MLS 2023: Last summer's big signings ready to take over

One of the obstacles to MLS growth is its calendar.

If it is to become a global league, it must become a player on the global transfer market.

MLS is slowly getting there. The United States ranked eighth in the world in transfer spending and 12th in transfer receipts in 2022. The issue is maximum opportunity.

MLS's offseason is when its teams would most likely want to buy and sell players on the transfer market, but there are a lot fewer buyers and sellers during the January window.

MLS teams have a choice — buy players in the winter and get them into their squads for preseason (and have them available for their promotions in the buildup to the new season) or wait until the middle of the season when more players are available but try to integrate the new signings into their lineups on the fly, often without full vacation breaks. On the selling side, MLS teams will have the most takers if they wait until the middle of the summer, but they often face breaking up a winning team if they sell their top players.

But it is what it is. MLS has shown little interest in playing into colder months — and sacrificing its most optimal dates in terms of weather in late spring/early summer — for the sake of switching calendars.

MLS saw an unusually high level of activity in its 2022 secondary window, particularly on the acquisition side. Some of the summer signings had an immediate impact. Others were unable to change the course of the season for their clubs. But it's in 2023, after complete assimilation, on and off the field, that we'll see their impact.

Here's a look at the top players from the summer class of 2022 in terms of how they might mpact 2023 ...

1. Lorenzo Insigne (Toronto FC)
2022 MLS debut
: July 23.
2022 MLS stats
: 11 games, 6 goals, 2 assists.

Toronto FC made the former Napoli captain the highest paid player in MLS when he signed a four-year deal worth a reported $15 million a season.

Insigne signed a pre-contract in January but didn't join the Reds until after the Serie A season ended in May and MLS's summer registration window opened in July. By then, the playoffs were already a long shot.

TFC won in Insigne's debut — 4-0 over Charlotte FC — and it went unbeaten in his first five games, scoring 15 goals, but it ended up 13th out of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference after a late-season collapse.

Insigne, 31, admitted MLS was a big adjustment — especially its physical play. An offseason housecleaning has brought changes to the supporting cast he'll have.

2. Riqui Puig (LA Galaxy)
2022 MLS debut: Aug. 19.
2022 MLS stats
: 10 games, 3 goals, 5 assists.

Puig only played 10 games after arriving from Barcelona, but the 23-year-old midfielder quickly made the Galaxy a playoff contender in MLS, where he is perfect to exploit its open play.

He ranked in the 99th percentile for passing percentage and the number of progressive carries and progressive passes among MLS midfielders and above the 90th percentile in goals, assists and shots per game.

“He's super dynamic and quick, and he shifts gears, plays one-touch off of people," Galaxy coach Greg Vanney told Soccer America last fall. "There's a whole 'nother speed that comes to the game when he's playing."

3. Denis Bouanga (LAFC)
2022 MLS debut: Aug. 31.
2022 MLS stats
: 7 games, 1 goal.

Bouanga's only goal in the regular season came in LAFC's next-to-last match to give it the Supporters’ Shield. Then he carried LAFC past the Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals it would have lost but for the first two goals he scored in the 3-2 win. The match was decided when Cristian “Chicho” Arango scored on a rebound of Bouanga's shot keeper Jonathan Bond couldn't handle.

A lot more will be expected of Bouanga, the French-born Gabonese international, in his first full season. Arango moved to Mexico, and Gareth Bale retired.

“He’s in the prime of his career,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said last week. “Physically he is a monster. He is tactically disciplined. He is a very hard worker and has been training very well on top of it all.”

4. Cucho Hernandez (Columbus Crew)
2022 MLS debut: July 9.
2022 MLS stats
: 16 games, 9 goals, 3 assists.

The 23-year-old Colombian forward quickly started justifying the club record $10 transfer fee the Crew paid Watford when he scored the winning goal in his MLS debut against the Chicago Fire and scored four goals in its first three appearances, all off the bench.

Eight of Hernandez's nine goals came in his first eight games. With only goal after that, the Crew's penchant for conceding late goals became an issue and ultimately cost it a berth in the playoffs — and head coach Caleb Porter his job.

New head coach Wilfried Nancy wants to get more out of Hernandez, hoping to add variety to his game built around serving as a target man and carrying the ball himself.

5. William Agada (Sporting KC)
2022 MLS debut: July 17.
2022 MLS stats
: 12 games, 8 goals, 2 assists.

Sporting KC missed the playoffs for just the second time in the last decade. But one bright spot in 2022 was the play of Agada after his arrival from Israel's Hapoel Jerusalem.

The Nigerian had helped Hapoel Jerusalem avoid relegation after its first season in the top-flight Ligat Ha'Al since 2000 and then helped Sporting KC — 5-1-2 over its last eight games —  avoid the Western Conference basement.

Just as important, the Nigerian brought some joy with his enthusiasm on and off the field.

6. Federico Bernardeschi (Toronto FC)
2022 MLS debut: July 30.
2022 MLS stats
: 13 games, 8 goals, 3 assists.

Bernardeschi followed Insigne to Toronto only a year after they won the European Championship with Italy. He won Serie A titles with Juventus in 2018, 2019 and 2020 and Coppa Italia trophies in 2020 and 2021.

The right winger is only 29, so his move to MLS was as much a surprise as that of Insigne from Napoli. But he couldn't turn things around at TFC, scoring eight goals in his first 10 games before going scoreless in his final three games, all shutout losses, as the Reds dropped to 13th in the Eastern Conference.

Like Insigne, Bernardeschi should benefit from an offseason break and what Toronto coach Bob Bradley termed is a "fresh start."

7. Emiliano Rigoni (Austin FC)
2022 MLS debut: Aug. 31.
2022 MLS stats
7 games.

The DP signing had not played in two months before his late summer move and had little impact in Austin FC's surprise run to the Western Conference final, but big things are expected in 2023. The number head coach Josh Wolff put out was "15 or 20 goals" in terms of the Argentine's goal contributions.

Rigoni's been reunited with Austin FC star Sebastian Driussi. They played at Russia's Zenit Saint Petersburg over four seasons, the last year broken up by Rigoni's loans to clubs in Italy and Spain.

8. Matt Miazga (FC Cincinnati)
2022 MLS debut: Aug. 13.
2022 MLS stats
: 10 games, 2 goals, 1 assist.

After three years in MLS's basement, FC Cincinnati finally made the playoffs. Scoring wasn't a problem with Brandon Vazquez, Luciano Acosta and Brenner up front — they combined for 46 goals and 33 assists — but defense was an issue. Its 56 goals allowed were tied with Inter Miami for most of MLS's 14 playoff teams.

Miazga solidified the Cincinnati backline after his arrival on a free transfer from Chelsea following loan moves to five teams over six seasons. FCC lost just once in his 11 starts before a 1-0 defeat to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

. Giacomo Vrioni (New England)
2022 MLS debut: July 23.
2022 MLS stats
: 7 games, 1 goal.

No MLS team had to hustle more to keep up with its outing transfers than the Revs. Serbian keeper Djordje Petrovic, Colombian winger Dylan Borrero and Albanian forward Giacomo Vrioni were like-for-like replacements for Matt Turner, Tajon Buchanan and Adam Buksa.

Vrioni, New England's third DP, was limited to 248 minutes because of a knee injury in 2022, but he worked on his fitness back home in Italy in the offseason. He'll carry some momentum into Saturday's opener at Charlotte, having scored in the final preseason match, a 2-1 comeback win at Orlando City.

10. Christian Benteke (D.C. United).
2022 MLS debut: Aug. 31.
2022 MLS stats
: 7 games, 1 goal.

Benteke, 32, spent 10 years in the Premier League and earned 45 caps for Belgium, but D.C. United didn't win a game in his six starts after Wayne Rooney lured him to MLS from Crystal Palace.

“The team didn’t have a great 2022 season, but for me it was good to be there,"  said at MLS Media Day in January. "To be part of it because I wanted to know how the league works, get to know the players, and the club overall. Now, I am looking forward to this new season."

Insigne Photo: Andrew Katsampes/ISI Photos

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