MLS Eastern Conference roster build status | Armchair Analyst

It is the silly season. That means plenty of reports, lots and lots of rumors, and once the MLS transfer window opens later on this week, a bunch of official moves as teams refine or reload or rebuild their rosters.

Some teams have much more work to do than others. Some have already been busy, though most have moved slowly given these pandemic-shrouded, unprecedented times. All will eventually do at least a little something. That is the nature of the business.

So here's a quick look at where teams stand, and what they'll be looking to add in the two months between now and the start of the 2021 season.

Eastern Conference today, Western Conference tomorrow. There will be periodic updates throughout the rest of the silly season. And away we go...

Atlanta United

The Offseason So Far: The big move was inking new head coach Gabriel Heinze. That was the most important thing on their to-do list this winter.

The player moves thus far have been much more understated, as Atlanta have signed a trio of homegrowns (keep an eye on winger Machop Chol), and Heinze brought veteran attacker Lisandro Lopez with him from Argentina. Neither Lopez nor Chol nor any of the other homegrowns are likely to be starters.

Mikey Ambrose or Andrew Gutman could be. There is significant overseas interest in young George Bello, and I think it's pretty telling that Atlanta's front office went out and got two left backs this offseason (though I guess it should be noted the terms of Gutman's loan from Celtic have yet to be completely worked out, as I understand it). I don't think they would've done that if they expected to have Bello long-term, and we all know Atlanta aren't afraid of selling starters.

What's Next: It looks very much like Eric Remedi is on the way out and young Franco Ibarra is on the way in, which has the defensive midfield position settled. 

Also keep an eye on right back Franco Escobar, who's had rumors swirling and is sending a bunch of cryptic tweets. If he goes, then my guess is a new right back is on the way in.

Regardless, this isn't a roster than demands a ton of surgery.

(Editor's note: On Wednesday, Atlanta re-signed Cubo Torres, who Doyle has listed as third on the No. 9 depth chart)

Current Depth Chart

Chicago Fire

The Offseason So Far: The biggest news, aside from a second rebrand in two years, was the sale off homegrown attacker Djordje Mihailovic to CF Montréal for a boatload of allocation cash, which should give the Fire a good amount of flexibility. They also bid adieu to veteran center forward CJ Sapong, which opens up a fairly sizable chunk of the cap and allows yet more flexibility.

So far they've used that flexibility to get younger, continuing a trend from last offseason. In have come forward Chinonso Offor (age 20), defender Jhon Espinoza (21) and winger Stanislav Ivanov (21). They also made some waves by signing highly regarded 17-year-old Colombian forward Jhon Duran, who can't come to Chicago until next year, but is the kind of aggressive "buy to flip" move we often see from Portuguese clubs.

The reality, though, is that none of this has changed Chicago's projected starting XI all that much.

What's Next: Change might be coming, though. Veteran CB Francisco Calvo has been repeatedly linked to a move back to Costa Rica, while DP d-mid Gaston Gimenez is reportedly on Boca Juniors' wish list. Each of those moves would make sense to a degree, so I think it's worth it to take a wait-and-see approach.

Current Depth Chart

FC Cincinnati

The Offseason So Far: The teardown of that original, Year 1 roster has continued into Year 3, as Cincy declined options on veterans Kendall Waston, Greg Garza, Spencer Richey and Mathieu Deplagne, as well as a bunch of reserves and one of last year's more expensive signings in TAM playmaker Siem De Jong (zero goals and zero assists in 793 minutes). It is an ongoing process that appears nowhere close to complete, given how much the remaining players — including the DPs — struggled in 2020.

Veteran left back Ronald Matarrita has been the biggest signing thus far, and a clear starter. I suspect they'll find a starting role for winger Calvin Harris, who they took second overall in the SuperDraft and who requires an international roster slot. You don't draft a guy like that to sit him.

What's Next: A lot, I think. GM Gerard Nijkamp has been pretty open about the state of the roster.

“No. 10 is a priority, winger is a priority, center back is a priority and No. 9 is a priority," he told media on a conference call last week, and let's parse this a bit:

  • No. 10 as a priority makes sense regardless of formation (I think they're aiming for Jaap Stam's preferred 4-3-3) or other additions. Cincy had near zero reliable chance creation out of midfield last year, and in this league that doesn't cut it. No. 10s rule in MLS.
  • Winger as a priority confuses me somewhat given the additions of Harris and Alvaro Barreal, who arrived in September. I'm not saying they don't need help there, but I'm surprised to see it mentioned as a priority.
  • Center back is clearly a priority. I'd argue it's even more important to their future success than getting the right No. 10.

But the one that really clarifies what's about to happen is Nijkamp listing No. 9 as a priority. Jurgen Locadia's loan goes until June and it's probably pretty fair to assume there's little interest in bringing him back long-term given he managed just 1 goal in about 1,400 minutes. I'd say the writing's on the wall for Yuya Kubo, last year's other DP signing (three goals and zero assists in 1300 minutes) as well. Plus Allan Cruz doesn't seem to be a first-choice player by Stam's reckoning, and that's no way to spend a DP slot.

These gigantic moves might not happen until the summer window, so listing them as "what's next" is probably somewhat inaccurate. But you should understand what the overall picture is pointing toward here.

Current Depth Chart

Columbus Crew SC

The Offseason So Far: The rich got richer, as Columbus hit the free agent market hard and often. They brought in veteran center forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, veteran winger Kevin Molino and veteran d-mid Perry Kitchen. They also traded for veteran goalkeeper (and Ohio native!) Evan Bush, which gives them proven depth for when Eloy Room heads out on international duty this year. Bush replaces Andrew Tarbell, who headed to Austin after the Crew declined his option.

There were actually a bunch of options declined, with veteran utility-man Hector Jimenez and winger Youness Mokhtar being the most notable aside from Tarbell. They also sold young right back Chris Cadden to Hibs, which presents perhaps the only actually hole on the roster.

What's Next: Right now the RB depth chart is 34-year-old Harrison Afful followed by as-yet unsigned first-round draft pick Justin Malou, who is much more of an old-fashioned, defense-minded fullback than a modern overlapping threat. I will be surprised if Columbus don't go out and address this before the season starts.

The other spot to look at and worry about a little bit is the wing, which could get really shallow really quick if Molino, Derrick Etienne, Jr. and Luis Diaz all go out on international duty at the same time — which, to be clear, is quite likely. I would expect another signing or two there, though more in the place-filler mold than the long-term solution mold.

Current Depth Chart

D.C. United

The Offseason So Far: D.C. went outside the box to get new head coach Hernan Losada. That seemed to take up most of the front office's incoming bandwidth, as there've been few above-the-fold type of moves as of yet.

The biggest incoming name is probably Kimarni Smith, the winger from Clemson who was the fourth overall SuperDraft pick. D.C. then traded up for the No. 5 pick, which they used on Wake Forest center back Michael DeShields. To give you an idea of the type of prospect DeShields once was, he started over Mark McKenzie for most of the 2017 college season. Injuries have hurt him since then, but D.C. have done well in the draft before.

I thought the pick-up of Adrien Perez via the re-entry draft was a good move as well. He might not play a ton, but he always looked like quality, affordable depth when he managed to get on the field for LAFC.

And then there's the big outgoing news: DP winger/wingback Paul Arriola was loaned to Swansea City on Monday. Arriola is excellent, but this is actually a good move for D.C. since it allows Julian Gressel to play in his natural spot.

What's Next: Gressel's natural spot is right wingback, and that meshes well with Losada's preference for a 3-5-2. He did say on Extratime we should expect a level of tactical and formational flexibility from his teams, and I don't doubt that, but every head coach has a preferred way of playing, and that's been Losada's.

Maybe he'll take a look at the roster and decide a 4-2-3-1 makes more sense with this group. But I'm guessing not.

Regardless, they need more center backs and probably more left backs/wingbacks. And probably a top tier center forward, and to figure out how they want to use Edison Flores — is he a second forward, or a 10?

Anyway, here's what I think the depth chart looks like if Losada really wants that 3-5-2.

Current Depth Chart

Inter Miami CF

The Offseason So Far: As with Atlanta and D.C., the biggest offseason story was the hiring of a new manager in Phil Neville. That's been accompanied by something of a housecleaning — Luis Robles, Andres Reyes and Wil Trapp are probably the most significant departures — and minimal additions. Miami have signed some homegrowns and re-signed Brek Shea, and that's been about it. They haven't even signed their first-round picks yet.

I imagine things will pick up soon.

What's Next: Defensive reinforcements, I'd say. Miami weren't particularly good in any area of the pitch last year under Diego Alonso, but central defense was probably the sorest spot. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez looked miles off his Best XI form and there's a reason Nico Figal spent most of the year at right back. The only other center backs on the roster are a trio of kids, one of whom is a converted defensive midfielder who did not look up to it in his first MLS season (Christian Makoun) and the other two of whom would be making their MLS debuts in 2021.

I expect at least one big signing at this spot, and likely a new left back as well (unless they really, really believe in Patrick Seagrist). And then it's just a matter of hoping that the versions of Gonzalo Higuain, Matias Pellegrini and Blaise Matuidi that showed up in 2020 were mirages, and the 2021 versions of those players will be far superior.

Neville, for what it's worth, often defaulted to the 4-4-1-1 with the English women's national team, but I'm going to list the depth chart in a 4-2-3-1 instead.

Current Depth Chart

CF Montréal

The Offseason So Far: Goodbye Impact, hello Club de Foot Montréal. The new name is the biggest news for Thierry Henry & Co.

On the player personnel side, there's been much more of an exodus than an influx. Significant contributors over the last few years (or at least guys who got a significant amount of playing time) like Bojan, Jukka Raitala, Maxi Urruti and Orji Okwonkwo have departed, and to replace them Montréal have stayed mostly within the league, trading for Djordje Mihailovic, Kamal Miller and Kiki Struna. They also brought in 18-year-old attacker Sunusi Ibrahim from Nigeria, which is a mystery box of a signing.

Montréal will definitely be younger this year. That will probably work in their favor.

What's Next: Another experienced center back, perhaps? Henry mostly played with five at the back in his first season as an MLS head coach, and while Struna probably represents an upgrade, there's a reason he was available in the first place. And even if he does suddenly level up, Montréal are just one injury away from being perilously thin back there.

The other potentially perilously thin spot could be right wingback, though I wouldn't expect them to try to hit a home run of a signing there.

As for center forward, though, they might need to swing for the fences. They spent a lot of allocation cash last autumn to bring in Mason Toye, and he's probably atop the depth chart for that spot right now. But over the course of his three-year-long MLS career, he's looked like a starting caliber center forward for only about two months. Henry needs to bring the best out of him, or a move could be in the offing.

Current Depth Chart

Nashville SC

The Offseason So Far: Nashville have quietly moved on from a bunch of guys on the bottom half of their roster, while a little more loudly flipping international roster slots and one contributor — central midfielder Derrick Jones — for a bunch of allocation cash, which they are currently just sitting on. They haven't touched a dime of it as of yet.

That's because they've only added one player to the roster, but even that's not official. Uruguayan youth international attacker Rodrigo Pineiro has been linked to Nashville for months now, and eventually his ship's going to come in. So that's one.

I'm guessing they'll eventually sign first-round draft pick Irakoze Donasiyano, which would make it two. While signing Donasiyano solves some things in terms of roster slots, it actually raises some questions in terms of the depth chart. Is he a cover-every-blade-of-grass No. 8, or a Latif Blessing-style pressing 10, or a winger? Could right back be his eventual home?

For what it's worth I hope they use him as a pressing 10. He's fun.

What's Next: Presumably they'll use some of that cash to replace Jones in central midfield. As it stands they're just three deep (four, if you count Donasiyano) for the two deeper-lying spots, and that's not enough when you consider age (Dax McCarty) and injury history (Anibal Godoy). It's a safe bet they've got someone in mind there.

It's also a safe bet they're going to add a third goalkeeper and a fifth center back, though I don't imagine those are priorities.

Know what might be a priority? The No. 10. It's just Hany Mukhtar, who underwhelmed last year. After him on the depth chart would potentially be Donasiyano and then a bunch of out-of-position wingers. It's not a glaring need and it's almost certainly not "next," but it's definitely something to keep in mind.

Current Depth Chart

New England Revolution

The Offseason So Far: New England got busy early, clearing out a good chunk of the bottom half of the roster in early December, including team legends Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen and Diego Fagundez. Fagundez's departure to Austin FC really does mark the end of an era, even though he became only a bit player over the past couple of seasons.

They were also busier on the incoming side earlier than most teams, bringing in left back Christian Mafla and central midfielder Wilfrid Kaptoum. It's a good bet that both of those guys will be starters.

Bruce Arena also brought in a few MLS veterans like A.J. DeLaGarza, Emmanuel Boateng, and brought back Tommy McNamara.

The Revs' depth chart is robust almost everywhere.

What's Next: It's not robust in central defense, though, where the only option after incumbent starters Henry Kessler and Andrew Farrell is USL journeyman Collin Verfuth. Verfuth might overperform expectations, but even if he does three center backs is not enough to make it through an MLS season. There will be more incoming, and I wouldn't be at all shocked if one of them was designed to push for a starting spot. Kessler and Farrell were good last year, though neither was so good they should be deemed untouchable.

Competition for minutes is healthy.

Current Depth Chart

New York City FC

The Offseason So Far: There's been a fairly loud retooling of the roster happening. Alex Ring — one of the best defensive midfielders in the league — was sold to Austin for more than a million dollars of allocation cash, while starting left back Ronald Matarrita was sent to Cincy for about half that much. Winger Gary Mackay-Steven's contract was declined for obvious reasons, and young Joe Scally's multi-million-dollar move to Borussia Moenchengladbach's was finally made official.

That means the Pigeons are swimming both in allocation cash and roster spots.

So far, though, they've made only one move: signing Homegrown winger Andres Jasson.

What's Next: Presumably quite a bit. They have one open DP slot and the ability to open up another by buying down Jesus Medina. One of those DP slots is presumably earmarked for Uruguayan youth national team attacker Santiago Rodriguez, who was purchased by CFG months ago and has been linked to NYCFC for at least that long.

Rodriguez would, in theory, fill two holes: left wing starter and No. 10 back-up for the thus-far irreplaceable, though now very old Maxi Moralez

There needs to be more, though as the entirety of the returning front line coterie has been plagued by either injury or inconsistency or both. I would expect two more attacking signings beyond Jasson and Rodriguez.

I would also expect the addition of a starting-caliber left back. After the sale of Matarrita there's only Gudmundur Thorarinsson for that spot, and Thorarinsson's play and profile suggest he's the back-up. Even if he's not, one left back is not enough.

They'll probably add a fourth center back and a third 'keeper as well. They should, anyway.

Current Depth Chart

New York Red Bulls

The Offseason So Far: I sort of expected a loud and busy offseason from the Red Bulls, but it hasn't quite lived up. They've officially subtracted one starter in center back Tim Parker, sending him to Houston for allocation cash, and one part-time starter in Marc Rzatkowski.

The incoming side has been more muted, which is of a piece with the recent RBNY approach. They brought in a young European fulllback (Tom Edwards) on loan, and they combed through South America to find a VERY young attacker (Wikelman Carmona), and they pulled Andres Reyes off the scrap-heap after his miserable year in Fort Lauderdale, and they promoted a goalkeeper from their USL side.

Perhaps some fireworks are coming, or perhaps the hiring of a new manager didn't really signal the start of a new era.

What's Next: I genuinely don't know. I have heard from folks across the league RBNY are open for business, but there hasn't yet been a massive outflow of talent. I have heard from folks across the league the checkbook is open for new head coach Gerhard Struber — I have written before and I'll write again that I don't believe he'd have taken the job if it wasn't — but there's yet to be any tangible evidence of that.

So there are some pretty massive questions. One of the biggest is which formation Struber will default to, and that could determine which direction they move in with regard to their signings.

  • In his first game in charge of RBNY, in last year's playoffs, he used a 4-2-3-1.
  • In the second half of his tenure with Barnsley, he used a 3-5-2.
  • During the first half of his tenure with Barnsley and basically everything before that, he used a 4-4-2 diamond.

Given that, I'm going to assume it's a diamond. And if that's the case, there should be a DP-caliber forward added, as well as probably one shuttler and maybe another defensive midfielder. Perhaps they'll be starters, though perhaps they'll be depth pieces.

A lot of known unknowns and unknown unknowns with this team right now.

Current Depth Chart

Orlando City SC

The Offseason So Far: As of Monday morning, Orlando City's offseason needs seemed pretty straight forward: find a back-up left back (they checked that box by signing American Jonathan Suarez on loan from Liga MX club Queretaro FC) and maybe a young center back to start being groomed for a larger future role. You could've argued for young No. 10 as well in order to soak up the minutes Mauricio Pereyra can't play, or even displace him.

As of Monday evening, they had a much bigger and more obvious need: center forward. Daryl Dike's off to Barnsley on loan, and while 1) Orlando have a right of recall, and 2) Barnsley are not the type of club that can exercise the $20 million purchase option reportedly attached to the loan, if Dike shows well. I do not doubt he has the talent to attract interest from the types of sides that do have the financial clout to make godfather offers.

What I'm saying is I wouldn't be surprised if Dike's played his last game for Orlando. 

What's Next: There is no clear successor as the No. 9 if Dike is gone for good, but there are options:

  • Veteran Tesho Akindele goes way back with Oscar Pareja, but Tesho's always been a spot starter.
  • Brazilian Matheus Aias — who's never really gotten much first-team run, but was very productive as a super-sub in the Segunda Division before signing with the Lions — is probably the odds-on favorite to get first crack at the job.
  • Orlando traded up to take Derek Dodson, who in my opinion outplayed Dike in the 2019 College Cup final (in which Dodson's Georgetown team defeated Dike's Virginia), with the 8th overall pick.

Is that enough? I'm not sure, but it's entirely possible Orlando unearthed a gem in Aias or Pareja will coach Dodson up into an almost immediate contributor as he did with Dike and Akindele.

I suspect in addition to Dodson, Orlando's other two first-round picks will stick around. Rio Hope-Gund fits that young center back role (and was a teammate of Dodson's at Georgetown), while Brandon Hackenberg is a left-footed defender who, like the departed Kamal Miller, can play a bit of both left back and center back.

Orlando still have one open DP slot and the ability to open another, but don't expect any big signings.

Current Depth Chart

Philadelphia Union

The Offseason So Far: Well, when you sell a pair of Best XI Homegrowns you've done a lot of things right. You've also left yourself with two big holes to fill.

But this is Philly, and we know how those holes get filled: by building talent from within. They've signed five players this offseason, and all five are Homegrowns. They are reloading with the kids.

What's Next: I genuinely have no idea what's next, but if I were to guess it'd be a value-buy from either the lower leagues of Europe (think Kacper Przybylko or Kai Wagner), or an undiscovered gem from South America (Sergio Santos or Jose Martinez).

I don't think there's one position that demands a ton of immediate attention, though you could talk me into some urgency at left back since Wagner has been open about his desire to return to Europe, and there has been real interest in him on that side of the pond. If someone hits the right number then Philly will obviously sell, and then the depth chart is Homegrown Matt Real, who's pretty good, and even younger Homegrown Jack De Vries, who's spent his entire youth career as an attacker and is only really a left back in theory at this point.

That said if you're looking for the next Bryan Reynolds — a youth attacker who makes the switch to fullback and rips it up — De Vries isn't a bad bet.

So I guess my answer to "what's next" is "a value buy from somewhere to play some position, I think."

Oh, and they need a third 'keeper.

I hope you've enjoyed this in-depth look at the Union.

Current Depth Chart

Toronto FC

The Offseason So Far: Greg Vanney's off to sunny LA, replaced by his former Galaxy teammate Chris Armas. That is big news for the obvious reason: Vanney is not just the most successful coach in TFC history, but the only successful coach in TFC history. It's big news for the less obvious reason Armas was not anything approaching an obvious hire despite his connections to club president Bill Manning and GM Ali Curtis.

Armas, it is fair to say, struggled in his two years as head coach of the Red Bulls, as the results got consistently worse and few of the young players developed. That is not the resume of someone you'd expect to see hired by one of MLS's biggest-spending and most successful clubs.

A mitigating factor is it's unclear how much of what went wrong with the Red Bulls was truly on him. There's always been a certain level of direction from Austria about the type of soccer — tactics formation, even personnel — the team was supposed to play, and it's a fair guess Armas's hands were tied, to a degree.

And that's by way of saying we don't actually know what his preferred formation or tactical approach is. But given that most of the important pieces of a team that finished second in the Supporters' Shield race last year look like they'll be back, I'd hope at some point in the interview process Armas said "yeah, it's going to be a pretty straight-forward 4-2-3-1 that's heavy on possession. And sometimes we'll go to a 4-4-2 with Jozy and Ayo up top instead."

What's Next: Well, Jozy Altidore didn't get the move he'd apparently been angling for, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was something coming. Whether he's there or not, though, I do think it's an open competition between Jozy and Ayo Akinola for the starting No. 9 job, and my money's on the kid. Jozy still has flashes, but spent most of 2019 injured and most of 2020 looking like he didn't have any legs left.

The other place to look is left back where, as of now, Justin Morrow is unsigned and the presumptive starter is late first-round pick Matt Di Rosa. I like Di Rosa, who clearly has the talent to become an MLS starter. I'm just not sure he has the talent to become a Day 1 starter for a team with trophy ambitions.

Current Depth Chart