As MLS molts and grows into its newer, sleeker plumage, it’s clear front offices are getting smarter. In 2016, it seemed as though they no longer found the international transfer market to be an unsolvable riddle.
A number of players acquired this year provided ground-quaking influence on their respective teams’ seasons. From stat sheet-filling forwards, to rookies acquired through the SuperDraft, to Homegrowns jamming their foot in the door, we saw a bit of everything. And the 10 players on this list, signed through a variety of different mechanisms and asked to fill a number of different roles, proved the best of the lot.
For the purpose of this exercise, I’m mostly focusing on players who made some kind of impact on the 2016 season. Trades and signings undertaken this off-season matter, of course, but it’s difficult to truly chart their significance until we see the their fruits on the field.
10. Keegan Rosenberry, Philadelphia Union
Jan. 14, 2016 – No. 3 overall SuperDraft pick
Fullbacks are a notoriously scarce commodity these days across MLS rosters. Finding regular starters on the transfer market is hard enough, but finding one ready to go out of the box in the draft? A near impossibility.
That’s why the record Keegan Rosenberry set in 2016 impressed so much -- he played every possible minute of every regular season game. That means an unbreakable rookie accomplushment of 34 games played, 34 games started, and 3,060 minutes.
The versatile right back was ever-present for the Union, providing a nice blend of attacking prowess and quality 1-on-1 defending. Rosenberry wasn’t just one of the league’s top rookies in 2016. He was easily one of its top fullbacks full stop, and there’s no reason to think he won’t fill that role for years to come.
9. Clint Irwin, Toronto FC
Jan. 18, 2016 – Trade from Colorado
The fact that Clint Irwin was such a fan favorite in Colorado made his exit that much more acidic. But it also doesn’t seem like Toronto FC had to give up much for an established 26-year-old starting MLS 'keeper: Targeted Allocation Money (undisclosed), a 2016 SuperDraft pick that didn’t amount to anything (Javan Torre at No. 56) and a No. 21 overall pick in the 2017 SuperDraft.
Meanwhile, TFC got a goalkeeper who backstopped a run to the MLS Cup final. Irwin missed a chunk of the season with an injury, but when healthy, he was a key contributor for TFC’s record-breaking season and run to the brink of glory. The fact that TFC arranged the deal for so little made it all the more impressive.
8. Jack Harrison, NYCFC
Jan. 14, 2016 – Draft-day trade from Chicago
It’s a relatively fun piece of league lore that NYCFC didn’t actually draft Jack Harrison. The Chicago Fire took him with the first overall pick in 2016 and then dealt him to NYCFC, which parted with the No. 4 pick (Brandon Vincent) and allocation money.
NYCFC had coveted the Wake Forest midfielder all year, and after its efforts to claim him via the Homegrown mechanism failed, they went all in during the draft. It proved to be a prescient move, as Harrison turned into a Rookie of the Year candidate and an outright terror pinching in off the flank.
Dubbed a “modern winger” by coach Patrick Vieira, Harrison finished the year with four goals and seven assists, logging more than 1500 minutes in a midfield alongside legends like Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. Not a bad start for one of the league’s glittering young stars.
7. Luciano Acosta, D.C. United
Nobody was quite sure what to expect from Luciano Acosta at the beginning of 2016. Under Ben Olsen, D.C. United has a history of physicality and quick, over-the-top play. As such, a 5-foot-3, 130-pound midfielder who preferred one-twos and moments of individual brilliance caused some puzzled looks. And yet the moment Acosta pulled off his first dummy, the D.C. United faithful fell in love.
Acosta, just 22 years old, started the year on loan and was added permanently in November, a shrewd bit of business for a D.C. United side that got to see him perform before pulling the trigger for good. Acosta proved to be one of the most entertaining players in the league, and he should be a defense bugaboo for years to come.
6. Shkelzen Gashi, Colorado Rapids
Feb. 1, 2016 – Transfer from FC Basel
There has perhaps never been a golazo machine in MLS like Shkelzen Gashi before. Gashi, of course, won the 2016 AT&T Goal of the Year for his free kick against the Whitecaps, but he could’ve had an entire voting category to himself.
Of course there was more to Gashi’s game than show-stopping goals, and no outfield player had a more profound influence on the Rapids’ rocket-fueled rise from last in the West to a No. 2 seed than this off-season acquisition. Gashi poured in nine goals and added four assists for the Western Conference finalists, and he tied together Colorado’s midfield as the conduit between the defensive midfield and the forward line. And to think how under-the-radar Gashi was when he entered the league in February. Credit Pablo Mastroeni and company for unearthing a gem.
5. Ola Kamara, Columbus Crew SC
Feb. 4, 2016 – Transfer from Austria Wien
Columbus Crew SC didn’t enjoy the best of seasons, which perhaps obscured how incredibly Ola Kamara performed throughout most of it.
Even after he was added to the MLS MVP shortlist at the end of the year, most fans outside Ohio found themselves scrambling for his stat sheet to see exactly why he was there. When fellow Kamara, Kei, was jettisoned for New England early in the season, Kamara was handed the reins of the Crew front line and positively tore opposing defenses to ribbons.
In little more than 1800 minutes, Kamara racked up a massive 16 goals, making for one of the most prolific debut seasons in the history of the league. It might not have been Columbus’s year, but Kamara was a resounding transfer market success.
4. Jelle Van Damme, LA Galaxy
Jan. 26, 2016 – Free transfer
Jelle Van Damme didn’t win the MLS Defender of the Year honor. That went to FC Dallas’s Matt Hedges. He didn’t win the MLS Newcomer of the Year honor either. Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro took that one home. But Van Damme was nominated for both, the only player on the end-of-year MLS awards slate to make the final three for two awards simultaneously.
Whether or not he won (he had a significantly good case for the defender award), Van Damme’s impact as an attack-breaking center back for the Galaxy can’t be overstated. While the club made an off-season splash with the signing of Ashley Cole, Van Damme quietly slipped in the side door (on a free, no less) and staked his claim as arguably the best, most consistent center back in the league.
3. Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders
Jan. 21, 2016 – Homegrown signing
At least based on the bedrock of history, you’d usually expect a Homegrown to take at least a season to find his sea legs. Jordan Morris took all of four games to find his stride, and by the end of the regular season he’d scored more goals (12) than any American rookie in league history. He finished with 14, none bigger than the chipped looper over goalkeeper Zac MacMath that sent the Sounders past Colorado and into their first ever MLS Cup final.
In terms of attacking prowess, Morris had as big of an impact as anyone on the Sounders’ championship season. The fact that the eventual Rookie of the Year did it as a Homegrown in his first year with the professional outfit? That made it all the more meaningful for the Sounders faithful.
2. Tim Howard, Colorado Rapids
March 20, 2016 – Transfer from Everton
By most all accounts, the Rapids didn’t really need a goalkeeper. Without Tim Howard they’d amassed the staunchest defense in the league, and by the time Howard finally arrived at altitude at the start of July, the Rapids were already humming along nicely. But Howard proved immediately that he was a game-changer, pushing out wild save after save to nudge the Rapids to the brink of the MLS Cup final.
His greatest moment – and the one that made him such a hero in Denver – were the two penalty-shootout saves against the LA Galaxy to put the Rapids into the Western Conference Championship. The Rapids wouldn’t have even been there without Howard, whose season-ending injury cut short a massive half-season.
1. Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders
July 27, 2016 - Transfer from Boca Juniors
There can be no doubt that no one player acquisition this season – and perhaps in league history – did as much in as short a time as Nicolas Lodeiro. The diminutive Uruguayan literally walked in as longtime coach Sigi Schmid walked out, presenting him with an immeasurable challenge to help right the ship.
All Lodeiro did was rack up eight goals and eight assists after joining, rope together a fragmented attack, and practically drag a previously anemic attack into respectability. Under Lodeiro’s auspices, the Sounders lost just two games over the final three months of the regular season and ultimately won their first ever MLS Cup trophy.
There were, of course, more pieces at work than just Lodeiro, but be sure to give the graceful, balletic No. 10 his due. There have been few better to darken the league’s doors, and perhaps none whohave made an impact this big this quickly.