A pair of big transactions came through MLS on Wednesday, as the San Jose Earthquakes broke their club transfer record to permanently acquire Cristian Espinoza while the LA Galaxy signed free agent Sacha Kljestan. What does it mean?
If you're looking for some words on new Sporting Kansas City striker Alan Pulido around here but haven't found them, that's because Andrew Wiebe handled that. Check it out.
Quakes break club transfer record to keep Espinoza
GOAL: Cristian Espinoza nets San Jose's third of the half
With all the furor around SKC's capture of Pulido, another Western Conference club breaking their own transfer record almost flew under the radar.
San Jose permanently acquired winger Cristian Espinoza from Villarreal, who had been on loan in 2019. He is now a Designated Player and it's another statement of intent from the Quakes after appointing Matias Almeyda (and keeping hold of him despite reported Liga MX interest this offseason). It was also a deal that made a ton of sense for all parties.
Since signing for Villarreal originally in 2016, he has had more loan moves (4) than La Liga starts (1). And that lone start wasn't even with Villarreal! it was on one of his loans, as he didn't make a single competitive appearance for the Spanish club.
It was close to the exact inverse in San Jose.
Espinoza was a key player for the Quakes, leading the club in assists (13), big chances created (16) and expected assists (9.73), per Opta. Even those numbers don't properly encapsulate his impact on the team, with his pace, directness, defensive contri and a few big moments.
The 24-year-old Argentine is well worth a DP spot and should be viewed as one of the league's best wingers entering 2020. All of that comes with expectations. He wasn't perfect in 2019, though, and has room to grow.
Espinoza scored just twice (in 30 starts) which isn't nearly enough for a player of his quality in a team that deploys one forward. His second goal came on April 6 (!). He made 25 consecutive MLS starts without scoring. Reminder: San Jose endured a six-game losing streak to end the season (including a win-and-you're-in Decision Day clash against Portland) missing the playoffs by four points. Those two facts are not unrelated.
He took the 8th most shots in the league (95) and I'm not going to count how many more players in MLS scored more than his two but, just know, it's a lot more than eight. In 2020, Espinoza desperately needs to score more goals to take San Jose to the next step.
If I were a betting man, I'd wager very strongly that he'll score much more than twice next season.
Oddly enough, the eye test doesn't suggest he's a player that is a bad finisher. He can uncork a thunderous strike with either foot when he hits it right and has more than enough quality to find a spot. Perhaps this is a side effect of failing to get consistent minutes over the last few years. He played 2,523 minutes in 2019. His previous career-high was 1,530 in 2014-15.
When he was initially acquired on loan last offseason, it went under the radar. Even his club-record re-signing on Wednesday kind of went under the radar with other news. Don't let Espinoza sneak up on you in 2020.
Former MLS assist king Kljestan lands with the Galaxy
GOAL: Sacha Kljestan's strike gives Orlando the lead
After a disappointing two-season stint with Orlando City, midfielder Sacha Kljestan has inked a deal with the LA Galaxy.
Before continuing, I'll admit this: Sacha Kljestan is one of the hills I routinely die on. I have for years. I will continue to do so for years. There are few takes I feel as strongly about during than his glorious three-year stint with the New York Red Bulls (anything Carmelo Anthony-related is the other. I will never, ever stop defending that hill. #StayMe7o.)
I just always have time for an unorthodox, classy No. 10 with a bit of a mean streak. Kljestan was heavily one-footed. He wasn't a great goalscorer. He doesn't strike you as a professional athlete the same way that, say, LeBron James or J.J. Watt does. He stayed true to a glorious mustache in an age when few did. But, man, could Kljestan pick out a pass better than anyone in the league during that three-year run with the Red Bulls (14, 20, 17 assists each season.) He's a maestro and, given the points above, at times misunderstood and underrated.
And he did more than hold his own in a pressing system under Jesse Marsch – He led the league in possessions won in the final third over those three years by no small margin, per Opta. An assist king who works off the ball and also quick to get in your face (as a proud New Jersian, I like to claim he developed that during his three years at Seton Hall) to defend himself, teammates or to just be annoying to play against? Sign me up, 100 times out of 100.
It was a winning argument in New York and a losing one in Orlando. Kljestan is not that player today. And that's okay! He's onto a new phase of his career.
Sports are all about context, particularly soccer, both on and off the field. Being a DP and the expectations that come with it didn't do him any favors in Orlando. With the Galaxy, he won't even be expected to start every game, behind Sebastian Lletget and Joe Corona in Guillermo Barros Schelotto's 4-3-3.
At 34-years-old, can he excel in a lesser role for the Galaxy? Benny Feilhaber was one of the league's best midfielders for LAFC in 2018 as a 33-year-old. Haris Medunjanin got a nod in my Best XI vote this year at 34.
Kljestan as a secondary option — one without expectations of 2500 minutes and 15 assists — ain't half bad.