TORONTO, Canada—With the 2020/21 MLS offseason about a month in for many MLS clubs including Toronto FC, there have been a number of significant moves with players and staff members.
Now that we have 27 teams with the expansion of Austin FC, it is getting harder to keep up with every move around the league.
This article will help wrap up all the big moves that have happened so far this off-season in case you missed some of them.
Danita Johnson: New DC United President
On December 22, DC United announced that Danita Johnson would become the the president of business operations at the franchise, making her the first Black president of an MLS club, as well as the third woman.
Johnson seems to have quite an intriguing resume to look back on with regards to sports management. While COO and president of the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA, she helped to lead the team to significant growth off the field. According to DC United’s twitter post announcing her, she increased tickets sales by 50 per cent from 2014-2017 and has had a long history with launching and running G League and WNBA leagues, such as the Bakersfield Jam and the Tulsa Shock.
Under Johnson’s reign, the Sparks had the best attendance in the WNBA in 2017 and 2019. The Spark’s attendance increased by 26.7 per cent from 2014-2019, which averages out to 5.3 per cent growth per year on average. Since Wayne Rooney left DC United, attendance and hype around the team has dropped by a decent chunk, so hopefully someone with her resume can help connect the team with more supporters and expand the club’s outreach.
Of course the main hope will be that she can work with the new manager (yet to be hired) to improve the performances on the pitch from DC United’s abysmal 2020 season.
But regardless, it’s a significant step for MLS, who have put quite an emphasis in 2020 on overcoming racial inequality.
Bradley Wright-Phillips: Free Agent to Columbus Crew SC
After an injury-plagued 2019 season with the New York Red Bulls, Bradley Wright-Phillips was released, and at 34 years old, he would move on to play for Los Angeles FC to serve as a backup striker.
As many players got injured and others under-performed, BWP was there to fill the void in the centre of attack. He proved himself last season despite his age, scoring eight goals and six assists in 18 games, earning him the MLS Comeback Player of the Year award.
That’s why it raised a few eyebrows when he was released from the team seemingly because of his age: LAFC was probably worried about him not being able to perform at the same level as he did in 2020, despite proving a lot of doubters wrong last season.
However, much like in 2020, one of the league’s most prolific goal scorers wouldn’t be out of a job very long. One of the more coveted free agents, on December 23, BWP would sign with reigning MLS Cup Champions Columbus Crew SC to replace Fanendo Adi (released) as the new quality backup player for Gyasi Zardes.
Tim Bezbatchenko’s side just got a little bit more dangerous.
Kamal Miller: Orlando City SC to Montreal Impact
Recently, 23 year-old Canadian fullback Kamal Miller was drafted fifth overall by Austin FC in the 2020 MLS Expansion Draft and was later traded to Montreal Impact. This trade was in exchange for $225 000 in GAM (General Allocation Money), $50 000 in conditional GAM, as well as the 11th pick in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft.
Miller, who played for Orlando City SC after being selected in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, had begun to make a name for himself as one of the up-and-coming fullbacks in the league in recent years. Known for his aggressive defending, the Scarborough native helped to shore up his team’s defense, particularly over the past season where Orlando (normally a bad defensive team) only conceded 25 goals.
Given that Montreal Impact had the fourth-worst defense in the league last season, the Canadian international will bring some much need quality to their back line.
While he is one of our own, Miller will be a tough one for TFC fans to root for while wearing the Montreal blue.
Greg Vanney: Toronto FC to (possibly) LA Galaxy?
As many TFC fans already know by now, Greg Vanney announced his resignation on Dec. 1. Vanney had finished his sixth season with the club, winning the MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, three Canadian Championships, and brought the Reds the closest an MLS franchise has ever been to winning the CONCACAF Champions League.
Upon leaving the club, he did not announce what his future plans were but it seemed as if he was looking for a new challenge, upon accomplishing almost everything he could while as Toronto FC manager.
On Dec. 18, Grant Wahl reported that the “LA Galaxy is finalizing a deal to make Greg Vanney its next head coach,” though it is worth noting that as of Monday Dec. 28, nothing has been made official.
When Vanney left TFC, LA Galaxy was the obvious choice for Vanney to take over as the Galaxy have been looking for a new coach for months now after firing Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Vanney also played for the Galaxy from 1996 (the league’s inception) to 2002, racking up 168 appearances. So, he clearly has a personal connection to both the team and the city.
It’s not official, but keep a close eye in the coming days/weeks.
Alexander Ring: New York City FC to Austin FC
When Alexander Ring first arrived in New York City, the Pigeons’ defense was not in the greatest shape. NYCFC had qualified for the playoffs in 2016, but they also had the fourth-worst defense in the league. Ring came in as a rather unknown figure used to shore up the team’s defense—which he did.
Within one season of the defensive-midfielder arriving, the team had gone from conceding 57 goals to just 43. This 25 per cent decrease was largely credited to his new commanding defensive presence in the midfield. After David Villa departed the club in early 2019, Ring would become the new club captain.
That’s why on Dec. 17, a few heads were turned when expansion side Austin FC traded quite a sum—$750,000 of GAM and $500,000 performance-dependent GAM—in exchange for the 29 year-old.
It appears Austin got him to bring a level of defensive experience and quality that Walker Zimmerman brought 2020 expansion side Nashville FC in their first season. On the other hand, NYCFC are trusting youth prospect James Sands to fill the void in his former position.
We’ll have to see how this trade will pan out for both teams.
Djordje Mihailovic: Chicago Fire FC to Montreal Impact
On Dec. 17, Montreal Impact and the Chicago Fire completed a blockbuster trade, as attacking midfielder Djordje Mihailovic was traded to Montreal in exchange for $800,000 in GAM (General Allocation Money) and $200,000 in conditional GAM.
Mihailovic, 22, has been playing in MLS for some time now after making his debut in 2017. From my observations, Mihailovic started off his career as an energetic and pacey midfielder who really added some much-needed creativity to Chicago’s attack. However, as years have progressed he has honed his technical skills more and also gotten more time to prove himself on the pitch.
In 2020, he had his best season yet, scoring two goals and adding seven assists in 20 games. With Mason Toye, Kamal Miller and Djordje Mihailovic all moving to Montreal over the past year or so, it appears as if Head Coach Thierry Henry is trusting MLS-produced youth to push his team further into the playoffs over the next few years.
Gabriel Heinze: New Atlanta United FC Head Coach
After the sacking of Head Coach Frank de Boer in July of 2020, Atlanta United have been looking for a new coach quite some time. That search ended on Dec. 18 when it was announced that former Argentinian national team star Gabriel Heinze would become the new Head Coach.
Under the De Boer era, many Atlanta fans felt that the franchise had strayed away from its attacking roots when he began to introduce very defensive tactics. While these tactics did provide some success, he quickly fell out of favour with players and fans alike in large part due to his playing style.
This is why Atlanta United’s front office has hired Heinze. They believe he will restore a more traditional fast-paced South American flare to Atlanta United’s gameplay, while achieving more accolades then his predecessor. He has only managed in Argentina, however, so while he should bring a desired style back to North America, he will be inexperienced in performing outside his home country.
If Heinze can bring Atlanta back to its potential, that should spell trouble for the rest of the league.
Mauro Manotas: Houston Dynamo FC to Xolos
After a disappointing season for Houston Dynamo, it looks like star striker Mauro Manotas will be on the move to Liga MX side Xolos. The transfer fee reported is $4 million (including add-ons, so the initial fee might be lower) and the sell-on percentage retained by Houston is 25 per cent.
The Dynamo have been rebuilding their squad of late, as star attackers like Alberth Elis, Manotas and Romell Quioto have all left now—three pieces that played pivotal roles in establishing Houston’s identity over the past few seasons. With those three now gone, much of the identity that the club has gained over the last few years will likely follow.
Manotas was known for his fast-paced style where he normally played as a centre striker among the many other attackers in the lineup. He was solid at creating chances and finding space to attack, however, he was not very good at finishing under pressure (from my observations over the years). Don’t let that take away from his track record, however, as Manotas was still quite prolific, scoring 51 goals in 149 MLS games.
Keeping in mind that he started playing in MLS when he was 19 years old and played for a team that only made the playoffs once, it’s safe to say that the now-25 year old has had a pretty solid MLS career, and thus, a move to Liga MX at this point in his career makes sense.
Kyle Beckerman: Retires From Professional Soccer
The man. The myth. The legend.
Kyle Beckerman announced his retirement from professional soccer after a 20 year career that was spent entirely in Major League Soccer. Recently announced to MLS’ “25 Greatest”, the 38 year old broke the record for MLS games played by a field player with 498 to his name.
While the U.S. international bagged 41 goals and 55 assists in his long career, he is mainly known for his strong tackling (that earned him 123 yellow cards) and an overall ‘gritty’ playing style to get possession in the midfield. Many remember his signature dreadlocks that he cut off in 2017.
Beckerman is one of those players who keeps defying odds every season with his playing ability at his age, but his illustrious career in MLS has now came to an end.
Chris Wondolowski: Re-signs with San Jose Earthquakes
We won’t end this wrap-up on a down note, however, as San Jose Earthquakes’ fans received a Christmas day present as on Dec. 25, when long-time MLS veteran Chris Wondolowski announced he will be returning to the Quakes for one last season.
The MLS all-time leading scorer (166 goals to his name), Wondolowski previously stated that the 2020 season would be his last, but then factors around the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans.
A letter from the captain. pic.twitter.com/8Kxjqffwyn— San Jose Earthquakes (@SJEarthquakes) December 25, 2020
Wondolowski will turn 38 ahead of the 2021 season and recently slotted onto MLS’s 25 Greatest presented by AT&T list, which spotlighted the 25 brightest stars in league history.
Aside from holding numerous league records, Wondolowksi has scored more goals against Toronto FC than any other opponent. So ... maybe it’s not the greatest thing ever that he’s returning in 2021?
Are there any other moves from around the league that have stood out to you? Let us know in the comments!