Greg Garza - close up

Stejskal: What just happened? Breaking down a whirlwind of roster moves

What the heck just happened?

A lot, that’s what.

Strap in. It’s time to sort through the meaning behind a wild week of roster moves.

Cincinnati do some heavy lifting – will it be enough?

FC Cincinnati’s inaugural MLS roster is finally starting to take shape after a wild afternoon of deals on Tuesday.

FCC selected forward Darren Mattocks, attacker Roland Lamah, midfielder Eric Alexander, center back Hassan Ndam and striker Kei Kamara in the Expansion Draft, then immediately traded Kamara to the Colorado Rapids in exchange for an international slot. They then turned around and made a pair of significant trades, acquiring left back Greg Garza from Atlanta United and center back Kendall Waston from the Vancouver Whitecaps. To add to their Tuesday haul, FC Cincy acquired midfielder Victor Ulloa from FC Dallas on Wednesday, will, are reportedly on the brink of trading Portland for Alvas Powell and, as first reported by MLSsoccer.com, signed veteran Polish goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton on Thursday. 

Garza and Waston are high-end MLS defenders, and Cincinnati spent big on both. They sent $200,000 in General Allocation Money and $250,000 in Targeted Allocation Money to the Five Stripes for Garza and dealt an international slot and up to $825,000 in allocation money – $450,000 in GAM, $300,000 in TAM and an additional $75,000 in GAM depending on performance benchmarks – to Vancouver for Waston.

The general sense from sources at nearly 10 different clubs is that Cincinnati did well with the trades, but less so in the Expansion Draft.

We’ll start with the Expansion Draftees, the first of whom was Mattocks. The former D.C. United forward had 10 goals in 14 starts and 25 appearances last season, leading the line for the Black-and-Red until Wayne Rooney arrived in the summer. It was the best season of his up-and-down seven-year career, but it ended with his contract expiring. Picking an out of contract player who has never been a regular starter in MLS and who, according to the MLS Players Association, made $400,000 in 2018, confused the sources.

Cincinnati appear to have had their ducks in a row, however. According to a league source, the club have agreed to a new deal with Mattocks, eliminating any possibility that he'll leave MLS as a free agent. The source didn't know the terms of the deal, though Andrew Wiebe reported Tuesday that the club was looking to negotiate the Jamaican down from his 2018 salary. Whether they accomplished that will go a long way in determining how valuable a selection Mattocks becomes.

The sources were similarly confused by the Lamah selection. In his two seasons in Dallas, he showed flashes of big talent, but was mostly wildly inconsistent. He had 19 goals in 61 regular-season games for FCD, but 13 of those strikes came in just six matches. More concerning is his contract, which Dallas declined their option on. Lamah made $818,500 in 2018, when he had eight goals and six assists. That’s not great value, particularly for a Cincinnati team that’s said they plan to be “fiscally responsible.” According to Wiebe, FCC also want to negotiate his number down. That’s no sure thing, however. If he doesn’t like their offer, Lamah will be free to sign with any team outside of MLS.

Most of the sources saw the Alexander and Ndam selections as more straightforward. In Alexander, FCC get a versatile midfielder with nearly a decade of MLS experience, though he may have taken a step back in 2018. The 30-year-old is coming off a season in which he struggled to find a rhythm while dealing with various injuries. He made $260,000 in 2018, and a source told MLSsoccer.com that number will rise to nearly $300,000 next year. That’s not too expensive, but not quite a bargain, either. Some sources made a case that he’s a bit positionally redundant with Ulloa and Fatai Alashe, as well.  

Ndam is the lowest-risk play. The 20-year-old center back made just two MLS appearances in his two seasons with the New York Red Bulls, but he got plenty of burn in USL, where he helped Red Bulls II bounce Cincinnati from the playoffs earlier this fall. He’s on the league minimum and has some tools. He might not turn into much, he might turn into a starter. This one made sense as a low-cost flyer.

Which brings us to Kamara, who, as mentioned above, was immediately flipped for an international slot that was later put in a package for his ex-Whitecaps teammate Waston. The soon-to-be 31-year-old center back publicly declared that he wanted out of Vancouver earlier this offseason, and, though new head coach Marc Dos Santos tried to convince him to stick around, FCC made his wish reality. They did, however, pay a steep price. They sent an MLS record amount of allocation money for a defender to Vancouver. Multiple sources said that the international spot is worth about $150-200,000 in allocation money at the moment. Add it together, and that’s the equivalent of about $1 million in allocation headed to Vancouver for a wantaway defender. That’s a nice haul for the ‘Caps. For Cincy, it means they need to get strong form from Waston, who, according to the MLSPA, made just over $600,000 in 2018, throughout next season. That’s no sure thing for a player who made his share of big mistakes last year.

Garza is the surest bet of Cincy’s new bunch. The sources were unanimous in their belief that the 27-year-old is one of the best left backs in all of MLS. A total of $450,000 in GAM and TAM isn’t that steep of a price for him, either. He made just $175,000 in 2018, per the MLSPA. That’s a pittance for a player of his caliber. Accordingly, several sources expect him to ask Cincy for a significant raise. Even if he hits the books in 2019 at a much higher price, however, this deal makes sense for FCC. The trade also worked for Atlanta. MLS Cup wins come with raises, some built into contracts, others negotiated separately. With George Bello, Mikey Ambrose and Chris McCann all capable of playing left back, it made sense for the Five Stripes to trade Garza for allocation money that they can use elsewhere on their roster.

FCC certainly aren’t done building, but Koch and club technical director Luke Sassano told MLSsoccer.com earlier this fall that the club don’t expect to sign any DPs in addition to the already-acquired Fanendo Adi this offseason. The general sense is that they lack difference makers in the attack, aren’t very balanced and are skewing older. They’ve also already spent a good amount of resources. They traded $1.325 million in GAM and $1.11 million in TAM in the Adi, Alashe, Waston, Ulloa and Garza deals. Expansion teams get extra allocation money, but that’s still a serious chunk.

One other note nearly all the sources pointed out: Four of the six players Cincy acquired on Tuesday are excellent athletes. Expect FCC to implement a physical identity in 2019.

What’s up with FCD?

No one, not even Cincinnati, has had a more turbulent couple of weeks than FC Dallas. The club lost coach Oscar Pareja, reportedly lost VP of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi (who himself was only promoted to that role after technical director Fernando Clavijo went on a leave of absence in September) to Orlando and either have already or will shortly lose Lamah, Ulloa, Maxi Urruti and Tesho Akindele.

It’s all beyond a bit bizarre for a team that finished fourth in the West in 2018. What gives?

According to multiple sources, FCD are doubling down on a youth movement in 2019. Sources said Tuesday that the club will promote longtime academy director Luchi Gonzalez to replace Pareja as head coach. That fits with where they’re headed on the field. Young Homegrowns Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira, Thomas Roberts and Brandon Servania are expected to compete for minutes in 2019, according to comments club owner and president Dan Hunt made to MLSsoccer.com in November. Dallas are reportedly set to sign Honduran international midfielder Bryan Acosta as a replacement for Ulloa, but sources aren’t expecting many other major reinforcements. For the most part, FCD will roll into 2019 with what they’ve got now.

Paxton Pomykal is among the players looking to be FCD's next big Homegrown contributor. | USA Today Images

For advocates of playing the kids, that’s encouraging. Dallas have signed the most Homegrowns in MLS history, but only a select few – Ulloa, Reggie Cannon, Jesse Gonzalez and Kellyn Acosta, who is now with Colorado – have ever produced for the first-team. With Gonzalez, who coached most of FCD’s current Homegrowns in their academy, on board as head coach and the club clearing the way for players like Pomykal to battle for minutes, that should change in 2019.

Commissioner Don Garber said last week that MLS needs to become more of a selling league. The sources said that Dallas, who are reportedly set to sell teenage center back Chris Richards to Bayern Munich for over $1 million this winter even though he’s never even appeared for the FCD first team, are intent on becoming a selling club. As such, they should be a very interesting case study for MLS.

Unfortunately for FCD fans, good case studies don’t necessarily make for good teams. With FCD set to pivot to more of a youth movement in 2019, the sources expect the club to take a step back from the regular-season power they became during Pareja’s tenure.

One other note on FCD: A source told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday that Urruti’s salary, which was $780,000 in 2018, will rise to $1.2 million in 2019 and $1.4 million in 2020. That changes the framing of his trade to Montreal, who sent $75,000 in TAM and a first-round pick in the 2019 SuperDraft to FCD in exchange for the Argentine.

Starting the rebuild in Orlando, Vancouver, Colorado

After a spending spree last offseason gave way to terrible results in 2018, this offseason was always going to be about one thing in Orlando: Tearing things down so they could build them back up.

They still have a long way to go before they have any significant salary budget space to play with, but the Lions have made some moves in that direction this week. On Sunday, they traded Victor “PC” Giro to Vancouver in exchange for a third-round pick in the 2019 SuperDraft. On Tuesday, they sent center back Amro Tarek to the New York Red Bulls for a 2019 fourth-rounder and shipped left back Mohammed El-Munir to LAFC in exchange for 2018 No. 1 overall selection Joao Moutinho.

In 2018, PC, Tarek and El-Munir combined to make nearly $400,000. Their salaries are now off Orlando’s books. As a Generation adidas player, Moutinho won’t hit their salary budget. That’s not a ton of money, but it’s a start. For James O’Connor and the Lions, who picked up Akindele for $150,000 in combined allocation but declined the contract options on veteran players Joe Bendik, Jonathan Spector, Scott Sutter and others earlier this winter, that’s… something.

Mohamed El-Munir is off to LAFC, where he should bring some attacking punch from the left back position. | USA Today Images

For the Red Bulls, multiple sources said acquiring Tarek, who worked with New York assistant C.J. Brown in Orlando, is a depth play after the club lost Ndam to Cincinnati and declined their option on Aurelien Collin. Other sources said that LAFC view El-Munir as an upgrade on Moutinho. The club are in a good situation with their salary budget, and clearly felt comfortable bringing the Libyan’s contract onto their books. Through that framework, it made sense for them to pull the trigger, even if it meant giving up on the first draft pick in club history less than a year into his pro career.

There are still plenty of questions in Colorado, but the Rapids finally have a legitimate option at striker in Kamara. The 34-year-old had 14 goals and six assists in Vancouver in 2018, and now he has a two-year contract worth $750,000 per season in Denver, according to sources. The Rapids, who acquired attacker Nico Mezquida from Vancouver earlier in the week in exchange for goalkeeper Zac MacMath, still need a lot of help to solve an attack that had the fewest goals in the league last season, but Kamara is a massive upgrade from what Colorado ran out at striker in 2018. 

For Vancouver, acquiring PC, MacMath and fellow 'keeper Maxime Crepeau and midfielder Andy Rose on the cheap and getting rid of Waston and Kamara is all about starting to rebuild under Marc Dos Santos. And doing it in a way that makes sense for their budget. They definitely need some help at the top end of their roster, but they’ve got an absurd amount of money to work with. Waston is out, and Cincinnati's truckload of allocation money is in. Alphonso Davies is gone, but his record transfer fee and associated $750,000 in GAM have arrived. The significant salaries of Kamara, Brek Shea and Aly Ghazal are all off the books. That’s a ton of space. More than enough for Dos Santos to remake the club in his image. We’ll see how he does it.

SKC adds an option at left back

Sporting KC made some news just before the start of the weekend, announcing late Friday afternoon that they've signed veteran MLSer Rodney Wallace via free agency. Interestingly, the club listed Wallace, who has spent the bulk of his career as a winger, as a defender in their press release. That raised an eyebrow or two over here, and a club spokesman confirmed to MLSsoccer.com that the 30-year-old Costa Rican international will compete with Seth Sinovic, who signed a new contract last month, and Jimmy Medranda for time at left back.

Of course, this won't be the first time Peter Vermes attempts to convert a more attack-minded midfielder to fullback. He pulled that off to great effect with Graham Zusi, who transformed from one of the league's better midfielders to perhaps its top right back over the last two seasons. Wallace has moonlighted at left back at times during his career, and has the speed and attacking understanding to do some very interesting things on the overlap. We'll see if he's able to wrestle the starting role from Sinovic, who has withstood several challengers over the years.

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