We’re only one week out, folks.
The 2017 Major League Soccer season begins in seven short days, with the Portland Timbers set to host expansion team Minnesota United FC at Providence Park on Friday night (9:30 pm ET; FS1 in US, MLS LIVE in Canada). The match will kick off a full slate of opening weekend contests, when all 22 clubs – the most ever in MLS – will usher in the league’s 22nd season.
Before a ball is kicked in anger, however, I want to tackle one final question: Who won the offseason?
For the purposes of this story, I excluded Minnesota and fellow expansion team Atlanta from consideration. Those two clubs were necessarily more active than their peers, with Atlanta constructing a team out of whole cloth and Minnesota massively overhauling their 2016 NASL roster ahead of their inaugural MLS season.
That said, the impressive job that Atlanta have done merits mention. They’ve signed a trio of talented young South American Designated Players in Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba and built around them with experienced MLS and international signings such as Brad Guzan (come summer), Michael Parkhurst and Carlos Carmona. Their roster has drawn nearly universal praise from opposing GMs that I’ve spoken to, and, on paper, they look like they have more than enough talent to make the playoffs in the East.
But that’s a bit beside the point. Atlanta and Minnesota were playing a different game than the rest of the league this winter. Among teams that actually played an MLS match in 2016, I think it’s pretty clear that the Chicago Fire had the best winter.
Chicago GM Nelson Rodriguez and head coach Veljko Paunovic inherited a mess when they took over the Fire ahead of last season. Apart from a couple of talented pieces, Chicago’s cupboard was bare. Their salary cap situation wasn’t any better. They suffered for it in 2016, when they finished last in MLS for the second consecutive year.
That poor finish gave them some tools to succeed this winter, and the Fire used most of them effectively. They got things going on Dec. 20, when they signed Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolic to a Designated Player contract from Polish club Legia Warsaw. Nikolic, who turned 29 on New Year’s Eve, has an absurd goal rate thus far in his career, scoring 128 goals in 205 league games since 2010 and eight goals in 18 matches in European competition since the start of the 2015 season.
Finishing last in 2016 also gave Chicago the assets to pull off two other big moves this winter. Because they finished 20th last year, the Fire netted the No. 3 selection in the Allocation Ranking Order and in the SuperDraft, behind only Atlanta and Minnesota. They sent the No. 3 spot in the Allocation Order, General Allocation Money and a second-round draft pick to Minnesota for the No. 2 spot in the Allocation Order to nab former LA Galaxy midfielder Juninho on loan from Tijuana on Dec. 23, bolstering a central midfield that had been a weak spot at Toyota Park for years.
A few days after sending the No. 3 overall selection in the draft to New York City FC in exchange for $250,000 in General Allocation Money, the Fire strengthened that position even further. In perhaps the most surprising move of the winter, Chicago sent $400,000 in GAM to New York in exchange for Red Bulls captain and midfield facilitator Dax McCarty on Jan. 16. The move completed Chicago’s offseason midfield upgrade, giving them two All-Star caliber players in a spot where Matt Polster and Razvan Cocis got the majority of minutes last year.
Not that Chicago had a perfect winter. The club mostly failed to address their leaky backline, which gave up 58 goals in 2016, tied for the second-most in the league. They also are a bit unsettled in net after sending longtime starter Sean Johnson to Atlanta, who subsequently traded him to NYCFC after landing Guzan. I think their roster is screaming for a true No. 10 as well, though Chicago could address that by buying down a Designated Player using Targeted Allocation Money and signing another DP in the summertime.
But the Fire’s front six is now legitimately solid. Nikolic seems like a solid piece up top, McCarty and Juninho (who, it should be noted, will have to figure out how to best partner each other) are excellent midfield anchors and forward Michael de Leeuw and wingers David Accam and Arturo Alvarez totaled 21 goals and 17 assists in 72 combined appearances last year. I’m not sure if they’ll make the playoffs in 2017, but a third straight last-place finish is not in the cards for this group.
“I think Chicago won the offseason,” one opposing GM told me earlier this week. “In terms of biggest turnaround, I guarantee you that they’ll be the biggest this year.”
Timbers, NYCFC among other winter winners
Chicago look like they’ll be among the most improved teams in MLS this year, but they’re not the only team that had a successful winter.
A few other teams bear mentioning, as well. Portland is certainly on that list for jettisoning the disappointing Lucas Melano and adding attacking winger Sebastian Blanco as a Designated Player and signing central midfielder David Guzman. Their additions give Portland what I view as the best front six in the league, with Guzman and Diego Chara sitting centrally, Blanco and Darlington Nagbe slotted in on the wings and attacking midfielder Diego Valeri playing underneath star striker Fanendo Adi.
I’m concerned about who the Timbers will slot in next to Liam Ridgewell at center back now that Gbenga Arokoyo is out for the year, but Portland – who added veteran defender Chance Myers in free agency and traded up to draft talented US Under-20 forward Jeremy Ebobisse – have the talent to contend for the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup this year.
I also largely like what NYCFC did this winter. They addressed a position of need by acquiring Sean Johnson from Atlanta, added a talented winger with MLS experience in Rodney Wallace, picked up a promising piece in Yangel Herrera and replaced Andoni Iraola with a 25-year-old midfielder who has plenty of quality games under his belt in Alexander Ring. I didn’t love the addition of Designated Player Maxi Moralez, but that's mainly because I expected something splashier from NYCFC. I feel like I might eat my words on that one, too – Moralez certainly has the pedigree to be very successful in MLS.
They operated mostly on the margins, but I’m also a fan of how Supporters’ Shield winners FC Dallas and MLS Cup champs Seattle handled their winters. Both kept most of their important pieces in town, and both were able to add some intriguing elements, with Dallas landing Young DP Cristian Colman and winger Roland Lamah and Seattle acquiring Will Bruin and Harry Shipp. Expect them to battle it out for West supremacy this year.
Mullins under DC's control through 2020
According to a source, the extension is a three-year deal that will come into effect in 2018. The first two years of the contract are guaranteed, while D.C. will hold an option for Mullins in the 2020 season.
Mullins, 25, came into his own after being traded from NYCFC to D.C. last July, scoring eight goals and notching two assists in 14 appearances with United. D.C. were stellar in the attack with Mullins on the field, scoring 33 goals in his 14 games and scoring multiple goals in their final nine regular season matches, tying a club record for most consecutive multi-goal games.
Mullins is the third key United player to receive an extension this winter, joining 22-year-old playmaker Luciano Acosta and 26-year-old US national team defender Steve Birnbaum in getting new deals this offseason. Along with goalkeeper Bill Hamid, they give United a pretty formidable spine to build around heading into 2018, when they’re scheduled to move into Audi Field. The new stadium should help United a good deal financially, perhaps making moves like this winter’s – Acosta and Birnbaum didn’t come cheap – more commonplace for a club that’s historically been hesitant to spend.