MLS released two important lists on Sunday: those players who are now free agents and those players who were left unprotected ahead of Tuesday’s LAFC expansion draft.
There were two pieces of important news on Sunday, both with local ties.
The first was the surprising trade of Lawrenceville’s Walker Zimmerman from Dallas to LAFC. Zimmerman started 2017 brightly with a call-up to the U.S. men’s national team camp, a solid appearance in a friendly against Jamaica in Chattanooga and rumors of interest from teams in Europe.
The year ended with Dallas, considered perhaps the best team in the league early in the season, failing to make the playoffs and Zimmerman going from cemented starter at centerback to reserve.
A new team and manager like Bob Bradley with a defense-first approach may be what Zimmerman needs to flame that spark.
The other big piece of news was Jeff Larentowicz being included on the list of free agents. Larentowicz became invaluable to Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino, who used the 34-year-old as a defensive midfielder or centerback in the team’s push to the playoffs. Larentowicz rarely came off the field.
Though he was listed as a free agent, Atlanta United is still negotiating to re-sign him. The team can avoid an open market by signing him before the free-agency window opens on Tuesday when every interested team could open negotiations.
He wasn’t the only free agent on the list that I found interesting. There was one player I found particularly interesting and am curious to see if Atlanta United feels the same: Houston’s Ricardo Clark, who will reportedly not re-sign with the Dynamo and test free agency.
Why would Atlanta United be interested?
First, as the team showed in its acquisitions last season, technical director Carlos Bocanegra values experience and leadership. Hence, the trade for Michael Parkhurst and free-agent signings of Larentowicz and Jacob Peterson. Clark, 34, brings 13 years of experience in MLS, as well as 2 ½ years spent in Europe with Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany.
Second, Clark isn’t done. Though nearing the end of his career, Clark still started 26 games for the Dynamo, which advanced to the Western Conference finals in the recently completed season.
Third, Clark is a smart player. His intelligence and tactical awareness were one of the reasons why the Dynamo’s attack, which is similar in style to Atlanta United’s, worked so well last season.
Fourth, he is an Atlanta native. That has no bearing on why Atlanta United would be interested, but the team’s supporters may.
I don’t know if the team is interested in signing Clark. I would theorize that their interest would depend upon the team’s ability to re-sign Larentowicz and the plan for how Julian Gressel, Kevin Kratz and Chris Goslin will be used. If Martino is comfortable using any of that trio as Carlos Carmona’s partner in the central midfield, there’s not much of a point in trying to sign Clark.
So, what other position groups could Atlanta United try to strengthen through free agency?
The team seems solid in goal with Brad Guzan, Alec Kann and Mitch Hildebrandt.
The team seems solid at centerback with Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Miles Robinson and Franco Escobar.
The fullbacks could be strengthened. The team has one right fullback, Escobar. It’s possible that Gressel could learn the position or that Robinson can slide over. Steven Beitashour, recently of MLS Cup champ Toronto, is out of contract.
The team has Greg Garza and Mikey Ambrose at left fullback. Though Ambrose was included on the unprotected list, I have a hunch that no Atlanta United players will be selected following the team trading an international spot to LAFC in exchange for a fourth-round in pick in the SuperDraft on Sunday. That’s a rather lopsided trade in LAFC’s favor. There must be another yet-to-be-reported reason Atlanta United would make that move.
The team has several options at defensive midfield, as noted.
The reported interest in attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco would be a game-changer for the midfielders and strikers because signing the 18-year-old would allow Martino the flexibility to move around Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, Jacob Peterson and Andrew Carleton as needed.
The other area that could be strengthened is striker. Martino was forced to move Villalba to striker when Josef Martinez either was injured or needed a rest last season. Villalba manned the position well, but it’s not his natural spot.
Now, there may already be depth if Romario Williams stays with the big club, and isn’t sent on another season-long loan to USL, which is where he spent the previous season with Charleston and where he scored almost at will.
Williams is bigger than Martinez, but not as fast. He can score from short-range or long-range, as Atlanta United fans know from last year’s tournament in Charleston.
With Atlanta United starting its own USL club in Gwinnett, the team would be able to move not only Williams, but any player that needs game experience back and forth for home games with ease.