As Major League Soccer grows, so does the annual crop of influential transfers from abroad, which one would assume makes choosing the best buys of the season tougher every year.
That’s normally the case, but not in 2020. This time, it was actually quite simple picking the 11 players (yay for cheat picks!) that comprised the transfer honor roll for the year. Ordering them is surely a matter of personal taste, but this season saw the group below separate themselves enough to reach the top shelf of new MLS acquisitions. No real muss or fuss in that regard.
We're not including players previously on loan to their MLS side, then saw their stay become permanent last winter. That means the impressive likes of Cristian Espinoza and Jamiro Monteiro were not eligible. Only fresh 2020 recruits need apply here.
As you'd expect, the honorable mentions list is long and impressive: Luis Binks, Yimmi Chara, Pedro Gallese, Gaston Gimenez, Jakob Glesnes, Gadi Kinda, Alvaro Medran, Hany Mukhtar, Rodolfo Pizarro, Matt Polster, Thiago Santos, Boris Sekulic, Junior Urso, Ranko Veselinovic and Dario Zuparic.
No. 10: Joao Paulo
Being a Designated Player in Seattle carries hefty expectations, but the Brazilian had little trouble exceeding them with stylish two-way play as the Sounders charted their increasingly-regular path to MLS Cup.
Joao Paulo came precisely as advertised, proving the perfect central park load-lightener for Nico Lodeiro. He led the Sounders in both tackles and recoveries, and was second on the team in distance traveled on the dribble.
No. 9: Felipe Mora & Jaroslaw Niezgoda
One of Portland's prime offseason aims was to enhance their scoring depth. To tick that box, they signed two of the most efficient forwards in the league during 2020.
Both Mora and Niezgoda (who scored an outrageous 58% of his shot attempts) were among the regular-season leaders in shooting accuracy, combining for 14 goals in just over 1,800 minutes. They were key figures, ensuring the goals kept coming as Portland won the MLS is Back Tournament and finished third in the Western Conference.
No. 8: Lewis Morgan
Inter Miami made some huge signings before (Rodolfo Pizarro) and during (Blaise Matuidi, Gonzalo Higuain) their debut MLS season, but a relatively unheralded young winger stole the show. Morgan paced the team in goals and assists, and was among the top chance creators in the league.
Morgan did it in every imaginable way, too, ranging from long-distance shots and dribble wizardry to danger crosses and restart serves. Morgan scored five times and added six helpers over Miami’s final 14 games to spearhead the expansion side's rally to make the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
No. 7: Yeimar Gomez Andrade
Despite coming off an MLS Cup triumph, Seattle had to rebuild their central defense stable last winter. Enter the all-action Colombian, who was aces at both rush prevention and driving the Sounders into attack mode.
The team had a plus-17 goal differential when the 28-year-old was on the field during the regular season. Yeimar was a monster in the playoffs, too, as they reached a fourth MLS Cup match in five seasons.
No. 6: Alan Pulido
I'll admit it: I was wrong about Sporting Kansas City’s record signing. I was skeptical he would link the team's buildup as needed and didn't think he'd score at a rate that would justify his cost of acquisition.
Well, Pulido made a big difference in both regards, slotting in perfectly between "target winger" Khiry Shelton and human tornado Johnny Russell. The Mexican international finished with six goals and five assists in 12 games, with his absence (knee injury) dearly felt during SKC’s playoff exit.
No. 5: Robert Beric
The Chicago Fire FC striker got off to a fast start, only to cool down during the heat of summer. Beric finished strong, though, nearly sparking the Fire to the playoffs by bagging 10 goals over the final 13 games.
Were it not for a string of goalkeeper robberies late on, Beric might have tied Diego Rossi for the Golden Boot presented by Audi and the Fire might have reached the postseason. The Slovenian international didn't just score, he scored timely goals. All but two of his dozen tallies either pulled his team within one, tied the game or put Chicago in front.
No. 4: Antonio Carlos
It drew little fanfare when the Brazilian center back joined Orlando City SC, and he continued to fly under the radar even as the club enjoyed a breakout season.
That lack of spotlight is a shame, as Antonio Carlos was as important as any other player to Orlando’s team-centered success in 2020. He formed a sturdy, well-rounded partnership with Robin Jansson, helping the Lions lower their goals against average from last season's 1.53 to 1.09 (fifth-best in MLS) and raise their goal differential by 23.
No. 3: Emanuel Reynoso
With the exception of Pulido, Minnesota United's summer pick-up had the shortest MLS campaign of anybody included here. Even so, Reynoso wheeled and dealed enough in his 16 games to earn this high ranking.
The Loons went 7-2-3 while hitting for multiple goals nine times in games the Argentine No. 10 started. The 25-year-old attack architect rang up seven assists down the stretch of the regular season, and then added another seven in three playoff games to steer his side within a whisker of MLS Cup.
No. 2: Jose Andres Martinez
Philadelphia were in a tough spot when the season started. Not only did they need to fill Haris Medunjanin's vacated spot in the formation, but they also had to shift some responsibilities around to meld with a different type of defensive midfielder.
And while Martinez got stray bits of preseason pub, he didn’t widely move the needle upon arrival. Yet the Venezuelan international helped the Union out of tough spots until they were Supporters’ Shield winners. He was a foreboding tackler who could also support rushes.
No. 1: Lucas Zelarayan
Columbus Crew SC's big winter catch was artful and excellent during the regular season, but that's not why he is the only reasonable choice for the head of this class. Zelarayan shifted into overdrive in the postseason, with an obscene 30 shot-creating actions in four games.
He made those chances count, too, notching five assists during the Crew's march to the crown. The playmaker then scored twice in MLS Cup to highlight what might have been the most comprehensive MLS Cup MVP presented by Audi performances in league history.