The 2018 Major League Soccer season is in the books, with league-noobies Atlanta United winning their first cup, NY Red Bulls winning their third Supporters Shield, and the Columbus Crew finishing the year as the feel-good story of a club that was saved by its supporters from the wrecking ball and the moving truck.
But there is no time to take a breath and go on vacation or rest on your laurels, especially if you work in the front office of a professional football club. It’s Hot Stove season! General Managers are pouring over scouting reports and digital video of players that are on the market, and every front office lackey is juggling three cell phones to seven different player’s agents.
Over 200 MLS players hit the open market on November 26. Some will get new contracts in MLS. Some will retire. Some will depart for teams abroad.
The rest will land in USL. Here’s a list of some of the best of those players (although not the ‘best-best’ – those guys are going to get MLS contracts), and what they might offer to an MLS team, including (hint, hint) our own Pittsburgh Riverhounds, for 2019.
Sal Zizzo – Defender
Sal’s got a name like your Italian grandfather but he’s only 31 years old. The veteran fullback offers steady play in defense and provides good wide service. He’s spent his career on successful teams like Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City, New York Red Bulls, and most recently MLS Cup-winning Atlanta United. He also was briefly on a TLC reality show, ‘Rattled’, about new parents. His experience would be a great benefit to any team that wants a player with a reputation for success.
Jonathan Campbell -Defender
Campbell was the 12th overall pick in the 2016 MLS Superdraft, and came in with a lot of hype and fanfare for Chicago Fire. There was a little concern when the Fire backline he anchored in 2016 finished near the bottom of MLS in Goals Conceded, and the new 2017 head coach Veljko Paunavic didn’t rate Campbell, relegating him to a bench role. Campbell’s probably good enough for MLS, but it’s a good question whether anyone in the league will give him a chance to show it. A year of dominating USL strikers might be just the thing to get him back to the big show.
Matt Polster – Midfielder-Defender
Fire youngster Matt Polster was drafted in 2015 and started his career as a defensive midfielder, but was quickly moved to Right Back. He suffered an MCL injury in 2018 and missed the majority of the year, and that was just one of many knee injuries, which might lead MLS teams to balk at giving him a shot. That’s a great place for a USL team to swoop in. Polster is good enough to have earned a USMNT January camp call-up early in his career. If no one else in MLS will give him a shot, and if he doesn’t want to ply his trade abroad for a little more cash, a USL team should absolutely snap him up.
Jack McBean – Striker
McBean was probably supposed to be late-game bench asset for the Colorado Rapids, considering they had four other strikers signed to contract, and two of them were earning high-six-figure salaries. Of course, we’re talking about the Colorado Rapids, who made a lot of bad signings in 2018. That meant that Jack McBean, a scrappy, hard-charging forward with a good ability at knocking down aerials, got way, way more minutes – 1060 minutes to be exact – than a sane MLS team should be giving him. McBean is a solid target-forward and holdup man, and he should be a great USL player, good for 15 goals. His technical ability is ok, and he’s not that fast, but his motor never quits. He’s also only 23, but made his MLS debut waaaaay back in 2011. He’d be great with the Riverhounds, in my humble opinion.
Mike Grella – Wide Midfielder
‘Grelladinho’ found his way to MLS by trialing with the New York Red Bulls in 2015, and he quickly became a fan favorite for his electric wing dribbling and foot skills. But he missed nearly all of 2017 with a blown ACL, and suffered injuries that limited his 2018 with Columbus. Before his time in MLS, Grella had been overseas in England in the Championship and League One with a variety of teams, and also did time in the Danish SuperLiga and in NASL with the Carolina Railhawks. He’ll be 32 in January, and father time is never friendly to wide midfielders with a lot of miles on the odometer. Still, I would love to see Grelladinho spit-roast a defender with a filthy in-step cut or a crafty nutmeg just one more time.
Travis Worra – Goalkeeper
The end-of-2018 list of MLS-jettisoned goalkeepers is a mix ‘that guy was bad’ and ‘that guy never saw the field last year’, so forgive me if this list is pretty short on netminders. Travis Worra played four years for DC United, but mostly as the third-string behind Bill Hamid and another dude. He also played over those years with the Richmond Kickers. He always struck me as a quality keeper, but I guess MLS scouts don’t rate the 6’3″ keeper from Lancaster, PA. I assume the Riverhounds are happy with Dan Lynd as the keeper, but somebody in USL will likely be very happy to have Worra as the last line of defense for their club.
Maynor Figueroa – Defender
Quality left backs are hard to come by, and Maynor Figueroa has been just that for the last decade. A big fella for a wide defender at 187 pounds, Figueroa also has a stinging shot that he likes to unleash from deep on occasion. A Honduran international with 113 caps, he also played in the EPL with Wigan Athletic; including a historic 2012-13 season in which Wigan became the first team to win the FA Cup and be relegated from the Premiership in the same season. He comes off three years with FC Dallas and over 5000 minutes played. At 35 years old, he’s definitely fallen off a little, and he may want to either call it quits or finish out his career with a Honduran side like Olimpia, but if a USL team wants to splash a little cash for a veteran with solid skills, Figueroa would be a shrewd acquisition.
Mac Steeves – Forward
There are a few guys in the category of ‘2017 or 2018 draftees who never really got a chance-, including Steeves. Steeves is a 6’4″ striker from Providence and was drafted last year by the Houston Dynamo, but only saw the field for 26 minutes of garbage time play. The other young guys that got cut without really seeing the field in MLS include Colton Storm, Tony Alfaro, Kwame Awuah, Adonijah Reid, and Sam Hamilton. All of these guys are good prospects for USL, but it’s hard to predict what any of them are capable of – they were great in the NCAA, but the pros is a different animal altogether.
Calum Mallace – Midfielder
Scottish midfielder Calum Mallace is an all-around player that fits the description ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. He’s never been a lock-down MLS starter. He’s a capable defender, but not enough to be a dominant defensive midfielder. He can pass and shoot a bit, but over a six-year MLS career he’s only got 1 goal and 6 assists in 4,444 minutes. He’s of average pace and average technical ability. I think he’d be a very good USL player if you’re looking for a guy that can do a little of everything.
Frantz Pangop – Midfielder
Pangop was in Sweden and his native Cameroon before joining Minnesota United for the 2018 season, where he played 174 minutes total. I dunno if he’s any good, but I think he came a long way for a short US career, and perhaps he wants to stick around in America for a little while longer.
Tommy McNamara – Winger
By the time you read this, Tommy will probably have been picked up by an MLS team. Tommy’s a very good player who can use deception, make intelligent runs, and play a ball in from wide or cut in to create danger when he wants. The 27-year-old scored 14 goals for NYCFC from 2015 to 2017, but only saw the field for 370 minutes in 2018. Somebody in MLS can use him. But in the event that everybody takes a pass and he comes to USL, he’ll be a sight to see.
Saad Abdul Salaam – Defender
The 6’4″ fullback was traded at the end of last season from SKC To NYCFC in exchange for Khiry Shelton, but didn’t get much playing time in the Bronx. The 27-year-old from Akron is a lock-down defender and a quality player, and he can probably serve as a winger, a centerback, or a d-mid if that’s what your team needs.
Jose Villarreal – Midfielder
A domestically-produced American number 10 with a nose for goal and a penchant for golazos?
And also pic.twitter.com/h9MYAHSVqd
— Mark Asher Goodman (@soccer_rabbi) December 14, 2018
Sign. Me. Up.
Ray Gaddis – Defender
The former West Virginia University standout has logged 14,000 as an MLS fullback, and he played every one of them with Philadelphia Union. He’s fast and he’s effective and he defends exceptionally well. He’ll find a job somewhere for sure, but if MLS front offices might think to themselves that an expensive reserve fullback isn’t worth it to them, Gaddis will likely be in USL in 2019.
Josh Yaro – Defender
The second overall pick of the 2016 MLS Superdraft, Yaro was a standout defender for the Georgetwon Hoyas from 2013 to 2016. In MLS he had a good start followed by a plague of injuries – he needed shoulder surgery in 2017, and missed virtually all of 2018 with a concussion. He can come back, but he’ll need to do it at his own pace. Yaro is another guy who, if you add him to the roster, is high risk but high reward.
David Horst – Defender
In an 11-year career around MLS with Houston Dynamo, Portland Timbers, and two different stints with Real Salt Lake, Horst has come to be known as a reliable defender and a big, imposing body. He’s a Crash Davis ‘salty veteran’ type for your locker room, but those guys are often essential on successful football clubs.
Luke Mulholland – Midfielder
Central midfielder Luke Mulholland began his career in USL and NASL with the Wilmington Hammerheads and Tampa Bay Rowdies before becoming a stable of the RSL lineup from 2014 to 2018. He’s 30, and still has a lot to offer, although he is what he is, and perhaps MLS teams can find that guy but with more long term upside and a lower price tag. If that is so, it’d be great to see Luke again in USL. He’s scored some bangers in his career and I could pull up a tasty highlight reel if I were so inclined. But really, I just want to remind us all of this:
also with it being game day against RSL, we remember Luke Mulholland. pic.twitter.com/4pD3MaawPS
— Mike (@downthebyline) April 2, 2016
Khiry Shelton – Forward
Shelton is fast and furious, but he also never met a questionable shot he didn’t like, and he misses more frequently than you’d like. In 2018 he owned a -2.8 Goals-Expected Goals rate, putting in 2 goals when the maths say he should have had 4.8 goals. That rate was third-to-worst among all MLS forwards this season. He did all that while making $120,000. That all said, Gyasi Zardes was on the list of ‘terrible forwards’ in 2017, with a horrendous G-xG rate and play so bad he was moved to right back to end the year, and he rebounded in 2018 to score 19 goals. So if nobody in MLS wants to take a chance on the 25-year-old Sporting Kansas City player, and he can’t get the big-money move abroad that he wants, the USL might just be the trick for Shelton to rediscover his shooting boots and get teams interested for 2020.