Thursday was a different sort of “decision day,” the deadline for MLS clubs to make their end-of-year roster decisions. While there are still plenty of balls up in the air as contract negotiations continue – and trades, transfers and other moves are surely discussed around the league and beyond – we’re starting to get a clearer picture of what rosters will look like in 2020.
Here’s my rundown of Contract Deadline Day’s biggest moves.
Chicago, Orlando clear the decks
On paper it’s no big surprise that Chicago Fire FC and Orlando City SC, both of whom finished with losing records and missed out on the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, scythed their rosters down to just 16 and 15 players, respectively – putting them roughly on par with what 2020 expansion sides Inter Miami and Nashville SC have at present. Names like Sacha Kljestan, Lamine Sane, Oriol Rosell, Aleksandar Katai and Nico Gaitan are among those cut loose.
Both the Fire and Lions are coachless at the moment and this gives whoever they hire some clean slate for rebuilding in the direction they want. That’s a pretty common tack in MLS. But there’s also some real talent walking out the door here for nothing in return, and it’s not clear to me that these two teams will have an easy (or cost-effective) time replacing it on the open market.
The Fire, for example, were notoriously poor finishers in 2019 and that slants evaluations of proven chance creators like Katai and Gaitan, who racked up solid numbers in MLS even with misfiring teammates galore, and underlying data suggests they may have been markedly undervalued as a result.
Status quo in Cincy?
You might think that the only team in the East to finish below both Chicago and Orlando would be overhauling things even more dramatically than them. But you’d be incorrect!
Even with a miserable debut season fresh in their rearview mirror, FC Cincinnati have kept faith with the majority of their roster – for now, at least – having picked up 8 of the 14 contract options in front of them for 2020. That leaves them with 25 players under contract for next year, 24 of them incumbents.
Granted, many of them are young and unproven types who spent time out on loan to USL sides and so forth, and “coaching up” prospects like that is a huge element of MLS survival and success. And I’ll be shocked if FCC don’t trade, transfer or otherwise ditch some of their current roster in the months ahead, starting with Fanendo Adi. But it remains curious that relatively little turnover has unfolded so far.
Slashing in Seattle
Conversely to Wooden Spoon winners FC Cincy, the freshly-crowned MLS Cup champs elected to part company – or at least flirt with doing so – with some prominent contributors to their title-winning campaign on Thursday.
Saad Abdul-Salam, Jonathan Campbell, Victor Rodriguez, Alex Roldan, Luis Silva and Roman Torres saw their 2020 options declined. Kim Kee-hee, Harry Shipp and Brad Smith are out of contract (Smith remains a Bournemouth player); that leaves 18 players confirmed for next season. Kee-hee and Shipp may yet return on new deals, while it seems likely that Rodriguez and Torres will not.
President and GM Garth Lagerwey is playing down the prospect of major turnover, pointing to the Sounders’ desire to make a legitimate run at Concacaf Champions League this winter. And he’ll look like a genius if he can bring back some of these players while nudging down their cap hits. But it’s an intriguing state of affairs for the Rave Green nonetheless.
End of eras for Sporting, Loons
For the first time in quite a while, Sporting Kansas City got kicked around this year, and so offseason change was always in the offing. Still, there was strong symbolism in play on Thursday as the club bid farewell to Seth Sinovic and Benny Feilhaber, long-serving soldiers and locker-room characters, even if Feilhaber was gone for a year-and-a-half.
Onetime teen phenom Gedion Zelalem is also out and while he wasn’t in KC for very long, fans around the United States will be watching to see where his career goes from here. I sense that Peter Vermes wants to make his squad younger, more athletic and perhaps a bit nastier, too.
🦇Thank you, Batman 🦇 pic.twitter.com/ElcytbotHP— Minnesota United FC (@MNUFC) November 21, 2019
Meanwhile Minnesota United parted ways with one of the last remaining links to their pre-MLS past by declining Miguel Ibarra’s option. Besides the pain and nostalgia longtime Loons fans will feel at their beloved “Batman” leaving town, it’s also a bit of a headscratcher considering that he reportedly had drawn trade interest from other MLS teams over the past year or so and might’ve fetched MNUFC useful assets even if no longer in Adrian Heath’s plans.
Free agent crop
A substantial list of MLS veterans who cut ties with teams this week qualify for free agency. And while it’s risky to speculate given how quickly their status can change at this time of year as negotiations and individual decisions unfold in real time, I see a number of proven contributors who should have plenty of suitors in the months ahead.
Justin Meram, AJ DeLaGarza, Steven Beitashour, Jordan Harvey, Luis Robles, Sacha Kljestan, Kelyn Rowe, Benny Feilhaber and Rodney Wallace are names that catch my eye on this list.
Conversely, the arrival of two expansion teams provides two more motivated protagonists in the marketplace. And pay attention to where free agents land, because the clubs that make attractive destinations for them are often the ones primed to make noise on the field.