How should we determine who “won” the MLS offseason?
There are no goals, no points and no games to help us along. We can only evaluate deals made and missed. And who better to do that than the men who pull the trigger? MLSsoccer.com spoke to a cohort of club executives to get a feel for who they think won the 2018-19 offseason. Some answered with the teams they felt made the biggest improvements this winter, others responded with those who they felt best weathered some turbulent times to stay in position to contend in 2019. A few went off the wall, throwing out a couple of wild cards who aren’t getting much buzz right now but may have laid the foundation for long-term success this winter.
Their answers varied enough that we decided to break this piece into a few different categories. We’ll start with the most obvious…
Not many see them making the postseason in 2019, but the general consensus among technical staffers interviewed for this piece was that the Colorado Rapids made the biggest improvements this winter. Colorado added a good deal of MLS experience to their roster, acquiring striker Kei Kamara, midfielder Benny Feilhaber, forward Diego Rubio, right back Keegan Rosenberry and attacker Nico Mezquida. Not all the moves drew serious headlines (few see Mezquida as a dangerous No. 10, for example), but, considering how bad the Rapids were going forward in 2018, the sources weren’t reaching when they said they expect a significant uptick from the Colorado attack this year.
As several of the execs noted, this isn’t even really about 2019 for Colorado. The Rapids should be better, but this season will largely be about building a structure that they can insert two new Designated Players into in 2020. Current Colorado DPs Tim Howard and Shkelzen Gashi are in the final year of their contracts, and, with Howard retiring after the season and Gashi underwhelming throughout his time in Denver, the expectation is that the Rapids will part ways with both and acquire a pair of younger DPs next winter in hopes of taking their current group up a notch.
Minnesota United also made some pretty significant signings this winter, acquiring MLS vets center back Ike Opara and defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso, and signing center midfielder Jan Gregus to a DP deal, in an effort to shore up a defense that was putrid in the club’s first two seasons in MLS. The moves could work, but they did come at significant cost and with a good deal of injury risk attached. If Alonso maintains his past performance, if Opara stays healthy and if Gregus is a top-third No. 8, the sources felt the trio could guide the Loons to the playoffs. If any of those things fail to come to pass, they felt it was equally likely that the moves don’t pan out and Minnesota are left holding the bag.
Weathered the storm
No club will ever weather the storm quite like the Columbus Crew did this winter. After spending a year on the brink, a new ownership group led by Jimmy and Dee Haslam and Dr. Pete Edwards stepped up to keep the Crew in Columbus. That alone would’ve been enough, but they didn’t stop, making a couple of serious hires to grow the club on both the sporting and business side. Columbus beat the LA Galaxy to hire Caleb Porter as their replacement for head coach Gregg Berhalter, who left the team following last season to take over the US men’s national team. They poached Tim Bezbatchenko from Toronto FC shortly after, hiring the Columbus-area native as club president and GM. For a team that looked for a long time like it wouldn’t even exist at this point, the hires were major coups.
They didn’t come close to hitting those heights, but Atlanta United did just fine for themselves this winter, too. The defending champs signed reigning South American player of the year Pity Martinez from River Plate for an MLS record transfer fee in December, then sold star attacker Miguel Almiron to Newcastle United for a record sale price in January. It was a positive outcome from a situation that could’ve easily backfired on Atlanta, who had to get rid of one of their four Designated Players this winter to become roster compliant, and it left the execs spoken to for this piece largely impressed. Hiring head coach Frank de Boer to replace the departing Tata Martino isn’t as certain of a positive, but, none of the sources doubted that the Dutchman could realistically lead the Five Stripes to a second straight MLS Cup.
They’re entering their ninth season in the league, but the Vancouver Whitecaps look an awful lot like an expansion outfit. The ‘Caps actually have the same number of returning players as legit expansion club FC Cincinnati, as both clubs brought back 10 players from their 2018 squads.
Unlike Cincinnati, who retained manager Alan Koch, Vancouver also have a new head coach in Marc Dos Santos. The former LAFC assistant is no stranger to big projects. The Canadian manager has successfully led lower-division expansion teams on three different occasions in the last half-decade. He’ll be tasked with executing another overhaul in Vancouver, who drew praise from a few sources for how fully committed they’ve been to Dos Santos’ early vision. Not many expect their approach to pay-off immediately, but several think it may be the start of long-term success for the ‘Caps.
“I give them credit for being committed, to being like, ‘Hey, this is broken, let’s wreck shop and rebuild,’” said one rival exec. “I like that about Vancouver’s offseason. They went a different, bold direction.”