This period of the MLS calendar, when limbo is the rule rather than the exception, is equal parts thrilling and frustrating. By the time January and February roll around, I’m done being patient.
I want answers to the MLS questions bouncing around in my head, and I want them yesterday. I want fully fleshed out depth charts, and I wanted them the moment the transfer window opened. I want to know what I’ll be seeing when it gets real on Feb. 29, and I don’t want to mainline preseason match streams to figure out how coaches will line up their teams.
It doesn’t work that way. We don’t always get what we want, both in life and in the transfer market.
Before we get to my list of the five best winter windows (so far) in MLS, how about a helpful reminder that’s just as much for me as it is for you: clubs are nowhere near done doing business this offseason. Case in point, from just last year…
- Ike Opara traded from Sporting KC to Minnesota on Jan. 28 (as I write this column)
- Carles Gil signed by the New England Revolution, In Beom Hwang signed by Vancouver on Jan. 30
- Alexandru Mitrita signed by NYCFC on Feb. 4
- Nani signed by Orlando City on Feb. 18
- C.J. Sapong traded from the Union to Fire on Feb. 23
- Alejandro Pozuelo signed by Toronto FC on March 4
- Heber signed by NYCFC on March 21
That’s three Best XI honorees (Opara, Gil and Pozuelo) and six double-digit goalscorers who arrived at their respective clubs on or after January 28. Lesson: be as patient as you can be, enjoy the rumor mill and keep it all in perspective!
Now, on to the five clubs who I think have done the best business so far this winter. I did not consider Inter Miami or Nashville for this list. Apples to oranges. Those are full roster builds. Honorable mentions go out to the Portland Timbers (couple reported moves get done and they’d be on the list), the Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, New England and the Union.
5. LA Galaxy
Sign Chicharito, you make the list. I make the rules. Those are the rules.
Only the LA Galaxy could sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic, ride that wave and then fill the hole left by the big man’s departure with the region’s biggest star and El Tri’s all-time leading scorer. They grabbed Aleksandar Katai for free, too. The Serb is mercurial, but there’s a universe in which has a Best XI season feeding the Little Pea and living the good life in Marina del Rey. Sacha Kljestan is a veteran depth play with something to prove. Same for Emiliano Insua.
That’s the good. There’s also the bad. In the Galaxy’s case, the bad is their recent defensive record, which leads us to another rule: If you don’t address your dodgy/shallow center back depth chart, you can land no higher than fifth. LA haven’t done that, not yet anyway.
4. Sporting KC
Bank. Broken. Alan Pulido cost more than every other transfer in Sporting KC’s history … combined. We can retire the “Will they spend on a striker?” narrative just in time to start pushing the “Will Pulido really live up to that price tag?” narrative. Hey, that’s just how it works.
Outside of Pulido, Peter Vermes cut ties with some of his guys, notably Seth Sinovic, Benny Feilhaber and Krisztian Nemeth. Khiry Shelton is back, though, so not all the 2018 West-winning mojo is gone. So is Amadou Dia to fill Sinovic’s spot on the roster. Opara, meanwhile, isn’t coming back, but they grabbed Roberto Puncec to help stabilize the spot next to Matt Besler. Gadi Kinda gives Vermes options in the midfield, maybe more if he settles quickly.
That’s all nice, but it’s Pulido that gets Kansas City on this list. Will Pulido deliver? The answer to that question will ultimately be the basis on which we judge their offseason.
The best regular-season team in league history, an absolute juggernaut of sustained tactical and technical brilliance, let Steven Beitashour and Tyler Miller, their starting right back and goalkeeper, walk and lost Lee Nguyen in the Expansion Draft. None of those players left against LAFC’s wishes. It was time to move on, and none of the three were irreplaceable.
This offseason wasn’t about volume for LAFC, in large part because they dropped big dollars on Brian Rodriguez and Diego Palacios last summer. It was about upgrading at one or two key positions and adding depth in central midfield, the lack of which very likely cost them the double in 2019.
So John Thorrington, Bob Bradley and Will Kuntz did that, paying yet more millions for next-gen South American national team talent in Francisco Ginella and Jose Cifuentes to shore up the midfield and then luring Dutch national team goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer (formerly of Ajax and PSV) across the Atlantic for a new adventure.
LAFC had precious few holes. They filled them with players who are both win-now buys as well as appreciating assets. Job well done.
2. D.C. United
Like LAFC, D.C. are winners in part because of what they did in 2019 to prepare for 2020 and the dissolution of LuchoRoo (RIP). Ola Kamara is proven goalscorer in MLS, and all the service is his to attack in the 18-yard box. Yamil Asad has double-double goals and assists potential.
If those were the only moves Dave Kasper made this offseason, this would have been a team with legitimate playoff ambitions. Now add Edison Flores and Julian Gressel to the mix. Those are big moves, and I think they’ll prove to be the right moves to take this team to the top of East.
1. Columbus Crew SC
I really hope all this preseason Crew hype doesn’t blow up in my face.
Not because I’m scared of looking stupid – that’s happened before and it’ll happen again – but because there is real potential for fun and good soccer in Columbus in 2020 and beyond. I want for the Crew what I want for every single team in our league. I want their ambition to pay off.
They showed flashes of it last year by signing Eloy Room and Costa Rican international Luis Diaz. That helped turn a team that lost 13 of 15 in the middle of the year into a team that knocked off Philadelphia and Atlanta in the season’s final four weeks.
Now add Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan to the mix. Artur and Wil Trapp can fight it out to see who gets to partner Nagbe in midfield. The front four is downright scary, though a little more wing depth would be nice, and Zelarayan has the pedigree to pick up where Pipa Higuain and Guillermo Barros Schelotto left off. Hell, why not dream of MVPs and MLS Cups?
I can keep going, too. Aidan Morris is a name you might not recognize, but the Homegrown midfielder was a freshman phenom at Indiana and could be a Crew fixture for years to come. Milton Valenzuela is back from injury. Vito Wormgoor gives Caleb Porter another veteran starting center back option.
Enough talk, let’s just play the games already.