There used to be a time not too long ago when Major League Soccer teams generally avoided making trades. The relatively small size of the league coupled with the restraints of the salary cap often made it difficult for teams to find a deal they felt comfortable with. Make a mistake in a big trade and you will be reminded of it constantly, and could wind up paying for it for a while.
Those days, by all accounts, are long gone. Whether it's the offseason, the summer, or right at the trade deadline, teams have been making more trades than ever. We have seen small deals involving fringe veterans and draft picks, and big deals involving high-salary stars and large allocations. Some trades wind up failing to make an impact for either team, while even fewer wind up working out for both parties.
When you take a look at the top of the current MLS standings, you will see teams that have all benefited from trades made last offseason. The first-place Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo both made deals that seemed simple in the winter, but that have paid off handsomely since.
Here's a look at the five biggest trades of the past offseason:
Christian Gomez to Colorado, designated player slot and first-round draft pick to D.C. United
In what was one of the messier divorces of the offseason, long-time D.C. standout and former MLS MVP Christian Gomez was put on the trade block after demanding a two-year guaranteed contract at league maximum salary for non-DPs. The demands made D.C. uneasy, in part because it meant tying up a two-year deal on a 33-year-old midfielder, and in part because it had plans to hit the market for a designated player who could be the team's playmaker.
When Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC eventually passed on Gomez, D.C. looked like it would struggle to find a taker. That was before Colorado stepped in and paid the exorbitant price of their designated player slot and its first-round draft pick.
Gomez started out well for the Rapids, notching three goals and five assists in the first 11 games of the season. That production has disappeared along with Gomez's minutes. He has fallen out of favor in Colorado, failing to make the starting lineup in the Rapids' past six matches (playing as a sub in just two). Now the worst-case scenario has happened for the Rapids. They have Gomez at a guaranteed salary in 2009 and must find a way to unload him. Unless they find a team willing to take him (and no team will take him without Colorado paying a good portion of his salary), the Rapids could be stuck with a player they don't want at a price they certainly don't want to pay.
Meanwhile, D.C. goes into 2009 with two designated player slots as well as the Rapids' first-round pick, which is looking like it will be a high one.
ADVANTAGE: D.C. United.
Bobby Boswell to Houston, Zach Wells to D.C. United
When Boswell went from MLS Defender of the Year in 2007 to benchwarmer and seemingly unreliable starter in 2008, D.C. United decided to try to address its need for a goalkeeper by shipping Boswell for highly regarded Dynamo backup Zach Wells.
Well, let's just say it didn't quite work out for D.C. In fact, this might go down as the worst trade of the past calendar year. Consider that not only did Zach Wells look so bad as a starter that D.C. spanned the world looking for a replacement (eventually finding Louis Crayton), but the D.C. defense has been terrible for stretches.
Houston's end worked out just a tad better. After a slow start, Boswell quickly emerged as Houston's best defender, serving as a vital anchor in the back and playing well enough to deserve consideration for another MLS Defender of the Year award.
Brian Carroll to Columbus, Kei Kamara to San Jose
Much like Boswell, Carroll is a player who went from highly regarded starter to benchwarmer in D.C. in 2007. The smart and skillful defensive midfielder went to San Jose in the expansion draft and figured to be an anchor in the middle for the Earthquakes. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for him, San Jose desperately needed help up front, so Frank Yallop shipped Carroll to Columbus for Kei Kamara.
Picking a winner in this trade isn't tough at all. Kamara struggled in San Jose's putrid early-season offense, mustering just two goals before being dealt to the Houston Dynamo for a first-round pick and allocation money. Carroll stepped in and became the reliable defensive midfielder the Crew has needed seemingly since Simon Elliott left after the 2005 season.
Crew head coach Sigi Schmid credits Carroll with being one of the key factors behind Columbus' impressive turnaround, with his presence in the middle and defensive work allowing the Crew's attackers to focus on going at opposing defenses.
Ronnie O'Brien to San Jose, first-round pick and allocation to Toronto FC
Irish winger Ronnie O'Brien made it no secret that he wasn't happy in Toronto, so when TFC saw a chance to unload the former MLS All-Star, it pounced on an offer from San Jose, which was trying to build an offense and paid the hefty price of a first-round pick and $300,000 in allocation money.
This trade looked to be an easy TFC victory by the all-star break, with O'Brien managing just one goal and four assists at the time, but those stats were unfair to O'Brien because his supporting cast in attack had been dreadful. Since the arrival of reinforcements such as Darren Huckerby, Scott Sealy and Arturo Alvarez, O' Brien has picked up the production, notching three assists since the all-star break and helping San Jose begin a nine-game unbeaten streak that is still going.
As for Toronto, the club found a good replacement on the right wing in Rohan Ricketts and has yet to spend the allocation money. With more than $1 million in allocation money and three first-round picks in 2009, TFC is in prime position to reload. Until we see what Toronto does with the draft pick and allocation money, it's tough to declare a winner, although O'Brien's recent surge has helped make the deal look respectable at this point.
Joe Cannon to San Jose for an allocation
Easily one of the most lopsided deals of the preseason, this deal was motivated as much by Cannon's eagerness to leave the circus in Los Angeles as by the Galaxy's desire to move him. Don't be fooled. Los Angeles believed it could get by with Steve Cronin in goal, with the $300,000 in allocation money being used to massage an already bloated salary cap. Now L.A. is all but out of the playoff race, due at least in some part to shoddy goalkeeping, while Cannon has put together a season worthy of Goalkeeper of the Year consideration in helping an expansion team fight for a playoff spot.
ADVANTAGE: San Jose.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.