By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 14, 2022) US Soccer Players – With a few weeks left in 2022 and the arrival of preseason training camps just around the corner, clubs are working to add proven MLS performers to their rosters from the ranks of the unattached. For a league that long resisted adopting a free agency mechanism and then tightly controlled the number of players granted the right to explore their options among clubs, a strong free agency market still feels new.
MLS instituted free agency for the first time in 2015 when players 28 of age and over with at least eight years of MLS service hit the open market, with limits on how much more money they could make if they switched clubs. MLS and the MLSPA negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement ahead of the 2020 season but its implementation was put on hold until 2021 because of COVID. That agreement lowered the thresholds for free agency to 25 years of age and four years of service. As you might expect, that expanded the talent pool available during the offseason.
Clubs are very conscious of the lure of free agency and work to keep their best players under contract. But the number of top names on the free agent list grew dramatically with the new framework.
The impact was evident in 2021, when one of Real Salt Lake’s most important players, Albert Rusnak, signed with the Seattle Sounders. Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis, a one-time captain in New Jersey, joined Nashville SC. Players who were on the market briefly but elected to stay with their teams included Argentine attackers Sebastian Blanco and Maximiliano Moralez.
The free agent class following the 2022 season included a few accomplished forwards, a host of top defenders, and one of the league’s elite goalkeepers. One of those forwards is now off the market.
Former LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew, and Colorado Rapids player Gyasi Zardes signed with Austin FC on Monday. 31-year-old Zardes arrives in Austin on a three-year contract with an extra option year included off a partial season in Colorado. Between the Crew and Rapids in 2022, Zardes scored 10 goals, bringing his MLS career total to 97.
The move to Austin reunites Zardes with Josh Wolff. Wolff was an assistant with the Columbus Crew under Gregg Berhalter when Zardes joined the Crew from the LA Galaxy in 2018. That first season remains the best of Zardes’s career, leading the team with 19 goals and finishing tied for fourth in the league’s Golden Boot standings.
Zardes’s career numbers speak for themselves and explain why Austin was anxious to add his talents to its roster. Austin’s incredible move into the MLS elite in 2021 not only amplified expectations and encouraged greater ambition as expressed through spending on players, it brought need. Wolff’s side qualified for the 2023 Concacaf Championship League through its regular season finish and needs high-caliber players to handle the workload.
The fit looks like a good one for both the club and the player. Zardes thrives in systems that create chances from wide areas and depends on a forward who makes smart runs in small spaces in front of the goal. Austin’s possession-based attacking approach should highlight his strengths.
Zardes joins a group of center forwards in Austin that includes Maxi Urruti and Mousa Djitte. The pair combined for 13 goals in 2022, with Urruti getting the lion’s share of the starts. Wolff turned to Djitte in the playoffs, where the forward rewarded Wolff’s faith with a goal in the conference semifinal win over FC Dallas.
Sebastian Driussi carried the scoring load for Austin with 22 goals across the campaign but isn’t yet certain to return for the 2023 season. If the club can hold onto the league’s MVP runner-up, they’ve just added a proven goal scoring to augment his output and could be in line to improve upon the league’s third-best attack.
Improving at the back is the focus of a host of teams this winter. Free agency offers several options for doing just that, particularly at the center back position.
2018 MLS Defender of the Year Aaron Long, fresh off a trip to the World Cup with the USMNT, is among the league’s most highly sought-after free agents. MLS is a league where center backs, particularly those with MLS experience, are highly prized. Securing the right offseason signing at the position can often be the difference between success and failure the following season. It’s possible to make a leap forward simply by shoring up the middle of the defense.
Long’s resume speaks for itself, but it’s his athleticism and ability to cover ground in open space that makes him unique among MLS defenders. Now 30, he’s in the prime for his position.
Matt Hedges is another center back with plenty of league experience. Hedges departed FC Dallas when the club declined his contract option and could not reach an agreement on a new deal. FC Dallas is the only MLS club he has played for after being drafted by the team in 2012.
Hedges, like Long, will be highly sought after for his experience and consistent level of performance. A force in the air and smart in his reading of the game, Hedges appeared 310 times for FC Dallas in 11 years and is the club’s all-time leader in appearances. He’s 32, which suggests he has several more years playing at a high level.
Goalkeeper Sean Johnson is also a free agent and is now back from his World Cup experience in Qatar. Johnson has been a critical part of NYCFC’s success for half a decade and played a central role in the club’s 2021 MLS Cup championship triumph.
The earlier-than-usual end to the season and the focus on the World Cup may have shifted focus from the MLS free agent market. With Zardes’s move to Austin and the re-signing of players like Jonathan Osorio and Steven Beitashour with their current teams, it appears that’s about to change.
More From Jason Davis:
- The season resumes for USMNT players in the Championship
- Lagerwey in Atlanta, Wood to New England, and Nancy with Columbus
- Previewing the Netherlands after an interesting group A
- Defense, balance, and limited changes helped England and the USMNT advance from group B
Photo by Bill Barrett ISIPhotos.com