Daily Kickoff - 2.7.24
What you need to know

Concacaf Champions Cup begins for Vancouver

Vancouver Whitecaps FC play the first competitive match of the 2024 MLS calendar year on Wednesday evening, hosting Liga MX powerhouse Tigres UANL in Round One of the Concacaf Champions Cup. Kickoff is set for 10 pm ET. Leg 2 awaits on Feb. 14 at Tigres' Estadio Universitario, with the winner facing either Orlando City SC or Cavalry SC come the Round of 16 in early March. The advancing team is first decided by aggregate goals, then (if necessary) by away goals.

Chicago Fire sign Cuypers in club-record deal

Chicago Fire FC have a new Designated Player No. 9, announcing Tuesday they have acquired Hugo Cuypers from Belgian top-flight side Gent. He is under contract through the 2026 MLS season with an option for 2027. Cuypers, 26, arrives for a club-record transfer fee of reportedly $12 million with another $2 million in add-ons. That surpasses the reported $7.5 million Chicago paid two years ago to land midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri from Ligue 1's Lyon.

CF Montréal sign Martínez

One of Major League Soccer's greatest-ever strikers has a new home, as CF Montréal announced Tuesday they have signed Josef Martínez. Martínez, who was a free agent after playing for Inter Miami CF last year, is under contract through the 2024 season with an option for 2025. The deal uses Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), not a Designated Player spot.

Lionel Messi returns for Inter Miami vs. Vissel Kobe

Lionel Messi returned to action Wednesday for Inter Miami CF, appearing as a 60th-minute substitute vs. Vissel Kobe in a penalty-kick defeat (4-3) after a 0-0 draw at Japan National Stadium in Tokyo. The Argentine megastar missed Inter Miami’s recent tune-up victory over the Hong Kong Team due to injury (adductor).

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We’re previewing all 29 teams over 10 days in as Daily Kickoff a style as we can. Yesterday we checked in on Atlanta United, Austin FC and LA Galaxy. Today, Chicago Fire FC, Orlando City SC and LAFC. Yes, we know the rosters aren’t finalized yet. The rosters are never finalized.

2023 By The Numbers (per American Soccer Analysis)

I mean, it wasn’t good. They created the fourth fewest chances and allowed the fourth most. It was bad. There’s not much more to dig into when the only numbers that matter are two Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearances in 14 years. 

2024 Final Standing Range

Between ninth and 15th in the Eastern Conference. 

If the playoff drought is broken this year, it won’t be by much. That’s not for lack of spending. Xherdan Shaqiri will still be making far more money than you and me, and new DP No. 9 Hugo Cuypers cost about $12-14 million. Cuypers is a huge addition. But you have to wonder: Who’s going to create chances for him? Who’s going to defend when the opponent has the ball, which should be the majority of most games? 

I’m not trying to be harsh, but we’re talking about 14 years of precedent here. Chicago have to show proof of concept before we can consider them playoff-worthy. I’ll defer to a quote from Rafa Czichos that’s been making the rounds: "I would lie if I said I think the roster is already good enough to play on the highest level. So, to compete for the championship, I think everybody knows we have a little bit of work to do."

Cuypers should help. He’ll have to be otherworldly to get the current team over the line. 

As always, we close by referring back to our patented Chicago Fire FC season timeline.

I can see it → Oh, no → Oh, yikes, no → Well, maybe → Nope → But let’s just… → Oh, ok immediate no on that → But what if they tweak this → This looks better! → OH NO. THEY GOT ME AGAIN → No. → I’m not falling for that → No, forever. → Offseason → I can see it.

I’m not falling into “I can see it.” until there’s a lot more here.

Player of the People

I will say it’s probably not great how the best non-Cuypers attacker on the team might be fullback Andrew Gutman. But it is extremely entertaining how the best non-Cuypers attacker on the team might be fullback Andrew Gutman. He’s awesome and a great pickup for the Fire. At the very least, he’ll give as much as his body has in him every single game. 

This could all go pretty well if…

Cuypers is legit, Shaqiri has a Héctor Herrera-level mental reset, Gutman goes full chaos demon in the best way, young goalkeeper Chris Brady takes a leap forward, Brian Gutiérrez keeps leveling up, new signings Tobias Salquist and Allan Arigoni bolster the back line in a major way, and then like 30 other things happen. There’s work to do with this roster and the East is a behemoth thanks to teams like…

2023 By The Numbers (per American Soccer Analysis)

The only number that truly matters is the 63 points Orlando earned during their best season ever. Those are real and we can’t take them away. But… uh… we can and will throw a wet blanket on them. 

The Lions outperformed their expected points total – basically, the number of points a team with average luck would earn based on their underlying numbers – by 15 points. That’s the highest mark in the league from last season. It’s the fourth-highest mark in ASA’s database going back to 2013. 

The clearest example of the Lions’ overperformance is their breakout star at striker, Duncan McGuire. He has a great skill set and a ton of potential, but his non-penalty xG/90 of 0.34 is a far cry from his 98th percentile 0.84 (!!) goals per 90. 

In general, the entire team got on an absurd heater over the back half of the season and went from a good team to a second-place finish. That doesn’t mean they were bad or they’re suddenly going to be bad this year. Sometimes you just get a few breaks. 

2024 Final Standing Range

Between first and sixth in the Eastern Conference. 

Even without the significant overperformance, they still had the seventh-best expected point total in the East last year. They’re essentially running it back in 2024 (with a couple of key changes we’re about to get to) and the floor is remarkably high. That starts with their stellar double pivot of Wilder Cartagena and César Araújo. They never seem to get overrun in midfield and that makes everything easier. 

However, they do have a couple of big questions. In attack, there seemed to be a clear need for an upgrade at the No. 10 position. They upgraded by grabbing Nico Lodeiro, but maybe not by all that much. Maybe Lodeiro isn’t ultimately a full-time starter and DP Martín Ojeda will take over the role. If that’s the case, then who knows what will happen. Ojeda spent most of the back half of 2023 coming off the bench. 

In defense, the Lions have a huge hole where center back Antônio Carlos used to be. It seems like that spot will be taken by David Brekalo after a transfer saga that’s somehow only the second weirdest transfer saga related to Orlando and Blackburn Rovers this offseason. We’ll see how he adapts (official soon, hopefully). 

And then there’s whatever is going on at striker. McGuire is technically still a Lion (???) after an unfortunate and bizarre few days that saw McGuire board a plane to join Blackburn, find out midflight his deal to Blackburn wouldn’t go through, agree to a re-worked loan deal to join Blackburn, watch as that deal didn’t go through because – and I need to stop here really quick to say this is absolutely not a joke and 100% a real thing that happened – Blackburn reportedly hit “save” instead of “submit” on the paperwork they needed to put through before the transfer deadline closed. Yikes.

Anyway, McGuire is a high-value player with a ton of upside and I can’t imagine Orlando are too disappointed he’s potentially still around. That being said, it seems like they have big plans for the position either way. They’ve reportedly agreed to a DP deal for Atalanta striker and Colombian international Luis Muriel, whose numbers have been incredible over limited minutes this season. 

Player of the People

If he stays… it’s gotta be McGuire after all that, right? How could you not root for the guy? McGuire represents all of us who have ever been held back by bureaucracy. 

This could all go pretty well if…

It seems like a given that it goes well. What will determine the scale is whatever happens with the No. 10 spot. Whether that’s Ojeda, Lodeiro or Facundo Torres doesn’t matter. They just need someone to create big chances from central midfield. If that doesn’t happen, then this team could end up a little closer to last year’s expected points total. Or they could improve on that number and still end up with fewer than 63 points. That kind of seems like the most likely outcome.

2023 By The Numbers (per American Soccer Analysis)

You won’t believe it, but LAFC had excellent underlying numbers. They finished third in expected points, fifth in expected goals and fifth in expected goals allowed. There’s a reason they cruised through the Western Conference in the playoffs – even if they weren’t at their best for the majority of the season.

2024 Final Standing Range

Between first and fifth in the Western Conference.

The default first-place projection here is earned. You expect LAFC to figure it out and have way more talent than nearly every other roster. But they aren’t imperfect. And there are a lot of clear flaws in the current edition of the roster. Or at least clear questions.

In particular, you have to wonder about their options in attack with Carlos Vela still out of contract. They have two open DP spots and what seems like plenty of talent. Dénis Bouanga will, of course, solve most of their problems. However, they don’t have a clear starting-caliber No. 9 right now and winger Cristian Olivera is somewhat unproven.

On top of that, there’s a general lack of continuity throughout this roster. That hasn’t bit them too much yet, but you can’t hit on every signing. You can only continuously change things for so long before the churn swallows you up.

Good news: They found an old face to plug back into the lineup. Putting midfielder Eduard Atuesta (official soon?) into the mix is one of the single-best moves of the offseason and is the single move keeping me from truly raising alarm bells about this team. You can’t overstate how key of a role Atuesta played in the best versions of early LAFC. He took a team-high 13.4% of LAFC’s touches on the 2019 record-setting, Supporters’ Shield-winning side. Only two players in MLS, Nico Lodeiro and Jonathan dos Santos, got more usage than Atuesta. There’s no reason to think he’ll be anything but fantastic, even if you aren’t sold on LAFC’s midfield depth.

Oh, and like always, we have to operate with the assumption that big moves are coming. Yeah, a lack of continuity isn’t great. But it’s a lot easier to overcome it when you’re signing guys who out-talent everybody.

Player of the People

We’ll go with Atuesta. He represents everyone who has wanted to go back home.

This could all go pretty well if…

They hit on two new DPs and are more rested without Concacaf Champions Cup games. That should make it easier to compete for a Supporters’ Shield. And that should always be the standard at LAFC.

Other Things

Charlotte transfer Mello to Čukarički: Charlotte FC have opened a U22 Initiative roster slot by transferring Vinicius Mello to Serbian top-flight side FK Čukarički. The 21-year-old Brazilian forward joined Charlotte from Internacional before their 2022 expansion season, but injuries and form limited him to just three substitute appearances (54 minutes total).

Orlando sign Jansson to contract extension: Orlando City SC have signed center back Robin Jansson to a contract extension through the 2025 MLS season with an option for 2026. The 32-year-old defender is entering his sixth season with Orlando, arriving in 2019 from AIK Fotboll in his native Sweden.

New York City FC sign Romero: New York City FC have signed goalkeeper Tomás Romero through the 2024 MLS season with options for 2025-26. A 23-year-old El Salvador international, Romero arrives with four clean sheets across 24 league appearances with LAFC and Toronto FC.

Dallas mutually part ways with Jiménez: FC Dallas have mutually parted ways with striker Jesús Jiménez. The 30-year-old Spaniard departs after one season with FCD, limited to 0g/3a in 22 matches. He joined via an offseason trade from Toronto FC that saw midfielder Brandon Servania head the other way.

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Good luck out there. Gotta spend money to make money.