But hype doesn’t always equal production, and plenty of incoming transfers who didn’t move the needle in January, February and, in some cases, even March will play leading roles in Major League Soccer this season.
In no particular order, here are five winter signing that flew under the radar this offseason, but will have an outsized effect on their team’s success and the league this season.
MF Felipe Gutierrez (Sporting KC)
“You’re starting with a Designated Player? One who already has four goals? C’mon, Wiebe.” – You, probably.
And you might be right, but be honest: How many of you were thinking “attacking game-changer” when the Chilean signed in a hurry back on February 6? Almost nobody, considering his previous reputation as an iron-lunged holding or box-to-box midfielder.
Somehow or another, be it circumstance or system, Gutierrez just keeps popping up in the right spots to help Sporting shift their identity from lock-down defenders to peak-and-valley entertainers. He’s top 10 in MLS in chances created, too, without losing his bite (tied for first in tackles with 21).
The 27-year-old may be a DP, but he arrived with minimal fanfare, perhaps because we were so focused on #SKCStrikerWatch. That striker may still arrive in the summer, but in the meantime Kansas City found a perfect fit for a side trying to balance their traditional combativeness with a little more quality in the final third.
LB Milton Valenzuela (Columbus Crew SC)
Columbus Crew SC left back Milton Valenzuela | USA Today Images
“Another DP? Give me a break.” – You, probably.
Valenzuela is another reminder that not all DPs are created equal when it comes to publicity and expectations.
You could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow when Gregg Berhalter used one of his three big-money slots on a 19-year-old left back with 13 senior appearances to his name. Nobody is batting an eye now, however, after the Newell’s Old Boys product picked up a goal and an assist in his first four MLS games.
Berhalter saw something special in the on-loan Argentine – I’ll go ahead and #Baerantee Crew SC exercise the purchase option on Valenzuela before the end of the year – and he’s been proven correct so far as Columbus jumped out to a 3-0-1 start that has them top of the league.
Valenzuela is defensively sound – he’s gone head-to-head with the likes of Jeisson Vargas, Paul Arriola, Victor Vazquez and Gregory van der Wiel so far – and wasted no time showing off the attacking chops Berhalter hoped would reveal themselves with a little more freedom to go forward.
CB Rod Fanni/Rudy Camacho (Montreal Impact)
“You’re cheating Wiebe. You said five signings.” – You, probably.
Fine, I am cheating. Sue me. Remi Garde wasted no time cleaning house on the backline when he got to Montreal, and that seemed to backfire when the Impact’s center backs started going down like flies.
Now it seems Garde knew what he was doing all along. It may have happened late in the window, but in came 36-year-old Fanni from Marseille and 27-year-old Camacho from Waasland-Beveren in Belgium to compete with Victor Cabrera, Kyle Fisher and, once he’s back from injury, Zakaria Diallo.
Fanni only has 90 minutes under his belt, but they came in a shutout victory against Canadian Classique rivals Toronto FC and their high-powered attack. Camacho hasn’t played a minute just yet, but my connections in the Belgian league – ExtraTime Radio has tentacles all over the world – report that he’s a solid, if not spectacular, defender that won’t make headlines for the wrong reasons.
A couple weeks ago, Montreal looked nowhere close to a playoff team. Now, with the central defense reinforced and Alejandro Silva in the fold as well, the Impact look poised to push the so-called elites in the Eastern Conference.
FWD Cristian Penilla (New England Revolution)
New England Revolution forward Cristian Penilla | USA Today Images
“How many versatile attackers do the Revs need? Only four can get on the field at once.” – You, probably.
Look, I was skeptical, too. Penilla had all the markings of a Liga MX washout, spending the past few seasons on loan after opportunities dried up at Pachuca. The last first-team goals he’d scored were at Morelia in Copa MX play a full year before arriving in New England.
Another change in scenery seems to have done him good. The season opener was a waste for the Ecuadorian (same for the Revs) since he got the hook 27 minutes into the match following a red card to Antonio Delamea. In the two games since, Penilla’s picked up two assists and smacked the woodwork while putting defenders on their heels and looking sharp in combination.
Brad Friedel still has some decisions to make when it comes to the composition of his front line, especially since the Lee Nguyen situation still has more questions than answers. But it’s going to be hard to take Penilla out of the lineup if he keeps playing like this.
CM Marc Rzatkowski (New York Red Bulls)
“Raz … Razat … Razat - cow - ski?” – You, probably.
Say it with me ...
Loans from within the Red Bull family have been underwhelming at best over the past few seasons. Who remembers Fredrik Gulbrandsen and Omer Damari? Nobody? Same.
Rzatkowski seems to have already broken the mold. In other words, he’s actually going to play for Jesse Marsch. He’s not big, fast or strong – not from outward appearances, at least – but the German has an intimate understanding of the way New York want to play from his time with Red Bull Salzburg.
He’s a tireless and intelligent counter presser, and got his first goal for the club at Red Bull Arena in their second-leg rolling of Club Tijuana in the Concacaf Champions League. That’s a good start, but he’s got more to give from all indications. Next up, a trip to Guadalajara.