Osvaldo Alonso - Seattle Sounders - May 2018
Jennifer Buchanan / USA Today Sports Images

Wiebe: Running down the top storylines of a busy start to the offseason

No rest for the weary, huh?

A matter of hours after Atlanta United lifted the Philip F. Anschutz trophy, Major League Soccer was already neck deep in the offseason. Sunday’s half-day trade window made a few splashes, the Expansion Draft protection lists are out* and we know the 2019 crop of free agents.

*You can watch FC Cincinnati make their choices live at 2 pm ET on Tuesday. President and general manager Jeff Berding and head coach Alan Koch will be in New York City to make their picks. The selections will be streamed on MLS channels.

Bobby Warshaw’s got the Expansion Draft covered for you here. Let’s take a closer look at the biggest headlines since the final whistle blew at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

The free-agent class of 2019

Benny Feilhaber is one of the top free agents in the 2019 class | USA Today Sports Images

Free agency is a relative new addition to the MLS offseason, and it’s worth boning up on the rules if you haven’t already. Here’s a link to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Good teams take advantage of every single mechanism to build their squads, and good teams have more success attracting free agents (maximum two per season) than bad ones. Think Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey for LAFC this year, Jeff Larentowicz for Atlanta the year before that and Drew Moor for Toronto FC in 2016. In Larentowicz and Moor, the past two MLS Cup champions found a key starter via free agency.

Who is available this year? You can find the list here. Here are some names to watch in the coming weeks and months; bear in mind that this process is often slow-moving.

  • Ozzie Alonso – He’s a Seattle Sounders and MLS legend. Enough said.
  • Benny Feilhaber (pictured at top) – He’ll be 34 next year, but started 32 games for one of the best teams in MLS.
  • Jordan Harvey – Above-average left backs don’t grow on trees.
  • Quincy Amarikwa – There’s a spark there for the right team.
  • Rodney Wallace – Pressing teams should take a close look for wing depth.
  • Brek Shea – Plenty of teams need a left back/left wing with attacking ability. Who’ll take a flier?
  • DaMarcus Beasley – Likely to return to Houston, but you never know.

The most interesting name on my short list is Alonso, who is facing the very real possibility that he won’t finish his career in Seattle.

Since Alonso is out of contract and his 2018 budget charge was above the maximum of $504,375, the only team that can offer him a contract above the max is Seattle. If the Sounders had made such an offer, Alonso would no longer be eligible for free agency. Given the Cuban midfielder’s age and year-by-year decline in minutes played, it’s not surprising he’ll hit the market.

So after a decade in Rave Green, Alonso is in search of a team in need of a veteran presence to anchor the midfield, while also weighing a possible return to Seattle should the parties agree to terms below the max charge. Reading between the lines, it seems likely he’ll end his MLS career with the Sounders.

Maxi Urruti to Montreal

What sort of striker would you pair with Ignacio Piatti, knowing the window to take advantage of Nacho’s otherworldly counterattacking ability closes just a little bit more every day?

I’d go with someone with pace and an eye for a pass, someone willing to make thankless runs, someone happy to press when your team doesn’t have the ball and someone who can produce as both a starter and a substitute. If it sounds like I just described Maxi Urruti, that’s because I did.

Plenty of Eastern Conference teams could have used Urruti, but the Impact got it done for $75,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and a first-round pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft (No. 10 overall).

It’s a relatively small price to pay for a striker who’s scored nine, 12 and eight goals in his past three seasons with FC Dallas, including 11 assists last year. Montreal already have goalscoring wingers. They weren’t desperate for a dominant No. 9. They needed someone like Urruti, who will make their other parts better and will be motivated and inspired by new surroundings.

On the flipside, Dallas jettison a big chunk of salary, and protected themselves in case Urruti decides to head back to Argentina this offseason as they will retain 50 percent of any transfer value if he leaves before the 2019 season starts.

This all matters because…

It looks like FC Dallas will go young in 2019

FCD did indeed make moves. They traded Urruti to Montreal and Tesho Akindele to Orlando City. With Oscar Pareja on the way out, Mauro Diaz sold in the summer and a roster stocked with young Homegrowns and South Americans, it seems it’s time to go all-in on the youth movement.

That might mean a bumpy road come 2019, but the lumps could be worth it (and worth millions in transfer fees). Give Paxton Pomykal the minutes he needs to develop. Brandon Servania and Jesus Ferreira, too. The academy is churning, and now it’s time to see if the kids can play.

The question now is who will lead the charge from the sidelines. Tab Ramos was a prominent candidate, but MLSsoccer.com’s Charles Boehm reported the US U-20s head coach is now out of the running. Academy director Luchi Gonzalez seems ideally suited to lead a year of development and beyond, and owner Dan Hunt says a hire will likely be announced this week with Gonzalez likely being the choice.

A bigger question in the short term: Who is making these trades with Pareja gone, Luis Muzzi reportedly off to Orlando and Fernando Clavijo on a leave of absence?

Opara situation in KC

I figured this offseason would be interesting in Kansas City after Ike Opara, the 2017 MLS Defender of the Year became the third-highest paid central defender on the team, per the MLS Players Association, following the summer signing of Andreu Fontas.

ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle has the story. To sum it up, Opara wants Kansas City to listen to trade offers if they were to come in. His preference would be to stay where he’s found success and a real home in MLS, but careers only last so long and Opara will turn 30 next February. Though he signed a new deal ahead of the 2018 season, it’s clear he believes there’s a market that will pay him more for his services, whether that happens via negotiations with Kansas City or via a trade and new deal.

I can’t blame Opara. Yes, he’s had injury issues in the past, but he started 30 and 31 games the past two seasons. He’s got more starts in the past three years than Matt Besler. He’s one of the best set-piece threats in the league. Center backs are hard to find, just look at the TAM flops in the past few years, and he’s a proven commodity looking for what he believes is market value compared to his peers in MLS.

Peter Vermes, meanwhile, says he’ll listen to offers if they make sense but is under no pressure to move Opara, who is under contract in 2019 with a club option for 2020. What will happen? It’s hard to tell in the first public staring contest of the MLS offseason, but I’ve heard a few teams have already reached out to Kansas City to see what it might take to make a deal.

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