With all the attention given to the international transfer marketplace, the trade market can often be overlooked as one of the best mechanisms by which MLS clubs can acquire impact talents.
We look back at the trades that took place in 2020 and picked out some of the top moves by GMs and sporting directors in their squad-building efforts. The list below follows no particular order and it does not include trades for player discovery rights before they were signed from abroad (cases like Jose Cifuentes, Victor Wanyama, Jurgen Damm and others).
Walker Zimmerman to Nashville
- Nashville acquired: center back Walker Zimmerman
- LAFC acquired: $950,000 in GAM, 2020 int'l roster spot + incentives for $300,000 GAM
Sure, these deals are listed in no particular order, but it feels necessary to start here with one of the season-defining trades that was akin to the 2019 blockbuster acquisition of center back Ike Opara by Minnesota United.
Opara was named MLS Defender of the Year last year and Zimmerman is the favorite to win the award in 2020. Perhaps these outcomes lead to a change in the economy and math around big trades/asking prices for proven MLS center backs in the future?
Zimmerman didn't come cheap and it was never going to be easy to pry him away from LAFC. No word on what the specific incentives were, but it shouldn't come as a shock if LAFC wind up landing most or all of that conditional $300k GAM, whether it was team-based (Nashville made the playoffs), appearance-based (Zimmerman started 22 of Nashville's 23 games), accolade-based (Zimmerman is the favorite for Defender of the Year and seems a lock for Best XI) or a combination of all three.
The 27-year-old anchored one of the best defenses for an expansion side in league history, showing that he was worth every penny for Nashville.
Also, because 2020 was their expansion season, Nashville were involved in plenty of other trades with one other making our list below. But their trades for Dax McCarty (for $50k GAM, $50k TAM and a 2nd Round 2021 SuperDraft selection) and Alex Muyl (international slot through 2021 + $50k GAM if incentives are met) deserve at least a passing nod.
Darlington Nagbe to Columbus Crew
- Columbus acquired: central midfielder Darlington Nagbe
- Atlanta acquired: $900,000 TAM, $150,000 GAM, 2020 international roster spot + incentives for undisclosed allocation money
Another blockbuster, Nagbe's trade has predictably been great for Columbus. Investing more than a million dollars in allocation for one player always carries risk, but for such a consistent player and one who was acquired for more than a million in allocation just two seasons prior, the risk was mitigated.
Nagbe was reunited with Caleb Porter, who were plenty familiar with each other from their trophy-laden days at both Akron and the Portland Timbers. When they've been at full strength, the Crew have been one of the league's best teams. He was easily the league's most accurate passer with a pass completion rate north of 95% (second place was 92%).
There were also plenty of rumblings that Nagbe wanted to return to Ohio, leaving Atlanta in a tough situation. The Five Stripes lost a quality player, but were duly compensated.
Brooks Lennon to Atlanta United
- Atlanta acquired: right wingback Brooks Lennon
- Real Salt Lake acquired: $150,000 GAM, $150,000 TAM
Some of that allocation acquired in the Nagbe trade (and their trade of Julian Gressel to D.C. United) was used to get talented
wingback/winger/fullback versatile right-sided player Brooks Lennon. In a hugely disappointing 2020 for Atlanta, Lennon proved one of the few bright spots.
Lennon led the team in expected assists (3.6), chances created (23), successful crosses (30) and was tied for the lead in assists (3). He was tied for the league-lead in successful crosses, too.
Gressel was the most productive wingback in the league in Atlanta with many crosses finding Josef Martinez. Lennon is one of the few MLS players in the same tier of crossing ability as Gressel. Expect a bump in assists for Lennon next year with a healthy Martinez.
Romell Quioto to Montreal Impact
- Montreal acquired: forward Romell Quioto
- Houston acquired: defender Victor Cabrera, $100,000 GAM, undisclosed sell-on fee
The talented yet streaky attacker was Montreal's most productive player in 2020, with eight goals and six assists across 19 matches (1,483 minutes). His goal contributions fired the Impact to the playoffs during a season of transition under new manager Thierry Henry.
Darwin Quintero to Houston Dynamo FC
- Houston acquired: forward Darwin Quintero
- Minnesota acquired: midfielder Marlon Hairston, $300,000 GAM, $300,000 TAM
Houston more than made up for the departing talent of Quioto by acquiring Quintero from Minnesota United.
Quintero is among the most electrifying attackers in MLS but he fell out of favor in Minnesota for his, erm, ambivalence to defending. There were major questions about this deal for Tab Ramos's Dynamo when it happened, even though Quintero no longer qualified as a Designated Player. From an attacking perspective it worked out even better than they could have hoped.
The Colombian had seven goals and 10 assists in 20 starts this year. He was 2nd in MLS in chances created, 4th in big chances created and 5th in expected assists.
Despite Quintero's attacking prowess, though, Houston fell far below the playoff line thanks in no small part to a leaky defense.
Lalas Abubakar to Colorado Rapids
- Colorado acquired: Lalas Abubakar
- Columbus acquired: $400,000 GAM, 2020 international roster spot
In one of the moves that was a bit of a foregone conclusion, the Rapids were able to make Abubakar's loan a permanent deal.
After he was initially acquired on loan, the Ghanian center back was one of Colorado's leading figures in stabilizing a shaky defense in 2019 and it was critical for the Rapids to find common ground with the Crew to get him back in 2020.
The $400k GAM puts him in the neighborhood of deals in recent years for teammate Keegan Rosenberry, what Cincy paid Atlanta for Greg Garza and around what the Red Bulls sent to Vancouver for Tim Parker.
Abubakar has started all but three of the 42 Rapids matches he was eligible to play since joining the team.
No. 13 SuperDraft pick (Alistair Johnston) to Nashville SC
- Nashville acquired: No. 13 SuperDraft selection (used to select Alistair Johnston)
- Colorado acquired: $75,000 GAM
Now to another one with Nashville: Their draft day swoop to select Johnston, the best of the draft-related trades that day.
Johnston, 22, didn't take long to claim the starting right back spot. The Canadian has been a steady presence on a steady team, starting 15 of 18 matches played as a rookie.
Victor Ulloa (& Mikey Ambrose) to Inter Miami
- Miami acquired: midfielder Victor Ulloa, No. 1 pick in 2019 MLS Re-Entry Draft (Stage 1) used to take Mikey Ambrose
- Cincinnati acquired: $50,000 GAM, 3rd Round pick in 2020 SuperDraft, No. 26 pick in 2019 MLS Re-Entry Draft (Stage 1)
Miami didn't splurge in the trade market to the same extent as fellow expansion side Nashville, but the acquisition of Ulloa (and Ambrose) may have been their best foray into the market by way of value.
Ulloa, 28, started 18 games for Miami and is just a reliable, steady presence in the midfield. He also was a useful figure in the locker room, given his character and bilingual skills.
Ambrose, meanwhile, didn't play a huge role in 2020 with just three starts, but he did pop up on Decision Day with a stunning goal in the 2-1 victory over FC Cincinnati. Without that win, Miami would have missed the playoffs.