MLS free agents: A guide to the best available as the offseason ramps up

Trending 2 months ago
ARTICLE AD BOX

Recent changes to MLS free agency eligibility has made the market stronger and deeper. The age breakdown is diverse, as are the profiles of those that qualify.

This year’s crop of MLS free agents includes a center back and central midfielder with USMNT experience, a World Cup veteran left back hitting his prime, an MLS Cup-winning wingback; a 2023 Best XI left back; more than a few former big-time designated players (DPs) and multiple former MVPs.

Some of these players could re-sign with their current teams and some may go abroad. Any other MLS players out of contract but who don’t meet the free agency requirements can go to the Re-Entry Draft or have their MLS rights acquired in a trade to sign elsewhere.

With all that said, here’s the 2024 MLS free agency big board.


The top six available

Miles Robinson

The time is now for Robinson to go to Europe if he desires. But if he sticks around in MLS, it’ll be on a lucrative contract. As things stand, he’s the top free agent on the board.

Robinson has had talks to return to Atlanta United, but those talks seem to be at an impasse. Robinson has seen fellow USMNT center back Walker Zimmerman set a new market for defenders with his DP deal with Nashville, and Atlanta doesn’t want to use a DP spot on a center back, it seems.

Other MLS clubs’ offers to Robinson will be capped – the same issue that complicated things for Aaron Long, Sean Johnson and others last year.

Robinson, 26, has had interest from PSV and others in Europe. He can join a club abroad on a free transfer on Jan. 1. He has 26 caps with the USMNT and has made 150 appearances for Atlanta, the only club he’s (permanently) been at in his professional career.

Kellyn Acosta

The top midfield option on the board, Kellyn Acosta is an in-prime, MLS-proven, national team midfielder in his prime. He just went to back-to-back MLS Cups with LAFC, helped lead the Colorado Rapids to the top spot in the Western Conference in 2021 and was a constant for FC Dallas’ Shield/Cup-winning double in 2016.

At 28 years old, Acosta already has 252 regular-season MLS appearances and 58 caps with the USMNT. He made 79 appearances across all competitions in two years with LAFC.

Most clubs with space should be considering him.

Carlos Vela

Vela is a former MLS MVP, an LAFC club legend, a starter in the last two MLS Cup finals and enjoyed the greatest individual season in league history in 2019.

The former Mexico international turns 35 next season. He still had nine goals and seven assists while appearing in all 34 MLS regular season games (2,071 minutes) this year. He remained productive, but had zero goals and one assist in the playoffs. He’ll fit any possession-based system as an inverted winger or No. 10.

What will the open market look like for him around MLS? Vela made $4.38m in 2023. He would need to take less than half if he were to be open to returning on a non-DP deal.

Kai Wagner

Kai Wagner came to Philadelphia as a little-known lower-division player from Germany and quickly established himself among the best left backs in the league.

The 26-year-old has been a regular for transfer speculation, with Leeds United and others having interest previously. The lack of offers is surprising given his profile and age, so he may stand to make more money in MLS free agency than Europe.

Wagner had an offer on the table from the Philadelphia Union as of last week. He also had an offer from AEK Athens this fall, sources briefed on the talks said.

If Wagner explores free agency, he’d make a ton of sense for FC Cincinnati if they move Alvaro Barreal to Europe. Cincy’s key decision-makers (GM Chris Albright, head coach Pat Noonan, director of soccer strategy Kyle McCarthy) all came from Philly and are well familiar with Wagner’s game.

Julian Gressel

Perhaps the best crosser in MLS, Julian Gressel looks set to depart the Columbus Crew in free agency this month.

Gressel, who turns 30 this winter, was traded to the Crew this summer and won his second MLS Cup. He’s 6-for-6 in finals (two MLS Cups, two Canadian Championships, one U.S. Open Cup, and one Campeones Cup).

The wingback (who can also play central midfield) was 17th in MLS in expected assists despite having fewer minutes played than most ahead of him.

It’s likely his next team will be on the East Coast for family reasons. A reunion with Tata Martino, his former Atlanta United coach, in Inter Miami would make a lot of sense to me if they can find the salary cap space.

Diego Palacios

A World Cup veteran and Ecuador international is a free agent at just 24 years old. His profile typically screams a free transfer to Europe, so we’ll see if he entertains remaining with LAFC or testing the domestic market.

The left back has made 132 appearances with LAFC, starting two MLS Cup finals as well as playing all 180 minutes across both legs in the CONCACAF Champions League final this year. Palacios had the assist on Gareth Bale’s iconic MLS Cup final equalizer last year against the Philadelphia Union.


Eleven more…

Goalkeepers

Maxime Crepeau

Crepeau won the 2022 MLS Cup with LAFC and is a regular on Canadian national team squads. He returned this year from a broken leg and looked like he did pre-injury. He’s one of the top goalkeepers in the league.

The 29-year-old has made 98 MLS regular season appearances across three clubs. I imagine LAFC will try hard to keep him and that seems like the most likely outcome, but that’s speculation.

John McCarthy

Reliable backup keepers are very useful in MLS, just ask Philly after Andre Blake missed time with injury and the national team over the years. John McCarthy is that.

As a bonus, McCarthy is a penalty shootout specialist, making him more valuable, particularly in a new MLS landscape where Leagues Cup matches and Round One playoff games go straight to PKs if tied.

Defenders

Griffin Dorsey

Griffin Dorsey came on strong as the year went on for Houston – the fullback was an integral part of their U.S. Open Cup win and success in the league. Dorsey had five goals and five assists in 35 appearances across all competitions, including a goal in the Open Cup final.

The attacking right back ranked in the 99th percentile among MLS fullbacks in non-penalty goals, 97th percentile in xA, 91st in progressive carries and 70th percentile in progressive passes received; a true threat up the right flank.

Talks remain ongoing between Houston and Dorsey, a source briefed on conversations tells The Athletic.

Donovan Pines

D.C. United homegrown center back Donovan Pines hits free agency at 25 after debuting in MLS in 2019.

Pines made 22 appearances this year, a new career-best, scoring three goals along the way. He made 93 appearances for D.C.

Midfielders

Omir Fernandez

Like Dorsey, Omir Fernandez benefits from the new free agency rules in that the minimum age is now 24. He’s entering his prime and with years of MLS experience, would be a useful player to a lot of teams.

Fernandez, 24, has made 130 first-team appearances with the New York Red Bulls, including a career-best six goals in 2023. He appeared in 30 games for RBNY and can play as a No. 10 or on the wing.

Nico Lodeiro

Lodeiro was only excluded from the top tier because of his age and potential compensation. He’ll leave the Seattle Sounders this offseason after eight incredible, trophy-laden years. Lodeiro turns 35 in March of next season. The feeling from folks around Seattle is that Lodeiro will stick around in MLS rather than head back to South America.

Though he had a career-worst season in terms of box score numbers (one goal, five assists), his advanced stats were strong. He was in the 91st percentile among MLS attacking midfielders/wingers in shot-creating actions, 79th percentile in xA, 95th percentile in progressive passes completed and 80th percentile in progressive passes received (all figures per 90 minutes).

Dax McCarty

Another MLS legend, Dax McCarty will start a new journey after four hugely successful seasons with Nashville SC.

McCarty, 36, appeared in 34 games across all competitions for Nashville last year and was their best ball progressor with forward passing. He was integral to driving the culture off the field, with the club making the playoffs in all four years following expansion. He made 121 appearances for Nashville, and is up to 466 regular season appearances in his career.

Forwards

Gustavo Bou

Gustavo Bou also nearly made the top tier, but uncertainty over whether he stays in MLS or returns to South America complicates things. Also, his best role (second forward) is one that’s increasingly rare.

Bou turns 34 just ahead of the 2024 season and struggled with availability the last two years but not productivity. He had 19 goals and nine assists in 43 appearances (3,360 minutes) for the Revs over that timeframe.

Josef Martinez

It’s crazy to think that Josef Martinez — an MLS MVP who was the fastest in league history to 100 goals and is only 30 — wouldn’t be the top prize in free agency, but knee surgeries have significantly slowed him down. He’s not the same player he was when dominating in Atlanta, but can still be a reliable goal scorer in MLS.

Martinez had seven goals and one assist in 1,740 minutes for Miami this year. Even in “down years,” Martinez has had 33 goals and eight assists in 5,664 minutes (a goal contribution every 138 minutes) since his injury.

Money will be complicated given his stature. Curious to see where he ends up.

Danny Musovski

After talks for a new contract with Real Salt Lake completely fell off the rails, leading to Danny Musovski holding out during the season. The forward now hits free agency and will have several options.

Musovski, 28, had nine goals and five assists in 1,648 minutes across all competitions this year. When he plays, he scores. It was true at LAFC, where he had 13 goals and six assists in 2,236 minutes, and it was true in the USL Championship as well.

Corey Baird

Bair chose a nice time to have a career year with the Houston Dynamo.

The former MLS Rookie of the Year (an award since rebranded to MLS Young Player of the Year) won the starting role at center forward under Ben Olsen and contributed 14 goals plus eight assists. He fit seamlessly into the club’s tactics both with the ball and against the ball as the club won the U.S. Open Cup and finished fourth in the West.

Baird turns 28 just ahead of next season.

Talks remain active between the Dynamo and Baird, sources briefed on negotiations tell The Athletic. 

More
Source theathletic
theathletic