With opening day of the 2016 MLS season less than a month away, clubs across the league are putting the finishing touches on an offseason that has at different points been eventful, confounding, and fascinating.
It’s been an interesting few months for MLS. There has been an exodus of top players – mostly, with the startling exception of Matt Miazga — to Mexico, and an exodus of the lowest earners in the league, mostly to the lower levels of American soccer.
After the splurges on international superstars that marked 2015, most MLS teams resisted big change and big headlines in this offseason – instead opting to make smaller, substantive additions to augment established cores.
What we’re left with, as best we can tell, is a league that has more good teams than ever – and just as little separation between those good teams as usual. Here are the grades for each MLS club’s offseason.
Portland Timbers: B+
It’s hard to keep championship teams intact in any sport, but MLS makes it especially tough. Besides the flattering exposure to title contributors, the league mandate that championship bonuses have to be paid out of the next season’s cap leaves winners with very little flexibility.
And the Timbers lost a number of contributors. Maxi Urruti was poached by Dallas, Norberto Paparatto returned to Argentina, Rodney Wallace bolted for Portugal, George Fochive left for Denmark, and Will Johnson was traded to Toronto.
All things considered, though, the Timbers’ team of Gavin Wilkinson and Caleb Porter did well in signing replacements with established MLS pedigrees. Ned Grabavoy, Jack McInerney, and Jermaine Taylor have all at one point been major contributors.
But as Diego Valeri said at MLS Media Days, the Timbers’ success in 2016 will be predicated on whether the club can successfully replace Jorge Villafaña. The left back’s rise was meteoric in 2015, and Santos Laguna took note. The Timbers need to install confidence in Villafaña’s replacement Chris Klute, who has endured a rough two years.
Overall, this team is will be very good. Once they switched to the 4-3-3 last year, they were the league’s best team by a mile. Continuing that form will have plenty to do with how well this team replaced its role players from last year.
FC Dallas: B-
Any discussion of Dallas’ offseason has to start here: Somehow, someway, this team managed to hang onto Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz. Those two – two of most valuable players in the league – ensure that Dallas will compete for the Supporters’ Shield.
But there was a reason Dallas fell short in both the Shield race and the Western Conference Final last season, and it had plenty do with the fact that Oscar Pareja never found an answer at striker.
This offseason didn’t really address that problem. Dallas took Urruti in the SuperDraft, but Urruti was never able to nail down the starting job in Portland for a reason: He’s something of a luxury player – and in a one-forward setup, players like Urruti are tough to accommodate.
With Blas Perez and David Texeira gone, Urruti and Tesho Akindele will have to shoulder the goal-scoring load – and that’s only a marginal improvement.
Outside of the forward situation, Dallas has done some nice things. Adding the savvy of Mauro Rosales and Maynor Figueroa will be beneficial for a team that felt a little too young last year, and Figueroa especially could make an impact on the field.
Dallas is banking that the continued maturation of its young core will be enough, but there’s no clear sign that this offseason pushed them over the top for 2016.
Seattle Sounders: A-
This offseason in Seattle was all about Jordan Morris – and landing the Stanford product just as he appeared to be slipping away to Germany was a major win for a club is very much licking its wounds from 2015.
Morris will transform the way this team plays, firstly by necessitating that Sigi Schmid move away from the 4-4-2. He’ll start right away, as will Joevin Jones, who was brought in on draft day from Chicago.
Seattle made no bones about the fact that it needed to trim its squad after overestimating the total cap for 2016, and thus a number of contributors to the 2014 Supporters’ Shield victory have left the club in the last few months.
Midlevel talents like Lamar Neagle, Chad Barrett, Marco Pappa, Gonzalo Pineda, and Andy Rose are gone. Zach Scott, of course, managed to stick around, as did Osvaldo Alonso – who the Sounders were shopping at the beginning of the offseason.
This Sounders team is leaner, a little bit younger, and hungry after seeing Portland surpass them to win MLS Cup last year. Its success will be predicated on striking the right midfield balance and rediscovering the joie de vive that lapsed at the end of last year.
Vancouver Whitecaps: B-
The Whitecaps didn’t do enough this winter.
Vancouver entered the offseason in a similar position as Dallas did. The Whitecaps had a banner 2015, but were held scoreless over 180 minutes against the Timbers in the Western Conference Final, with Carl Robinson admitting that his team probably wouldn’t have scored if they’d played another 90 minutes.
Despite their stellar defense, the ‘Caps didn’t have enough firepower to win major honors – and there’s no guarantee that these offseason additions will change that.
Masato Kudo is promising, but he doesn’t have a ton of presence up top. Bolaños, who starred at the World Cup, should slide into if not transform a highly functional midfield. The attacking load is once again going to be on the shoulders of Pedro Morales – who wasn’t healthy last year – and Kekuta Manneh.
Losing Steven Beitashour was a blow, but the ‘Caps are confident they have younger replacements ready at fullback. And if you thought this team was too likable, Blas Perez should take care of that. This team is very much staying the course – time will tell if they have enough in the queue to become a real Cup threat.
Sporting Kansas City: B
It wasn’t a dull offseason for Sporting, and its only bitter moment came last week when the club sold Krisztian Nemeth to Al-Gharafa in Qatar and then proceeded to snipe with Nemeth over his motivation to move.
Losing Nemeth – somewhat out of the blue – hurts. He was instant offense last year. The perennially underrated Justin Mapp should replace some of Nemeth’s production, as well as provide some much-needed dynamism on the wing.
The impact Brad Davis will have is less clear. He hasn’t been consistently been a difference-maker since 2013, but he should be better in KC as a role player and set-piece specialist that he was when he had to shoulder more of the attacking load in Houston.
Sporting has a glut of contributors. The defense and midfield areas especially are packed with serviceable players. How Peter Vermes molds a starting eleven out of this group will be key in evaluating how successful this offseason was.
LA Galaxy: A-
I wrote extensively about LA’s offseason here, and it should be noted that these offseason grades tend to favor those clubs that make sweeping changes.
But in short, I think the Galaxy’s boldness will pay off in 2016. LA needed a shakeup. Jelle Van Damme, Ashley Cole, and Nigel de Jong are all good players individually, and they’ll also improve the team as a whole.
Maybe more than any of that, though, LA’s bench should be light-years better than it was last year. After basically going eleven-deep last year and running out of steam in the fall, being able to turn to the likes of Mike Magee, Jeff Larentowicz, Alan Gordon, Jose Villareal, and Baggio Husidic will be beneficial in a number of ways.
The biggest question mark? It might be in goal, where Dan Kennedy was poor last season for Dallas and might not be deserving of the trust most of MLS seems to have in him.
San Jose Earthquakes: B
Flash has never been Dominic Kinnear’s style, and after pursuing Carlos Vela to some degree, the ‘Quakes have ended up with a quiet but effective offseason.
Bringing Simon Dawkins back to the Bay Area is a coup – he was a major part of the 2012 Supporters’ Shield winning team and will make San Jose more watchable offensively.
Signing Chad Barrett was almost too perfect, and this team stands to bring back its entire starting lineup from the second half of last year. San Jose decided not to go younger at center-back, hoping Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez have one more good year in them.
The ‘Quakes still might be bringing slingshot to the knife-fight that is the Western Conference playoff race, but this is shaping up to be a good team for Kinnear to coach – and that should scare the rest of the league.
Houston Dynamo: B
Did Houston get better? They did. Christian Maidana, if he’s in the mood, could transform their offense. Andrew Wenger could prove serviceable as well, and the gradual movement towards youth that this team has clearly prioritized was a necessary move.
At the end of the day, much of this Houston season will be about Owen Coyle. This club has been adrift for several years, and last year only yielded some intermittently positive performances that didn’t really go anywhere.
Coyle has spoken frequently of wanting to install a more up-tempo, attractive style of play. He’s gone about his work with intention – making Giles Barnes the focal point of the offense, trading Brad Davis, shaking up the defense – and now is the time to start seeing some results.
Also: Cubo Torres will continue to be a storyline. If he can’t find his footing or get minutes over Will Bruin, he’ll be traded before the summer is out.
Real Salt Lake: A-
RSL was extremely disappointing last season, but there’s more reason to be excited about 2016 than it appeared there would be during most of 2015.
Firstly, Salt Lake is now truly equipped to play an effective 4-3-3. The signing of Burrito Martinez last summer was important, but the signing of favorite son Yura Movsisyan this winter gave the entire club a boost.
A Martinez-Movsisyan-Joao Plata frontline isn’t nothing, and this attack should be miles ahead of the Olmes Garcia-Sebastian Jaime horror show of last year.
Defensively, there are still question marks – through bringing back Chris Wingert was a nice move. Jamison Olave had a rough 2015, and the club still hasn’t fully recovered from the trade of Nat Borchers to Portland. This will be a big year for Aaron Maund. Overall, though, it looks like RSL is back.
Colorado Rapids: D
This offseason has been a disaster for a club that is looks at this moment like a train-wreck.
The Clint Irwin for Tim Howard (eventually) move is a joke – even though Howard will provide some much-needed leadership for the club. John Spencer as Pablo Mastroeni’s new assistant doesn’t fill any neutral observer with much optimism, nor Marco Pappa’s inauspicious start to life with the Rapids.
The one saving grace might be Shkelzen Gashi, who signed from Basel and is a legitimately good player who can play up top with Kevin Doyle.
Overall, though, this club still appears to be directionless. Marcelo Sarvas became the fourteenth player to leave the club this offseason when Colorado traded him and only part of his salary to DC United last week.
It’s hard to imagine that the Rapids will be worse this year – and they still have plenty of money and flexibility – but it’s also hard to imagine that they won’t blow up their coaching staff and season by the end of the summer.
Columbus Crew: C
Columbus has been all about continuity for the last several years under Gregg Berhalter, and the major storyline of the offseason became Kei Kamara’s contract dispute.
Kamara is in camp now, but the spat between the two sides is not over and its effects may linger over the tenor of the new season. Getting Kamara – who, in his defense, is underpaid – back onside as soon as possible is an absolute necessity.
Other than that, Columbus, much like frequent trade-partner Portland, tried to break even in the winter. Chris Klute was replaced with Corey Ashe, Jack McInerney with Connor Casey. Ola Kamara – no relation – could be an interesting piece up front.
New York Red Bulls: C+
Though they never expected to hang onto him, losing Matt Miazga hurts. All the allocation money and reputation boost that came New York’s way can’t change the impact of losing a major piece of a Supporters’ Shield winning team.
For the Red Bulls, this offseason was about stability as well. The club has only signed homegrown players – a promising feat, but not one that is going to have much impact on the upcoming season – and is closing in on a replacement for Miazga.
Getting more out of summer signings Gonzalo Veron and Shaun Wright-Phillips will be key – especially if Mike Grella can’t replicate his career year of 2015. New York – unlike Colorado – is clearly on the right track as a club. What they do at center-back will have a major impact on whether they make it all the way to MLS Cup this year.
Montreal Impact: B-
Similarly to Columbus – though in a more high-profile way – Montreal’s entire offseason hung on Didier Drogba’s long flirtation with retirement and a spot on Guus Hiddink’s Chelsea coaching staff.
Though Montreal was linked with a number of big names from Europe – mostly Italy – Drogba’s decision to stay was the best possible news the Impact could have hoped for this winter.
The Impact lost several contributors – Justin Mapp, Nigel Reo-Coker, and Dilly Duka – but feel comfortable with where they are headed into 2016.
Montreal is an interesting proposition for the upcoming season. They’ve very much been a form team over the last several years, and with Mauro Biello in his first full season at the helm, it’s hard to say exactly how and who they’re going to play.
DC United: C-
DC United is staying true to form, even after the 2015 ended with another flat playoff exit at the hands of the New York Red Bulls.
Perry Kitchen appears to be on his way out of the club, and with Chris Pontius traded to Philadelphia and Davy Arnaud’s status up in the air due to injury, there was room to transform the way this team played in midfield.
Instead, DC opted for MLS vets like Lamar Neagle, Marcelo Sarvas, and Patrick Nyarko, who, while decent players in their own right, aren’t going to change a team that clearly has a ceiling of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
DC’s move into the MLS 3.0 era is coming. A new crest is here; a new stadium is on the way – as are rumors that this team won’t spend big until that new stadium is completed. For now, though, there just isn’t much to get excited about in the nation’s capital.
Toronto FC: A
You can’t argue with this offseason: Toronto FC brought in four proven MLS veterans who fill four major needs. This is how successful clubs behave. For Toronto, there is no higher praise.
Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour will dramatically improve the defense that fell apart so completely in the Wild Card game at Stade Saputo in October. Clint Irwin is a huge upgrade in goal over the Joe Bendik/Chris Konopka platoon, and Will Johnson’s leadership, professionalism, and drive will be huge assets.
With Jozy Altidore healthy and happy again, Sebastian Giovinco coming off one of the best seasons in league history, and the rest of the Eastern Conference standing pat, there’s no reason not to be bullish about TFC’s chances in 2016.
Two concerns: The monster road-trip to start the season while BMO Field undergoes another renovation, and manager Greg Vanney.
For now, though, this club should revel in a slam-dunk offseason. The page from laughingstock to contender hasn’t turned quickly in Toronto, but it’s turning now more surely than it ever has before.
New England Revolution: C
New England is another team that has historically valued continuity, and that’s been especially true over the last few years with Jay Heaps.
The story in New England has predictably been all about Jermaine Jones, who is out of contract, and, as usual, has been complaining loudly about the terms offered to him by the Revolution.
Jones is often a tough guy to live with, but there’s no denying how much better New England has been over the last two years when he’s been in the lineup. My guess is that he eventually re-signs – especially because midfielder Xavier Kouassi tore his ACL just days after signing a DP contract with the Revs.
This team’s offseason is far from over. There’s probably plenty of news to come yet out of New England camp.
Orlando City: D+
It’s very hard to figure out what’s going on in Orlando, where front-office upheaval has rocked a club that appeared to have everything in order during its expansion season.
The club is on its third President this winter – owner Phil Rawlins on a temporary basis – and it’s hard to know what the true state of the team’s soccer operations is.
Orlando should put a good product on the field, but if they’re better than they were in 2015, it will be because they stayed healthy and not because they added better players. Going from Tally Hall to Joe Bendik in goal seems like a downgrade, while everywhere else the team is mostly unchanged.
New York City FC: B
NYCFC’s biggest offseason move came early, when the club sacked Jason Kreis and replaced him with Patrick Vieira.
That move was thought to have come from the club’s Manchester hierarchy, but Claudio Reyna has claimed that the decision was his – and the fact that Reyna still has his job would suggest that there’s some merit to that version of events.
In any case, NYCFC needed to stabilize its playing staff this offseason after a tumultuous debut campaign. Defense was where the squad got the most work, with three new players available to contribute.
The club also got its man in the SuperDraft in midfielder Jack Harrison, whose presence suggests that there is very little room at the club for Mix Diskerud. Vieira has a huge job in front of him tactically, but there are reasons to be optimistic headed into NYCFC’s second MLS season.
Philadelphia Union: B+
The Union shook up their playing staff more than any other team in the league, with new Director of Soccer Earnie Stewart stamping his authority on the club that desperately needs a competent authority figure.
Philly was active on draft day, nabbing Josh Yaro – who should be terrific – and his Georgetown teammate Keegan Rosenberry. Walter Restrepo and Chris Pontius could be interesting propositions in midfield.
Overall, this winter has been about cleaning house and starting over in Philadelphia. There isn’t nearly enough talent in place to win right now, but for the first time, it feels like this club has the right people in place in its front office to succeed.
It will be interesting to see how much more losing manager Jim Curtin can sustain, or whether Stewart will eventually want to bring in his own man. For the moment, Curtin is very highly thought up in Philly.
Chicago Fire: A-
Veljko Paunovic is about as splashy as MLS coaching hires come these days, and Chicago nabbing him away from major European interest after his U-20 World Cup triumph with Serbia was a major coup.
This Fire offseason has been very similar to the Union’s offseason: A house-cleaning that has sent a number of mediocre players – as well as a few good servants – on their way out of the Windy City.
Chicago also had a busy SuperDraft, bringing in defender Brandon Vincent, and with three attacking DPs and a solid central midfield, there are plenty of reasons to optimistic about the offense. The defense, a bigger question mark, has been remade through every player acquisition channel available including free agency and Europe.
This team isn’t as shorn of talent as Philadelphia is, and I’d expect them to compete this year in a wide-open Eastern Conference playoff race. This is another club which appears to have turned the corner.
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