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Friday, June 21, 2024

MLS sensible transfers: Players for LAFC, Atlanta United, Seattle and more

There is no right way to build a title-winning squad in MLS, nor is there a perfect market to shop in. 

Over recent seasons, MLS clubs have directed their attention more explicitly to South America, where the talent is abundant and often cheaper than in Europe. Some clubs have also shopped in the lower leagues of major European nations and found great success. 

The Athletic has identified five players from five different leagues who would be logical fits for specific MLS sides. Concrete transfer discussions will influence to a degree, but this is an exercise in demonstrating the quality in various markets that MLS clubs have historically shopped in. 

Ryotaro Ito (Sint Truidense) – Seattle Sounders

Japan is becoming one of the emerging talent factories for European clubs in the market for exciting attacking players. As recently as 2021, Brighton & Hove Albion’s Kaoru Mitoma was playing in the J-League, which has proven to produce players capable of transitioning into European top-five leagues. Ito has switched to Europe with Belgian Pro League side Sint Truidense and offers many qualities the Sounders are looking for.

Ito is primarily a left-sided attacker or No 10, equally capable of attacking fullbacks one-v-one or operating in the hole behind the striker. His two-footedness is an attractive quality, allowing him to drift into wide positions and, theoretically, combine from either side with Jordan Morris, a more direct attacking player who would benefit from a creator operating between the lines.

In the image above, Ito retreats behind his team’s most advanced midfielder and finds space between the opposition’s midfield and attack.

After receiving a pass, he carries the ball closer to the opposition’s 18-yard box where there are two passing options — the easier of which is a pass to left-back Daichi Tagami, who is making inroads down the left channel. 

Instead, he disguises an inside pass to Yota Komi, who becomes free inside the box with time to shoot. It is the type of smart and intricate pass that Seattle often lacked in the final third last season. 

Like Mitoma, Ito was a late bloomer, only breaking into the J-League as a first-teamer at 24.  Since moving to Belgium, he has won his first cap for his national team in a 5-0 thrashing of Thailand, where he played as a deep-lying playmaker, highlighting his positional versatility. 

While not consistently prolific since his switch to Europe, Ito possesses many valuable characteristics. He is proficient in several positions — a quality particularly useful for MLS clubs owing to the salary cap restrictions — and is the right profile to combine effectively with Seattle’s young attackers. Ito’s deficiencies would be masked by a solid defensive unit in Seattle that would allow him to create and control the tempo, a quality Brian Schmetzer’s side has missed as Nico Lodeiro’s influence waned in the last campaign.

With the Sounders struggling to find the back of the net consistently — the primary reason they failed to realise their championship potential — Ito would add decisiveness in front of goal, too. 

Ramon Sosa (Atletico Talleres) – LA Galaxy 

With the departures of Tyler Boyd and Douglas Costa, the LA Galaxy have been left light in wide positions, and they are in the market to bolster these areas this winter. Mexico international Hirving “Chucky” Lozano has been linked, but newly appointed GM Will Kuntz has ruled out a move this window. The Galaxy have been shopping in South America for their next star, and Sosa is a name they have identified.

Sosa is already a star in his native Paraguay. A powerful and dynamic wide player capable of playing on either wing fits Kuntz’s desire to sign emerging players before their prime.

The 24-year-old had 10 goals and seven assists in 35 appearances across all competitions for Club Atletico Talleres last season, as they finished mid-table in the Argentine Primera Division. His stellar form prompted the Galaxy to make a potential club-record bid for his services in mid-December, according to sources briefed on the negotiations, which would tip it over the $9.5 million spent on forward Chicharito in 2021.

This highlight from Talleres’ 3-2 win over Independiente in November shows why the Galaxy are prepared to break their transfer record. In plenty of space, forward Rodrigo Garro attempts an ambitious pass in the space between Indepediente’s defensive line and goalkeeper, asking Sosa to win a chase for the ball despite his defender having a significant head start.

Sosa, who combines exceptional pace with an intense running power, wins the ball and is bearing down on goal.

With both physical quality and technical ability, Sosa remains composed and chips Rodrigo Ray to put his side three goals ahead. The action is reminiscent of the type of goal Denis Bouanga scored for LAFC this season from the left wing, a player Kuntz had a hand in bringing to the Galaxy’s rivals before making the crosstown move.

Securing Sosa, or another wide attacker with similar qualities, to partner with Riqui Puig would signal a bright start to a season where the pressure is on for the club to compete for their first piece of silverware since 2014.  

Calum Chambers (Aston Villa) – Atlanta United

With the news of Miles Robinson’s switch to FC Cincinnati still fresh for Atlanta supporters, the need to remedy their issues in defence from last season have become even more pressing. Robinson is an MLS veteran and regular USMNT international, one of a dying breed who could have opted to move to Europe but stayed closer to home. Domestic, non-designated player and of significant pedigree: a dream for any MLS club. To find his replacement, The Athletic has looked across the pond to Aston Villa’s Calum Chambers. 

After emerging a decade ago with Southampton, Chambers has played at all elite levels of the game. Arsenal signed him for a fee of up to £16 million ($20.3m) in 2014, and he was nominated for the European Golden Boy award shortly after. He won all three of his senior international caps that year, jumping directly from England’s U-19 programme to the men’s team, and later played 22 times for England Under-21s.

Since transferring from Arsenal to Aston Villa, however, Chambers has struggled to find minutes, and the Birmingham club are open to letting him leave as Chambers is yet to feature in the Premier League this campaign.

Chambers’ most attractive quality is his versatility. The 29-year-old broke through at Southampton at right-back but is equally comfortable playing at the heart of defence. He stands out as a modern defender: relatively quick, tactically aware and capable with the ball at his feet. He is not as physically imposing as the departed Robinson but is well-rounded with qualities that should transition.

In the image above, U.S. international Christian Pulisic lifts a pass behind Arsenal’s defence and into Hakim Ziyech’s path, around eight yards ahead of Chambers.

Ziyech wins the race against then-Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who left his box to try to win the ball ahead of the Morocco forward. Ziyech taps the ball over the goalkeeper’s head, and looks set to pass into an open goal.

Chambers manages to run beyond Ziyech and block his attempt. It was later called back for offside, but this demonstrates Chambers’ pace and ability to anticipate and block shots.

With 18 months left on his contract, Villa will demand a small fee for his services, but the price may be cut if Atlanta agrees to cover all, or least a significant portion of his sizeable wage. 

Myron Boadu (Monaco) – LAFC

Through LAFC’s short history, there has arguably never been a more significant summer. Following a five-year stint, Carlos Vela, undoubtedly the club’s greatest-ever player, has left. The 34-year-old is not the same player who delivered one of the league’s best individual campaigns in 2019, netting 34 goals in 31 league appearances. Still, he leaves a leadership and creative void.

With LAFC loaning summer recruit Mario Gonzalez to Sporting de Gijon this week, they appear best placed to use one of their remaining two designated player slots on a striker. For this, Boadu is The Athletic’s pick. 

Stylistically, Boadu does not appear ideal for a Denis Bouanga-led frontline. The Gabon international was at his best last season when he received deeper passes, allowing him to attack his fullback 1-v-1 in transition, which naturally suits the qualities of a deeper lying No 9. Still, given Boadu’s potential and inability to break into Monaco’s attack this year, he is an attractive, if imperfect, option.

The one-time Netherlands international has fallen out of favour at Monaco in Ligue 1 behind Wissam Ben-Yedder and USMNT forward Folarin Balogun and could have departed last summer. Boadu is a direct attacker, at his best with space to attack behind the opposition defence, which may cause complications with Bouanga, who likes to operate in similar areas — but that might not be as much of a problem as it sounds. 

LAFC were too reliant on Bouanga last season. Diversifying their attack may be what they need to reach the pinnacle again, and Boadu is the type of talent to succeed with (or without, given Bouanga’s desire to move back to Europe) the Gabon star.

The image above highlights Boadu’s ability to affect the game off the ball, occupying the central defenders and attacking space. On this occasion, with Boadu playing in a Europa League tie between Monaco and PSV, he signals for full-back Caio Henrique to drop a pass in the area between PSV’s right-centre back Andre Ramalho Silva, and goalkeeper Joel Drommel.

Henrique weights the pass perfectly, dropping the ball in line with the penalty spot. Boadu uses his pace to break ahead of his marker, while shielding the ball away, before scoring.

He is only 22 with a stellar goalscoring record in the Netherlands (29 goals in 55 games for AZ Alkmaar before he turned 20), and is the type of talent a club like LAFC, given their location and recent success, could not pass up the opportunity to sign. 

With two and a half years remaining on his contract, Monaco will likely demand an eight-figure fee — but Boadu is a match-winner, successor to Bouanga, and a potential future money-spinner.

Marlon Gomes (Vasco da Gama) — D.C. United

D.C. United have been on the lookout for a creative central midfielder for a while. When Wayne Rooney was appointed head coach, he immediately recruited Ravel Morrison from Derby County, a mercurial talent who had played his best football in a decade under his former Manchester United team-mate the season before. 

Without making much of an impression, the club decided to move on without the Jamaica international six months later — prompting Rooney to return to England to address the issue. Thanks to a move within England falling through, D.C. brought in Lewis O’Brien from Nottingham Forest in March, a transformative signing alongside Mateusz Klich that brought industry, vision and experience to Rooney’s side. He was called back to England a few months later, leaving D.C. short again. To address the issue, The Athletic recommends Vasco da Gama and Brazil youth international Gomes for a long-term fix.

At 20, Gomes is a U-22 initiative-eligible player who would fit into a young squad needing a change of direction after failing to reach the playoffs in successive seasons.

As shown below, Gomes is a technically gifted midfielder with an eye for a pass.

With Gomes operating as part of a midfield duo, he vacates his position alongside Chelsea’s Andrey Santos and finds space in a more advanced No 10 position, receiving a pass on the turn.

Gomes takes the pass and immediately turns, spotting the run of striker Vitor Roque. Having to weigh the ball perfectly to slow down between defender Carlos Rojas and goalkeeper Frankarlos Benitez is not easy, but it’s an ambitious pass he has the courage and quality to take on.

The pass is weighted perfectly and Roque wins the race with his marker. The striker, who has recently completed a move to Barcelona, gives Brazil the lead.

Alongside Klich, he would be the perfect foil in a new era for United after Rooney.

(Photo: Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

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