The 2019 MLS season is over. We have a longer offseason than usual as a result of the altered schedule. MLS Cup was played early in November instead of early in December, extending the offseason by a month.
But with CONCACAF Champions League, MLS teams have to be ready earlier and earlier next February. MLS’s winter will move quickly. Two expansion teams enter the league, and neither (Nashville SC nor Inter Miami) have a core of players ready. Miami doesn’t even have a manager yet.
A number of teams face rebuilds. Others will make crucial decisions on whether to keep or sell core players. The upcoming transfer deadline is an opportunity for teams that are one piece away to add that one missing piece.
Let’s take a look at the most pressing offseason storylines.
1. Atlanta’s multiple dilemmas
It was a disappointing end to the season for Atlanta United. However, the problems that damaged the early part of the year generally dissipated, and their US Open Cup victory assures them a spot back in the Champions League.
Atlanta’s core is in place. They defended very well last year. While the retirement of Michael Parkhurst might necessitate the addition of a depth center back, there shouldn’t be obvious holes on the backline. But there are three primary concerns for the Five Stripes:
— Julian Gressel, an extremely valuable player who can play anywhere on the field, is up for a new contract. The latest reports are that the contract talks aren’t going swimmingly. Gressel has said that he would be willing to “go somewhere where I can be a priority.” Atlanta has to decide how much they’d be willing to pay him, and if his asking price is too high, how much they could get for him on the open market.
Losing Gressel could hurt. We’ve never seen Atlanta play without him as a core member of the team. As much as Frank de Boer and Tata Martino shifted tactics, Gressel never exited the lineup. He’s played right back, wingback, center midfield, and winger, with the forms and styles of those positions varying based on the formation. Josef Martinez surely loves Gressel’s exquisite crosses, which always land directly where they need to be.
— What will happen with Pity Martinez? Pity didn’t have the greatest debut season in MLS. His five goals and nine assists in 2,151 minutes did not live up to the price Atlanta paid for him. His tendency to turn the ball over and general unwillingness to play defense hurt the collective. There were times that it seemed like Hector Villalba might have been the superior option.
Regardless, Pity is a highly-touted player, and teams around the world (particularly from South America, where he has starred in the past) could come calling for him. If Atlanta can find a good transfer fee, they could cut bait and find a new player who makes more sense alongside Josef.
— The biggest move of the season so far was Atlanta’s trade of Darlington Nagbe to the Columbus Crew. Nagbe, who’s coming off a career season, wanted a move back to central Ohio, where he will play for his old college coach. Atlanta did well to secure a significant amount of allocation money for him.
Replacing Nagbe will not be easy. There are not many players like him out there. His skill-set is unique. Atlanta will look for a ball-moving midfielder who can act as fulcrum while also being competent on defense.
2. The start of the Dynamo’s Tab Ramos era
Houston Dynamo, coming off another disappointing season, hired former United States U-20 coach Tab Ramos as their replacement for Wilmer Cabrera, who was fired midseason. The Dynamo are in an interesting spot as a franchise. They’re just starting to see the benefits of having a USL team, but they have yet to integrate young players into the lineup outside of Memo Rodriguez. Houston should be a fertile area for soccer players. Ramos is the perfect person to lead a youth movement.
In the short-term, the Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas situation looms large. Both players appeared likely to be transferred during the summer window. However, both remained in Houston. Rumors have surrounded Elis for over a year now. The Dynamo should be actively shopping both, but the concern is that they waited too long, and may now be less likely to recoup full value. Manotas, in particular, should have seen his price skyrocket over the last couple of years.
Manotas and Elis would be core players if they stick around. But as we’ve seen elsewhere in MLS, it can cause issues when you keep players around who could have been transferred to greener pastures. (The Luciano Acosta situation comes to mind, and FC Dallas have had issues with this in years past.) It’s crucial for the Dynamo’s future that they come to a satisfying conclusion on the attacking duo.
3. The Chicago rebuild
On Wednesday, Chicago cut ties with coach Veljko Paunovic after it seemed like they were going to retain him. Controversially, though, the Fire kept president Nelson Rodriguez around for another year as they make the move to Soldier Field for 2019. Finding immediate success downtown is huge for a club that has struggled with attendance and relevance in the Chicago market. After another bad season in 2019, there will be significant changes on the field.
Outside of Jonathan Bornstein, who arrived midseason, there are no defenders of the future on that team. Nicolas Gaitan and Aleksandar Katai aren’t difference-makers. Chicago should look to at least move on from Katai. Nemanja Nikolic is no longer the high-volume scorer he was in 2017. They traded Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger retired, so they will need an entirely new midfield. They have no goalkeeper.
This is basically a clean slate in Chicago. Brandt Bronico and Djordje Mihailovic are acceptable building blocks. Przemyslaw Frankowski can be a good piece on the wing. Their much-needed new coach is entering a rebuild. The current front office has never had success, and it’s hard to see why they should be trusted with such an important offseason. Precarious times for the Fire.
4. Toronto FC’s search for another attacker
Even after an unexpected run to the MLS Cup final, TFC have plenty of holes. Most notably, they will try to find an attacker to go alongside Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo. One more difference-maker up top could push Toronto into more serious regular season contention.
The issue, though, is figuring what kind of an attacker they should be looking for. Pozuelo often played in the center behind Altidore, and then as a false 9 when Altidore was out in the postseason. A Sebastian Giovinco-esque second striker would be ideal for Altidore, but what happens to Pozuelo in that situation? The Spaniard might have to shift to the wing and take a backseat, and defensively they might see issues with three pure attackers on the field.
Adding a winger who can take more control in chance creation should be a priority. Tsubasa Endoh played heavy minutes in the playoffs. And while Endoh is fine, he is not a player who can run your attack. Searching out a player who fits their needs will be an interesting task for TFC’s management.
5. Year two of the tear-down in Vancouver
Year one did not go well. The Whitecaps finished last in the Western Conference and showed barely any glimpses of hope in their first season after they cleaned house. Most of their new signings didn’t pan out and will probably move on this offseason. Their supposed building blocks, Inbeom Hwang and Ali Adnan, have flaws that restrict their ceilings as core pieces.
Marc Dos Santos, the manager tasked with navigating these choppy waters, mostly set the Whitecaps up in a deep-lying block, clearing the ball at every opportunity and forcing goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau to face a constant barrage of shots. It’s hard to do much else other than bunker and counter as a bad team, but improving on last year will be hard if Vancouver spend all their time treating the ball like a ticking time bomb and letting opponents rip howitzers at Crepeau.
They can’t afford another year of failed signings. To keep the trust of a wary fanbase, they have to find ways to improve internally (maybe a guy like Theo Bair takes a leap) and hit on a couple of expensive signings. Muddling along as a last-place team will only push Vancouver farther behind in a changing league.