weeks to heat up, he eventually was dispensing fresh, tasty offerings like a Wawa. Dockal had but one assist through his first eight games, but now tops the league with 17. Thanks to his incisive link play and array of final balls, Philadelphia are back in the playoffs with a good shot at hosting their first postseason game since 2011.
No. 3: Carlos Vela
There’s no shortage of excellent pickups on the LAFC roster (see the honorable mentions above), and if we were counting head coaching hires in this list, Bob Bradley would rank near the top. Even so, Vela has truly been the straw that stirs the expansion darlings' drink from day one.
The Mexico star has 13 goals to go with a dozen helpers, and stands near the top of the league in non-penalty goals + assists per 90 minutes, key passes, free kicks won, dribbles and shots on goal. Nearly every frightening LAFC rush goes through him, and enough of them also end with him that the new kids on the block have a great chance to end their first regular season with a Knockout Round bye.
No. 2: Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney & Luciano Acosta: Potent partnership in DC | Audi Player Index
Though "Señor Wayne" has only been in MLS for 17 games, the former England icon has completely changed both the look and the outlook for the Black-and-Red. Many doubted that Rooney could still star, but they've all been converted since mid-July, when D.C. United had 11 points from 14 games and appeared in need of a series of miracles to reach the postseason.
Rooney hasn't walked on water just yet, but he does steal points late with an alarming frequency. The 32-year-old has done it all, dropping deep, leading the line and everything in between on the way to nine goals and seven assists. His presence has also unleashed the beast in Lucho Acosta, and the two have led the capital crew on a 10-4-3 surge that has them holding the East’s last playoff spot, four points ahead of the only foe that can still catch them.
No. 1: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Who else could it be, right? The mighty Zlatan burst onto the MLS scene with a stunning derby double and has hardly slowed down since. The LA Galaxy superstar has had a historic debut season, chalking up 21 goals and nine assists to put the StubHub Center crew in position to pull off what rather recently looked to be an improbable rally for a playoff berth. Without him, they are nowhere near this station.
The striker's goals-per-game rate is almost identical to that of record-breaker Josef Martinez, he's hit for seven winners, buried all four of his penalty kicks and he's one helper away from becoming the third 20-10 player in league history. And let's face it: even if the Galaxy don't manage to snare that playoff invite, Zlatan's showmanship on the field, lion's roar of a personality off of it and worldwide Q Rating has improved the league immeasurably.