While a slower-than-usual transfer market kept Major League Soccer clubs from making as many big splashes as they did in recent winter windows, they still managed to attract plenty of enticing talent from abroad ahead of the 2021 season.
Believe it or not, only three Designated Players were signed league-wide. Instead of rushing to find the big ticket items, most MLS clubs went back to good old fashioned scouting. They scoured the globe to pick up an exciting batch of 25-and-under talents with upside, as well as some dependable veteran influences.
As the usual appetizer, we'll serve up a hearty honorable mentions list (which almost certainly includes a couple names that will outshine guys from the top 10): Anderson Julio (Real Salt Lake), Deiber Caicedo (Vancouver Whitecaps), Stuart Findlay (Philadelphia Union), Stanislav Ivanov (Chicago Fire FC), Bjorn Johnsen (CF Montréal), Javier Lopez (San Jose Earthquakes), Christian Mafla (New England Revolution), Rodrigo Pineiro (Nashville SC), Jhohan Romana (Austin FC), Santiago Sosa (Atlanta United) and Remi Walter (Sporting Kansas City).
No. 10 Jose Antonio Martinez (FC Dallas)
Though FC Dallas allowed just over a goal per game last season, there were definitely times when things got too frantic at the back. Veteran left center back Reto Ziegler departed at season's end, leaving a big hole for the club to fill. Enter Martinez, a seasoned defender from Spain's top two divisions. He should provide a calming influence in defense and a steady hand at passing out of the back.
No. 9 Jáder Obrian (FC Dallas)
It's not easy to win the Golden Boot in Colombia's top flight as a diminutive flank player, but Obrian darn near pulled it off this past season. That's because, instead of staying wide to provide service like the guy he's slated to replace in FC Dallas' lineup (Michael Barrios), the 25-year-old likes to raid the inside channels for box finishes.
No. 8 Derrick Williams (LA Galaxy)
Of all the things the LA Galaxy need heading into the new season, a busybody center back who excels at emergency defending may be chief among them. We often talk about how some attackers can make those around them better; the experienced, capable Williams could have that same effect at the back for the Carson crew.
No. 7 Kim Moon-hwan (LAFC)
I mentioned it in last week's list of my top under-the-radar offseason pick-ups, but the South Korea right back is liable to turn that position from overt weakness to strength for an LAFC side aiming to return to title contender status. Kim's a pacy two-way gamer who should fit right into Bob Bradley's system.
No. 6 Claudio Bravo (Portland Timbers)
Portland's left back spot was under the dutiful watch of Jorge Villafana for much of the last seven seasons, so the locals may have gotten used to a very by-the-book approach to the position. With Bravo's arrival, they can throw that book out. He's a sharply proactive defender at one end and an x-factor ball carrier going forward.
No. 5 Luciano Acosta (FC Cincinnati)
Explanatory note: Yes, it's true Acosta isn't a pure newcomer in the sense he's played in MLS before. However, he's joining a new club and transferring in from abroad, so I'm counting him as one in this context.
To win an MLS Cup, one definitely needs to have a high-impact playmaker running behind the forward line. Acosta's arrival gives FC Cincinnati that piece for the first time. After a year or so of struggles that dated back to his D.C. United days, he rebounded a bit last season with Liga MX side Atlas. I doubt anyone expects 2018-level production from Acosta, but the troublemaker dimension he adds to a club starving for it lends hope of a solid revival.
No. 4 Cecilio Dominguez (Austin FC)
Austin FC's first ever Designated Player was brought in to be the vaunted "goal dangerous winger" every team craves. His form dipped after moving from Club America down to Argentina, but Dominguez spent 2020 gaining chemistry with fellow Austin FC attacker Rodney Redes down in Paraguay. The 26-year-old is a classic swashbuckling type who loves dribble drives across the grain and getting behind the defense on the weak side. As things stand, he's the best bet to be the expansion side's top scorer.
No. 3 Gregore (Inter Miami CF)
When discussing Orlando City striker Daryl Dike, I often use the phrase "force of nature" — many opponents quite simply can't handle him physically. The same may soon be said about Gregore, except he's not a forward. No, he's the sturdy new base of Inter Miami's midfield. He will forcefully confiscate the ball and then barrel it forward to ignite the transition game. He's such an exciting (and, from the Herons standpoint, necessary) catch that I seriously considered making him No. 1 here.
No. 2 Tomas Pochettino (Austin FC)
When bringing an expansion team into MLS, it certainly helps to have a positive organizing force in central park. While Pochettino is certainly able to hurt foes in the attacking third, he might even be better at guiding teammates to that business zone. Unlike some other recent examples, Austin FC will have a genuine ace to direct traffic during their debut campaign. The Boca Juniors product can make plays from Zone 14 and loves to find open looks to shoot from the top of the box, but his top value may come from when drops deep to navigate a team from defense to offense.
No. 1 Brenner (FC Cincinnati)
There will be whole new gravity when FC Cincinnati enters the final third this season... as in they will actually have some. With Lucho pulling defenders around and probably dropping a few dimes along the way, nimble forward catch Brenner should be good for at least a dozen goals (which may actually be a conservative target) in his first MLS regular season. This, of course, qualifies as the most "should be good for" attack in the club's short history, which means the real fun of competing in MLS may finally be set to begin for the Queen City.