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Cincy, LAFC, Miami: 5 biggest storylines of the MLS offseason (so far)

January 10, 2024, by Jonathan Sigal | Courtesy of www.mlssoccer.com



Want a fun fact? The 2024 MLS season is only six weeks away!


The offseason is sprinting by, building towards the Feb. 21 kickoff at DRV PNK Stadium when Inter Miami CF host Real Salt Lake (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). After that Wednesday standalone match, the weekend slate is jam-packed with more MLS is Back action.


As Matchday 1 rapidly approaches, here are the biggest storylines shaping the winter. Plenty more is on the horizon as preseason camps begin.



1.Luis Suárez joins Inter Miami


So, this happened.


For those counting at home, that's four FC Barcelona legends who have joined Inter Miami in the last six months: Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suárez. The first three all arrived last July, of course, and then the long-rumored Messi/Suárez reunion went official on Dec. 22, giving Herons fans an early Christmas present.


Now, it's hard not to be excited about Messi and Suárez's GOAT-status partnership potentially taking MLS by storm. Suárez, the iconic Uruguayan striker, is fresh off being named Best Player and Best Striker in Brazil's top flight (he played for Grêmio last year). And Messi is refreshed after a sensational year that included a long-sought-after World Cup title with Argentina, winning Leagues Cup with Inter Miami and capturing a world-record eighth Ballon d'Or.


Beyond this, Inter Miami made a free-agency splash when signing two-time MLS Cup winner and US international Julian Gressel on Jan. 9. Whether it's at right wingback or right midfield, his service and experience will be invaluable as Tata Martino's side competes in numerous competitions.


2. LAFC: Bouanga, Lloris, Vela


LAFC rang in the New Year by signing legendary French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, a 2018 World Cup winner who spent the last decade-plus starring for Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur. He replaces free agents John McCarthy (signed with LA Galaxy) and Maxime Crépeau(reportedly signing with Portland Timbers) between the sticks.

After that, it's a long list John Thorrington and the Black & Gold front office need to sort through:

  • Carlos Vela remains out of contract.

  • Dénis Bouanga is making headlines as a transfer/contract saga brews, saying he wants to return to Europe.

  • Italian legend Giorgio Chiellini retired, creating a need at center back.

  • Diego Palacios, their longtime Ecuadorian left back, signed with Corinthians (Brazil) on a free transfer.

  • USMNT midfielder Kellyn Acosta remains a free agent, with Chicago Fire FC floated as a landing spot.

  • A bunch of depth pieces are gone.

The Bouanga development is probably the most pressing after his sensational 2023 season, where he equaled the MLS calendar-year goals record (38) across all competitions. He was a one-man wrecking ball on the counter-attack and a matchup nightmare for just about any MLS defender. Bouanga's still under contract, so will there be a resolution – either a big-money move abroad or a lucrative pay bump/extension – in the days ahead? LAFC, surely, would like to keep Bouanga given his importance to Steve Cherundolo's squad.


Then there's the Vela situation, which has precious few (if any) developments. LAFC's captain and inaugural signing is unquestionably a club legend, but he's not quite producing at a Designated Player level anymore. Whether the Vela era continues or we have seen its final chapter, we truly don't know. But it's a massive storyline as an MLS standard-bearer club looks to reload.


When the offseason dust settles, LAFC could bid farewell to as many as six starters from their MLS Cup 2023 runner-up starting XI. That's a lot of change!


3.FC Cincinnati: Robinson in, Vazquez out


It's always good to show up in style:


FC Cincinnati, the reigning Supporters' Shield winners, signed arguably the best free agent available in USMNT center back Miles Robinson. The former Atlanta United star should slot alongside Matt Miazga, the 2023 MLS Defender of the Year, and help offset Yerson Mosquera's now-complete loan from Wolves.


It's a fantastic signing (and on non-DP terms) by their Chris Albright-led front office.

Then the other big domino fell:


Brandon Vazquez is now in Liga MX, joining Monterrey after Rogelio Funes Mori left for Tigres.

The USMNT striker departs for a reported $7.5 million fee that contains $1 million in add-ons, plus a sell-on clause. He rose to stardom at FC Cincinnati, earning MLS Best XI honors in 2022 and helping their 2023 squad lift a Supporters' Shield title. Vazquez also posted 26g/12a in 62 regular-season matches over the past two years.


There was plenty of Vazquez-to-Europe speculation in recent windows. But this is still a strong move, joining one of the Western Hemisphere's biggest clubs. And it's tremendous work by Cincy, who acquired him for comparative peanuts before the 2020 season.


Who will replace Vazquez? They're reportedly adding Corey Baird in free agency after he helped Houston win the US Open Cup last year. Don't be surprised if they sign another striker to help form a new attacking trio alongside Aaron Boupendza and reigning MVP Luciano Acosta.


Cincy fans are also keeping a watchful eye on a potential Álvaro Barrealoutbound transfer (the left wingback is linked to some big clubs). Ditto for if midfielder Junior Moreno and right wingback Santiago Arias return.


4.Colorado wheel and deal


I did not have this on my offseason bingo card:


Nor this:


Full credit to the Rapids' brain trust, which hired head coach Chris Armasin mid-November and has stayed busy breaking down and rebuilding the roster. This all follows a last-place Western Conference finish and a year of vocal discontent by supporters, the kind where everyone's playing for their job.


To address the tweets above, Colorado have acquired two USMNT players/MLS returners – midfielder Djordje Mihailovic and goalkeeper Zack Steffen – before mid-January rolls around.

Mihailovic is a DP and reported club-record signing for Colorado, likely to line up on the left wing or in the No. 10 role. His year abroad in the Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar didn’t go as planned, but the former Chicago homegrown and CF Montréal star undoubtedly brings quality in the final third (remember that #DjordjeForMVP buzz early in his 2022 breakout?).

While at very different stages of their respective careers, the Steffen move gives me major Tim Howard vibes. Let's translate: a USMNT goalkeeper returning to MLS after making his name here, now a centerpiece in Burgundy. Steffen was MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2018 with the Columbus Crew, leading to a Manchester City move.


It’s not just Mihailovic and Steffen, either. Omir Fernandez joined in free agency after leading the Red Bulls in scoring last year. Cole Bassett has signed a new long-term deal. They swapped left backs with Chicago (Venezuelan international Miguel Navarro inbound, Andrew Gutmanoutbound). Utility-man Jasper Löffelsend joined in a trade with rival Real Salt Lake.


Colorado are probably a couple of pieces away – namely a defensive midfielder/destroyer. But they’re heading in the right direction.


5. Coach carousel


When the 2024 MLS campaign begins, nearly one-third of MLS teams will have a new head coach. We're going with nine since Chicago have retained Frank Klopas and Orlando kept Oscar Pareja.


The quick-hit rundown, sorted alphabetically:


CF Montréal – The Hernán Losada era lasted roughly 10 months in Montréal, cutting ties after missing the playoffs. Next up is Laurent Courtois, who spent 2022-23 leading Columbus Crew 2 in MLS NEXT Pro, including to the inaugural league title.


Charlotte FC – Christian Lattanzio was dismissed in early November; he was summarily replaced by Dean Smith. Charlotte's third head coach in as many years, Smith is most renowned for guiding Aston Villa back to the Premier League in 2019.


Colorado Rapids: Can Chris Armas find success in the "Rapids Way"? The club's banking on it, landing the former New York Red Bulls (2018-20) and Toronto FC (2021) boss to succeed Robin Fraser.


D.C. United: Wayne Rooney and D.C. mutually parted ways right after their 2023 season ended. Now, the capital city club is led by former Red Bulls boss Troy Lesesne. Coupled with that is new GM/CSO Ally Mackay.


Minnesota United FC: Well, we don't know the full-time manager just yet… and it's unclear what the timeline will be once sporting director/CSO Khaled El-Ahmad is on the ground. For now, Cameron Knowles is Minnesota's second interim manager after Sean McAuley stepped away for a USL Championship gig.


New England Revolution: Need evidence of New England's win-now approach? They've hired Caleb Porter, who previously steered the Portland Timbers (2015) and Columbus Crew (2020) to MLS Cup titles. Curt Onalfo, forming the other half of the Revs' post-Bruce Arena era, is now sporting director.


New York Red Bulls: The Red Bulls have more German influence on the sidelines, appointing ex-Bundesliga manager Sandro Schwarz. They opted not to retain Lesesne, who now leads their Atlantic Cup rival.


Portland Timbers: After Portland missed the playoffs on Decision Day, they eventually hired ex-Inter Miami manager Phil Neville. He fills the role vacated by Giovanni Savarese's mid-2023 exit.


Toronto FC: The Reds technically hired ex-Canada men's national teamboss John Herdman in late August, but he's only overseen one match. Herdman replaces Bob Bradley, whose departure also allowed Jason Hernandez to assume GM duties.


BONUS


Portland Timbers reshuffle


Portland have opened two DP spots, not bringing back striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda and transferring winger Yimmi Chara to Colombian top-flight side Junior FC. Who do the Timbers envision playing alongside Evander, their midfield star and club-record signing?

Whoever joins Neville's rebuild, Portland already have signed center back Kamal Miller (trade with Inter Miami) and rebuilt their goalkeeper corps.


LA Galaxy watch


Speaking of clubs with two open DP spots, we're also watching what the Galaxy pull off in their post-Chicharito and post-Douglas Costa world.

They're reportedly finalizing a club-record deal for Brazilian winger Gabriel Pec from Vasco da Gama; he would fit snugly alongside Riqui Puig and Diego Fagundez. LA would then, in theory, add a star striker that continues a transfer philosophy recalibration (read: younger, not name-centric).


One more for LA: They've added Japanese international right back Miki Yamane. He could be one of the under-the-radar signings of the offseason.


New DP in Seattle?


Club legend Nico Lodeiro has signed with Orlando City in free agency, ending his legendary time in Seattle. His DP replacement looks to be Argentine youth international Pedro de la Vega, who has starred for Lanús. Nothing is completed (as of publication), but the winds look favorable:


Atlanta from deep


No developments just yet on the big news around Atlanta, i.e. a potential Thiago Almada transfer to Europe.


But the Five Stripes have been busy, acquiring goalkeeper Josh Cohenand midfielder Dax McCarty. They also look set to acquire Norwegian international center back Stian Gregersen (he plays in Ligue 2 at Bordeaux) and are linked with a deal for Polish international midfielder Bartosz Slisz (he plays at Polish side Legia Warsaw).

Atlanta, who lost Robinson in free agency, are quietly cooking.


Emil changes Red Bull home


We'd be remiss not to highlight how RBNY acquired Swedish international midfielder Emil Forsberg. He's swapped Red Bull outposts, going from the Bundesliga (Leipzig) to MLS (New York). A true playmaker, he's their best signing in years.

Also: If Luquinhas leaves for Brazil, as is reported, they'd have an extra DP spot to utilize. And they're reportedly signing Swedish youth international center back Noah Eile, acquiring him from Malmö FF.


Based on how this winter window is shaping up, there's real reason for optimism in Harrison.


Cowell leaves?


Cade Cowell is reportedly taking his talents and flowing locks to Liga MX:


Jonathan Sigal - @JonathanSigal


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