Transactions that stand out in quiet 2017 Major League Soccer offseason
The preseason friendlies are getting more frequent, the CONCACAF Champions League is about to resume, and the seasonal flurries of trade rumors are beginning to die down as rosters fill up for the 2017 MLS season. Which have been the most significant transactions of the offseason?
It's perhaps not as clear-cut as in other years, when clusters of aging designated players defined the story of the offseason. Perhaps that's in part due to the Chinese Super League's skewing the market for superannuated superstars. Or perhaps it's in relation to the gradual rollout of the Targeted and General Allocation Money policies in the wake of the last collective bargaining agreement. Or perhaps it's due to the general shift toward more balanced squads augmented with homegrown talent as the paradigm for success.
Whatever the reasons, the significant investments this year have been in consolidation rather than transformation, though there have been a few names that have stood out as likely cornerstones for their new teams.
Alexander Ring has attracted most of the attention at New York City FC for his arrival from Kaiserslautern to bolster the attacking side of a transformed central midfield in the wake of Frank Lampard's retirement. But arguably the most significant story will be how well fellow new arrival Maxi Moralez does in replacing Andoni Iraola at the base of New York's midfield. Andrea Pirlo is not getting any more mobile and Moralez will have to cover a lot of ground if City's familiar attacking commitment is not to leave them exposed on the counter.
More on LA Galaxy's net gains and losses in a moment, as those have been the real story of their offseason, but the arrival of Romain Alessandrini from Marseille fits with their traditional pattern of constant tuning of the attack and helps to clarify just how the retooled Galaxy are going to look in the post-Bruce Arena era.
The Chicago Fire have been busy, as you might expect after the first year of their rebuild under Veljko Paunovic and Nelson Rodriguez contained a lot of clever financial maneuvering and not a lot of wins. Their stockpile of allocation money was clearly burning a hole in their pockets this offseason, and the arrivals of Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho and Dax McCarty suggest that whatever slow rebuild the Fire might have had in mind has been bumped forward to the start of 2017.
Nikolic and McCarty had been different types of long-term targets for the team, while Juninho, as Rodriguez described it recently to ESPN FC, "was just an unexpected opportunity that came up, that we had the resources to act on." If Juninho is still the player he was when he left LA, you wouldn't bet against his "unexpected" benefit turning out to be the greatest influence on his new team this year.
See also: Anibal Chala (LB, Dallas); David Guzman (MF, Portland); Jonathan Mensah (DF, Columbus); Antonio Mlinar (DF, New England); Latif Blessing (MF, Kansas City); Victor Vazquez (MF, Toronto).
Significant internal trades
These are the trades we might want to keep an eye on to see which team seems to do best from the net gain/loss of players moving between two clubs in the league. In a league such as MLS, with its forced parity rules, these are trades that have the potential to have a disproportionate relative outcome for two teams.
The big one here is McCarty, as it's clear both that Chicago feels it is buying the heart of the New York Red Bulls' team and that the decision to sell McCarty was not a unanimous one in New York. Should Jesse Marsch go on to consolidate the influence of his growing academy cohort to replace the loss of his captain, the move will look like the right one -- particularly if McCarty struggles to adapt or visibly appears to be losing a step as he enters his 30s. But if McCarty feels he has a point to prove, and if Sean Davis is not yet ready for prime time alongside Sacha Kljestan and Felipe Martins, then the Red Bulls might face another season looking to trade their way out of trouble in the summer.
Chicago is involved in another intriguing player move within MLS clubs this year. Sean Johnson has been a goalkeeper on the edge of the national team bubble for so long that it's hard to remember a time when he wasn't "promising," but his future will not be at the Fire. Instead, a sequence of musical chairs has ended with Johnson arriving at NYCFC. With Josh Saunders suffering the humiliation of being dropped for the playoffs before leaving the club in the offseason, having never quite convinced Patrick Vieira of his robustness in the New York goal, the onus is on Johnson to give NYCFC a solidity in goal they have never had. That's one to watch.
Another team that has been involved in some interesting horse trading within the league is MLS Cup holder Seattle. Will Bruin might not be a transformative figure for the Sounders attack, but his physical virtues will make him the kind of attacker who gives Brian Schmetzer options late in games -- much as Chad Barrett once did for Sigi Schmid. More intriguingly, you wonder just what Bruin's departure will do for Houston. They might want to go in another direction, but Bruin might be the kind of player whose worth becomes truly apparent when he's gone.
Seattle also traded for Harry Shipp, who in little more than a year has gone from potentially being the first homegrown player to truly being given the attacking keys to the car as a No. 10 in Chicago to trying to make sure he catches on with a franchise long enough to not be seen as a dubious luxury who might or might not come good. Fairly or not, that's the type of reputation that now hangs around Jack McInerney after his own nomadic adventures, and Shipp needs steady games with a team that gets him. Will that be Seattle? It wasn't Montreal.
Then there's LA Galaxy, who happen to be ending the Arena era when the last team he built faced the biggest mandate for change in recent years. A team stacked with ill-matched veterans has aged out, while Arena's long-standing caution/skepticism around youth players is likely to be loosened under a new regime operating one of the best academies in MLS. But there's still room for at least one arrival from another MLS club to give us an intriguing season-long question about what has been gained and lost by the two teams.
There's no doubting the effect Jermaine Jones had on first the New England Revolution and then the Colorado Rapids, and now, after another less-than-elegant exit from his previous team, he has pitched up at the Galaxy to "unretire" Cobi Jones' No. 13. The latter day Jones ruffles feathers, but he gets the job done. The question is whether L.A. needs stability more than creative volatility right now.
See also: Michael Parkhurst (DF, Atlanta from Columbus).
The new teams
Obviously, the two expansion teams, Atlanta United and Minnesota United, are an exception to any general assertions about transfer patterns, considering they're building teams from scratch. But even there, there are conclusions to draw about their approaches.
Of that pair, Atlanta has had the splashier arrival, not least for its initial choice of head coach in Gerardo Martino. Although it's the players Martino has been provided with, by technical director Carlos Bocanegra, who initially made Atlanta look like the more eye-catching of the two newcomers.
Kenwyne Jones suggests an instant attacking identity for the new team, built around his particular forceful style, though the young designated players Hector Villalba and Miguel Almiron are probably the most significant statements of intent for the new team. Add the MLS knowledge of captain Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz and Zach Loyd, and this is clearly a roster intended to hit the ground running but also built to learn from the struggles of other expansion sides short of individual MLS experience.
Maybe a little of that is down to director of soccer operations Paul McDonough, who was one of the casualties of last year's power struggles at Orlando City. He would soon be joined through the exit door by head coach Adrian Heath, who is now guiding Minnesota through its own expansion process.
Heath and Minnesota have been low-key, almost worryingly so, in preparing for life in MLS. Certainly compared to the swagger and statement moves of Atlanta, Minnesota has had a softer entry into the league. But Heath knows what he's doing and has the memory of struggling with a team that included Kaka, to remind him that it's not the size of the names that determines expansion success.
Minnesota's strategy has become clearer in recent days. For sure, the initial move to bring Kevin Molino in from Orlando looked to be putting a lot of faith in a player who as yet is still more promise than product, but the math began to look a lot better last week, when Minnesota traded the option that allowed Vancouver to sign Fredy Montero upon his return to MLS. The Molino deal began to look more like a financial wash in that light and put Minnesota's preparations squarely back into the category of "managing expectations." Heath learned that the hard way.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.