Columbus Crew defeated LAFC to win MLS Cup 2023 presented by Audi, meaning it's offseason mode for all 29 teams across the league.

As such, we’re spotlighting a club-defining question that needs sorting in the months ahead. Matt Doyle has your in-depth breakdowns, going team by team.

Will Aidan Morris stay?

Dec. 11 – We all love the Darlington Nagbe-Aidan Morris bromance in Columbus' central midfield. But part of any club's development model is young talent progresses, draws transfer interest and moves on.

That brings us to Morris, who's coming off a breakout 2023 season (4g/7a in 30 games) where he became an MLS All-Star and started earning USMNT looks. He's a legit talent.

"The guy [Morris] pushes me in ways that I can’t even imagine," Nagbe, a four-time MLS Cup winner, said after Saturday's postgame celebrations. "Obviously we play against opponents, but I try to keep up to his level. He pushes me and I make sure if he’s balling, I’m balling too."

This isn't a BogertBomb-style report saying clubs are interested in the 22-year-old homegrown, though would it be all that surprising if offers start rolling through? We think not.

Does Carlos Vela return?

Dec. 11 – Before MLS Cup, every message out of LAFC's camp – from co-president/GM John Thorrington, head coach Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Vela – was essentially some variety of "Let's get through the big game and then figure things out."

Well, the Black & Gold didn't go back-to-back and now it's decision time.

From afar, there seem to be three possible outcomes: 1) Vela returns on a DP deal, 2) Vela returns but isn't a DP and 3) Vela signs elsewhere in MLS or abroad. There's also a mystery box No. 4 (Vela retires), but I'm picking door No. 1 or 2 as the most likely outcomes. All parties seem open to another go, so the conversations probably hinge on what salary number (and roster designation) Vela and the club deem permissible.

Some of this might be wishcasting; Vela is LAFC's foundational signing, the undisputed face of the club. He'll also turn 35 as the 2024 MLS season begins and there's no shame in acknowledging his production dipped during the second half of a long year. I just think there's a resolution to be found, both to keep Vela around and maintain roster flexibility.

LAFC need to sort plenty else… Maxime Crépeau, Diego Palacios and Kellyn Acosta are out of contract, while Giorgio Chiellini could retire. But the Vela call, given his stature, carries some extra weight.

Do core pieces stick around?

Dec. 4 – Colombian international center back Yerson Mosquera’s loan from EPL side Wolves is expiring. Venezuelan international midfielder Júnior Moreno is out of contract this winter. There’s European-centric transfer interest in USMNT striker Brandon Vazquez and rising Argentine wingback Álvaro Barreal

Those are four of 11 starters from FC Cincinnati's Supporters’ Shield-winning team, all of whom played at least 2,250 minutes in the league. Vazquez and Barreal have both received MLS All-Star honors during the club’s two-year turnaround, too. 

There’s little reason to doubt general manager Chris Albright will expertly navigate all these situations – maybe Mosquera gets permanently acquired, Moreno signs a new contract, and Barreal/Vazquez stay (or top-notch replacements are lined up). But it’s seldom easy to keep a championship core together, and the regular-season champions will be no different this winter.

FC Cincinnati have quickly built one of the best rosters in the league. Let’s see how the group, anchored by MVP winner Luciano Acosta, evolves for 2024 as they defend the Shield and make the club's Concacaf Champions Cup debut.

Does Coco stay?

Dec. 4 – This past summer, steady transfer rumors surrounded Panamanian international midfielder Coco Carrasquilla. And when the Dynamo acquired Sebastian Kowalczyk in early August, it was viewed as insurance against their No. 20 heading overseas, perhaps to LaLiga.

A midseason move never materialized: Carrasquilla remained in the midfield engine room that fueled Houston’s rise into being US Open Cup champions and Western Conference finalists. He finished with 3g/8a in 25 regular-season games, thriving alongside Héctor Herrera, Artur and Amine Bassi at club level. 

Carrasquilla, 25, is unquestionably one of Concacaf's top midfielders. He also harbors ambitions of a new challenge, noting earlier this year: “I told the club when I first arrived that I’d like to return to Europe and play in a top league in the first division.” So, will he stay or go?

As that situation unfolds, DP striker Sebastián Ferreira also merits attention. The Paraguay international didn’t fit head coach Ben Olsen’s system and has struggled since being loaned to Brazilian side Vasco da Gama in late July, failing to score in 13 appearances. Houston’s attack was quite good in 2023 – they were 10th league-wide in goals scored (51) – but a top-end striker alongside U22 Initiative wingers Nelson Quiñones and Ibrahim Aliyu could push them into a new tier.

Who fills Lodeiro’s shoes?

Nov. 29 – Life after Nicolás Lodeiro will define Seattle’s offseason, it appears.

The legendary No. 10, among the best-ever DP signings in MLS history, has said he’s not back in 2024 (his contract expires in a few weeks). Head coach Brian Schmetzer, after the Sounders’ playoff elimination last weekend to LAFC, spoke in rather definitive terms about the Uruguayan star’s impending exit. All that’s left, logically, is an official year-end roster announcement about the 34-year-old who transformed the club upon his 2016 summertime arrival from Boca Juniors.

What’s clear is an era – one where Lodeiro won two MLS Cups, raised a historic Concacaf Champions Cup trophy and tallied 41g/80a in 191 regular-season games – is closing. Father Time comes for everyone and tough decisions are made, even if they’re not always well-received by fans.

Now, the task before GM Craig Waibel – an unexpected twist in the Lodeiro story notwithstanding – is to make the post-Lodeiro DP signing an A-tier addition. That’s the standard along the Puget Sound, where success and trophies are expected. Let’s see who comes through the door.

Change awaits, but how much?

Nov. 29 – All-Star left back Kai Wagner is out of contract. Transfer buzz surrounds striker Julián Carranza after a 14g/6a season. There are clearly differing views on whether captain and club legend Alejandro Bedoya will/should return.

The band's, at least in part, likely breaking up.

"Every offseason there's going to be changes," head coach Jim Curtin said after their controversial playoff elimination at Cincinnati. "Hopefully they're not drastic and hopefully they're well thought-out and everyone talks and gets on the same page for those changes."

Philadelphia, year after year, have been on an upward trajectory and consistently contended for trophies. But for the first time in recent memory, a degree of instability is lurking around the corner. And what's clear is the Union's core roster will look different next year.

Can Curtin (who signed a contract extension in July) and sporting director Ernst Tanner get aligned to plot the path forward?

Can they avoid a slow start?

Nov. 29 – Take it away, Johnny Russell.

"After those first 10 games – the fight back, some of the play we've shown, some of the games that we've put on, especially at home – we have to do that more next year and it has to be from the very start. We can't be playing catch up," Russell said after Sporting KC's Western Conference Semifinal elimination at Houston.

"That's two seasons in a row now that we've left ourselves too much to do. So next year something has to change and I'm sure it will. The boys are hurting in there. You have just got to take that feeling and take it into preseason and then focus on next year. It's another year. We fell short again, so we've got to pick ourselves back up. We rally. You've got nothing else to do. You have to go again."

SKC successfully implemented a Great Escape in 2023, turning their 10-game winless start into a Decision Day playoff qualification after being the West's best team since May. Their attempted Great Escape of 2022 was unsuccessful, though Erik Thommy and Willy Agada's summertime arrivals nearly sparked them sneaking into the playoffs.

Come out of the gates firing in 2024 and they're likely competing for home-field advantage in the playoffs, rather than fighting for a last-minute spot. Sounds simple enough, right?

Does the brain trust return?

Nov. 29 – Head coach Oscar Pareja is out of contract. EVP of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi and technical director/assistant general manager Ricardo Moreira both have 2024 options.

As of writing, despite Orlando City's success these past four years under Pareja and & Co., it's unclear what awaits the club from a leadership perspective. It's an unexpected position for the Lions, who finished second in the 2023 Supporters' Shield race via a club-record season, won the US Open Cup last year and next February will start their second straight Concacaf Champions Cup campaign.

There are other big questions around the Lions this offseason. Does Facundo Torres get sold? Will they fill the third DP slot that opened with Ercan Kara's midseason transfer to Turkey? Will midfielder Wilder Cartagena and winger Iván Angulo return after their loans?

Those are all pressing, but coach/front-office clarity is needed first.

Does Almada get sold?

Nov. 16 – Atlanta United, subtly, have a lot of questions to answer this offseason. But the biggest one, by far, involves Thiago Almada.

The attacking midfielder, after winning the World Cup with Argentina last winter, had a fantastic second year in MLS. Look no further than 11g/19a in 31 games, giving the 22-year-old Young Player of the Year honors.

After transfer rumors came and went in the summer, they're expected to roar back this winter. Almada's reportedly on the radar of some high-profile teams, with Dutch powerhouse Ajax and Italian champions Napoli entering the conversation at various points. Let's see where that chatter ends up and how ATLUTD's front office sorts this club-altering decision.

The added layer: Almada could break the league-record outbound transfer fee Atlanta established in January 2019 when sending Miguel Almirón to Premier League side Newcastle United for a reported $27 million. Almada already owns one MLS record, acquired for a reported $16 million from Argentina's Vélez Sarsfield in February 2022.

Can they be consistent in attack?

Nov. 16 – FC Dallas simply didn't score enough in 2023. Their 41 goals scored were the third-fewest in the Western Conference, and they were shut out in two of three matches vs. Seattle in their Round One Best-of-3 series.

That root cause is multi-layered, as most things are. Jesús Ferreira went from 18 goals last year to 12 goals this year (he missed time on USMNT duty). Paul Arriola played in just 22 of 34 games as injuries lingered. Alan Velasco's production dipped, though had encouraging spells as a No. 10. Bernard Kamungo came on strong late, same goes for Jáder Obrian.

The pieces are mostly in place… but this thorny problem persists for FC Dallas. And the path forward needs some sorting, particularly if Ferreira gets transferred abroad and as Velasco recovers from a torn ACL he suffered in the postseason. Do they shift Arriola off DP status and get a DP striker? Can Kamungo stay on a promising trajectory?

FC Dallas' defense was among the league's best in 2023, conceding just 37 times. But now the attack must hold up its end of the bargain.

What does Chicho Year 2 look like?

Nov. 16 – It was plain as day: RSL reached an entirely different level when Cristian Arango was on the field.

This came as no surprise to LAFC fans, especially, after the Colombian No. 9 led the lines for their MLS Cup-Supporters' Shield double-winning team in 2022. Yet when RSL acquired Chicho from Pachuca mid-year for a club-record fee, bringing him back to MLS after a six-month Liga MX stint, the ripple effect was tangible.

Arango tallied 6g/2a in 11 games and, had his hamstring been at 100%, may have won RSL their playoff series vs. Houston. But building forward, coach Pablo Mastroeni has a Golden Boot-caliber striker to build around, the kind who can score 20+ goals in MLS.

With an offseason under his belt, plus those like Diego Luna and Andrés Gómez continuing to develop, RSL's attack could be explosive next year.

Who picks up the pieces?

Nov. 9 – Let's give Omar Gonzalez the floor.

"From my experience, when the front office is in shambles, it trickles down to the team and you lose that confidence with the group, that cohesiveness with the group because if you want a winning team, you need a winning organization," the veteran defender said after New England got swept by Philadelphia in Round One.

"That’s from my experience. When the front office is doing well and the team’s doing well, it just feels good. So once that shattered, you could tell how quickly things started to go downhill from there."

The context here, of course, is the weeks-long saga around head coach/sporting director Bruce Arena that resulted in him resigning on Sept. 9. There's no denying the struggles that caused: The Revs went 3W-5L-3D after Leagues Cup, sliding from being a Supporters' Shield challenger into another forgetful playoff trip.

There's plenty roster-wise that needs sorting: New England never quite replaced goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic after his near-$20 million transfer to Chelsea. DP forwards Gustavo Bou and Giacomo Vrioni have uncertain futures. Dylan Borrero and Brandon Bye are recovering from long-term knee injuries. Noel Buck reportedly has transfer suitors, ditto for DeJuan Jones. Tomás Chancalay was only on loan through 2023 (with a purchase option). The list continues.

But it all starts with stabilizing the club, from a top-down perspective. Get a coach, get a sporting director and the rest follows.

Who helps Hany?

Nov. 9 – Nashville SC fans must feel like they're Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day" because the question hasn't really changed since they joined the league in 2020.

Hany Mukhtar has 58g/38a in 113 games, directly contributing to 54.4% of their goals scored in the regular season. His form dipped massively down the stretch, scoring twice in 14 games as Nashville looked a shell of themselves. And head coach Gary Smith, speaking after they got swept by Orlando City in Round One, had an interesting point of view.

"Our talisman and individual who's really dragged this team along in terms of goals for a long time has not been anywhere near as effective. I don't know the reason for that. We'd have to go back even further than that, probably to maybe even conversations about Qatar," Smith said of the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP and Golden Boot winner.

"That sends people off-filter a little bit mentally. Even though there's been a lot of drive and energy, no two ways about it, still fully committed to what's going on. But you take a dip in form as an attacking player, it's still very difficult to get back into gear."

Smith was referring to mid-July reports that Nashville turned down "a bid in the region of $7 million from a Qatari club" for Mukhtar, per The Athletic. Did that derail Mukhtar? Was it all just noise? Is there any reason to worry about their DP, who's under contract through 2025?

Wherever the answers lie, it's clear Mukhtar needs help in the final third. DP striker Sam Surridge, after his summertime arrival, has had ups and downs. Nashville's complementary attackers were hit-and-miss, too. And thus, heading into 2024, the conversation hasn't changed all that much.

Can they avoid a Year 2 letdown?

Nov. 6 – My stats-minded colleagues would, rightly so, note St. Louis CITY SC thwarted underlying numbers in 2023.

Per Opta, the expansion side overperformed their expected goals (xG) by a league-high 19.53 – meaning their high-pressing system produced unsustainable goalscoring output. Star goalkeeper Roman Bürki recorded a league-high 11.10 goals prevented, per TruMedia via StatsPerform, flipping several results towards those in CITY Red. The newcomers were also last in possession (44.7%) and passes attempted (12,806), more than happy to cede the ball in favor of transition moments; when they had to break teams down, they struggled.

This is where we note regression eventually comes for all teams. Austin FC learned this the hard way in 2023. It also surfaced in St. Louis' playoff heartbreak against Midwest rival Sporting Kansas City, when they couldn't emerge from a late-season funk.

So, how do head coach Bradley Carnell and sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel hedge against that inevitability? What are they doing to build off this historic, record-breaking, odds-defying introduction to the league? Do they lean even further into the "Designated Team" ethos that shaped their debut, identifying overlooked (or undervalued) players who create a greater whole/sum? What about juggling multiple competitions as they enter the Concacaf Champions Cup?

The hardest thing to achieve in MLS's parity-driven structure is year-over-year success. It's why the Philadelphia Union and Seattle Sounders, as two examples, are praised so frequently. Now, let's see if St. Louis – who won't have the surprise factor in 2024 – can stay in the Western Conference's upper echelon.

How close are they?

Nov. 6 – Head coach Vanni Sartini thinks Vancouver are an MLS Cup-caliber team for 2024, noting as much after their Round One exit to LAFC: "The biggest takeaway from this season is that we are a team that can easily start the next season and say 'we want to win this thing.'"

The good news is Whitecaps FC have a strong core to build around. Goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka quietly had an excellent debut season after arriving from Japan's top flight. Ranko Veselinović and Sam Adekugbe bring quality to the backline. Andrés Cubas is among the best d-mids in MLS. In the attack, Ryan Gauld and Brian White were excellent in combining for 26 goals and 17 assists. Young midfielders Ali Ahmed and Pedro Vite have big futures.

But the roster needs some strengthening as well. Center-back depth comes to mind, as does securing wingback Richie Laryea's long-term future after his half-season loan from Nottingham Forest. Perhaps Laryea takes the DP spot Vancouver opened when punting on striker Sergio Córdova midseason. I could see them adding an attacker, too.

After Sartini and sporting director Axel Schuster fine-tune the roster, it's reasonable to expect Vancouver reach 55+ points next year. The 'Caps feel on the cusp of something big.

Will promises come true?

Nov. 6 – Right after Leagues Cup, as Inter Miami came to Red Bull Arena for Lionel Messi's formal MLS regular-season debut, club president and general manager Marc de Grandpré dropped that "significant investment" is coming to New York's roster for 2024. That, naturally, drew headlines.

"I can tell you that, next year, we’re going to make a significant investment into our roster to make sure that we can compete at the highest level in MLS consistently. There’s no doubt that we’re going to," de Grandpré said at the time.

"You’re going to see a lot more investment coming from us, targeting players from all over the world again, with the hope that we can bolster our roster and really give our fans something to get excited about for next season."

Now, it's not like the Red Bulls haven't opened their wallet – DP attackers Dante Vanzeir and Luquinhas arrived over the last two seasons for a combined $8 million in reported transfer fees. But the club's roster-building approach/play style has its limits, and it stands to reason that increased spending will push RBNY from being a perennial playoff side (league-record 14 straight trips) to one competing for trophies. There's a difference between productive and wasteful spending, too.

Of course, there's transfer watch surrounding homegrown left back John Tolkin and a decision to be made on head coach Troy Lesesne's future. Let's also see if Vanzeir and Lewis Morgan can regain top form after season-ending surgery.

Will they sell Karol Swiderski?

Oct. 27 – Karol Swiderski has unquestionably been Charlotte FC's best player during their first two MLS seasons. The Poland international, who played at the 2022 World Cup, has led them in scoring both years with a combined 22g/10a in 61 games.

But it wouldn't be all too surprising if Swiderski returns to Europe this winter. He's openly spoken about that possibility in the past, and reportedly the Crown turned down offers over the summer. If that develops, Charlotte would look to recoup (or even profit on) the reported ~$5 million transfer fee they spent to acquire him from Greek side PAOK in January 2022.

Another piece to consider: Swiderski, a Designated Player, is under contract through the 2025 season with an option for 2026. He, production-wise and tactically, was a huge part of Charlotte's first-ever playoff trip in 2023. But… all good things come to an end eventually. 

Should Swiderski leave, Charlotte would have an open DP spot alongside winger Kamil Jozwiak and striker Enzo Copetti. U22 Initiative winger Kerwin Vargas leveled up late, too.

Does Cade Cowell leave?

Oct. 27 – Like clockwork the past two years, there have been reports about European interest in San Jose Earthquakes homegrown forward Cade Cowell. Italian Serie A side Bologna reportedly made several bids this summer that were rebuffed, and last year San Jose reportedly turned down Ligue 1 side Stade de Reims' advances.

Cowell, who recently turned 20, has 10g/15a in 104 professional games. Internationally, he starred in the spring at the U-20 World Cup and boasts eight senior USMNT caps. And, ahead of the 2022 season, he inked a U22 Initiative deal that both rewarded Cowell and had an eye on a potential move abroad.

It's long seemed like a question of when – not if.

San Jose, who returned to the playoffs in 2023 under first-year head coach Luchi Gonzalez, would also jump into being a selling club. As their academy grows in prominence, that'd be an important proof of concept with Emi Ochoa, Niko Tsakiris, Cruz Medina and more coming through.

How will the Xherdan Shaqiri era be remembered?

Oct. 25 – Shaqiri, when Chicago acquired him from Ligue 1 side Lyon in February 2022, was announced as being under contract through the 2024 season. The move represented the Fire's biggest splash yet under owner Joe Mansueto – a reported $7.5 million transfer fee – and excitement was tangible as Ezra Hendrickson took over as head coach.

Flash forward two seasons and Hendrickson is gone (Chicago parted ways with him last May), the club's still not qualified for the playoffs since 2017 (long-suffering fans trope applies) and Shaqiri's produced 12g/16a in 57 games (good, not great).

The Fire don't have a Shaqiri-sized problem – blaming the Swiss international for their troubles is misguided. But it will be a disappointment if the club can't, at bare minimum, make a trophy push or playoff charge while their big-name DP No. 10 is around.

Now, plenty of other questions need answering. Does Frank Klopas return as head coach after seeing out the 2023 season post-Hendrickson? Can sporting director Georg Heitz compile a winning roster? Do homegrown stars like goalkeeper Chris Brady and midfielder Brian Gutiérrez get transferred out? Will a game-changing No. 9 arrive?

All of it occurs amid the background of Shaqiri's time in the Windy City.

Who takes The Leap in 2024?

Oct. 25 – NYCFC, true to their City Football Group identity, are about player development (alongside veteran leaders). Taty Castellanos is the best example of this, going from a little-known striker out of Argentina to a Golden Boot winner, MLS Cup champion and seven-figure transfer (reportedly $16.7 million) to Italian Serie A side Lazio. That's the model. Rinse and repeat.

We highlight that part because NYCFC's playoff aspirations get a massive boost if their arsenal of young attackers takes a big step forward in 2024. Mounsef Bakrar and Julián Fernández both joined this summer as U22 Initiative players, showing some brilliant moments. Santiago Rodríguez holds a DP spot, but regressed this year production-wise (5g/8a). It was also a down year from Talles Magno, who's viewed in MLS circles as a $10+ million player.

If any of those players truly progress next year – and/or a game-changing signing or two arrives – then NYCFC should be a playoff-caliber team. The Cityzens, MLS Cup winners in 2021, are banking on it after seeing their seven-year postseason streak (2016-22) end on Decision Day.

Where will the goals come from?

Oct. 25 – Simply, CF Montréal didn't have a go-to goalscorer in 2023 (all due respect to homegrown midfielder Mathieu Choinière and his excellent season with a team-leading 5g/5a).

There were certainly injuries to blame – Romell Quioto and Mason Toye combined to play just 1,475 minutes and score six goals. Some new faces either arrived midseason (Kwadwo Opoku via a trade with LAFC) or showed flashes in limited opportunities (Jules-Anthony Vilsaint is an encouraging prospect). Not fully replacing playmaker Djordje Mihailovic after his wintertime transfer to the Eredivisie certainly had an impact, too.

Yet the truth remains: Montréal, in their first year under head coach Hernán Losada, lacked a No. 9 that would make them a serious playoff contender. They scored 27 fewer goals this season (36) compared to their club-record 63 a year ago. Yes, they were right in the playoff hunt until Decision Day… but this offense needs some work.

Now, will Montréal go out and spend or look toward the MLS trade/free agency market? VP and chief sporting officer Olivier Renard has turned intra-league to great effect, but some big names have also played here in the past (Ignacio Piatti, Didier Drogba, Marco Di Vaio, et cetera).

Can they optimize Evander's Year 2?

Oct. 25 Like at least a half-dozen other MLS clubs, Portland need a new head coach. They parted ways with Giovanni Savarese on Aug. 21, elevated Miles Joseph to an interim role and came a whisker away from reaching the playoffs. Results improved greatly under Joseph, but the Timbers fell short on Decision Day and may look elsewhere.

As a coach gets appointed, job No. 1 for them might be figuring out how to maximize Evander's second season in the Rose City. The Brazilian midfielder was by no means poor in 2023, posting 9g/5a in 27 games (2,213 minutes). Yet his MLS introduction was full of ups and downs after a club-record transfer fee (reported $10 million) brought him over from Danish top-flight side FC Midtjylland. That figure (among the highest in MLS history), and being labeled as Diego Valeri's heir apparent, comes with weighty expectations.

Now, Evander arguably played better as an attack-minded No. 8 than a pure No. 10. That's a starting point, but it's also about determining the midfield mix around him. Does Diego Chará continue to defy Father Time? Can Eryk Williamson recover from a second ACL tear in two years? Is the transfer drama around Santiago Moreno truly in the rearview? Can Cristhian Paredes replicate his excellent 2023?

As answers arrive, Evander is (at least in theory) who Portland's future is built around. And that's before general manager Ned Grabavoy gets cooking this offseason, potentially with open DP spots.

What does a post-Heath future look like?

Oct. 25 – The Loons, upon joining MLS as an expansion team in 2017, only knew one head coach. That all changed on Oct. 6, when the club announced they had parted ways with Adrian Heath (technical director Mark Watson also left the club).

While some were shocked by the news, it was a clear sign Minnesota desired new decision-makers in roster-building, in-game management and the like. A different voice and perspective could, in theory, elevate Minnesota out of the Western Conference pack.

Whoever takes charge, the roster has some solid bones in place. Goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair, midfielder Emanuel Reynoso, winger Bongokuhle Hlongwane and striker Teemu Pukki are cornerstone pieces. Fullback DJ Taylor and midfielder Hassani Dotson are strong MLS glue-guys. Midfielder Robin Lod is expected back from a knee injury, and it's fair to expect more from center back Micky Tapias and forward Sang Bin Jeong during their second MLS seasons. US youth international Caden Clark also formally arrives next winter.

There's understandable questions being asked in the Twin Cities about their direction. But the road back to playoff soccer (and potentially more) doesn't seem too far away. Now it's about getting these key leadership decisions right, both for 2024 and beyond.

Who joins Messi & friends?

Oct. 10 – This past summer, Inter Miami pulled off the greatest transfer window in MLS history. How do they build off that in 2024?

You can rest assured the Herons will be linked to several big-name free agents, and one or two may pan out. Maybe their FC Barcelona trio becomes a quartet, with Luis Suárez joining Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba in the Florida sun?

But the grunt work likely lies in maximizing every roster mechanism available, both in incomings and outgoings, which chief soccer officer/sporting director Chris Henderson has proven mighty adept at doing. Plus, transfer sanctions stemming from the Herons' 2020 expansion season are now over and head coach Tata Martino has a clearer idea of where he'd like to strengthen the squad.

Perhaps most of all, Inter Miami have a built-in recruitment cheat code – who wouldn't want to play with Messi? – that's already helped them get the U22 Initiative trio of Facundo Farías, Diego Gómez and Tomás Avilés. Those types of signings, whether they're from abroad or within MLS, could set the stage for more magic.

Will Chicharito depart?

Oct. 10 – When healthy, Chicharito has been the emotional and on-field leader for the Galaxy. He finished as their leading scorer in both the 2021 (17g/3a) and 2022 (18g/2a) seasons, often willing them to victories and providing timely goals in crucial moments.

But we may have seen Chicharito's last game with LA. He tore his ACL in early June, during a US Open Cup game at Real Salt Lake, and is reportedly out of contract for 2024. The Galaxy have a massive decision to make on the 35-year-old Mexican star's future.

Does Chicharito return for one last season and get a true send-off, possibly on a team-friendly deal? Will he be the same player after a serious knee injury? Would a career-ending chapter back at boyhood club Chivas make more sense?

They're fair questions entering a massive offseason in Carson, one potentially with two open DP slots (Douglas Costa is also reportedly out of contract). LA can make big moves in building long-term around Riqui Puig, though that future might not include Chicharito's iconic presence.

How does Borrell shape the roster?

Oct. 10 – Austin FC, in 2022, soared into the Western Conference Final behind Sebastián Driussi's MVP-caliber campaign and booked their first-ever Concacaf Champions League appearance. The Verde & Black, in 2023, are assured a bottom-third finish and playoff-less season, all while crashing out of several competitions (that nightmare-ish CCL series against Haitian side Violette AC 😬). 

Clearly, there's work ahead for sporting director/chief soccer officer Rodolfo Borrell to reinvigorate a squad that has flaws. The Spaniard, upon joining this summer, also made clear his work would truly begin in the winter 2024 transfer window – though we've already seen fan-favorite Diego Fagundez traded to LA, clearing a sizable contract. 

Borrell's role replaces Claudio Reyna, and it's not just about first-team players. He recently retooled the club's scouting department, all while affirming faith in head coach Josh Wolff: "I believe Josh and his staff deserve increased levels of support from our scouting network, and we intend to deliver that support immediately. Josh is a very good young head coach, and although results this year are disappointing, we are fortunate to have a coach with his level of commitment and knowledge. I am confident he is the right leader for this team."

What does a Borrell-shaped future look like in/around Q2 Stadium? For a leader whose résumé includes stops at FC Barcelona, Liverpool and Manchester City, Austin fans should be excited.

What does a post-Rooney future look like?

Oct. 10 – For the past half-dozen years, much of D.C. United's trajectory has centered around Wayne Rooney.

In the summer of 2018, as the legendary English striker's playing career wound down, he arrived in the nation's capital as the Black-and-Red opened Audi Field. Euphoric scenes, especially alongside now-FC Cincinnati star Luciano Acosta, ensued until he returned home to join Derby County in the Championship after the 2019 MLS season. It was a short, memorable tenure.

Then, in the summer of 2022, Rooney was appointed as D.C. United's head coach while they tailspinned towards a Wooden Spoon finish. Their Messiah-like figure was back, but we've reached a similar destination. With their 2023 campaign over and another playoff miss, it was announced Saturday Rooney and the Black-and-Red have parted ways. He's again returned to England, where rumors swirl about him becoming Birmingham City's manager.

Whatever the future holds for Rooney, D.C. United must determine a path forward. Early signs point to a general manager being appointed (that post's been vacant for nearly a year after Lucy Rushton's exit) and then a head coach. Plenty more questions need answering, but here lies the starting point.

What is the future of Insigne & Bernardeschi?

 Sept. 26 – Remember this, Toronto fans?

Sept. 26 – Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne debuted for the club in a 4-0 rout of then-expansion side Charlotte FC on July 23, 2022. Their Italian-style makeover, with ex-Napoli and ex-Juventus wingers as the protagonists, looked absolutely electric. Vibes were soaring.

Flash forward 14 months and everything’s gone, well, pear-shaped.

Head coach/sporting director Bob Bradley didn’t last two seasons in Toronto, parting ways in late June before landing back in Norway at Stabæk. And all reports suggest there were clashes between Bradley, Bernardeschi and Insigne – the latter pair among the top-five highest-paid players in the league, per MLSPA figures. They’ve produced so-so numbers, at a combined 23 goals and 14 assists in 70 games, but 2023 will end with a third straight playoff miss (and potentially a Wooden Spoon).

Which brings us to the question facing the Reds this winter. Head coach John Herdman has left the Canada men’s national team to take over Toronto (officially joins Oct. 1), and general manager Jason Hernandez seems set to sweep in another roster makeover this winter. Meanwhile, it’s unclear if Bernardeschi and Insigne, previously described by club president Bill Manning as TFC’s centerpieces, are part of that future. If an exit awaits, their big salaries might limit potential suitors (Serie A return? Saudi or Qatari leagues?). And if they remain, it’s no small task for Herdman to maximize the Italian stars.

Once the Bernardeschi and Insigne topic is sorted, the rest follows.

Can they maximize "efficiency of spend"?

Sept. 26 – Club president Padraig Smith, when addressing the dismissal of head coach Robin Fraser in early September, intimated the Rapids likely aren't going to become big spenders. Rather, it's about finding high-impact players – homegrowns, trade pieces, undervalued players, international gems – and turning them into a sum greater than their parts might suggest (at least to the outside eye).

“What I look at is the efficiency of spend,” Smith said at the time. “I think if you take the time to look at what teams qualify for the playoffs and what teams don't qualify for the playoffs, every year you're going to see as many big spenders in the playoffs and you're going to see as many big spenders out of the playoffs.

“There are numerous teams who have spent a lot of money but have not had any success. And I'm going to keep bringing this back to critical things: the efficiency in terms of the spend and the maximization out of what you've got. They are critical things. That is brought together by a coherent plan that is executed by everybody over an extended period of time.”

That approach worked wonderfully for Colorado in 2021, when they topped the Western Conference with a club-record 61 points. Ever since, the squad's lost key pieces, new signings haven't always panned out and a last-place finish in 2023 is soon mathematically guaranteed.

There's more to be answered – if interim coach Chris Little remains in charge, what captain Jack Price looks like upon his injury return and who are the difference-makers. But for a club that's historically not spent big, a team-first approach and maximizing the Rapids Way seems the path forward.