Transfer season: 10 MLS clubs with the most work to complete


Rumors, reports, official signings – silly season is well underway.

And while some clubs have largely completed their roster build ahead of the 2024 MLS campaign, others remain a work in progress with preseason camp underway. Some have big holes to fill, profile-wise and number-wise, as well.

With Matchday 1 rapidly approaching, here are 10 clubs that face urgency to get deals done.

Don't just take our word for it. Here was Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff as preseason camp began last week, noting sporting director Rodolfo Borrell is working on it.

"We have 14, 15 field players to date," Wolff told reporters. "We're utilizing six, seven, eight guys from the [Austin FC II] team, so we're thin on numbers – there's no doubt about it.

"We do need players to get here and certainly we'll welcome them as they get here, but [Borell] will do it in a responsible way," Wolff continued. "Obviously he's got to work around salary and we've got to work around the roster compliance, but I think there's a number of positions where we can look to add immediately as well as the summer."

My guess on those positions: Striker, center back, fullback and winger. Borrell, who joined last summer after being a Manchester City assistant coach, has his plate full in building out the squad – one that regressed from the 2022 Western Conference Final to 25th overall league-wide last year.

Cincy have a few checklist items to sort through before late February, when their Supporters' Shield defense begins and the club's Concacaf Champions Cup debut arrives.

One is center mid, with Pavel Bucha reportedly joining from Czech side Viktoria Plzeň (does that mean Junior Moreno is leaving?). Another is right wingback, where Colombian international Santiago Arias is strongly linked with a move elsewhere. Then there's left wingback, as Álvaro Barreal is reportedly seeking a winter move to Europe. And they could stand to add another forward after transferring Brandon Vazquez to Liga MX's CF Monterrey for reportedly $7.5 million upfront.

But the level of concern with Cincy is, comparatively speaking, more muted than elsewhere in MLS. That's because general manager Chris Albright and his staff have, in short order, proven they'll reinforce the squad with quality – look at forward Corey Baird and center back Miles Robinson as examples.

"We know that there's a lot up in the air right now with players who have already or will potentially depart that we'll look to replace and make sure we can maintain a high level with the group that we put out on the field," head coach Pat Noonan said last week.

"I think we're in a good place, but there's been a lot of good conversations with Chris, his guys and the coaches as far as how we can improve. The conversations have been ongoing since the season ended. With the quick turnaround, it needs to be that way to try to get things right early in 2024."

Chicago have reinforced their defense, bringing in former Fire Academy left back Andrew Gutman, Danish center back Tobias Salquist and Swiss right back Allan Arigoni.

But what's missing is their DP No. 9, and head coach Frank Klopas isn't looking to tip their hand.

"Sometimes it takes a little bit longer than we all expect, but sometimes these deals are never easy," Klopas said last week. "The minute you think you are close to getting it done, something always changes. I'm not saying anything until it gets over the line because I've been in this game too long, and I know how sometimes things work, and I don't want to jinx anything.

"I'm optimistic. I know we are all working hard to improve the team. We made a couple of good additions, but now we need to add a couple more pieces."

Reading between the lines, might the long-rumored deal for free-agent midfielder Kellyn Acosta get over the line? What about the status of underperforming DP Jairo Torres? It feels like a few big dominoes will fall in Chicago.

We'll be direct: D.C. United need central midfielders.

They're probably sorted at the No. 10 with Brazil youth international Gabriel Pirani now around full-time after his half-season loan from Santos FC, plus homegrown standout Ted Ku-DiPietro can play there. But the depth is virtually non-existent after Mateusz Klich and Russell Canouse in the engine-room spots.

That's one clear order of business for new general manager Ally Mackay, who's got an open DP spot to work with. A do-everything No. 6 or game-changing winger to play off Christian Benteke are potential areas of focus.

By our count, D.C. United have already seen 13 players leave this winter and eight join. Expect that latter number to keep ticking up, especially now that head coach Troy Lesesne is at the helm.

It's not the number of moves LA Galaxy need to get done, but rather their quality. And thus general manager Will Kuntz, as preseason camp began last week, noted they're "very close" with one DP target and "in a pretty good way" with another.

To read between the lines, one is Gabriel Pec. He'll reportedly challenge LA's club-record fee and be a Young DP when arriving from Brazilian top-flight side Vasco da Gama. They've also been linked with Ghana international winger Joseph Paintsil, who's tearing it up at Belgian side Genk, but that's cooled off some.

However things turn out, LA recognize the importance of getting these two DP signings right – also to maximize midfielder Riqui Puig after moving on from Chicharito and Douglas Costa.

"In MLS, DPs are your three magic bullets," Kuntz said. "I don't think there's been a hyper-successful team in MLS, let alone an MLS Cup winner, that hasn't had really strong contributions from its three Designated Players. So if you wait until the summer, which is a viable strategy at times, you're going to be down potentially a massive piece for the team. That's part of that math on having those guys in as soon as possible."

Kuntz added: "The really important thing for us is getting a little bit more dynamic on the wing and in our attack being goal-dangerous. We've really tried to prioritize those positions as we go out in this offseason."

Elsewhere, LA's big international move was for Japanese right back Miki Yamane. He's a three-time J.League Best XI honoree.

In LAFC's case, it's best just to list it out:

  • As of writing, it's unclear if reigning Golden Boot winner/Best XI forward Dénis Bouanga will return for 2024 (he's under contract) or if his reported desire to return to Europe bears fruit (likely a $15m+ offer).
  • Has the Carlos Vela era in Black & Gold ended? Preseason camp is underway, and there's not yet word on if the club captain/legend has a new deal.
  • Depending on who you count, there are four or five center mids on the roster (and essentially no depth at the No. 6 behind Ilie Sánchez).
  • There's no starting left back after Diego Palacios left on a free transfer for Brazilian side Corinthians, though Santos Laguna's Omar Campos is linked.
  • Center-back depth is a must after Giorgio Chiellini's retirement and Denil Maldonado's loan expired.
  • Same for goalkeeper depth after France and Tottenham legend Hugo Lloris arrived on a non-DP deal, with John McCarthy (to LA Galaxy) and Maxime Crépeau (to Portland Timbers) departing in free agency.

LAFC could add upwards of 10 players before their 2024 season kicks off on Feb. 24 against Seattle Sounders (4:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). For a club that's made back-to-back MLS Cups, it's an… unexpected position to be in.

We'd be remiss not to note how Portland have two open DP slots to fill alongside Evander, their club-record signing and No. 10. One will likely be a winger, especially after Yimmi Chara's outbound transfer to Junior FC. Striker is another natural option after Jaroslaw Niezgoda wasn't retained.

Whichever direction GM Ned Grabavoy goes in, it's building on an offseason highlighted by center back Kamal Miller and goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau joining the Timbers – the first via a trade with Inter Miami, the second via free agency.

There's a solid roster in place as new head coach Phil Neville gets settled, but these big-ticket signings would bump them up another tier.

And then there was one.

We're talking about DPs and, in this instance, it's Cristian Arango. The Colombian striker is Real Salt Lake's club-record signing, but he needs some help in the final third after Damir Kreilach left in free agency for Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Jefferson Savarino's second spell in Utah ended with a transfer to Brazilian top-flight side Botafogo.

Arango has promising US international Diego Luna in support, as well as another potential USL-to-MLS gem in Fidel Barajas and Colombian winger Andrés Gómez. The cupboard certainly isn't bare, but RSL would benefit from a couple of big swings (i.e. two attack-minded DPs) if they want to separate from the Western Conference pack.

Some key outgoings for San Jose this winter:

There are more comings and goings, but those are big buckets for the Earthquakes to address as their roster build takes shape.

"In terms of wingers [and] attacking mids, we're looking at adding talent so that we can assist goals and score more goals as a team to win more games," said head coach Luchi Gonzalez last week.

"Then in the defensive part, we're looking at a center back addition obviously with Jona now in New England and a left back addition as well, which will be announced hopefully pretty soon," Gonzalez continued. "So we're building this roster, but we have a great foundation. The spine is the same, it's key."

I'd call this a roster progression in San Jose, layering in some important signings with academy players (especially Niko Tsakiris) looking to take the next step. But for now, work remains.

Toronto FC, fresh off a Wooden Spoon (last place overall), have completed two moves this offseason:

What's clear is the Reds need much more than that, especially in midfield, along the backline and at goalkeeper. What's unclear is how much room/flexibility they'll have to get big deals done. And if DP forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, their high-priced Italian duo, have a long-term future in Toronto (or if their contracts are hard to move).

Head coach John Herdman, readying for his first full MLS season, shed some light on the club's overall approach when speaking to at Media Day earlier this month.

"The staff have come in with a mentality that our job is to improve what's there, to create the high-performance culture, to set a clear tactical framework where people are motivated, fully aligned about resurrecting this team," Herdman said. "And we've got a group of men in the club that want redemption and that's a hell of a motivator for a lot of people. So that's one part of it. It's looking at the opportunity of what you've got, people with a lot of battle scars who've shared a lot of adversity together. There's a lot of strength in that narrative and that motivational opportunity.

"But then on the other side, it's a recognition also that there are elements in MLS that you really have to have in place to compete," Herdman said. "And for me, the spine of your team is gonna be key. … We've got to ensure that that spine is full of men, winners, people who want to compete for the club, hungry people who can stay on the field injury-free. I think that's a big step for Toronto to recruit real hungry warrior-type profiles that want it bad, really bad, not only for the city and the fans but for themselves."

We'll see how that comes to life, and how quickly.