And now we move onto the Western Conference. For those of you who missed it, the Eastern Conference version of this column ran on Monday.
Please keep in mind that while deals can be agreed upon now, nothing becomes officially official until the MLS transfer window opens on February 10. It will then stay open until May.
And away we go:
It should surprise precisely no one that the expansion team, as currently constructed, needs the most work done.
Some of that work will come via the SuperDraft when they take Clemson's Philip Mayaka, a box-to-box midfielder with great range and a great range of passing, with the No. 1 pick. I will mock and ridicule Austin FC if they make any other decision with this pick.
That would get them two-thirds of the way to a starting three-man midfield. They've got their No. 8 in Mayaka and their No. 6 in Alex Ring, and...
My Suggestion: They need to go out and get themselves a No. 10. I initially thought they'd try to play incoming DP Cecilio Dominguez there, but Dominguez is better on the wing and Austin head coach Josh Wolff, on the Expansion Draft stream, was cagey enough in his non-answer when asked where the Paraguayan international would play that I believe a true DP No. 10 is on the way. It seems obvious to me that if they intended to play Dominguez as the No. 10, Wolff would've just said "Yup, this is our guy. We've got our 10."
Here's where it gets interesting in a "let's just keep going to back to the well" kind of way. Austin have made three big(ish) signings from South America in Dominguez, young winger Rodney Redes and big center back Jhohan Romana. All three are, on the face of it, good signings – and all three are repped by the same agent, as per Transfermarkt. There is obviously a good working relationship there.
The most valuable player repped by that agency, Eagle Eye Sports Management, just happens to be 20-year-old Paraguayan No. 10 Ivan Franco of Libertad, one of the two biggest clubs in Paraguay. He's already made his senior debut and has played 11 times (fairly effectively) in the Copa LIbertadores.
El Verde need lots of other stuff – midfield depth and a starting striker are the most obvious – but getting that No. 10 spot filled is the biggest deal. Franco would seemingly fit the bill both in terms of what Austin need and where they've been shopping.
The Rapids have a good and deep backline (though they could use another true left back, especially with Sam Vines likely to miss a chunk of time on international duty and accruing more European interest by the day), a good and deep collection of wingers, a good but shallow midfield corps and a pretty questionable center forward cohort. So let's look there.
Chilean international Diego Rubio earned most of the 2020 minutes as the No. 9, and it became pretty apparent that he's better off as either a super-sub (his off-the-bench numbers are absurd) or as a second forward. Battling against center backs game after game seemed to wear him down, and while the Rapids' attack overall was pretty good when he was on the field, Rubio delivered just 3g/4a in 1130 minutes across all competitions. That's not enough.
My Suggestion: Colorado's not a high-spending team, so there's little reason to think they'll go to market and come home with a big name like Sporting (for example) did last year when going to Mexico and coming away with Alan Pulido. But they might follow a similar path and finesse their way to an answer.
That answer is to orchestrate a year-long loan with option to buy on the oft-maligned Club America attacker Roger Martinez. The 26-year-old Colombian has never come close to settling in at the Azteca and is, at best, third on the depth chart at center forward right now. Las Aguilas almost didn't even register him for the Clausura, and he didn't make the roster this past weekend in their opening day win.
In short: Martinez wants out, and they want him out. The Rapids could offer him an escape hatch without taking on too much long-term risk, and if Martinez – who can play on both wings, as well as the No. 9 – comes good, then they would have themselves an elite, match-winning forward.
Before we get into what Dallas have done and need to do this offseason, I just want to make this point: The No. 1 thing Dallas needed from their roster wasn't an upgrade, but some cohesion. They had trouble knitting themselves together in the midfield and attack – some veterans, including the DPs, underperformed significantly – and getting that right is more important than any offseason acquisition, since it's not like Dallas are going to tear down the whole side and rebuild.
Even if they don't sign another player, you're looking at a playoff-caliber roster that's likely improved a bit since you last saw them take the field.
My Suggestion: With all of that said, it becomes about upgrading spots in the front six. If Paxton Pomykal comes back healthy, he will be an upgrade at either of the free 8 roles, and if Ricardo Pepi develops as expected, I wouldn't be at all shocked to see him displace veteran Franco Jara as the No. 9. I presume that Obrian will be slotted in as the starting right wing.
And so the question is what to do about the other wing. Michael Barrios has been a starter for half-a-decade, but he was just traded to Colorado for an international roster slot and higher SuperDraft pick (No. 15). Jesus Ferreira did play some on the left last season, but he struggled mightily, as did young Dante Sealy. The answer could still come from within – Pomykal has played a bit as a left winger for club and country – but I think it's more likely that Dallas go shopping.
Benfica winger Franco Cervi, a 26-year-old fringe Argentine international, has been repeatedly linked with a move to MLS over the past couple of months. While it'd take a big spend to get him to Frisco, Dallas have done very well for themselves on outgoing transfers over the past few years and Cervi is the exact type of player you buy if you want to go from "good team who makes noise in the playoffs" to "great team who wins trophies."
Houston Dynamo FC
The Dynamo have been one of the busiest teams in the league, signing a pair of Homegrowns from their long-dormant academy and then executing a couple of intra-league moves by trading for winger Fafa Picault and then very humorously launching the first attack against Austin in the Texas Triangle Derby by claiming Joe Corona in the Re-Entry Draft.
Both Picault and Corona are solid veterans who add value, but neither moves the needle for a team that finished dead last in the West and, over the past six months, sold their two best attackers in Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas.
My Suggestion: The Dynamo don't sit at the high-stakes table during the transfer season, and never really have. Their best bet would be to do what they did when they got Manotas, who came over as a teenager with lots of potential and zero polish, or Elis, who came over on loan after being caught in a numbers game at Monterrey.
Even with the departure of those two guys, I like Houston's attack more than I like their defense. The central defense is a trouble spot unless young Homegrown Erik McCue is about to make a great leap forward (there's been no indication of such, though I'll sit here with my fingers crossed anyway). I think they've got to find themselves a no-nonsense center back.
Doing that on a budget is tough, however, so let's instead turn to the USL. Trinidad & Tobago international CB Neveal Hackshaw has been an all-league pick for the past two years and has been quite good for a while, both for club (Indy XI) and country. He will have zero adjustments to the heat or travel, and because he's a front-foot, ultra-aggressive center back with good mobility, he should make the type of "we've got to blow up this counterattack before it starts" plays that nobody on the Dynamo came close to in 2020.
So close to winning the Concacaf Champions League. They were honestly just one piece away, which has so often been the case for MLS teams over the past decade.
LAFC have spent the three weeks since that gutting loss to Tigres adding what they hope will be that piece, bringing in depth on the frontline and at left back. South Korea international Kim Moon-Hwan is hopefully their starting right back, too. As long as they bring center back Jesus David Murillo back as well (that's not done yet, and nothing's guaranteed in this business)... dayenu. They would go into 2021 as co-favorites with Columbus, at the very least.
My Suggestion: I really felt like they should've brought back Bradley Wright-Phillips. If he was part of their CCL run we'd have seen, at the very least, a late equalizer against Tigres:
Know who makes the near-post run here? BWP. pic.twitter.com/yp44QAIVm9— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) December 23, 2020
If they sell one of their DPs, as I think is likely, my advice would be to get a Best XI-caliber No. 9. Maybe that means making Cruz Azul an offer they can't refuse for Jonathan Rodriguez. Or maybe it means waiting for Kun Aguero's contract to run out and then bringing him in this summer. Do you think a front line of Vela, Aguero and either Rossi or Rodriguez would work in MLS? Yeah, I do, too.
All that said: Bringing back Murillo is the No. 1 priority. He made a massive difference.
Greg Vanney ended up where everyone thought he would end up: in Carson, in charge of the Galaxy's rebuild. I'm calling it a "rebuild" rather than a "retooling" or "reset" because, from the outside looking in, it really does seem like Vanney needs to rebuild the club culture and a good chunk of the roster.
Some of that has already happened, as they went out and got veteran LB Jorge Villafana for a song. You can be sure that there's going to be more and faster integration of academy products, too. The Galaxy should be up there with FC Dallas and Philly when it comes to productive youth-to-first-team pipelines.
Still, it's hard to imagine things actually getting better if they don't bring Cristian Pavon back.
My Suggestion: They've got to bring Cristian Pavon back. As the Galaxy know all too well, just slapping a DP tag on some guy with a pedigree is no guarantee of productivity – you need somebody who's actually there to deliver. Pavon, in his year-and-a-half in Carson, was that guy. He's a sure thing.
Once they get him, though, it becomes less certain and more difficult in large part because there are so many question marks at d-mid and along the back line. Yes, Jonathan dos Santos is likely to be healthier in 2021 than he was in 2020, but he's also about to turn 31 and there's no guarantee he'll still have his legs. Julian Araujo should start at right back, but he had more bad outings than good for club and country last year. The central defense was a mess, as was goalkeeper.
There's so much work to do with this team. It should start with Pavon, though.
The Loons already made two moves I like in signing veteran d-mid Wil Trapp as a free agent, and then trading for young(ish) CB Callum Montgomery, a high SuperDraft pick from a couple years back who never broke through with FC Dallas. Montgomery checks all the physicality/athleticism boxes you want in an MLS center back and, in a best-case scenario, wins playing time and distinguishes himself as a regular rotation piece. In the worst-case scenario, he's an entirely plausible fourth man on the depth chart for a good team.
Everything else looks fine-to-very, very good. And while I do want them to bring Ozzie Alonso back, and do think they made something of a mistake by not re-signing Kevin Molino, that's not the top priority...
My Suggestion: I said it during my end-of-2020 wrap-up and I'll say it again here: Minnesota should go after River Plate center forward Santos Borre. The 25-year-old Colombian fits exactly what they need in terms of position and age, and since there's likely to be some flexibility with the DP tag attached to young attacker Thomas Chacon, it wouldn't be difficult for Minnesota to open up a DP slot.
He wouldn't be cheap, but that's OK, right? The performance of Emanuel Reynoso down the stretch and into the postseason shows well enough what top-end talent can do for a previously unremarkable attacking team, and putting two guys of that caliber into the same XI is what championship teams do.
Mind you: During the postseason, Molino was that guy. He played like a DP for three games, and it was spectacular to see. But he's gone, and while the remaining non-Bebelo attackers are good, none of them hit that level. Borre can hit that level and has done it on a weekly basis for one of the biggest clubs in the hemisphere.
The fact that he fits the obvious positional need makes this simple. Expensive, of course, but simple.
The Timbers have one of the best teams in the league, which is what they showed during last year's MLS is Back Tournament. What they showed afterward is that they're probably not one of the deepest teams in the league, because even though they have a depth chart that seems pretty robust, the loss of MLS is Back MVP Sebastian Blanco to a torn ACL had a cascade effect on Portland's ability to use the ball in order to control games.
Which is to say that without Blanco, they couldn't really do that. Or at least they didn't really do that, which amounts to the same thing. So the most important part of this offseason is making sure he's back to his best.
Still, Portland have adequate depth almost everywhere even if Blanco takes his time coming back.
My Suggestion: The two spots they no longer have adequate depth are right back and left back. They brought in young Venezuelan Pablo Bonilla to play the former last year (he was pretty good) and brought in Claudio Bravo (not that Claudio Bravo) to play the latter this offseason. All the while, they traded away last year's starting left back, Jorge Villafana, and his back-up in Marco Farfan.
So that's where we're at in Portland: they need a back-up fullback for each side, and probably another center back to toss on the depth chart.
Then they need to figure out how to make it all sing the way it did in July and August.
Real Salt Lake
It's tough to tell what Real Salt Lake are aiming at in terms of roster-building and playing style. They took a "let's throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see if it sticks" – none of it did – approach to center forward last year, while at the same time basically giving up their "we play and develop our kids" identity at most other spots on the field. It was a mess.
They've already made a bunch of signings this winter, but they've all been Homegrowns (maybe this batch will play?) or guys brought in from the USL. They also sent out former Rookie of the Year Corey Baird in exchange for a chunk of GAM, which does suggest something more is on the way.
My Suggestion: I mean, they need a No. 9. I do think it was smart to bring in Rubio Rubin from San Diego – some strikers develop later than others – and we know that Damir Kreilach can play there in a pinch, and Douglas Martinez is a good pressing option for the dog days of summer. But none of those three screams "we've finally got this solved."
The other issue is that it wasn't just Homegrown kids Freddy Juarez was reluctant to give minutes to. The head coach kept young DP winger Jeizon Ramirez stapled to the bench for all but 80 minutes in 2020, a curious decision for a team that really struggled to generate any sort of consistent attack up the wings.
What I'm saying is that they need a veteran No. 9 that Juarez trusts to put out there as soon as the ball is kicked. Wilfried Bony is out of contract. Maybe he'd like it along the Wasatch?
San Jose Earthquakes
A lot of money came off San Jose's books this offseason, which should give them enough flexibility to address a couple of needs. That includes a center forward to either back up Chris Wondolowski or turn him into a super-sub, and perhaps another destroyer to give Judson an occasional rest.
But those don't compare to their need for a match-winning No. 10. The Quakes were at their best over the past two years when they were playing in a 4-1-4-1 that was kind of 4-2-3-1-ish with Magnus Eriksson, a replacement-level MLS No. 10, as the central attacking midfielder. When Eriksson was sold this summer to Djurgardens IF, they had no one else to do the job. That made them turn away from Matias Almeyda's preferred formation into a hybrid 4-4-2ish-looking thing.
It was still pretty good! But it's not how Almeyda wants to play, I don't think, and it's not really how a team with this roster should play.
My Suggestion: Obviously they need a real DP No. 10. They had a very good attack last season even without one of those; how much better would they have been if they had their own Alejandro Pozuelo, Lucas Zelarayan, Nico Lodeiro or Bebelo Reynoso?
The answer is "lots." They'd be considerably better, and would have the ability to control games with the ball and just annihilate anyone who sits back.
The rumor out of Mexico is that the Quakes are in advanced negotiations with Chivas for Javier Lopez, who does in fact wear the No. 10 and, at 26, is of an age where you'd expect him to deliver right away. He's also familiar with Almeyda, as he played for the Argentine in Guadalajara for several years, which included a CCL title in 2018.
The issue, though, is that Lopez has never really made a strong case to be considered at the same level as the likes of Pozuelo, Zelarayan, Lodeiro or Reynoso. He is a 10, but it's unclear if he's actually a DP-caliber 10 since he's mostly been a back-up for a pretty poor Liga MX team over the past couple of years.
Regardless, this all fits with San Jose's transfer market M.O. since Almeyda got there, which is "bring in guys Matias knows." That includes Daniel Vega, Andy Rios, Oswaldo Alanis and Carlos Fierro. While none of them have been great, each played a role in getting San Jose to the playoffs in 2020.
It seems like Joao Paulo is coming back, which is good. Gustav Svensson is definitely gone, which is not. Svensson struggled when he came on in MLS Cup and his 2020 was a far cry from his exceptional 2019, but even so, he's the kind of versatile veteran that's good to have on the roster. His absence means that Seattle either need the kids (Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva) to shore up the depth chart in central midfield, or to add a piece from elsewhere to soak up minutes when the three veterans (Joao Paulo, Cristian Roldan and Jordy Delem) can't go.
They also have depth issues at the No. 10 (or Lodeiro might just play every single minute this year, who knows) and a fourth center back would be nice. But c'mon, we all knew where this blurb was heading...
My Suggestion: Alex Roldan did well in the first year of his conversion to right back, and I think it's fair to expect him to continue to improve. I don't think it's fair to expect him to be an every-game starter for a club with MLS Cup aspirations, which is what the Sounders obviously are.
Know who would be an every-game starter for a club with MLS Cup aspirations? DeAndre Yedlin. There have been tons of rumors and reports over the past couple of months that the former Seattle Homegrown is on his way out of Newcastle as his contract winds down (it expires this summer). While most of those rumors/reports have focused upon either one of the Turkish giants or an Eastern Conference MLS team, wouldn't Seattle make the most sense? Brian Schmetzer wants his fullbacks to overlap all day and all the way to the endline, and that's what Yedlin does.
They'd have to finagle their way to the top of the allocation order and then would probably have to be willing to give Yedlin a huge salary, fullback-ily speaking. It won't be cheap, and I'm not sure I'd do it if I were in their shoes. But the whole thing's got a lot of symmetry, right?
Sporting have already made one significant offseason addition in the form of French midfielder Remi Walter, a 25-year-old veteran of Ligue 1 who can play as either a No. 8 or a No. 6. Peter Vermes said it'll likely be more as a No. 6, and you can take that as both affirmation of Sporting's relative strength in the two more advanced central midfield roles (especially now that Roger Espinoza has returned) and their relative weakness at d-mid, where Ilie Sanchez is not on what I would call an upward trajectory.
There has also been one significant outbound move, as Matt Besler signed as a free agent with Austin. Besler was no longer a CB starter in Kansas City, but his departure sure signals a changing of the guard.
Winston Reid, who took a bunch of Besler's minutes last year, also seems unlikely to return.
My Suggestion: Whether those two guys were coming back or not, I was going to say here that Sporting need to get themselves another center back.
Tigres have a logjam at center back. My first suggestion was that Sporting should go after Francisco Meza, but I don't think Tigres would sell him. They very likely would sell 28-year-old Mexican international Diego Reyes, though. I'm guessing Reyes would like a lifeline out of there and into a team where he's a written-in-pen starter every single week, as would be the case in KC.
Reyes never became the dominant, era-defining CB that his early years with Club America and Porto suggested he would be, but he's still very good and in his prime. Think of him as the CB equivalent of Alan Pulido.
Sporting went down to Mexico and came back with the right guy a year ago. It'd be good to see them do it again.
The 'Caps need a lot of help, but most of that needs to come via clarity in playing style. They flipped from one formation and approach to another week after week in 2020. As such, they never really came close to settling into a rhythm.
If we can assume that we get that from Marc Dos Santos this year, then I'm seeing a pretty clear-cut, straightforward 4-2-3-1 counterattacking side that's actually got a lot of the bases covered already.
My Suggestion: They have been strongly linked to Colombian youth international winger Deiber Caicedo, which would seem to be a good get. I hope they're able to push that signing across the line.
But that's not the priority. The priority for this team needs to be an in-his-prime No. 10 who can pull the strings and make sure Caicedo and Cristian Dajome on the wings, as well as Lucas Cavallini up top, can get out and run. It is the same thing that Columbus and Minnesota were looking for at this time last year.
Rather than looking to South America, though, how about over to Europe? At one point Max Mayer was considered one of the best No. 10 prospects in the world, a 20-year-old phenom bossing Bundesliga games for Schalke. But his career has spiraled downwards over the past four years, and at this point he's just taking up space on Crystal Palace's budget.
His contract ends this summer and he needs a rebirth somewhere. Why not Vancouver?