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Friday, July 19, 2024

MLS moves I like: Dax McCarty to Atlanta, Colorado’s midfield makeover and more

The MLS offseason continues apace. Since the first installment in this limited series, which covered acquisitions made by FC Cincinnati, St. Louis City, D.C. United and the LA Galaxy, a handful of other moves have been made which could change the complexion of the Western Conference while Atlanta United went back to its roots through the league’s free agent process. 

What were those moves, and what’s to like about them? Read on. 

Colorado completes midfield reinvention

The Colorado Rapids entered the offseason with plenty of problems to solve. After an uninspiring 2023 that saw its admirably loyal fanbase protest Stan Kroenke’s ownership with a display reading “the badge, the players, the fans deserve better,” few teams have ever had as much license to undergo drastic overhaul. The question was just how much freedom and funding Kroenke would afford chief roster constructors Pádraig Smith and Fran Taylor to make improvements.

The answer, seemingly, has been “a lot.” In the space of a few weeks, Colorado has undergone its most radical transformation in nearly a decade, one that includes 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Zack Steffen and the hiring of Chris Armas as head coach. 

However, the most dramatic overhaul has come in the engine room, where Armas, Smith and Taylor had a tall task in replacing the club’s outgoing midfield anchor, Jack Price, whom the Rapids sorely missed after his Achilles tendon rupture on March 18. Not only did Price serve as the team’s chief chance creator with deep-lying distribution and set piece prowess, but he was a bulldog out of possession who did well to stymy opponents’ build-up. 

Finding one player who can do both of those well while also providing veteran leadership would have been a fool’s pursuit, but these Rapids weren’t fools about it. They split replacing Price into making two acquisitions. The headliner came first, as they landed U.S. international Djordje Mihailovic after his time with AZ Alkmaar stalled out in just 12 months. He hasn’t exactly stuck to the company line about landing with Colorado, of all MLS teams, but if he’s bought in, he should be among the league’s upper echelon of creative midfielders.

The less glamorous part of Price’s marching orders may have finally been filled in an act of goodwill between Rocky Mountain rivals. Colorado sent an international slot, a second-round 2025 pick and $100,000 in conditional general allocation money (GAM) to Real Salt Lake. In return, they received Jasper Löffelsend, a 26-year-old German who has played along the back line but was announced by Colorado as a midfielder. Assuming that’s where he’ll roam for Armas, it could be an excellent fit.

Löffelsend put in some needed shifts for RSL in 2022 and 2023, logging 2,765 minutes. His assists dipped from 5 in 2022 to just 2 last year, and his playing time waned following the Leagues Cup as the team needed more creative options during a playoff push. It made the German expendable, as the benefit of his status on the supplemental roster was nullified somewhat by requiring an international slot. 

Nevertheless, he was among MLS’s best midfielders against the ball. He was proactive in attempting tackles — his 9.55 ‘true’ tackles per 1,000 opponent touches ranked 17th among the 182 MLS midfielders who logged at least 900 minutes last year. He was in the 93rd percentile for ball recoveries per 90, the 91st for touch-weighted recoveries, the 83rd for blocked passes and the 90th for clearances. 

Why would RSL cut bait on a player who does the dirty work in midfield? The lack of creativity is real, and RSL have preferred options on the roster in Pablo Ruiz and Braian Ojeda. Although Löffelsend’s 65.7% completion rate of passes traveling at least 35 yards was just above average for his position last year, his 2.68 failed passes in his own half per 90 was 167 among those 182 qualified midfielders. 

Luckily for Colorado, those deficiencies should be mitigated by returning midfield regular Connor Ronan, who was quietly among MLS’s best distributors in his debut season. According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, only two central midfielders provided more value with their passing. (You may have heard of them: Riqui Puig and Héctor Herrera.) 

Couple that with the fact that Lösselsend showed a proficiency at breaking opponents’ press by dribbling through traffic, and it’s easy to envision how the midfield will work. Löffelsend can shuttle around the first wave of opposition before getting the ball to Ronan to work toward the attacking half. From there, it’ll be up to Mihailovic to turn build-up into highlight reel fodder — something he did time after time for Chicago and Montréal. Throw in the fact that Cole Bassett can capably deputize, and it could make for one of MLS’s most balanced midfields.

I like this move for Colorado, who may be the early “winners” of the ongoing transfer window. The West is still wide open after an underwhelming season for the conference’s heavyweights, and the approach of building around North American talent and players who were underused by other MLS teams worked wonders for Houston last season. Colorado will hope for a similar boost in 2024; if they do, it’s likely Löffelsend will have played some at-times thankless part in that turnaround. 

Dax McCarty to Atlanta United

Dax McCarty is a bona fide MLS icon, one of the few active players who bridges the league’s pre-Beckham era to the present day. When he announced he wouldn’t return to Nashville, there was reason to think that the 36-year-old defensive midfielder would be hanging up his boots. Instead, he became a free agent for the first time in his career, and is now replacing Osvaldo Alonso as Atlanta’s midfield sage.

McCarty arrives with over 500 club games to his name counting cups and the playoffs, but his 34 club appearances last season were the most he’s logged in any calendar year since 2015. He’ll help make up for the departures of Matheus Rossetto and Franco Ibarra, and may be worked into a more rotational role after the team added Tristan Muyumba and Poland international Bartosz Slisz in consecutive windows.

If you’ve followed MLS at all over the last 18 years, you know what McCarty can do. He’s still a capable one-on-one defender — his 54.5% ‘true’ tackle win-rate ranked 20th among 107 qualified central and defensive midfielders last year — and will look to progress the ball whenever advisable (34.2% of his passes went upfield, 18th of 107 in MLS). It’ll take a minute to get used to seeing him in black-and-red stripes, but that’s been the case for every jersey he’s donned since leaving New York after 2016.

I like this move for Atlanta. Above all else, McCarty is one of the most invaluable leaders in league history, both on the field and in the locker room. It’s a quality that won’t wane even if he needs to take on a lesser workload as he turns 37 in late April. His signing carries a similar vibe to when Atlanta brought in Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst as a veteran bedrock for the club’s initial roster under Tata Martino.

Fafa Picault to Vancouver

Even as he’s moved from team to team, Picault has quietly been among MLS’s most consistent attackers. The former Fort Lauderdale Striker is on his fifth MLS squad since leaving Germany in 2017, but that’s through little fault of his own. Ex-teammates in Philadelphia, Houston and Dallas have all sung his praises, but his impact on the salary cap ($650,000 guaranteed in 2023) put him in that awkward space where he’s no longer budget-conscious but not yet a luxury piece.

Nashville was the latest beneficiary of his proactive and versatile playstyle, where he logged 1,718 minutes in the regular season and playoffs while playing on both wings and up top. Although Nashville head coach Gary Smith rotated through four or more regular attackers around Hany Mukhtar before Sam Surridge was signed, only Mukhtar (the league’s reigning stepover king) attempted more take-ons than Picault as he worked to will an at-times plodding Nashville side toward the final third.

Picault joins a Vancouver side that ranked fourth league-wide with 2.97 direct attacks per 90, but just saw 2023 breakout Simon Becher move to AC Horsens (Denmark) for $400,000 and a sell-on percentage. Vanni Sartini’s Whitecaps have seen their most productive players operate in the central channel. Picault could do well in a more mobile role working off of Brian White, but could also provide some needed width in build-up while providing a shooting threat of his own. 

I like this move for Vancouver, even if he’s near the senior maximum salary. His skillset and selflessness can find a role in any system, and he should enjoy more open terrain in a setup that’s far more open than Gary Smith’s was in 2023. The Haiti international isn’t really a diamond in the rough at this stage of his career, but there’s still plenty of shine left for Sartini’s side.

Maxime Crépeau to Portland Timbers

Although Los Angeles FC was unable to defend its MLS Cup title, they returned to the final in no small part thanks to Crépeau. That fact is all the more impressive considering the Canada international was memorably subbed out in MLS Cup 2022 after a gruesome leg fracture. 

That injury cost him a squad role with Canada for the 2022 World Cup, but he returned for a dozen starts across the 2023 MLS regular season and playoffs. He wasn’t just an improvement between the sticks over his heroic deputy, John McCarthy, either. Projected over a full season, the way he was playing would’ve had him in line to challenge Roman Bürki for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.

Goals prevented uses post-shot expected goals (or expected goals on-target, xGOT) to assess how proficient a netminder was at preventing goals compared to expectations. 

When adjusting prevented goals for each goalkeeper’s rate of shots faced, Crépeau was well ahead of every peer in the league from Bürki to Philadelphia great Andre Blake to current Chelsea starter Đorđe Petrović. Portland’s 2023 goalkeepers, David Bingham and Aljaž Ivačič, both allowed more goals than the model would expect. That’s a massive upgrade.

Of course, there’s more to goalkeeping these days than standing around and waiting to test your acrobatics. Although Crépeau had a career-best 9.6% rate of stopping crosses before they found a target, his sweeper actions (any defensive action outside the box) dipped from 1.27 per 90 in 2022 to 0.57 in 2023. Then again, I’d be less proactive about defending the ball in open terrain after how his 2022 ended. If he’s able to regain some of that tendency, he could cement himself atop Canada’s goalkeeping depth chart and help Portland return to the playoff places.

(Photos: Getty Images)

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