We're still early in the MLS offseason. The re-entry draft process for players out of contract or with options declined is only now at the halfway point; Stage 2 takes place Monday, but negotiations for any players selected from a less-than-inspiring list will be ongoing. Meanwhile, the college draft and transfer market await.
But it's a short break -- some teams return to the training ground in late January -- and every week counts as 19 MLS clubs shake the bushes for top talent while trying to shed salary judiciously.
Here's a quick rundown of five clubs making hay so far, and five with some catching up to do.
1. D. C. United. The biggest news for D.C. this offseason will be ongoing efforts to extricate itself from the financial sinkhole that is RFK Stadium. But what else is new?
Meanwhile, coach Ben Olsen is doing his part to get younger, discarding "legacy" players and others who simply aren't getting it done. That's harder than it sounds at United, where history counts for so much. So Santino Quaranta's retirement and Clyde Simms' exposure in the re-entry process probably means bigger roles for promising youngsters. The club traded for Real Salt Lake's Robbie Russell, which adds much-needed veteran guidance along with an established right back, paving the way for Perry Kitchen to develop as a holding midfielder.
Finally, choosing not to bring back expensive, mercurial striker Charlie Davies removes one offseason headache.
2. New England. It's a time of massive turnover for the Revolution, where a new coach (Jay Heaps) and a rejiggered front-office structure has created a brand new day at Gillette. The club has declined options on Pat Phalen, Milton Caraglio, Ryan Cochrane, Kheli Dube, Rajko Lekic and others -- good moves based on the in-and-out production from most of that group. The balance here is stability created by re-signing longtime Revolution heart and soul Shalrie Joseph and goalkeeper Matt Reis. Both are gambles; Joseph, at age 33, is a bit of a stretch as a Designated Player. And Reis did not have his best year in 2011. Still, Heaps needed cornerstones, and those are good ones.
3. FC Dallas. FC Dallas re-signed captain Daniel Hernandez, creatively tying him up for five years without leveraging the future on a 35-year-old with troubled knees. (The deal will let him transition into a coaching seat at some point.) The club also quietly dismissed technical director Barry Gorman. A quick scare erupted over rumors that David Ferreira would go home to Colombia to play for Cali, but he seems set to return to Pizza Hut Park. Shedding Maicon Santos (2 goals, $126,000 base salary) was a no-brainer. Things could still get hairy if center back George John makes a move into Europe, but the latest word is that he's more likely to stay put.
4. Sporting Kansas City. Omar Bravo may be on the way out at Sporting Kansas City, perhaps unhappy with a diminished playoff role. He was productive for Sporting (9 goals, 2 assists), but far cheaper forwards Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara struck for as many goals. Plus, MLS Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong needs room to grow. So, would the club really miss Bravo? If he does go, the recent trade acquisition of Bobby Convey would fill any left-sided void. Also, acquiring Paulo Nagamura from Chivas USA may finally settle a holding midfield spot that became something of revolving door last year.
5. Seattle. Patience is becoming to the Sounders, where the biggest offseason hole is replacing goalkeeping giant Kasey Keller. Otherwise, Sigi Schmid's team looks well-positioned, having gradually handed more responsibility to young talent like 25-year-old forwards Mike Fucito and Sammy Ochoa. Schmid and GM Adrian Hanauer have targeted improvement at fullback; the team is reportedly pursuing Costa Rican international Heiner Mora, which could be a nice upgrade at right back.
1. Colorado. What in the world is going on in Colorado? Barely a year after lifting the MLS Cup trophy, the coach (Gary Smith) and the general manager (Jeff Plush) are out amid lots of finger pointing and general ugliness. Paul Bravo is running the personnel show but he has yet to name a new coach. Tick, took, tick, took ... It just smells like a bad situation, where plenty of roster questions deserve expedient answers.
2. Chivas USA. Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser made some prudent personnel choices early in his first head coaching appointment. Heath Pearce and Nick LaBrocca were collected up on the cheap, for instance, and became great finds for the Goats. So perhaps Fraser deserves some benefit of the doubt here, but selecting inconsistent attacker Arturo Alvarez (and his $200,000 salary) was a head-scratcher. The Salvadoran international has always been a talent but never seems to fit anywhere, now having officially reached "journeyman" status. At age 26! And whether the club got adequate return from Montreal for striker Justin Braun is up for debate.
3. Houston. Houston Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear knew he was gambling by exposing club scoring legend Brian Ching in the expansion draft. Ching had even tried to goose matters in the Dynamo direction by threatening to retire rather than go to Canada. Sure enough, Impact coach Jesse Marsch selected Ching, creating an instant rival down in South Texas. Something similar once happened with Jason Kreis, who was once exposed and selected by Toronto, only to return to Real Salt Lake for a handsome sum. Kinnear and Co. love Ching, but don't be surprised if they refuse to bargain with Montreal on principal.
4. Montreal. The Montreal Impact's reach for veteran striker Nicolas Anelka fell short when the Chelsea man joined Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua. But that wasn't the only flash point so far for the expansion club. The coaching fraternity is growing in MLS, but it remains a fairly close and familiar group. Marsch was already a somewhat divisive figure, and he didn't make any friends by selecting Ching. Nor did he curry favor in Seattle by selecting James Riley, who had campaigned to remain in the Sound (and who has been subsequently traded to Chivas USA). The ability to bargain with other clubs in MLS certainly doesn't mean everything, but maintaining good relations within league ranks does count for something.
In terms of players acquired, Marsch and director of soccer operations Matt Jordan have scooped up some interesting names. Ching and Braun could be a handful as forwards. There are promising youngsters like Zarek Valentin to pair with veterans such as Davy Arnaud and Justin Mapp (two who are old enough to know, but still young enough to do). And the Impact could do far worse in goal than former Galaxy starter Donovan Ricketts. So, playing hardball may pay off at Stade Saputo in the long run.
5. New York. Shedding Carlos Mendes seemed like a good move for the New York Red Bulls. Some may have lamented losing such a loyal soldier around Red Bull Arena, but it's a business, and $100,000 backups are a luxury. On the other hand, if U.S. international center back Tim Ream moves to West Brom on loan or on something more permanent (Ream is there now on trial), coach Hans Backe may suddenly rue the Mendes choice. File that one under "We'll see."
Frank Rost (38), Thierry Henry (34), Rafa Marquez (32), Teemu Tainio (32) and Jan Gunnar Solli (30) make for a pretty old lineup backbone. Plus, Luke Rodgers turns 30 in January, too. So it's an important offseason there, one that seems slow out of the gate.