The story of the summer transfer window in MLS cannot be written without first mentioning Lionel Messi. He’s the best player in the world, perhaps of all time. His move to Miami is a huge deal that is being handled accordingly by this outlet and all others covering MLS (plus those now paying attention to MLS because of Messi).
Because of that (and his incredible start), it’s fairly inarguable that Miami had the best summer transfer window in the league by adding not just Messi but also Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and something like $15 million worth of rising South American talent.
As such, for this piece laying out the best and worst of the MLS summer transfer window, we’ll offer two awards for some categories: Miami-only and the rest of the league. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get into it.
Best signing: Lionel Messi to Inter Miami
Lionel Messi’s first game at Inter Miami saw him score a last-second free kick game-winner. His second game he scored a brace. His third game he scored another brace. Miami won all three games.
Messi has five goals and one assist in 204 minutes. You probably already know how great he is and how much he changed the team, there isn’t much else I can add to illuminate this point that isn’t already obvious and known so we’ll leave with this:
- Inter Miami in 2023 in MLS before Lionel Messi: 22 games, 18 points (0.8 PPG), 22 goals scored (1.0 goals per game)
- Inter Miami in 2023 in Leagues Cup with Lionel Messi: 3 games, 9 points (3 PPG), 9 goals scored (3.0 goals per game)
Losing star attacker Lucas Zelarayan, the 2020 MLS Cup MVP amid perhaps his best season in Columbus, should not have had the Crew in any winner’s circles for their summer transfer window.
Columbus Crew midfielder Zelarayan set to join Saudi side Al-Fateh
Yet, somehow, the Crew smashed a home run with Zelarayan’s replacement, former LAFC forward and 2020 MLS Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi. Rossi is atop a small list of realistic replacements for Zelarayan that won’t be seen as a downgrade in the short or long-term thanks to his age, profile and stellar history in MLS.
In Crew manager Wilfried Nancy’s short career as a first-team manager, a number of attackers have had career-best seasons. I can’t wait to see Rossi, a 25-year-old Uruguay international, in this system and a bit of a new role, playing more central in Nancy’s 3-4-2-1 (in Los Angeles he was the winger opposite Carlos Vela in Bob Bradley’s 4-3-3).
Columbus Crew signing Uruguay forward Diego Rossi
This is the kind of signing every MLS team with the resources should have been trying to make. If Diego Rossi is available and interested in coming back to MLS, you change your plans and try to make it happen. Well done by the Crew, who also had another key addition by trading for Julian Gressel.
The league’s best attack lost its best player but somehow got even better this summer.
Best low-key signing: Tomas Aviles to Inter Miami
I was leaning toward winger Facundo Farias here, but my esteemed colleague Felipe Cardenas swayed me to Aviles. Robert Taylor has been borderline undroppable since Messi joined (more on that in a second) so Farias may not have a clear route into the XI.
Miami’s attack won’t be an issue with Messi (obviously). Defense is another question, particularly depth at center back. Aviles, 19, may well come in and be a starter, though it should be cautioned that young center backs typically take some time to adapt to MLS.
Aviles is extremely talented and was signed for a reported $7 million plus add-ons.
Best low-key signing (non-Miami): Mario Gonzalez, LAFC
Striker Mario Gonzalez isn’t a cheap signing, nor was he spotted in some remote league or competition. With his transfer fee — reported to be around $3 million — he’ll definitely hit the roster above the senior max budget charge, but he’s a bit under the radar because of his age (27) and the fact he’s not a designated player.
Gonzalez joins an LAFC attack in the position they needed most — center forward. He’s in his prime, is a former Spain youth international and had a really good goal record last season in a decent league (15g/2a in 1,807 minutes for OH Leuven in Belgium).
This comparison might create an unfair expectation, but all of those details sound a lot like LAFC signing Chicho Arango in 2021. LAFC paid a similar transfer fee, he’s a similar age and has a similar goal record before coming to MLS. And just like when Arango came to LAFC, he’ll have a ton of attacking talent around him with Denis Bouanga and Carlos Vela on either side.
Real Salt Lake got its most important business done early and it paid dividends. The club also kept together a core group that was improving as the season went along, purely making additions led by the club-record signing of Arango, the former LAFC striker.
Arango was exactly the kind of boost RSL needed to level up: A reliable center forward. All of a sudden, Damir Kreilach and Jefferson Savarino become secondary creators/finishers with Arango. They needed that A1 scorer and they got it long before the window opened, with Arango hitting the ground running by scoring on his debut and again in Leagues Cup play.
“The idea is you’re aligned and ready to go compete,” RSL co-owner Ryan Smith told The Athletic in June. “… We were aligned and could make the Chicho decision in one phone call. Let’s go.”
After Arango, Real Salt Lake added highly-rated Colombian midfielder Nelson Palacio and just ahead of the deadline closing, agreed a deal to turn the loan for key starter Braian Ojeda into a permanent deal.
Columbus had a great window too, but unlike RSL, they had a couple of key outgoings in Lucas Zelarayan and Milos Degenek.
The Red Bulls have made the playoffs in each of the last 13 seasons, a streak that is tied for best in MLS history. If they qualify for the playoffs this year, they’ll set a new record.
However, that streak is in danger. The Red Bulls currently sit four points below the playoff line with 11 matches left, and it’s an open question whether or not RBNY did enough to climb back up the standings.
New York signed Colombian youth internationals Juan Jose Mina (right back) and Jorge Cabezas Hurtado (striker), both 19-year-olds. They seem talented, but profiles such as theirs typically take some time to adapt to MLS.
RBNY has essentially pinned its hopes on already having enough within the squad to make a push over the stretch run when they resume MLS play.
Most extreme case of “then and now”: Rodolfo Pizarro
Rodolfo Pizarro was signed by Inter Miami for upwards of $12 million ahead of the club’s inaugural season. He was not very good. He got loaned to Monterrey and was not expected to come back, but then did so this year. He never came anywhere near his price tag or expectations, providing just 17 goal contributions in 62 games for Miami.
Pizarro left the club in a contract termination to make room for Messi (and Sergio Busquets).
Two eras of Inter Miami. Very different.
Best trade: Mahala Opoku to CF Montréal from LAFC
It certainly wasn’t cheap, but CF Montréal upgraded its attack in a big way by acquiring forward Mahala Opoku from LAFC. The Canadian side quickly signed him to a new contract as well, keeping him at the club for the long term.
Montréal sent LAFC $1.75m in general allocation money (GAM), the second-most expensive trade in terms of raw allocation money in league history. However, the club had allocation money to burn. Clubs can convert outbound transfer fees into GAM, with the transfers of homegrown players the most lucrative. This winter, CFMTL sent Djordje Mihailovic (AZ Alkmaar), Alistair Johnston (Celtic) and Ismael Kone (Watford) to Europe in lucrative transfers.\
The club still needs a long-term answer at center forward, but an attack made up of Opoku and spring addition Bryce Duke is a strong young core.
Divisive first impression: Rodolfo Borrell
New Austin FC sporting director Rodolfo Borrell took over this summer, and one of his first big moves was to trade away fan favorite Diego Fagundez to the LA Galaxy.
Q&A: Austin FC sporting director on coming from Man City to MLS
The hiring of the former Manchester City assistant was (rightly) greeted with a lot of optimism in Texas and he is getting the benefit of the doubt, even as fans are sad to see Fagundez go.
This isn’t to suggest it was a bad move. Time will tell and Austin surely had logical reasons (more flexibility moving forward as Fagundez was the team’s highest-paid non-DP and took a step back in production this year), but just to say it’s certainly a fearless first impression by Borrell.
Speaking of molding Austin’s roster: Defender Brandan Craig was loaned to Austin FC from the Philadelphia Union in search of more playing time… only for Austin to trade for veteran central defender Matt Hedges a couple of weeks after Craig arrived, leaving him roughly in the same spot he was in Philly.
That’s unfortunate for Craig.
Never stop cooking: LAFC
LAFC has rarely had a boring transfer window. This summer, once again, was no exception.
Already second in the West amid a run to the CONCACAF Champions League final this spring, LAFC retooled by adding forwards Gonzalez and Cristian Olivera plus midfielder Filip Krastev. This is to an attack that already has Bouanga, Vela, Stipe Biuk and Mateusz Bogusz.
Jose Cifuentes (to Rangers) and Opoku (to Montréal) departed. Roster evolution is nonstop.
NYCFC deserves a shout here as well. They always seem to be evolving the squad and brought in several talented young players (though while shipping out Gabi Pereira)… but they are in 13th place in the Eastern Conference so they certainly needed to be busy.
Rangers to sign Jose Cifuentes from LAFC: Sources
While much of the focus was on the Crew’s race against the deadline to officially complete the deal for Rossi, the Whitecaps also had a hugely productive deadline day.
The Whitecaps officially re-signed center back Ranko Veselinovic to a new contract, a key maneuver with the Serbian’s deal expiring this winter. They also swung deals for Canadian international wingbacks Richie Laryea and Sam Adekugbe. They instantly become one of the top fullback duos in the league.
It may also signal a more permanent shift to Vanni Sartini’s three-at-the-back system. That would make a lot of sense with the resources invested in Laryea and Adekugbe.
Doing more with less: LA Galaxy
The LA Galaxy was under MLS sanctions this summer, meaning the club could only sign players from within the country, which limited their options to players from within MLS. or free agents that last played in MLS or another league in the country.
They walk away from the summer window with Diego Fagundez and Edwin Cerrillo, and will soon sign free agent Maya Yoshida after their summer transfer window ban ends and they can sign free agents like any other MLS club (more on that loophole here).
All in all, that’s fantastic work given the constraints.
Fagundez gives Riqui Puig another high-level running mate in attack, someone who can finally help take the creative burden off the No. 10. Cerrillo should step in and start in central midfield following Gaston Brugman’s injury, which probably would have tanked any hopes for the playoffs without a replacement. Yoshida has the chance to be a high-level defender to a group that needs it.
Most ‘classic MLS’ move: Franco Ibarra to Toronto
Typically, this section would be more light-hearted and joking about allocation money or international slots or any other arcane MLS jargon. The best example this summer comes in Franco Ibarra’s loan from Atlanta United to Toronto FC.
Ibarra was not happy about it. He did not want to leave, as he told Felipe Cardenas. Atlanta did not want him to leave, but they had little choice, in a bad spot of their own doing.
Franco Ibarra explains his confusion, disappointment over loan to Toronto
With Edwin Mosquera returning from a loan stint early, Atlanta had four U-22 initiative players but was only permitted three. Ibarra was the odd man out because, well, he was the only one other teams wanted.
Santi Sosa, another of those U-22 players, had an encouraging first season but hasn’t lived up to his price tag for the majority of his time in Atlanta. The club has been trying to offload Erik Lopez since essentially signing him. Mosquera — a 22-year-old attacking player with zero professional goals — was quickly loaned out … and then that loan was cut short.
It’s an unfortunate situation for Ibarra, but a necessary move for Atlanta that could only have happened in MLS.
(Top photo: Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)