What passes for the offseason in much of the world is mid-season for MLS, and few summers since the league began operations in 1996 have been as busy in the player market as that of 2009.
Some teams, such as the two FCs, Dallas and Toronto, have revamped their rosters radically from what they started the season with. Others, like Chivas USA, took full advantage of the league's relaxed stance regarding loan deals by adding three players, including midfielder Jesus Padilla from parent club Guadalajara.
Toronto FC and Houston broke new ground by signing their first Designated Players, albeit in radically different circumstances. TFC signed Canadian international midfielder Julian de Guzman, whose contract with Spanish club Deportivo La Coruna had expired in June. Though head coach Dominic Kinnear is a staunch advocate of using as many American players as possible, the Dynamo landed Mexican striker Luis Angel Landin on loan from Cruz Azul.
De Guzman, 28, rejected an initial offer from TFC in July and waited in vain for an acceptable offer from a European club. Probably not coincidentally, TFC launched its season-ticket renewal drive a few days after his signing became official. He and Landin, 24, are also the youngest DPs signed by MLS teams.
"This will go down as one of the best signings for a long time, said TFC manager Mo Johnston. "He's played 12 years in Europe, he's been a tremendous player over there ... you don't just go over there, pull the cleats on and start playing. You're up against the best players in the world. At the age he's coming home at, I don't think many DPs within this league would be able to have this opportunity."
FC Dallas used its place atop the allocation list to acquire U.S. defender Heath Pearce, who was released by German club Hansa Rostock in June and turned to MLS when a pending deal to join Turkish club Bursaspor broke down. About a week earlier, Coach Schellas Hyndman had praised the work of Jair Benitez, the sixth player to appear at left back for FCD this season.
Pearce signed right before the trade deadline, so if FCD has a future move in mind, it will have to wait until the end of the season, when the waiver draft and expansion draft are to be conducted. Good left backs are a rare commodity in MLS, so Hyndman may be stocking up for the winter. Since he reportedly has a five-year contract, and FCD won't make the playoffs this year, he can still build for the future.
FCD also signed Daniel Hernandez, who played for Hyndman at SMU and returned to MLS from the Mexican league.
BUSY SUMMER. League regulations permit plenty of summer player moves. The U.S. registration period ("transfer window") was open from June 15 to August 15, and is timed to take advantage of players released when the European seasons end in late spring. League teams were permitted to add out-of-contract players and make trades until the roster freeze date/trade deadline of Sept. 15.
A flexible first-team roster (18, 19 or 20 players) also enabled teams to add an extra player or two; in the past, it would have had to waive a first-team player, trade him, or move him to the developmental squad - reduced from 10 to four players last winter - to meet the previous limit of 18.
When MLS adopted the DP option prior to the 2007 season, a player's popularity and drawing power ranked highly on the checklist, but not every team has followed lead of the Galaxy (David Beckham) and Chicago (Cuauhtemoc Blanco), two players who have jacked up attendances - as well as marketing and sponsorship appeal - around the league. Juan Pablo Angel's prolific goalscoring has won games for the Red Bulls but hasn't pumped up crowds at Giants Stadium, and Seattle's incredible ticket sales scarcely required the presence of Freddie Ljungberg to drive them.
TFC sells out just about every game anyway, yet the move for de Guzman does appeal to TFC fans anxious for their team to sign more top Canadian players and stop missing the playoffs, as it has done in its first two seasons. If Welsh international Carl Robinson leaves the team at the end of the season, de Guzman could slide into the slot alongside rookie Sam Cronin and give Toronto one of the best central midfield tandems in the league.
Though he played mostly holding mid during his nine years of first-team play in Europe, de Guzman is skilled and clever enough to get goals, and the club already has fellow Scarborough (Ont.) product Dwayne DeRosario as its main attacking catalyst. Though De Rosario and TFC captain Jim Brennan skipped the Concacaf Gold Cup to concentrate on their club play, de Guzman played with forward Ali Gerba as Canada reached the quarterfinals. At the 2007 Gold Cup, de Guzman scored two goals and was named MVP.
"In Europe I've always been a defensive midfielder in a holding role, but with the national team, I'm also comfortable playing forward," de Guzman said. "I'm used to either of those areas. It'll take time to get used to the system and I definitely see myself in both of those roles on this team."
MEXICAN CONNECTION. Houston is atop the Western Conference and may not seem to need the help, especially at a DP price, yet team president Oliver Luck is acutely aware of his city's large Mexican-American population, which may drive up attendances in the final weeks of the season and the playoffs. Landin's deal includes an option for MLS to buy his contract when the loan expires at the end of the 2010 season.
With the team playing in the Concacaf Champions League and several players, including forward Brian Ching, subject to national-team call-ups, more bodies are needed. To make space on the roster, Houston released English forward Ade Akinbiyi.
"I am looking forward to getting Luis involved with the team," said Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, who will be unable to use Landin in the Concacaf Champions League this season because he's already played for Cruz Azul in the competition. "He is a player who will fit nicely into our system. I think we improved our team with an exciting, young, attacking player."
San Jose's terrible first half of the season triggered a slew of midseason moves. Forwards Pablo Campos and Cam Weaver had been signed by San Jose during the offseason to bolster an anemic attack, and both were eventually traded. Veteran defender Nick Garcia, signed to a more lucrative contract during the winter, was stripped of the team captaincy early in the season and shipped off to Toronto in July. Brazilian defender Fabio Da Silva stayed played just two friendlies before San Jose terminated his contract.
New York terminated the contract of Salvadoran left back Alfredo Pacheco, whose ballyhooed arrival turned out to be mostly hyperbole when it came to making the grade in MLS. Sanchez had been with Dallas most of the season, having joined the team in early April, yet played in just three games.
(This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)