Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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MLS moves I like: Petar Musa to Dallas, Nashville SC takes a chance on promising prospect and more

Ready or not, the 2024 MLS season is less than a week away. This offseason has felt unusually quiet in terms of high-profile acquisitions, though that was always going to be the case compared to last summer.

That doesn’t mean rosters will be carbon copies of 2023. For a third time, let’s pore over the transactions ledger to find a few moves I like — this time, letting a club-record signing join what has otherwise been a series dedicated to lauding squad signings.

More moves I like

Here is a trio of strikers entering their new teams with very different expectations: a club-record signing, an eager acquisition looking for starts and a promising developmental prospect.

After another first-round exit in the postseason, FC Dallas seemed to be at the same crossroads as the New York Red Bulls. Both franchises are among MLS’ best talent producers but have struggled to compete for trophies as they’d held off on spending big on the top players for their rosters. New York looked from within their broader football group, signing Emil Forsberg who looks sharp and ready to be at the heart of coach Sandro Schwarz’s side.

But everything is bigger in Texas. Rather than pulling a midfielder from within a football group, Dallas spent nearly $10 million to make Croatia international striker Petar Musa the club’s new record signing. Negotiations with Benfica must have been especially amicable, as the two clubs announced a new player development partnership a few weeks after Musa headed across the Atlantic. While time will tell if that’s a more beneficial pact than their bygone agreement with FC Bayern Munich, Musa seems primed to not just lead the line, but immediately enter the league’s top tier of center forwards.

The 6-foot-3 Croat is strong in the air, having won 53.2% of his aerial duels across his time in the Primeira Liga and, before that, in the Bundesliga with Union Berlin. He averaged 0.91 goals per 90 minutes after joining Benfica in the summer of 2022, although that astronomical figure requires some caveats. It’s from a sample of 1,185 minutes spread across 16 months when Musa came off the bench for 36 of his 44 Liga appearances. If you want to look at the last time he was a regular starter (for Boavista, in the same league as Benfica), Musa averaged 0.43 goals across 2,310 minutes in 2021-22 at age 23.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to think he’ll flourish with consistent playing time. Musa put 37.3% of his 142 shots on frame in Portugal, sending them from an average distance of just over 14 yards from goal. His shots came in with an average xG of 0.14, right in line with the MLS positional standard. He has also consistently created two chances per 90 minutes throughout his career, implying that he’ll be happy to help his new teammates flourish as he begins collecting the most luxurious 10-gallon hats he can find.

I like this move for Dallas. MLS is weirdly thin on high-level strikers, particularly compared to the recent overlapping exploits of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Josef Martínez (pre-injury, sadly), Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Taty Castellanos. Turning 26 in March, Musa could be at the fore of a new batch of prolific talismans and help Dallas better contend at the top of the West instead of at its mid-table rung.

Do you know who I really like this move for, though? Jesús Ferreira. The U.S. international has become easy fodder for criticism in international circles, unfairly bearing the brunt of the fanbase’s frustration for the entire striker pool’s underperformance in the 2022 World Cup cycle. He’s remained very good since Qatar, however, scoring 12 goals in 2,335 minutes last season. He also had seven game-winning goals and assists, a sign of a confident player despite the off-field scrutiny.

Ferreira broke out playing as a second striker in 2021. He had 8 goals and 9 assists in 2,251 minutes that year, with his chance creation (2.32 per 90) narrowly outpacing his shooting (2.24). He benefited greatly playing off Ricardo Pepi, a strike partner who was great in the air and prolific in front of goal.

After selling Pepi to Augsburg ahead of 2022, Nico Estevez committed to making Ferreira into a center forward. While he’s scored 29 non-penalty goals over the last two years, and outperformed his xG by 6.74 since the start of 2022, his line-leading work in the air and with his hold-up play hasn’t quite melded with the position’s demands.

Once again playing off of a player with a similar (if not more refined) skillset to Pepi’s, it’s easy to envision Ferreira having a season with at least 15 goals and at least 10 assists — that is, if he stays in Dallas. Whether he does or not, Musa should be capable of bagging at least 14 goals across a full season, helping Estevez’s attack have more teeth as it looks to finish closer to the top of the conference.

Danny Musovski adds to Seattle’s attacking depth

There’s a specific profile of MLS player that never goes out of style, but is seemingly more expendable than other mainstays of an ideal roster: attackers who don’t require an international slot and who have proven themselves to be MLS-caliber but aren’t quite no doubt, etched-in-ink starters. Their productivity makes them a good fit for many teams across the league, but with performance comes increasing wages that can make them easily jettisoned for a more pennywise alternative. They find a new team, contribute to 7-12 goals for one to three seasons, and then are once again in the league’s roster churn.

You know the type. Recent examples include Christian Ramirez, Kei Kamara, Gyasi Zardes, and Maxi Urruti. It’s best if these guys are willing to accept a rotational role, which my colleague Michael Cox recently branded as the “Plan B striker.”



The Plan B striker: Who are they, how do you sign one and which players should you avoid?

Danny Musovski isn’t quite in the annals of MLS’s great Plan B strikers, but his productivity over the years has him on a fast track as he joins the Seattle Sounders this year.

The Nevadan’s MLS breakthrough came with LAFC in 2020, scoring 11 goals in 53 games as the team’s second-choice striker behind Bradley Wright-Phillips and Chicho Arango. Midway through 2022, he was traded to Real Salt Lake where he spent the next 18 months as their Plan B striker. In 2023, he scored 9 goals across all competitions through the end of the Leagues Cup.

Having entered the year on a salary just below $99,000, he was finally due the type of wage that’s often awarded to a proven rotational goalscorer. Late in the season, however, negotiations with the club over a new contract stalled. Musovski admitted that he felt “they did (him) wrong too many times,” and he sat out games hoping to speed up the process. Instead, he was an unceremonious inclusion in their end-of-year roster decisions, leaving the team while out of contract.

Of course, that’s one side of the story, and since-dismissed general manager Elliot Fall credited Musovski for being “a really positive contributing part of the group” once he returned in late September. In early February, the Seattle Sounders made themselves the next stop on his growing résumé.

Through four years, Musovski has consistently gotten into dangerous scoring areas. The visual above catalogs his one-shot-per-game dip once he left Bob Bradley’s LAFC for a less breakneck RSL side and the exact space of the 18-yard box he fancies for his shot chances based on the system. Throughout, however, the most important facts about his shot selection remain steady: a shot between 13.5-15 yards from goal, with a 0.19 xG per shot. That’s a healthier figure than the average for a regular MLS striker since 2020, which is 0.14.

He isn’t just a late-game scoring merchant, though. Weighing his impact per 90 minutes against the 87 strikers who have played at least 1,400 MLS minutes since 2020, he ranks 8th in assists (0.26), 1st in open-play assists (0.26), 15th in take-on attempted (2.72) and 24th in penalties earned (0.04).

I like this move for the Sounders, and he should help Seattle score more in 2023. While I see a lot of what Brian Schmetzer likes in Brazilian winger Léo Chú’s off-ball movement and dribbling, his end product just hasn’t met what’s needed of an MLS Cup contender’s starting attacker. Jordan Morris is still in his prime and a capable finisher, and Musovski’s selfless play could complement the U.S. international quite nicely in the final third.

Is he going to be the next in the line of great Sounders strikers before him? That depends on who else comes in to replace Raúl Ruidíaz’s output. At a minimum, however, he should be able to have a similar impact to Will Bruin’s time during Seattle’s dynastic years — a Plan B striker who makes himself invaluable.

Woobens Pacius’ potential in Nashville

It’s a fascinating time for soccer in Canada. In MLS, Toronto FC and CF Montréal are long past their glory years and the Vancouver Whitecaps haven’t won a playoff game since 2017. Both the Canadian men’s and women’s national teams are in a state of uncertainty as their federation’s ill-advised business dealings are seriously hampering the programs’ abilities to operate at a high sporting level. Further from the limelight is the Canadian Premier League, now entering its sixth season of operation.

There have already been a couple of examples of CPL players translating to the MLS level. Jonathan Sirois won the league’s goalkeeper of the year honor in 2021 as a loanee from CF Montréal, for whom he was a capable breakout starter last season at age 22. Lukas MacNaughton thrived with Pacific FC to earn a transfer to Toronto FC in 2022, then was flipped to Nashville last April (with up to $200,000 of GAM) for C.J. Sapong. He’s already logged over 3,000 minutes in his first two MLS seasons and is a key part of Gary Smith’s defensive core.

This year, he’ll be joined in Nashville by a player who once gave him headaches as a CPL opponent: Woobens Pacius signed as a free agent from Forge FC. The striker originally came up through Montréal’s academy but wasn’t offered a first-team contract when he turned 19 and opted to sign with Forge instead of joining the MLS side’s U-23 team. He’s scored 32 goals in 93 games across all competitions, a fine return made even more impressive considering he only turned 22 last May.

Pacius was incredibly accurate with his shooting, and his 57.9% rate of winning aerial duels should help in both defensive phases and his team’s build-up — particularly relevant given how Smith’s team plays in possession. He signed a two-year guaranteed deal with club options for 2026 and 2027, so Nashville is playing the long game in projecting how he’ll translate to the MLS level.

His coach at Forge, budding tactical savant Bobby Smyrniotis, compared his skill set to Cyle Larin midway through last season. If a striker who can hit a side volley this cleanly doesn’t get you even a little excited, I’m not sure what will.

I like this move for Nashville. It’s an open question how soon a young CPL attacker can translate to MLS and one without much evidence to help form an answer. Even if he needs to spend much of 2024 with Next Pro affiliate Huntsville City as he continues to develop, it could be worth the wait. Considering the club spent big last summer on Sam Surridge, 25, Pacius may not need to be more than a late-game option in Smith’s plans this year.

I also like this move for what it implies about MLS teams’ scouting dashboards. Granted, Nashville has been ahead of the pack since launching in 2020 with a sophisticated backroom staff, a fact validated when D.C. United hired Ally Mackay, who was previously Nashville’s assistant general manager. Still, the best teams in MLS enjoy great depth by getting more from their down-roster players, whether they’re tried-and-true role specialists or young players who can outperform expectations.

If you’ve read my stuff before, you’ll know I’ve written countless deep dives on why MLS doesn’t sign more players from the USL (and, before it, the NASL). One recurring theme was teams not wanting to admit they missed out on spotting the potential of a young player the first time, whether it was in their academy or bygone SuperDrafts. That timidness can limit a team’s ability to build its best roster.

This winter saw former San Jose academy product Fidel Barajas earn a move to RSL after breaking out with USL side Charleston Battery. Former teammate Derek Dodson was taken 8th overall by Orlando before his option was declined after failing to make an MLS appearance as a rookie. He refined his game in the lower divisions with Memphis 901 and Charleston before signing with Minnesota United.

Here’s hoping Pacius is an early example of the CPL having similar potential to see its best players land with MLS — and better still from its clubs’ perspective if they soon sign for transfer fees instead of making free transfers.

Lightning Round

Since the season starts in less than a week, let’s knock out some quick thoughts on another handful of new acquisitions across the league.

  • Minnesota United is mere days away from going an entire MLS offseason without employing a permanent head coach. However, the team’s tactical ideology will largely be guided by new CSO Khaled El-Ahmad, who is looking to play a more progressive and front-footed style of play than that of former coach Adrian Heath. Depth options are valuable in any system, and the Loons are making an intriguing move with former U.S. youth international Moses Nyeman. He’s struggled to get games since leaving D.C. United in 2022, but this could be the situation that gets more out of a player who was once Will Parchman’s favorite prospect in the country.
  • Eleven years after Juan Pablo Ángel left Chivas USA, the striker-turned-LAFC sporting advisor will see his son suit up for the bygone franchise’s spiritual successor. Tomas Ángel will celebrate his golden birthday on Feb. 20, having just broken out as a starter with Colombian giant Atlético Nacional this season. He bagged five goals in 1,222 minutes (0.37 per 90) and could be an intriguing and versatile option for Steve Cherundolo on the wing or up top.
  • It’s been five years since Memo Rodriguez’s big breakout with Houston, and we have yet to see him take another step forward. His minutes have decreased in each season since 2020, and his time with the LA Galaxy saw him put up his worst season in terms of ball progression since becoming a regular. It’s worth remembering, though, that he never played for a team that qualified for the playoffs in any of the last five seasons. Sporting Kansas City signed him as a free agent; Peter Vermes’ system could do far more to utilize his progressive passes and carries than Greg Vanney’s had. If so, we could be in for a Memo-ssaince where he can finally establish himself as a dependable starting No. 8.

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