It was another active offseason in MLS, with teams looking far and wide to infuse talent into their rosters. Here are three new arrivals who stand to make the biggest impact in 2018.
Ezequiel Barco, MF, Atlanta United
Predictably, we start with the $15 million man himself. Barco has all the makings to be a big hit in MLS and help lift Atlanta United to a title. Just watching the 18-year-old while with Independiente in last season’s Copa Sudamericana, one could tell Barco has the game to turn MLS on its head.
Best suited out on the left wing, he’s lightning quick and unafraid to take on defenders 1v1. His soccer is direct, and considering he’s in a team that likes to keep the ball on the floor, he’s a perfect match for Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s attacking style. The prospect of Barco combining with No. 10 Miguel Almiron and feeding balls to forward Josef Martinez has Atlanta fans dreaming of an 80- or 90-goal season.
What will be interesting to see is if Martino opts to plug in Barco in the No. 10 role during the season in the event Almiron is injured, or just to experiment. Barco had more success at Independiente on the left, but he has had plenty of minutes in a more central role as well. Barco and Almiron will also need time to hash out their spacing on the field and not get in each other’s way.
Overall though, this is a young talent who stands to flourish in MLS in 2018 and makes Atlanta United a legitimate MLS Cup contender.
Carlos Vela, FW, LAFC
After 12 years in Europe, Vela has made his way back to North America amid much fanfare as the face of the franchise for new boys LAFC. It feels like Vela has been around forever, but he’s still just 28 years old and has a ton of goals left in his boots.
When Vela is switched on, “enchufado” as is said in his native Mexico, he can be second to none as a striker in MLS. The Cancun native can rip a shot from distance, or use his deceptive speed and mobility to glide past a defender and finish inside the area. Vela is a clever player, often seeing things develop one or two movements before they happen.
These are all qualities that will serve him well in MLS; it will just be up to LAFC head coach Bob Bradley to assemble a midfield that can put the Mexico international in positions to score. To boot, Vela is versatile and can play on the right, left or centrally. It will be interesting to see how Bradley pairs him with Uruguayan youngster Diego Rossi.
At the very least, with El Tri headed to the World Cup this summer, Vela will be keen to get off to a strong start in his first foray in MLS.
Aleksandar Katai, MF, Chicago Fire
The addition of Katai on loan from Spanish side Alaves has gone pretty much under the radar, but this could be one of those signings — like Victor Vazquez in Toronto last season — where it is immediately evident that he is a major asset to his new team.
Chicago striker Nemanja Nikolic scored 24 goals in 2017, and with Katai in the mix, that number could even rise higher. The Serbian is not as fast as the departed David Accam, but he’s smart, creative and versatile enough to play either as a winger or as a No. 10.
Also, you just don’t accidentally fall backwards into a contract with a La Liga side. Playing in the Spanish top flight requires a certain level; it’s just Katai never got a consistent run of games in Vitoria-Gasteiz. In Chicago, he will. His adaption to Chicago is also made easier by the fact that head coach Veljko Paunovic is his countryman and Hungary international Nikolic is Serbian-born.
Like Vela, Katai has the strong incentive of getting off to a fast start to try to win himself a spot on his country’s World Cup roster. He made four appearances in World Cup qualifying, so he is definitely in the mix and will be incentivized.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .