MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Top 8 trades of the 2021 MLS season

In recent seasons, some MLS clubs have focused more on the trade market to great success.

Teams like the Colorado Rapids, Nashville SC and CF Montréal, in particular, have shown best practices in acquiring talent from within the league. Vancouver Whitecaps FC helped launch their second-half run, in part, via a couple of trades. As such, there's real value in turning to domestic-based, MLS-proven talent. You can even already see it unfolding early into the 2022 offseason, but that's a tangent for another space.

Let's reflect upon the ever-lively trade market from 2021. The list below does not include trades for player discovery rights before they were signed from abroad.

  • CF Montréal acquired: Djordje Mihailovic
  • Chicago Fire FC acquired: $800K GAM upfront + $200K GAM in incentives

Just an absolute home run for Montréal. Unmitigated success.

Mihailovic arrived as a proven MLS contributor with the potential for much more, a player who broke through with Chicago Fire FC and was around the fringes of the US men's national team. He had made 73 appearances in Chicago, though the homegrown's best season was eight-goal contributions in 2020.

Under Wilfried Nancy, he thrived. Mihailovic was handed the opportunity and responsibility of being creator-in-chief and relished the challenge. He finished second in MLS in assists (16) but tied for first in primary assists (14). Operating in the half-spaces in Nancy's 3-4-1-2 formation (or 3-4-2-1 depending on which forwards were available), Mihailovic reached another level.

Most recently, the 23-year-old midfielder went for a training stint with sister club Bologna in Serie A.

  • Vancouver Whitecaps FC acquired: Brian White
  • New York Red Bulls acquired: $400K GAM + $100K GAM in incentives

On the fringes with the Red Bulls, White was made available this summer. The Whitecaps were in need of another center forward with Lucas Cavallini heading to the Gold Cup (and expected to miss further time on Canadian international duty thereafter). White fit the mold of what the Whitecaps were looking for, so it was a good match.

Then at summer's end with then-interim head coach Vanni Sartini taking charge, White and the Whitecaps caught fire. He had 12 goals and five assists in 27 appearances as Vancouver embarked upon an improbable run over the playoff line.

While he delivered his best stretch of soccer, White wasn't doing anything different than what he did in New York. His success and output seem sustainable.

“Brian White is the example that if you’re selfless for the team – he’s one of the most selfless and team-oriented strikers I’ve ever seen in my life – the good is going to get back to you,” Sartini told before the playoffs. “You’re in the right position, the ball will come back to you.”

One would assume the $100K GAM incentive was (or will be) triggered.

  • Colorado Rapids acquired: Mark-Anthony Kaye, 2022 SuperDraft first-round selection
  • LAFC acquired: $1M GAM, 2022 international slot + potential for future, unspecified incentives

It was a blockbuster trade this summer, as Colorado dipped into the trade market once more to acquire another big talent from within the league. Kaye may have been their biggest swing yet.

Kaye, who turned 27 this offseason, immediately continued his All-Star caliber form in Colorado, an integral member of a midfield with an eclectic range of strengths. The Canadian international helped lift those around him as well, just as the club looks for in these types of acquisitions.

“As everybody knows now, we’re quite keen on trying to bring in players who elevate the whole group," Rapids EVP & general manager Padraig Smith said after the trade. "We talk about winning as a team and we felt he was a really good fit for this group."

The Rapids went from strength to strength with Kaye onboard, finishing atop the Western Conference in the regular season and qualifying for the 2022 Concacaf Champions League.

LAFC continued a slow-burn on their rebuild, with Kaye and Diego Rossi departing in the summer before head coach Bob Bradley left in the winter, eventually joining Toronto FC. With their open roster resources and allocation money, the Black & Gold will be among the clubs to keep an eye on this winter.

  • CF Montréal acquired: Kamal Miller
  • Austin FC acquired: $225K GAM, a 2021 first-round SuperDraft selection (No. 11) + potential for $50K GAM in incentives

Among the best trades in recent memory, Miller was selected by Austin FC in the 2021 MLS Expansion Draft and immediately traded to CF Montréal. North of the border, Miller blossomed in his breakout season under Wilfried Nancy.

Miller, now 24, made 26 starts for Montréal and became a regular with the Canadian national team. A versatile defender who split time at left back and center back for Orlando, he fit absolutely perfectly as a left-sided center back in Nancy's 3-4-1-2 formation. If a club wanted to acquire Miller in a trade just one year later, how much would it cost? $800K GAM at least? Really good find by Montréal.

Austin took the No. 11 pick in the 2021 SuperDraft and selected defender Freddy Kleemann, who made three appearances this year, all off the bench.

  • Colorado Rapids acquired: Michael Barrios, 2021 MLS SuperDraft first-round selection (No. 21)
  • FC Dallas acquired: 2021 international roster spot, 2021 MLS SuperDraft first-round selection (No. 15)

Like Montréal's trade for Miller, Colorado's acquisition of Barrios came at the low cost of an international roster spot (which was going for around $175-200K GAM around that time), as well as moving back six picks in the SuperDraft.

Barrios arrived with the Rapids and thrived, putting a lackluster 2020 campaign in the rearview immediately. The winger had 8g/6a in 33 appearances (25 starts) for the Rapids, marking his most productive goal-scoring season since 2016. The Rapids and Barrios agreed to a one-year contract extension this offseason, with a club option for 2023.

Dallas moved Barrios in part to make room for an attacking makeover, with winger Jader Obrian and others arriving. Obrian had 9g/4a in his debut MLS campaign.

  • Houston Dynamo FC acquired: Fafa Picault
  • FC Dallas acquired: $275K GAM + $50K GAM in incentives

Another outbound Dallas winger found success with another club.

Picault had a career-best season in MLS, with 11g/5a in 31 appearances. He set new personal records for starts (29), minutes (2,469) and goals while tying his best for assists. He was a rare bright spot for the struggling Dynamo in 2021.

  • Houston Dynamo FC acquired: Tim Parker
  • New York Red Bulls acquired: $450K GAM + further $600K GAM in incentives

There is a large gap in value, given Parker could have been acquired for anywhere between $450K GAM and $1.05M GAM, depending on what the incentives were.

Regardless, Parker is a defensive building block for Houston as they transition into a new era. He and midseason acquisition Teenage Hadebe form a formidable duo in central defense.

The Red Bulls had a glut of central defenders (prior to injuries), though that gave Sean Nealis an opportunity to step up. RBNY enter 2022 with Aaron Long, Andres Reyes and Nealis as their top three center backs.

  • Austin FC acquired: Alex Ring
  • NYCFC acquired: $750K GAM + further $500K GAM in incentives

A blockbuster trade for the expansion side, Austin FC got their captain and a pillar to set their culture from day one. And – oh, yeah – he's a pretty damn good player, too.

Austin weathered their defensive shortcomings during year one, and Ring shuffled roles somewhat in the midfield, but remains an integral player for this team and in his prime. The 30-year-old Finland native wasn't cheap, but expansion clubs are given extra allocation money, so that makes it more palatable.

With a year under head coach Josh Wolff and a full season with key summer signings Sebastian Driussi and Moussa Djitte, Austin will expect a considerable year-over-year improvement in results after finishing second-from-bottom in the Western Conference with 31 points.