Who won the offseason: Moves vault Orlando into playoff contention
There are no trophies to be won in the offseason. No matter how much business a club does between the end of one campaign and that start of the next, the only measure of offseason success comes from the results on the field when games begin anew.
Spending the most money or acquiring the most players earns a club little more than headlines during the rush to rebuild, reload or refine.
But there is a sort of competition in that, and the need to keep fans sated with signs of ambition is real. Major League Soccer is now established as a league where fans and pundits alike closely scrutinize the transaction list from December to March. Making just enough moves to compete is no longer going to keep fans happy.
The offseason is mostly about getting better. Fan satisfaction is largely a function of whether their team made improvements during the league-idle part of the transfer window. Crowning a winner of this offseason is mostly about deciding who did the best job putting together a team that will outperform last year's results.
There are several candidates for the winner of this offseason, one of the busiest in league history. The introduction of discretionary targeted allocation money created a rush to improve the second and third tiers of rosters and saw clubs spend more money than ever before on incoming players.
If a club is willing, they can make a big splash with spending the likes of which the league has never seen. Look no further than Atlanta United and the additions of Darlington Nagbe, Ezequiel Barco and Franco Escobar. United is a candidate for offseason winner, if only because of the club's ambition.
The LA Galaxy finished dead last in 2017, forcing the club to overhaul its roster coming into the new season. There's a lot to like in the Galaxy's offseason maneuvering, including the acquisition of Ola Kamara as a first-choice goal-scoring option. Los Angeles upgraded its back line in several spots and added an above-average defensive midfielder in Perry Kitchen. Sigi Schmid will start the new year with a much stronger foundation for holdovers like Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos to build on.
No one has as much room for improvement as the Galaxy, so while they didn't sign a marquee name or drop millions on a new South American talent, their solid work across the team should be recognized.
New York City FC's 2017 campaign was, by most measures, a good one. Patrick Vieira's second year in charge at Yankee Stadium delivered a second-place finish in the regular season and a berth in the conference semifinals. The problem in New York City in 2017 turned out to be the same one the club had the year before: a flat playoff performance. In a bid to get over that hump, NYCFC added a talented young South American in Jesus Medina, a player who will have to help make up for the loss of the transferred Jack Harrison.
It's hard to be sure if NYCFC got better. City was a good team in 2017 and will need another excellent year from David Villa to exceed last year's results.
While Atlanta made a splash, LA took a step toward competitiveness, and NYCFC tweaked a top Eastern Conference squad, it's Orlando who did the most to overhaul the team using all of the tools now available to MLS sides. The Lions won the offseason by trading for a top chance creator in Sacha Kljestan, an elite wide attacker in Justin Meram, a Paraguayan teenager with massive potential in Josue Colman and a host of depth players who will help carry the club through times of fatigue or injury.
This Orlando City team looks nothing like last year's version. There are proven high-caliber players all over the field, and the competition for playing time should raise the team's standard across the board.
Orlando City is a club making an all-out effort to reach the postseason. All of that activity and the money invested means expectations will follow for the Lions as the new year begins. On paper, this is a playoff team, even in a difficult Eastern Conference.
Time will tell if Orlando is close to the quality of sides like Toronto FC and NYCFC, but the club has upgraded in nearly every part of the field. For no other reason than that this is now a presumed playoff team, Orlando City won the offseason.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.