Kurt Larson: Top 5 MLS general managers and technical directors of 2017

With the MLS Cup championship game still two months away, there's still plenty of season left to play.

But with rosters frozen ahead of the playoffs, there's only so much left to do for the general managers and technical directors, who are already hard at work on their 2018 plans. 

That's why now is as good a time as any to evaluate some of the work done by the masterminds behind the scenes.

Whether they win a title or not this year, these are the GMs and TDs that make my Top 5 list as the regular season comes to a close.

5. Craig Waibel (GM, Real Salt Lake)

Waibel’s biggest mistake this year might have been not replacing ex-coach Jeff Cassar before the start of the season.

Instead, Waibel sacked his embattled bench boss three games into 2017 — a move that both surprised and didn’t surprise given Cassar finished 2015 and 2016 below .500.

Most expected RSL to shrivel into a shadow of the club it was between 2010 and 2013. Promoting Mike Petke to head coach was initially viewed as a stopgap on the way to mediocrity.

While the Claret-and-Cobalt aren’t threatening to win a title this season, they’re a far cry from where they were at the end of June, when their 5-12-2 record was one of the league's worst.

Most importantly, they have pieces to build around. Young players — and difference-makers — dot Salt Lake’s roster from back to front.

Justen Glad, 20, is by some accounts one of the United States’ most promising young center backs. Playmaker Albert Rusnak, 23, in most seasons would win Newcomer of the Year.

Venezuelan international Jefferson Savarino, 20, is performing well beyond his years since joining in midseason on loan.

Sure, the Western Conference is down this year. But it’s a shock that RSL are anywhere near the playoff picture.

4. Nelson Rodriguez (GM, Chicago Fire)

The Chicago Fire ended last season with their head coach telling reporters, “the most important thing is that the season is over.”

It wasn’t a Jim Mora “Playoffs!?” moment, but it was close. The Fire, dead last in 2016, began preparations for this season minutes after last season ended. And, like a few teams on this list, they were targeted in how they went about acquiring what they needed.

When midfielder Juninho became available in December for a loan move from Tijuana, the Fire jumped at the opportunity to bring in a winner. Golden Boot race leader Nemanja Nikolic arrived days before Juninho. Midfield linchpin Dax McCarty was delivered in a blockbuster trade with the New York Red Bulls weeks later.

By March, Rodriguez and Co. had completely transformed Chicago’s spine with the addition of Bastian Schweinsteiger.

The club’s midfield now consisted of a three-time MLS Cup winner, a US international and a German legend. Not bad.

The only thing holding Chicago back in its pursuit of an MLS Cup are its defensive frailties. But they’ve identified that, meaning a few moves come January could see them join the league's elite sides.

3. Tim Bezbatchenko (GM, Toronto FC)

The Reds were 4-13-10 when Bezbatchenko took the reins in 2013.

Two players – Homegrowns Ashtone Morgan and Jonathan Osorio – are all that remain from that abysmal team.

After using the next two years to build TFC into an MLS Cup contender, Bezbatchenko’s task became all the more difficult entering 2017.

The “Soccer Wonk,” as TFC's top brass refer to him, was challenged with fine-tuning a roster that already was among the best in the league.

In came Victor Vazquez, one of the best playmaking midfielders in MLS, and Chris Mavinga, who probably should be in contention for Defender of the Year.

Unheralded signings like defender Jason Hernandez and utility man Nico Hasler both have proven useful in times of need this season.

While Bezbatchenko entered this season with a side ready to repeat as Eastern Conference champs, nobody – not even TFC fans – expected TFC's latest moves to propel the Reds to one of the best regular-season records in league history.

2. Peter Vermes (Manager & Technical Director, Sporting KC)

Would you rather have Dom Dwyer, or $1.6 million in allocation money?

Peter Vermes wisely chose the latter – which is just one of the reasons he’s on this list.

Sporting KC are 4-3-2 since trading Dwyer to Orlando and still find themselves in contention to grab home-field advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.

Vermes’ side also claimed another US Open Cup trophy after pundits repeatedly pondered how they’d score after sending Dwyer to the Sunshine State.

But according to the Kansas City Star, Sporting weren’t willing to meet Dwyer’s future salary demands. So, they found a solution – a profitable solution.

Then they put faith in their league-leading defense and young attacking players.

Sporting KC are getting the job done, and are scoring by committee with Vermes recruits Gerso Fernandes (8 goals, 2 assists), Diego Rubio (5 goals, 2 assists) and Daniel Salloi (3 goals, 2 assists).

Kansas City’s best addition, though, might be Ilie Sanchez, as Vermes continues to introduce top-level No. 6s to MLS.

1. Carlos Bocanegra (Technical Director, Atlanta United)

The Georgians have been competing in MLS for seven months.

Yet the Five Stripes look as seasoned and comfortable and competitive as any team in the league.

That doesn’t happen without elite top-down decision making – something Bocanegra was asked to spearhead when Atlanta United signed him in early 2015.

Technical directors, first and foremost, are held accountable for two things: The coach they hire and the Designated Players they identify. Bocanegra ticked both boxes, luring coach Tata Martino and splashing cash for Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, the most electrifying No. 9 in MLS.

That said, Atlanta wouldn’t be climbing the table without its core signings, the meat-and-potato guys who’ve blended in.

Raise your hand if you thought 34-year-old Jeff Larentowicz would factor in so prominently this season.

Similarly, midfielder Carlos Carmona fills a role in front of a back line that’s experienced enough to make a run at MLS Cup.

And that’s before mentioning Atlanta’s decision to draft Julian Gressel, the likely Rookie of the Year.

If you’re looking for a blueprint to build a team from scratch, follow Atlanta's.

Kurt Larson is an MLSsoccer.com contributor who covers Toronto FC for the Toronto Sun and the Canadian national teams for Postmedia.

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