Consider this list of names, and what it would have meant to MLS observers just six months ago:
Bradley Wright-Phillips, Luis Robles, Wil Trapp, Walker Zimmerman, Miguel Ibarra, Roman Torres
Those were all players who had become synonymous with their MLS teams, either for their many years of service and success, or in the case of Zimmerman, as one of the initial key building blocks of a new team.
All six players will be taking the field in MLS in 2020, but wearing different uniforms. Each the victim of the realities of life in a salary cap league, where budget considerations don’t allow for a whole lot of sentimentality, and where the teams that can make the tough choices can more quickly maneuver to shape their rosters.
Consider the Seattle Sounders, who parted ways with long-time standout Osvaldo Alonso prior to the 2019 season. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but it was one Seattle needed to make considering the Sounders’ depth in central midfield and need to strengthen other areas of the team.
Alonso moved on to Minnesota United, where he helped the Loons take a major step forward, while the Sounders went on to add another MLS Cup to their trophy case.
Walker Zimmerman had only been with LAFC for two seasons, but those two seasons he was a mainstay and key figure on the successful second-year team. It would have been easy for LAFC to be content to maintain the centerback tandem of Zimmerman and Eddie Segura, but the emergence of Tristan Blackmon gave LAFC an opportunity to sell high on Zimmerman, thus creating a spot for Blackmon to play at the position he has the most potential in. All while securing funds to bolster other positions, including right back, where LAFC is now pursuing some international options (though NOT Andy Najar, as some erroneous reports suggested).
The Red Bulls have taken the “Making tough roster decisions” to another level with their move to bid farewell to Bradley Wright-Phillips and Luis Robles. Their belief in Ryan Meara as Robles’ replacement, coupled with their belief that Wright-Phillips had reached a point where a new contract wasn’t advisable given his age and recent injury issues, led the Red Bulls to say goodbye to their two long-serving stars.
Calling the move a gamble is an understatement, and now with Wright-Phillips having joined Los Angeles FC, and Robles moved on to Inter Miami, the Red Bulls could find themselves forced to watch the two veterans thrive in new venues while the Red Bulls struggle to replace them (or the Red Bulls watch Meara thrive and their stable of forwards produce a reliable goal-scorer or two).
The Columbus Crew’s trading of Wil Trapp was one of the more surprising moves of the offseason, though in retrospect it makes plenty of sense. The arrivals of Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan created a surplus in central midfield, and Trapp had reached a point in his career where a change could benefit him, particularly after what was a lackluster 2019 by his high standards. In dealing Trapp to Miami, the Crew sent their long-serving player to an exciting new team while recouping some resources in the process, and now boast a midfield with Nagbe, Zelarayan and Artur, as well as promising young midfielder (and Wil Trapp heir) Aidan Morris.
Of course, there are times when a team and player can work together to keep a divorce from taking place, like in Toronto, where Michael Bradley took a paycut to stick around at TFC. He could have walked away and pursued a bigger payday, but instead chose to stay in Toronto, and help create room for TFC to add another designated player, which the team did with its recent signing of Pablo Piatti.
Of course, not every salary cap-driven decision works out like Seattle’s parting with Alonso. Sporting Kansas City traded Ike Opara rather than give him the big raise he was looking for, believing the team was capable of replacing him at a fraction of the potential cost of keeping him. SKC proceeded to have a nightmare 2019 season while Opara went to Minnesota United and earned MLS Defender of the Year honors.
That’s the risk you run though, when moving established players. Zimmerman could go on to start in Nashville, and LAFC’s centerbacks could struggle to replace him. Miguel Ibarra could become a good fit in Seattle, and potentially help the Sounders stay ahead of Minnesota. Luis Robles could help lead Inter Miami to the playoffs while the Red Bulls stumble through their rebuild and miss the postseason altogether.
Then again, LAFC could find itself lifting an MLS Cup title in November, much like Seattle did after letting Osvaldo Alonso leave. The Sounders showed the rest of the league last year that making tough decisions can bring the ultimate reward, while Sporting KC showed how disastrous making the wrong decision can be.
That’s the risk you take, but in a league where teams are bound by a salary cap, tough decisions involving long-serving standout players come with the territory.