The hot stove is finally lit under the MLS offseason, with a monsoon of moves that are surely doing damage to Tom Bogert’s phone battery.
Moves for foreign stars capture the headlines, but lesser-hyped deals could be just as important, if not more so. Remember, the Columbus Crew’s MLS Cup triumph was made possible in part by a May trade that brought in Malte Amundsen from New York City FC for $500,000 of allocation money. Seven months later, Amundsen set up the eventual title-winning goal with a sublime 115.5 foot through ball.
In that spirit, let’s review four early moves from the MLS offseason that I like for the teams involved.
Given MLS’s roster rules, even good teams often have a position group with a thin depth chart. Last year, FC Cincinnati’s ended up being at center back.
It didn’t show for much of the season. The club won the Supporters’ Shield, Matt Miazga took home Defender of the Year honors and only four teams conceded fewer goals than Cincy’s 39. Although their runaway success allowed for more liberal squad rotation than teams lower in the table, their three starting central defenders (Miazga, Nick Hagglund and Yerson Mosquera) were called upon to start in 70%-72% of Cincy’s 42 games across all competitions.
As the playoffs went along, that pecking order was tested. Hagglund suffered a hamstring injury before their playoff opener that ruled him out for the rest of the year. Although they got past the New York Red Bulls in two games, Miazga’s suspension meant they entered the next rounds against Philadelphia and Columbus with Mosquera sliding into Miazga’s central role instead of playing on the right. Although fourth-choice center back Ian Murphy and long-time full back Alvas Powell did their best filling the open spots, Cincinnati was unable to cap a brilliant campaign and instead watched their rival come back in the conference final, then win MLS Cup.
The other shoe dropped shortly after that heartbreak, as Mosquera’s loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers ended in December. There was a clear need to replace the Colombian with another top-of-line MLS defender. Through free agency, that’s exactly what they found.
More from The Athletic…
Fans of MLS and/or the United States men’s national team won’t need much introduction to Miles Robinson. He became the anchor of Atlanta United’s defense within two years, and only a torn Achilles kept him off the 2022 U.S. World Cup roster. After a resurgent 2023 season, he entered free agency with suitors not just in MLS, but beyond these shores.
Robinson doesn’t have the same type of defensive profile as Mosquera, but on the whole he was arguably even more effective last season than he had been before the injury. According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, Robinson outperformed Mosquera in terms of his dribbling, his fouling, his interrupting, and his passing. He was also above average for the position in terms of where he received passes and only narrowly below average with his shooting.
As we look at less all-encompassing metrics, we can see how Atlanta got so much out of Robinson.
First, a refresher on ‘true’ tackles. Simply looking at a tackle win rate doesn’t tell the whole story of a defender’s effectiveness when getting stuck in. Specifically, it overlooks times that a defender is bounced off the ball carrier, as well as the challenges that end in a committed foul. Adding those to the mix gives us a player’s ‘true’ tackle win rate, while adjusting the tally of ‘true’ tackles for every 1,000 touches made by their opponents helps illustrate how often they attempt a challenge.
To the latter point, Robinson’s weighted frequency looks somewhat pedestrian. However, a lot of that can be chalked up to role, as Robinson was asked to be more of a stay-at-home defender in a back four. With Miazga almost certain to stay at the heart of Pat Noonan’s center back trio, Robinson could be allowed to converge toward opposing attackers more often, creating the type of 1-on-1 situations where he excels.
Chris Albright and the rest of the sporting department have already worked toward the position’s depth, too. They took a savvy reclamation flier on Kipp Keller, the 5th overall pick in 2022 who only made 13 appearances in two years with Austin FC. Hagglund is back, while Murphy’s increased workload last year could put the two in a true preseason battle atop the left center back depth chart.
I like this move for Cincinnati. It may have taken lighting the entirety of TQL Stadium’s exterior to ward off other courting clubs, but the increased energy bill was worth it. Although Cincy now has to go about replacing Brandon Vazquez as he finalizes a move to Monterrey, Robinson joins a roster that looks ready to contend for hardware once again.
Tomas Totland to St. Louis City
St. Louis City pulled off an impressive feat in 2023, becoming the first expansion team to win a regular season conference crown. Bradley Carnell was an instant hit on the touchline, becoming a finalist for coach of the year as he brought his Red Bull background to America’s heartland. After suffering a first-round upset against Sporting Kansas City, St. Louis isn’t wasting time in making moves to keep opponents from catching on as they plan the sequel to their strong debut season.
One clear area for an upgrade was at right back, which was most often patrolled by Jake Nerwinski, who struggled on the ball in build-up and left much to be desired with his defensive work. Of the 93 fullbacks who logged at least 900 minutes in 2023, ASA’s goals added metric had Nerwinski ranked 88th. Anthony Markanich emerged as an option on the left after arriving in a trade with Colorado, but he hasn’t yet spent a season as a first-choice option.
St. Louis looked beyond the MLS landscape for help, prying Tomas Totland away from BK Häcken for a reported $500,000 fee. The 24-year-old Norwegian has played left back for the Allsvenskan side this year, but is right-footed and previously had more experience playing at right back. He started regularly for Häcken in this year’s Europa League, with the club finishing last in a group with Leverkusen, Qarabag and Molde.
A six-game sample of continental Thursday clashes is hardly a robust sample size, but we can start to see how Totland played for Häcken against strong competition. Of the 39 fullbacks who played at least 270 Europa League minutes, Totland was fourth with a 72.7% ‘true’ tackle win rate — just ahead of West Ham regular Emerson’s 71.4%. His 27.3% dribble-past rate was slightly better than this group’s average, and his 2.48 take-ons per 90 was 7th for the position (curiously, again just ahead of Emerson, who had 2.35). 22.8% of his carries were progressive, showing a willingness to bring the ball forward at a higher rate than the average full back.
In other words, again drawing attention to the small sample size: Totland capably defended one-on-one, and he was proactive in getting the ball toward the opposing box in possession.
It appears that he’ll make his MLS debut along the right flank, following Monday’s news that the club signed 22-year-old Danish left back Nikolas Dyhr. Although both will have something of a learning curve, the pair of signings shows that the club is proactively working to evolve itself before the rest of the league figures Carnell’s system out. I like this move for St. Louis.
Totland’s ball progression prowess will also be useful given one of the club’s first moves of the offseason…
…that saw St. Louis trade midfielder Jared Stroud (plus defender Lucas Bartlett and $300,000 of allocation money) to D.C. United in exchange for Chris Durkin.
Most often starting on either wing, Stroud was fourth on the team with 10 goal contributions in 2023. He was the team’s second-most active crosser from open play with 3.36 per 90 minutes, although his efforts only yielded 0.88 chances even when including non-crossing distribution.
Bartlett logged over 1,000 minutes last year, but was either fourth or fifth on the center back depth chart while playing for a coach who prefers to play with a two-man partnership.
I like this move for D.C. As the team undergoes another rebuilding phase under soon-to-be appointed Troy Lesesne, new general manager Ally Mackay acquired a pair of domestic players who’ve proven to be MLS caliber and are entering their prime years (Stroud is 27, Bartlett 26). Stroud was a stronger chance creator during previous stints with New York and Austin, so there’s potential that Lesesne can get more out of him in the right system. Throw in a little league-exclusive currency, and it’s a trade return that makes sense.
I also like this move for St. Louis. Durkin was once viewed as a top prospect in the USMNT midfield pool, but a move to Sint-Truiden didn’t lead to the level of development he would have wanted. He returned to D.C. in 2022 and had a bit of a down year in 2023, but will now play for a team with higher expectations and a need at the position.
Sporting KC pulled off its upset in part due to poor play from St. Louis defensive midfielder Njabulo Blom, and Carnell had little viable depth behind the South African midfielder to choose from. Considering the considerable outlay they gave up to get Durkin, it suggests there will be increased focus from St. Louis on better midfield defending beneath the more advanced duo of Eduard Löwen and Indiana Vassilev.
At worst, Durkin should provide a better standard of depth — which is near-impossible for an expansion team to enjoy as it builds a roster from scratch. At best, they’ll be able to revive a once-promising midfielder’s career while enjoying better shielding of their backline without using an international slot at a premium position.
Player swaps don’t happen as often as they used to (or as often as I’d like them to) in MLS, but this was one where both sides left the negotiation feeling they’ll come out ahead.
The LA Galaxy entered the offseason needing to replace not one, but two elder statesmen at striker. Club captain Javier Hernández saw an at-times promising stint come to an end with a torn ACL in June, while summer stopgap signing Billy Sharp had his option declined and has since signed with Hull City. Dejan Joveljić may finally get his chance to regularly start at center forward, but there was a clear need for a contingency plan in case the club opted not to make another Chicharito-style headline acquisition.
For the low price of a second-round SuperDraft pick, LA pried Miguel Berry away from Atlanta United. (In the interest of assessing this move in future years, that 33rd overall pick was flipped to Chicago and used on Olu Oyegunle.) It’s firmly categorizable as a low-risk flier, but has the potential to pay massive dividends for Greg Vanney’s side.
Two years ago, it looked as though Berry was set for a late-blooming ascendency like Brian White, the Red Bulls product who struggled to make an impact in New Jersey but has become a reliable scorer since moving to Vancouver. In a pair of loan stints to now-defunct USL Championship side San Diego Loyal, Berry worked on his movement and first-time finishing under Landon Donovan. He was recalled midway through 2021 and looked ready for his close-up, scoring 8 goals in 18 regular season appearances for the Columbus Crew.
2022 was a far leaner season, managing just two goals in 1,690 minutes while getting traded to D.C. in the summer. He saw his playing time decrease after a winter move to Atlanta, scoring once in 1,028 minutes. Understandably, the last two years sunk his trade value to a draft pick that’s often valued at $50,000 GAM.
Still, I like this move for LA. This isn’t a team that’s known for a high SuperDraft hit rate like Orlando City, so a second-round pick isn’t likely to make them lose sleep regardless of how Oyegunle or anyone picked after him does. In exchange, they brought in a player who’s still only 26, has had one recent season of good scoring output in a rotational role and returns to the state that he grew up in after his family moved from Barcelona. He may want to visit Donovan’s statue outside of Dignity Health Sports Park to remember those lessons learned with the Loyal, but this could be a great spot for him to get his career back on track.
Jeff Rueter theathletic.com
2024-01-09 19:29:26 , Galaxy – The Athletic