Lorenzo Insigne is MLS bound. Could the likes of Isco, Memphis Depay follow in free agency?

ByAustin Lindberg ESPN logo
Friday, February 18, 2022

Soccer fans have access to more data than at any point in history. The game is overflowing with advanced statistics, used to measure players' impact in and out of possession, and subsequently telling the story of their importance to a team's success.

Not only is the field of player evaluation saturated with resources, so too is the task of roster building. That much was made evident by Toronto FC president Bill Manning when he spoke to media about his club's recruitment of Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne in January.

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"I actually went to the Transfermarkt website and I looked up the Italian national team on what players were coming out of contract," Manning said following the signing of the Italy international. "And Lorenzo was one of the few players that was coming out of contract. I started writing down players that I thought were world class, that I thought would have commercial value in this market."

Transfermarkt catalogs the sort of information pertinent to front-office types tasked with building a team. There are detailed histories of players' transfers, the names of players' agents and representatives, it estimates player values in the transfer market and, most important in this context, player contract expiration dates. Entirely crowd-sourced, it's a tool that -- while indeed handy for fans, front-office wannabes and Football Manager obsessives -- now has real-world use cases in the highest levels of the sport. So, if Toronto can begin its recruitment process by perusing Transfermarkt, why can't we?

We dove into the site's breakdown of players who will be out of contract come July 1 to determine if there is any possibility of any of Insigne's contemporaries being primed for a similar North American adventure in Major League Soccer. And if so, which clubs could make for logical landing places.

One of the knocks on MLS in recent years among international players, especially those in Europe, is diminished visibility, which can threaten a player's chances of being selected to their national team -- see Sebastian Giovinco, who despite his dominance in Toronto from 2015 to 2019 played just 39 minutes for Italy in that span. With the World Cup concluding in December, that concern should be alleviated some ahead of the 2023 free agent market, so we've had a look there as well.

Isco | Midfielder | Real Madrid

- Contract expires: June 30, 2022

- Age at contract expiry:

- Transfermarkt value: $9.9 million

- Best MLS fit: LAFC

Isco has won LaLiga twice, the Copa del Rey, three Spanish Supercopas, four Champions Leagues, three UEFA Super Cups and four Club World Cups. What more is left to conquer on the continent? While still in his prime, at 30, Isco has limited resale value, which may well cap the amount Europe's grandest clubs will be willing to invest in him.

Cristian Arango has been dynamite up front for Los Angeles, scoring 15 goals in 17 appearances last season, but with Diego Rossi on loan at Fenerbahce and Brian Rodriguez struggling to live up to his DP contract, there is room for added creativity in the attacking third of the field. LAFC also have the luxury of a free designated player slot, and could clear another one if Carlos Vela (whose contract expires midway through this season) agrees to a new deal using targeted allocation money. Isco and Vela supporting Arango would make for one of the most creative, dynamic and effective attacks this league has ever seen.

Federico Bernardeschi | Forward | Juventus

- Contract expires: June 30, 2022

- Age at contract expiry: 28

- Transfermarkt value: $16.5 million

- Best MLS fit: D.C. United

Bernardeschi has found it challenging to live up to expectations at Juventus. He contributed a direct goal involvement every 163 minutes while at Fiorentina, but that number has fallen to every 232 in the four-plus years since his move to Turin. Despite that, he remains Massimiliano Allegri's most trusted wide attacker and appeared in 11 of Italy's 19 matches in 2021. He's said to have held negotiations with the Old Lady about remaining at the Allianz Stadium, as well as AC Milan and Internazionale about remaining in Serie A, but his reported $5m salary demands have put off all three.

While D.C. lost a tireless worker and a livewire on the wing in Paul Arriola, it also picked up a record $2m in general allocation money when it sent him to FC Dallas. Julian Gressel has proven to be one of the league's premier chance creators from wide areas, and Ola Kamara finished level on goals with 2021 Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos, creating an opportunity for someone equally adept at creating opportunities and finishing them. United also have a DP slot to spare, so accommodating a salary like Bernardeschi would command is possible, although it would limit any U22-initiative signings to one. That could be a tradeoff worth making in order to complete a potent attacking trio in the prime of their careers.

Memphis Depay | Forward | Barcelona

- Contract expires: June 30, 2023

- Age at contract expiry: 29

- Transfermarkt value: $49.5 million

- Best MLS fit: New York City FC

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Ronald Koeman recruited Depay to join Barcelona on a free transfer just last summer, as the Catalans looked to fill the void left by Lionel Messi (and, eventually, Antoine Griezmann too), but Koeman was quickly chased out of town and his compatriot was soon linked with an exit of his own. Depay already left one mega-club on less-than-stellar terms when he joined Lyon from Manchester United in 2017; without considerable improvement in the next 18 months, it's difficult to imagine Depay getting a third opportunity at a prestigious club with wages to match.

NYCFC fielded the MLS Golden Boot winner in 2021, but Castellanos appears destined to move abroad in 2022, having been linked with River Plate, Palmeiras, Internacional and most recently Leeds United. There's still Heber, who's managed a goal every 153 minutes for the Bronx side, but barring a sensational 2022, the defending MLS Cup champion likely will be in the market for an efficient goal scorer.

Depay could represent a rare opportunity to sign just that, having scored 39 goals in 62 appearances for club and country in 2021, while still in his prime and with the name recognition that could break through within New York's fiercely competitive sports landscape.

Moussa Dembele | Striker | Lyon

- Contract expires: June 30, 2023

- Age at contract expiry: 28

- Transfermarkt value: $18.7 million

- Best MLS fit: Portland Timbers

Fifty-one goals from 125 appearances for Lyon is close to the sort of production that earned Alexandre Lacazette a move to Arsenal (129 in 275), so there's an argument to be made that there will be a strong market for Dembele next summer. However, the Fulham academy graduate did get a shot with one of Europe's elite last season, spending the second half of the campaign on loan at Atletico Madrid. He played just 140 minutes under Diego Simeone, and was an unused substitute for 12 of the 19 matches in which he made the squad. (Dembele did contract COVID-19 during that time, so some benefit of the doubt is definitely warranted.)

Portland hasn't had a consistent point of reference for its attack since Fanendo Adi's decline began in 2018, yet the Timbers were MLS Cup finalists that year and again in 2021. Forwards have come and gone in the past four seasons, with varying levels of success, but none has truly staked claim to the team's No. 9 jersey. Dembele would change that, giving Giovanni Savarese a consistent focal point as he rebuilds an attack that saw club legend Diego Valeri depart last month and is also without Andy Polo after the winger's contract was terminated amid domestic violence allegations.

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