When news of Erik Palmer-Brown signing a pre-contact with Manchester City emerged last week, it served as a reminder that winter is coming and the number of players around Major League Soccer finishing up contracts resembles the army of White Walkers descending on Westeros in the Game of Thrones.
Dozens of the league's biggest names and longest-serving veterans are coming to the end of their deals at the end of the 2017 season, and both players and teams will have to make some important decisions about their futures come December and January. Palmer-Brown and Seattle Sounders standout Joevin Jones have already prepared for their winter moves, with Jones securing a pre-contract with German second-division club Darmstad and Palmer-Brown signing with Manchester City ahead of an expect loan move.
Europe isn't an option for that many of the MLS players who will be out-of-contract this winter, but some could certainly be tempted to test the market given their contract freedom. What we should see is the biggest free-agent class to date, with several solid starters changing addresses.
With that in mind, here is a look at some of the biggest names set to play out their contracts head of what should be a very busy winter in MLS:
When Kaka first arrived in MLS as Orlando City's marquee signing, it looked like a match made in heaven. A big star in a market needing one to help enjoy a good start to life in the league. Four years later, the reviews are mixed. He has provided the star power the team needed, but his on-field contributions have been a mixed bag beset by injuries and disappointing team finishes.
That is probably what has led Orlando City to be slow in signing Kaka to a new deal, though sources tell Goal there is interest in bringing him back. Kaka has already stated he would like to return, but at what price? With interest sure to come from the likes of China and Brazil, Kaka won't be light on options, even at 35. But if Orlando City can deliver a respectable new deal, he may get the chance to deliver a winning season in 2018.
The Italian legend has endured what can be best described as a disappointing tenure with New York City FC. The club has benefited from his cache and star power in New York, but on the field he has like a shell of the World Cup winner and Juventus and AC Milan legend fans were expecting.
Pirlo's contract will expire in December, freeing him up to return to Italy, a move his girlfriend revealed is in the works shortly after recently giving birth to twins. Having already won everything there is to win, Pirlo seems more likely to follow the paths of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, who retired shortly after leaving MLS. The good news for NYCFC fans is a designated player slot will open up for 2018.
Surprised to see Hamid on this list? It seemed unlikely earlier in the year amid reports suggesting he was close to signing a new deal. Well, as summer turns to fall, Hamid's D.C. United contract offer remains unsigned, and at this point you have to wonder if he will sign it at all.
D.C. United has big plans for 2018, with a new stadium set to open, and the team showing with its recent acquisitions that it's ready to spend to build a winning team. Those plans would take a big hit if Hamid chose to walk away. D.C. recently signed veteran goalkeeper Steve Clark as an insurance policy in case Hamid leaves.
Will Hamid go? He has made no secret of his desire to eventually go to Europe, but will his strong 2017 season be enough to convince suitors to ignore concerns about durability after his past knee issues? More importantly, will he walk away from his hometown team ahead of such a big year, especially given the glowing things he has said about D.C. United standing by him through his injuries?
Higuain let it be known he doesn't expect to be with the Crew after this season, telling the Columbus Dispatch that he could go elsewhere, potentially even to a new club in the USA. Was it a negotiating ploy by a player looking for a new deal, or was it the honest revelation?
The Argentine playmaker has been excellent in Columbus, and the Crew want him back, but will it be at a price that convinces Higuain to stick around? He doesn't qualify for MLS free agency, but at 32 he should still be able to find opportunities in South America. Could another MLS team be tempted to make the Crew an offer? Columbus has never been shy about wheeling and dealing, but don't rule out a Higuain return.
The Philadelphia Union left winger has enjoyed a career renaissance since leaving D.C. United for Philly, re-establishing himself as one of the league's best left wingers, and even earning himself a place on the U.S. national team.
Pontius will be one of the most enticing options available in MLS free agency this winter, and the California native could definitely make sense as an option for both LAFC and the LA Galaxy. At 30, Pontius has several good years left, and interest in his services won't be limited to the West Coast.
Could the Union bring him back? You have to think that's the hope, but it could be tough for Pontius to turn down an offer from Bob Bradley and LAFC or from the rebuilding LA Galaxy.
NICK RIMANDO & KYLE BECKERMAN
The last two big names remaining from Real Salt Lake's heyday are coming to the end of their contracts, and we could see the true end of an era at RSL. With a youth movement in full effect, it is probably the right time to bid farewell to each of them, but even if RSL wanted to keep them it would probably be tough to keep them from testing the free-agent market.
Rimando is especially intriguing in a growing league with several teams that could use a top-flight goalkeeper. Sources tell Goal that Rimando might have been an option for the LA Galaxy in 2017 of Bruce Arena hadn't left to coach the U.S. national team. With Rimando's former college coach, Sigi Schmid, now coaching the Galaxy, a move there could make plenty of sense. And what about a return to D.C. United be in the cards if Hamid bolts for Europe? That one is probably a long shot.
As for Beckerman, the 35-year-old defensive midfielder is slowing down, but would still be a welcome addition to plenty of midfields around the league. Might Jason Kreis come calling to bring him in to anchor the Orlando City midfield? Would D.C. United, Beckerman's hometown team, make sense after bringing in impressive youngster Russell Canouse?
Injuries have hampered the 22-year-old speedster's career, but the fact remains he is still one of the most dangerous wingers in the league when he's healthy.
All signs point to Manneh testing the waters in Europe, but the real question is how much interest will there be for him after an injury-hit 2016, and a 2017 where he's spent as much time on the bench as on the field for the Columbus Crew.
Does Manneh have a feature with the Crew? With Justin Meram and Pedro Santos commanding the wings in Columbus, Manneh might become trade fodder in MLS if he can't find the deal he's looking for in Europe.
The four-time World Cup veteran has aspirations of reaching a fifth World Cup, and as much as his forgettable display for the U.S. against Honduras makes that seem unlikely, the fact remains he is still very much an above-average MLS left back in a league where that position is a weak one.
In other words, interest should be considerable for his services, even at the age of 35. Could Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra entice his former U.S. and Chicago Fire teammate to join up? With Greg Garza only on a one-year loan, Atlanta could find itself in the market for a left back and could do worse than Beasley.
Could Beasley stay in Houston? The Dynamo might be willing to move on from him given there's a younger and less expensive left-back option in Dylan Remick in the fold.
Moor has been everything Toronto FC could have hoped for as a free-agent signing. He has been the defensive anchor on TFC's back line, providing leadership and quality. That being said, Moor is set to be a free agent again, and TFC is faced with having to make some tough decisions as it manages a salary cap stretched to its limits.
TFC has several free agents to deal with, including Eriq Zavaleta, who is developing into one of the league's best young defenders, and Steven Beitashour, who the team will want to bring back. If that leaves Moor on the outs, he isn't likely to be out of work for very long.
All that said, TFC has been smart about building it's team, and Greg Vanney certainly understands the importance of a strong and stable defense, so if there's a way to keep Moor on the squad, it's a safe bet TFC will find a way to make it happen.
TEAL BUNBURY & ANDREW FARRELL
It is no secret that Teal Bunbury has been on borrowed time with the New England Revolution, and the team's late-summer signing of Krisztian Nemeth seemed to all but assure Bunbury won't be around in 2017. Unfortunately for Bunbury, he doesn't qualify for free agency despite having the necessary service time of eight years. He doesn't turn 28 until February though — he would have to be 28 by the end of the current season to qualify for free agency.
The Revs already tried trading Bunbury last winter, and will likely look for a new suitor this winter. Interest in the 27-year-old winger/forward should be higher now after his recent run of good form — including one stretch of six goals in eight matches — which has served as a reminder of how effective he can be. Of course, Bunbury could choose to sign a one-year deal outside of MLS, and hit the free-agent market in 2019, but that is probably a last resort if New England is unreasonable in securing a reasonable trade. Who might be interested? A long-anticipated reunion with former college coach Caleb Porter in Portland wouldn't be the biggest shock, and teams looking for good winger/forward options would certainly be in the market.
Bunbury isn't the only Revs regular set to play out his current contract. Former MLS No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Farrell is also finishing up his contract. He isn't close to qualifying for free agency though, and seems likely to sign a new deal with the Revs this winter, though it is a safe bet interest would be high if New England put him on the market. He could also test the international market, which would surely be interested in a versatile American defender who also happens to speak fluent Spanish.