This offseason, the turnover in MLS was immense as usual, with dozens of players flowing in and out of the 19 clubs that make up the league. Some teams beefed up, some trimmed fat. Some went younger, some added experience. So who did the best in the treacherous transfer-market waters? The five teams below were tops.
1. D.C. United
With a few swift and inconspicuous moves, United made itself stronger and deeper in a handful of positions. Last season, United was a promising young team that began showing the energy first-year head coach Ben Olsen wanted. And United probably would have made the playoffs too, were it not for a 1-6-2 finish to the regular season when injuries to winger Chris Pontius and defender Dejan Jakovic hampered the team.
To address the experience and depth defects, United said goodbye to club mainstays like Santino Quaranta, Marc Burch, Clyde Simms and Devon McTavish. But United is a decidedly better team for the acquisitions that came in return. First, defender Robbie Russell was acquired from Real Salt Lake, adding experience to the back line, improving the team at right back. The Russell acquisition allows Perry Kitchen to move from right back to his natural position: holding midfielder. The team went on to sign strikers Hamdi Salihi, who will be a designated player, and Maicon Santos to bolster a thin front line. With Salihi playing in front of Most Valuable Player Dwayne De Rosario, United now potentially has one of the best forward pairings around. By trading for Danny Cruz from Houston and by signing Emiliano Dudar and league veteran Marcelo Saragosa, United added good depth to the wings, central defense and the holding midfield spot, respectively.
2. Los Angeles Galaxy
Keeping championship teams together is a tough trick. To improve on it is even harder. And to improve on it in a league like MLS, with its many financial caps, parity mechanisms, rules and restraints, well, that makes for nothing short of a dream offseason.
First and foremost, the Galaxy managed to re-sign David Beckham -- as much of a coup as landing him the first time around was in 2007, given how much interest he was generating in Europe. Later in the winter, they wrangled his midfield sidekick Juninho back out of Sao Paulo for another year too, keeping intact their sterling central-midfield tandem. Then the team managed to parlay the departures of well-paid veterans like Gregg Berhalter, Donovan Ricketts, Frankie Hejduk, Chris Birchall and Jovan Kirovski into contract extensions for a few key players. The signing of Marcelo Sarvas, who will back up Beckham and Juninho, and the return of U.S. striker Edson Buddle, instantly upgrades the offense. That Omar Gonzalez was injured while out on loan and will miss much of the season is a blow. But then again, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane came back intact, so we can call that a wash.
3. Montreal Impact
It may not have always been pretty, but the Impact's construction of the squad it will deploy in its maiden season in MLS certainly was savvy. The Impact picked James Riley, Seth Sinovic and Brian Ching in the Expansion Draft, only to trade them back to their old teams or a higher bidder. They did the same by claiming striker Eddie Johnson before flipping him for two players to the Seattle Sounders, who really wanted him all along. In doing so, Montreal picked up various trade chips and bits of allocation money which allowed it to build as sound a roster as you could reasonably expect from an expansion team.
Aware that experience in the back is invaluable, the Impact acquired veteran goalkeepers Donovan Ricketts and Greg Sutton, coaxed defender Nelson Rivas from Inter Milan and added Shavar Thomas and holding midfielder Davy Arnaud. Impact head coach Jesse Marsch padded this backbone by adding solid middle-aged players like defenders Bobby Burling and Tyson Wahl, midfielders Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Justin Mapp, and a band of promising young players such as forwards Sanna Nyassi, Justin Braun and Lamar Neagle, midfielders Collen Warner and Andrew Wenger and defender Zarek Valentin. In short, the Impact has managed to build a roster that makes sense short-, medium- and long-term and will put a team out there that should be competitive fairly quickly.
4. Seattle Sounders
In their third season, the Sounders performed much like they did in the first two: a strong regular season followed by a postseason flop. This winter, the Sounders lost Kasey Keller to retirement, but they appear to have found a suitable replacement in Greek-league veteran and three-time Austrian international team member, Michael Gspurning. The Sounders also added Swedish international defender Adam Johansson and Christian Sivebaek, a midfielder who has played at every level for Denmark but the senior national team.
Finally, the team swung a trade with the Impact to acquire the newly returned Eddie Johnson, whose three-year trek through Europe came to nothing. Johnson finally gives the Sounders a quality striker, a job that's been poorly filled since Blaise N'Kufo's abrupt retirement before last season, to play alongside Fredy Montero. And while Erik Friberg returned to his native Sweden, the team managed to hold on to Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez while Steve Zakuani should soon be back from injury. That makes this offseason a resounding success for Seattle.
5. Vancouver Whitecaps
In their inaugural season the 'Caps drew heaps of fans, justifying the hype of their addition to the league, but ended up dead last in the standings with a league-worst 18 losses. But Canada's second franchise has quickly made moves to catapult it into contention in the loaded Western Conference.
Out of the blue, it signed South Korean veteran left back Lee Young-Pyo. Then it drafted Darren Mattocks second overall, giving Vancouver potentially the fastest forward around to combine with last year's No. 1 pick Omar Salgado as the team's tandem of the future. And finally and spectacularly, the team pried perennial MVP candidate Sebastien Le Toux from the Philadelphia Union for no more than allocation money. Le Toux's contract expires after the season and he may walk, but the low six-figure salary and allocation sum Vancouver gave up could nevertheless prove a bargain if he can replicate his Philly form. Paired with fellow French forward Eric Hassli, the 'Caps now boast one of the most imposing striker pairings in the league, backed up by two of the most promising young forwards in Mattocks and Salgado. What's more, Vancouver lost nobody of note in the offseason -- unless you count Mustapha Jarju, one of the worst designated player signings in league history.