It's been quite the offseason in MLS. Five different teams, not including expansion side Charlotte FC, broke their record for an incoming transfer fee. Another, Toronto FC, signed the biggest contract in league history when it landed Lorenzo Insigne and committed to paying him $15 million a year.
Is this a sign that MLS is loosening its purse-strings more than ever, or just maintaining the status quo? Certainly the sight of teams like Atlanta United and Toronto FC shelling out big bucks is nothing new, but when teams like the Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas began paying multimillion-dollar transfer fees, it certainly looks like a new era.
With the regular season less than two weeks away, these four arrivals -- all of which were announced in the past two weeks -- have caught the eye.
Thiago Almada | 20 | Attacker | Velez Sarsfield to Atlanta United: $16m
With Almada's arrival, Atlanta broke the league record for an incoming transfer, which it previously held with the signing of Pity Martinez for $15.5m. The Five Stripes had the next highest mark behind that, too, with the $15m the club sent to Independiente in order to sign Ezequiel Barco. So really, the Almada deal is a case of Atlanta being Atlanta.
There is a cautionary tale -- or two -- to make note of when it comes to Atlanta's latest high-priced acquisition. Neither Martinez nor Barco are in Atlanta colors anymore, and it wasn't because they tore up the league only to be quickly acquired by a European club, like Miguel Almiron did after his two seasons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Both players fell short of expectations.
The dysfunction surrounding Atlanta didn't help either player, but it shows that success in MLS requires more than just spending money. It does help, however, and there seems to be little doubt about Almada's ability.
Will he mesh with the other elements of Atlanta's attack? Luiz Araujo has already impressed in his half-season stint with Atlanta. Josef Martinez's track record is impressive, but he still doesn't quite look like the league MVP he was in 2019, scoring a then-record 31 goals in a season. A torn ACL in 2020 and a bout with COVID-19 the following year have hampered him since, although he still managed 12 goals in 24 league appearances last season.
It's entirely possible that Almada is the key to reignite Martinez's career and push the Five Stripes back into the league's elite. For $16m, Atlanta fans will expect nothing less.
Xherdan Shaqiri | 30 | Winger | Lyon to Chicago Fire: $7.5m
The Fire have been dormant in the Windy City for more than a decade now, reaching the postseason just twice in the past 12 seasons. With another rebuild in the offing, Shaqiri is the centerpiece to return the Fire to past glories via a club-record transfer fee.
Shaqiri in some ways resembles foreign acquisitions of a bygone era for MLS. He's 30 and has considerable European pedigree, having played for the likes of Bayern Munich, Internazionale and Liverpool after breaking through with FC Basel. Those types of players haven't always delivered, although Bastian Schweinsteiger did well enough in his three years with the Fire. Shaqiri's previous experience with Chicago sporting director Georg Heitz, when both were at Basel, makes him more of a known quantity than he might be otherwise.
For the Swistzerland international, the responsibilities are high. He'll be expected to lead the attack and connect with another recent acquisition, striker Kacper Przybylko. The question is: Who else will he be surrounded by?
The soon-to-be-completed acquisition of Mexico international Jairo Torres should provide a boost as a young DP. Otherwise, Chicago will count on the likes of Fabian Herbers, Jhon Duran, Brian Gutierrez and Stanislav Ivanov to fill the wide positions. Outside of Herbers, that's a lot of youth to be relying upon, which is why the Fire continue to look for another winger, possibly via the U22 Initiative. That reality may require a bit of patience as it relates to Shaqiri during the first part of the season.
Douglas Costa | 31 | Winger | Juventus to LA Galaxy: loan
Costa is another signing that looks very much like MLS 2.0. He's 31 and while his resume reveals stints with clubs like Bayern Munich and Juventus, his most recent spell with Gremio (on loan from Juve) ended badly, as he squabbled with fans amid a campaign that saw the team relegated to Serie B.
The player's injury history is also a concern: just once has he appeared in more than 30 games in a season, leading manager Greg Vanney to tell the Los Angeles Times that Costa is "a Ferrari, he's not a long-range car." That said, the 1,809 minutes Costa logged in Brazil's Serie A with Gremio were the most since the 2015-16 campaign with Bayern, which hints at plenty of gas left in the tank.
All of this points to a high-risk/high-reward type of acquisition, but what else is new when it comes to the Galaxy? For every Zlatan Ibrahimovic where the Galaxy have hit the jackpot, there's been a Gio dos Santos or a Steven Gerrard who didn't pay off. And Costa isn't the kind of player to get a ton of goals. He's never scored more than six in a league season and that was with Shakhtar Donetsk in 2011-12. He's more than capable of acting as set-up man to Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, however, and that may be enough to get the Galaxy back in the playoffs.
Alan Velasco | 19 | Winger | Independiente to FC Dallas: $7m
With $20m in cash from Ricardo Pepi's transfer to FC Augsburg -- not to mention several other previous deals sending young Dallas players to Europe -- burning a sizable hole in their pocket, FCD finally decided to spend some. The $7m that Dallas sent to Independiente to secure the signing of Velasco is notable because it's more than double the MLS club's previous record transfer fee, that being the $3.2m it paid Tenerife for the transfer of Bryan Acosta in 2018.
Adding to the good vibes is the fact that Dallas has made other moves in the offseason that increase the likelihood of Velasco being a success. Paul Arriola looks every bit the "glue guy" he was at D.C. United, capable of contributing on both sides of the ball. Nanu arrives on loan from FC Porto, but better yet, Paxton Pomykal seems set to reestablish himself as one of the top young talents in the league after a serious injury.
No doubt it will hurt not to have Pepi around to latch on to the end of Velasco's deliveries. That task now falls to Franco Jara, who has been underwhelming in his two seasons in Texas, so much so that it was lack of form that opened the door for Pepi. But the fact that Dallas has entered the fray as it relates to incoming transfers hints that MLS' activity in the international transfer market is moving beyond the usual suspects.