MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Top 11 most expensive trades (guaranteed money) in MLS history

The MLS trade market has been quite active this winter, as is normal for this time of year. But as teams like CF Montréal, Nashville SC and the Colorado Rapids have found success in adding players via trades, prices seem to be going up.

There have already been three trades this offseason that are top-10 all-time in most expensive deals, which is interesting through several avenues. It shows clubs have recognized others' success when shopping within MLS, thus the prices are going up. And with expansion clubs getting more allocation money when they enter the league, there's more money floating around. MLS exports have also increased, with the value going up exponentially. When clubs transfer a player out of the league, they can convert some of the fee to GAM.

The top trades aren't entirely straightforward to track, it must be noted. A lot of trades have undefined incentives, so there's an element of educated guesswork. There are also other assets in trades like players, draft picks, international roster spots and more. To make it simple, we're sticking with guaranteed allocation money.

There are a few incentives we know have been hit, though. Ike Opara's trade to Minnesota United FC from Sporting Kansas City was initially $900k TAM, but the $100k of incentives were tied to Minnesota making the playoffs, taking the final fee to a flat $1m. Other incentives can be assumed, like Djordje Mihailovic's $200k bonuses after a stellar debut season with CF Montréal.

It's tricky with other assets. For instance, in the Mark-Anthony Kaye trade this summer, LAFC also got an international roster spot (going for about $150k GAM at the time), but Colorado also added LAFC's first-round SuperDraft selection, which surprisingly fell to No. 10. They traded that pick to Nashville for $125k GAM (plus another $50k GAM incentives), hence the tricky nature here. Plus, there's the case of whether or not GAM and TAM are an even, dollar-for-dollar conversion because GAM is the more flexible of the two allocation monies, thus likely making it more valuable.

I got as close as I could, is what I'm saying here. And that's all you can really ask for, right?

UPDATE: I missed the Jeremy Ebobisse trade, so, I did not get as close as I could. But that has been rectified.

Walker Zimmerman - 2020

From: LAFC to Nashville
Year: Winter 2020
Fee: $900k GAM, $350k GAM incentives, international roster spot

The bedrock and anchor of Nashville SC's quick success in MLS, Zimmerman arrived after leading LAFC's backline in their record-setting, Supporters' Shield-winning 2019 season.

Zimmerman has been a rousing success in Nashville.

The center back has won back-to-back MLS Defender of the Year awards while leading Nashville to the playoffs both years. He also has grown into a regular with the US men's national team. One would imagine the incentives are well on their way. Plus, international roster spots were being traded for around $150k GAM-ish at the time.

Ike Opara - 2019

From: Sporting KC to Minnesota
Year: Winter 2019
Fee: $1m TAM

This deal was technically $900k TAM plus $100k in incentives, but it has since been reported the $100k incentive triggered if Minnesota made the playoffs, and Opara led them to the playoffs in 2019. He also won MLS Defender of the Year, the second time he won that award.

Opara only played two more matches for Minnesota after that year before the Loons exercised a contract buyout on him in August 2021. Concussions limited Opara's career, and he's since become an assistant coach of Sporting Kansas City II (MLS NEXT Pro).

The defender's injury-plagued career included two Defender of the Year awards, MLS Cup and two U.S. Open Cups.

Alistair Johnston - 2022

From: Nashville to Montréal
Year: Winter 2022
Fee: $1m GAM

Canadian international Alistair Johnston was acquired by Montréal this offseason for $1m GAM and a 10% sell-on clause. Johnston and Montréal also agreed to a new contract.

Johnston, 23, was selected by Nashville in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft with the No. 11 overall pick and made 44 appearances with the club, a key member of their record-setting defensive unit. He's made 18 appearances for Canada after debuting in March 2021, starting all but one World Cup qualifier while chasing a Qatar 2022 spot.

Montréal have added a significant portion of their current core via trades: Mihailovic, Kamal Miller, Mason Toye, Romell Quioto and now Johnston.

Mark-Anthony Kaye - 2021

From: LAFC to Colorado
Year: Summer 2021
Fee: $1m GAM, plus unspecified incentives and an international roster spot

The first of two blockbuster trades between LAFC and the Rapids over the span of a few months, Canadian international Mark-Anthony Kaye was traded to Colorado, where he immediately became an integral part of the Rapids' first-place side in the Western Conference. Kaye made 77 appearances with LAFC after signing ahead of their expansion season, then made 15 appearances for the Rapids.

As noted up top: Colorado also received LAFC's first-round pick at the SuperDraft, which ended up being No. 10 overall. Colorado traded that to Nashville for $125k GAM (and $50k in incentives).

The move helped set the market for further trades this offseason, the first of $1m+ GAM up front.

Justin Meram - 2018

From: Columbus to Orlando
Year: Winter 2018
Fee $1.05m combined GAM and TAM

Meram, among the league's most accomplished wingers at the time of this trade, was sent to Orlando in a blockbuster move from Columbus, where he spent the first seven years of his career. The move to Orlando did not go well, with Meram having 1g/3a in 17 appearances before being traded back to Columbus later that year.

The 33-year-old has since played for Atlanta United and Real Salt Lake, where he re-signed this winter.

Meram has 48g/44a in 295 career MLS appearances.

Darlington Nagbe - 2018 & 2020

From: Portland to Atlanta... (then Atlanta to Columbus)
Year: Winter 2018... (then winter 2020)
Fee: $1.05m GAM + TAM, an international roster spot plus incentives... (then $1.05m xAM plus incentives and an international roster spot)

Both Nagbe trades work here, given it was the same $1.05m xAM + incentives + international slot package – just two years removed.

And it's also pretty cool that there is further symmetry in that Atlanta acquired him as a push to win MLS Cup... then he won MLS Cup with Atlanta (2018). Columbus did the same... and then he won MLS Cup again (2020). Pretty good return on investment for both deals!

Nagbe started 55 games for Atlanta, also winning the 2019 U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup. He has started 47 games with Columbus thus far, winning Campeones Cup there too. The 31-year-old remains a focal point of the Crew's roster.

Kellyn Acosta - 2022

From: Colorado to LAFC
Year: Winter 2022
Fee: $1.1m GAM plus $400k GAM incentives

A few months after the Rapids and LAFC completed a trade involving Kaye, another international midfielder swapped teams: USMNT's Kellyn Acosta moved to LAFC in a huge trade with the Rapids. If all incentives are hit, it would be the biggest trade in league history.

Acosta, 26, has 45 caps with the USMNT, including 21 (!) in the calendar year of 2021, showing how much Gregg Berhalter values him in the squad. Acosta has already made 196 MLS appearances during his time with FC Dallas and Colorado.

Colorado retain a sell-on percentage in Acosta as well, which kicks in above what LAFC invested to acquire him should he be transferred abroad or traded within MLS.

Jeremy Ebobisse - 2022

From: Portland to San Jose
Year: Summer 2022
Fee: $1.167m GAM

Jeremy Ebobisse was acquired by the San Jose Earthquakes last summer in a big trade for $1.167m GAM, ending the one-time USMNT forward's time in Portland after originally being drafted by the club. It was a bold move by then-interim general manager Chris Leitch – and perhaps a sign of how much trust he received before getting the full-time role in November.

Ebobisse made 88 appearances with the Timbers, scoring 26 goals and adding eight assists. He made 11 appearances in 2021 for San Jose after the trade and is expected to be a central figure in their 2022 fortunes. Last year's run was limited after a late-summer injury vs. Colorado.

David Accam - 2018

From: Chicago to Philadelphia
Year: Winter 2018
Fee $1.2m combined GAM and TAM

Accam was another huge trade in the early Big Trade Era™ around the likes of Meram, Dwyer and Nagbe (the first time). The move didn't pan out for Philadelphia, with Accam making only 31 appearances with the club and scoring five goals. He then spent time with Columbus and Nashville. The Ghanaian winger is currently a free agent.

When Philly acquired him, Accam was coming off a stellar 14g/8a campaign with the Chicago Fire.

Lewis Morgan - 2022

From: Miami to New York
Year: Winter 2022
Fee: $1.2m GAM

The most expensive trade in terms of guaranteed money came earlier this offseason when the Red Bulls acquired Scottish winger Lewis Morgan from Inter Miami.

Morgan spent the last two years with Inter Miami and was their best player over that span. He had seven goals and 12 assists in 57 appearances with Miami, including five goals and seven assists during their inaugural season when Morgan was named the team’s MVP. He started every single game in Miami's brief history.

With how the market has been moving, though, maybe the record will get broken again.

Dom Dwyer - 2017

From: Sporting KC to Orlando
Year: Summer 2017
Fee $900k combined GAM and TAM, with another $700k xAM in incentives (biggest potential package in league history)

While Dwyer's time in Orlando wasn't a rousing success, a source told that all incentives hit (!). So the entire package Orlando sent SKC is $1.6m xAM, the most in league history.

Incentives are usually diversified across player success (appearances, goals, individual accolades) and team success (making the playoffs, winning MLS Cup). The forward had 24 goals in 67 games for Orlando before an injury derailed his time in Florida, while Orlando only made the playoffs once (2020).

Dwyer's move was the first true blockbuster in allocation money trades and set the tone for the other trades on this list.