Stejskal: 10 winter storylines that will define the MLS offseason

The few short weeks between MLS Cup and the MLS Player Combine and SuperDraft are upon us and coaches and front offices are hard at work scouting internationally, working the phones in the trade market and getting the lowdown on college soccer’s top prospects as they look to make moves that will leave their clubs in a solid position heading into the 2018 season.

In the process they’re providing plenty of fodder for those of us in the media, proving that even without game action, the stories are just as compelling through the MLS offseason. Here are some of the angles we're following this winter ahead of the start of 2018:

What will Atlanta do next?

Atlanta had one of the more successful expansion seasons in MLS history in 2017, setting records in the stands and using an exciting, attractive brand of soccer to become just the third club to qualify for the postseason in their first year in MLS.

They did it with bold moves and a bold style of play, with big-name manager Tata Martino bringing in big-money players Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez (above with Almiron) and Hector Villalba to lead the Five Stripes to the fourth-seed in the loaded Eastern Conference.

This winter, they’re trying to up the ante. Atlanta have long been rumored to be chasing 18-year-old Argentine wiz-kid Ezequiel Barco, and have reportedly been going back and forth with Independiente on a multi-million dollar transfer fee for the attacking midfielder who led his club to the Copa Sudamericana title.

If they can land Barco, Atlanta will continue to shift the paradigm in MLS, raising the bar and making yet another loud statement to the rest of the league that the Five Stripes are aiming even higher in 2018.

Can the Fire make another run at the top?

Chicago pulled off one of the biggest turnarounds in MLS history in 2017, finishing third in the Supporters’ Shield standings after consecutive last-place finishes in 2015 and 2016. Star winger David Accam had another huge season at Toyota Park, but the Fire’s rags-to-riches season was mainly down to three new acquisitions: Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger (above with McCarty).

Nikolic and McCarty are locked up for 2018, but Schweinsteiger, who perhaps did more than any other player to create a winning culture in Chicago, still has his contract status up in the air. The Fire are reportedly trying to bring him back, and they could be chasing another World Cup winner in Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas, as well. Former summertime target Juan Quintero is another name that’s been bandied about in Chicago, who will need to build out their roster if they want to make the jump from nice story to serious MLS Cup contender in 2018.

How will Sigi Schmid remake LA?

Though he didn’t do much with LA after they hired him to replace Curt Onalfo midseason, Sigi Schmid (above) got a promotion this winter, when he was handed the GM duties by the Galaxy.

What he does this winter will go a long way toward determining whether LA’s miserable 2017 season will be considered a fluke or the first year of a protracted rebuild at StubHub Center.

Schmid certainly has a lot of holes to fill and has begun to chip away with the signings of Venezuelan international Rolf Feltscher and Norwegian international Jorgen Skjelvik. But they still need help at goalkeeper, on the backline, at defensive midfield and at striker, and Schmid has just a few short months to piece together enough signings that he hopes will bring the Galaxy back into the MLS playoff picture in 2018.

Who’s next for LAFC?

Bob Bradley (above with LAFC GM John Thorrington). Carlos Vela. Omar Gaber. Diego Rossi. Laurent Ciman. Walker Zimmerman.

LAFC already have plenty of big names on board. With so much of their roster still left to build, there are sure to be a few other stars to join the crew at Banc of California Stadium ahead of their 2018 expansion season.

The club has plenty of resources to chase players, and, with Bradley at the helm, they are well connected in MLS and in different markets around the world. Another signal of their ambitions: The rumor mill has them in the running for New York Red Bulls captain and MLS assist king Sacha Kljestan.  

What will Portland look like under Savarese?

For the first time since 2012, the Portland Timbers will enter a season with someone other than Caleb Porter at the helm. The longtime Timbers head coach shocked the league this winter when he and Portland mutually agreed to part ways following the club’s Western Conference Semifinal upset loss to the Houston Dynamo.

Good, bad, or indifferent, Porter’s presence loomed large in Portland. Now he’s gone, and former New York Cosmos manager Giovanni Savarese (above) is in to replace him. The former MetroStars, Revolution and Venezuela forward had success as a player in MLS, but has never managed in the league.

The Timbers have already made one significant change since Porter’s exit, with the club shipping Darlington Nagbe to Atlanta just prior to Savarese’s arrival. The new coach will play a role in spending the record allocation money received in return for Nagbe, but how drastically will Savarese reshape a roster that finished the regular season first in the West?

How much of a remake do Dallas need?

Speaking of remakes, FC Dallas will likely have one of their own this winter. After winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2016 and finishing each of the last two seasons with 60 points, FCD experienced a shocking collapse this season.

The club were trucking along well into the summer, flirting with the top of the West and looking like they’d challenge Toronto for another Shield. Then the wheels fell off. Oscar Pareja (above) and Co. struggled mightily down the stretch, missing the playoffs for the first time in the Colombian head coach’s four years with the club. Injuries and lineup changes took their toll, previously consistent players looked lost and the club’s inability to find a consistent goal scorer became glaring.

Dallas have already begun their rebuild this winter, shipping center back Walker Zimmerman to LAFC in exchange for Allocation Money and the No. 1 spot in the Allocation Order. How they use those assets will play a big role in what they look like in 2018.

What’s on tap for Friedel's first season?

Longtime former US national team and English Premier League goalkeeper Brad Friedel (above) will make his professional head coaching debut in 2018, when he’ll lead the New England Revolution in his first season since being hired in November. It’ll be an interesting case study for MLS.

As much of the league looks towards more experienced managers for their hires, Friedel is a throwback to about five years ago, when it was more en vogue to bring players almost straight from the field to the bench. Will he be able to hang with talented Eastern Conference coaches like Greg Vanney, Tata Martino, Patrick Vieira, Gregg Berhalter and Jesse Marsch?

It starts with the players he can help recruit during the offseason to implement his philosophy at Gillette Stadium. With just 13 players on the roster going into the holidays, Friedel and his staff have plenty of work to do.

Which MLS free agent will make the biggest impact?

One of the bigger free agent fish already signed with a team as Drew Moor returned to Toronto, but there are still several impact players out there on the market. DaMarcus Beasley, Steven Beitashour (above), AJ DeLaGarza, Brad Evans and Nick Rimando are among the bigger names still unsigned. Several of those will no doubt play a role for a contending team or two in 2018 – it’ll be interesting to see where they land.

Kaka’s gone – can Orlando finally make the playoffs?

Kaka (above) is gone, but the big question remains in Central Florida: Can Orlando City finally make the playoffs?

The Lions missed the postseason in their third attempt in 2017, finishing well back of the pace in the Eastern Conference. It was a tough year on the field for Jason Kreis and Co., who have a lot of work to do this winter if they want to sneak into the top six in the East for the first time in club history next year.

Among the questions: Who will they bring in to replace Kaka? Will they transfer Cyle Larin? Can Dom Dwyer justify the huge cost Orlando paid Sporting KC for him? How will they address the defense in the offseason?

That’s a lot of uncertainty for a team that will be feeling plenty of pressure to perform in 2018.

Can Minnesota solve the international market?

Perhaps the biggest reason Minnesota lagged behind fellow expansion club Atlanta during their first year in the league in 2017 was the fact that they missed on most of their big signings. GM Manny Lagos (above) invested in Scandinavia last year, signing Vadim Demidov, Rasmus Schuller, Bashkim Kadrii and John Alvbage as starters for the Loons’ first year in MLS. The moves, of course didn’t work, with none of those players making a positive impact in the league last year.

While those signings didn’t pan out, Minnesota did manage to pull together a respectable season in 2017. Led by Christian Ramirez, Francisco Calvo and Sam Cronin, the Loons had a strong second half, creating some optimism heading into this winter. Still, they’ll need to raise their overall level of talent if they want to do anything serious in 2018. A lot of that will fall in the international market, where Lagos and head coach Adrian Heath must do better than their Scandinavian flops to make noise in the New Year. 

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