A lot has changed since we last saw MLS action. Squads have reorganized, stars have come and gone, and the world’s most unpredictable league somehow got even more unpredictable. I know I loved watching all of the moves in and out of the league, but the resulting mess might require some help to sift through. Never fear, consider this your guide to becoming the most well-prepared MLS fan on your Sunday league team.
I’ve broken the league down by conference, categorizing every team as either title contenders, playoff locks, postseason hopefuls or … participants. The opinions within are mine and mine alone, so I’m liable for any roasts or bad takes that upset you. Feel free to take notes; I’ll gladly answer for my sins.
You may notice that I refrained from including Minnesota United in this breakdown. I’ve already written a preview for them — which I’m sure you read thoroughly — and everyone would accuse me of being biased when I inevitably said they’re going to win it all this year.
That’s right, all of it. US Open Cup, Leagues Cup, MLS Cup, the whole lot. Heck, they might even win the World Cup, what do you say to that Chicago Fire?
With all of my caveats laid out, let’s move forward so you can start vehemently disagreeing with me. I’m taking us out East to kick things off; let’s see who’s gonna meet the Loons in the championship.
- Philadelphia Union - I’m still salty that Philly didn’t beat LAFC last year. They’ve only gotten better this offseason, keeping their core together and adding Damion Lowe, Andres Perea, and Joaquin Torres. They have the most overqualified bench in the league, one of the best academy pipelines in the nation, and an incredible starting squad. My favorites to top the Eastern Conference this season — in Jim Curtin I trust.
- FC Cincinnati - The core is returning and several quality players have joined (Santiago Arias, Marco Angulo, Yerson Mosquera). If Brenner and Brandon Vazquez can build on their partnership this year, they could develop into the best attacking duos in league history, especially with Luciano Acosta behind them. Pat Noonan’s men should be hoping to do more than make the playoffs this year.
- Toronto FC - I’ve seen a lot of lukewarm previews for Toronto this year, but I’m pretty sure they’re all wrong. Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi are among the best players in the league, Bob Bradley is a proven winner, the defense has been bolstered by Matt Hedges and Sean Johnson in goal, and the starting midfield trio is pure class. Toronto is going to tear through most Eastern Conference teams this season if they stay healthy.
- Columbus Crew - The Crew hired an incredible new coach in Wilfried Nancy. If you give him a full season with Cucho and Lucas Zelarayan, he’s going to make something happen. Add Chris Ramirez’s return to MLS to the mix, and this is just a feel-good story all around. Though the losses of Jonathan Mensah, Artur, and Pedro Santos will hurt, their quality starting 11 will give them a chance to win any game. A lack of depth may come back to bite them if the youngsters don’t step up.
- Nashville SC - Not a ton changed in Music City, though Fafa Picault is a good addition. I suspect that Nashville found their current roster’s ceiling last year — doomed to get close, but no wads of dried up tobacco wrapped in expensive paper were anywhere in sight (close but no cigar, get it?). They’ll be walking the line between good and great for most of this year.
- New York Red Bulls - The perennial playoff participants will likely keep their streak alive. New DP forward Dante Vanzeir was putting up serious numbers in Belgium, adding goals to a young squad already filled with excitement. The Achilles heel for NYRB might be their defense, as USMNT center back Aaron Long left for LAFC this offseason.
Fighting for Postseason:
- Atlanta United FC - World Cup winner Thiago Almada headlines a talented bunch, on paper at least. The post-Josef world will be led by Greek striker Giorgos Giakoumakis and the return of Miles Robinson; if everything works out, they could make some noise. If not, last year’s disappointment could repeat just as easily.
- Charlotte FC - Enzo Capetti is a seriously good add. Charlotte’s roster and tactics made them a fringe playoff team last year, and it feels like the needle has moved enough in their favor to warrant a trip to the postseason in 2023. Westwood brings quality and experience in the middle of the park, organizing the team a bit more than last year.
- D.C. United - A new era is slowly but surely being ushered in in our nation’s capital. Bill Hamid, David Ochoa, and Ola Kamara are all out, while Mateusz Klich, Ruan, and Tyler Miller are in. The squad is anything but settled, but Christian Benteke and Taxiarchis Fountas should be a fun combo up top. They have potential, but I wouldn’t bet on them doing anything special. It’s time for Wayne Rooney to prove his managerial prowess.
- New England Revolution - The additions of Latif Blessing and Dave Romney will improve the squad, but who knows if it will make a big enough difference to push the team beyond last year’s finish. Bruce Arena is great, but this team may not have quite enough for him to work with.
- Orlando City - A busy offseason has seen Orlando emerge a totally different team. I’m honestly not sure what to expect from them this year, though I hope the roster upgrades mean they won’t have to spy on any more USL teams to win the Open Cup this year.
Participation Trophies Incoming:
- NYCFC - Aside from Talles Magno, their best players are gone (Sean Johnson, Maxi Moralez, Alex Callens) and without viable replacements. They’re only going as far as Magno can drag them, which, given his talent, could be almost respectable.
- Chicago Fire FC - No Gaga Slonina, no Jhon Duran, no big signings and virtually no hope. Likely going to be another disappointing year from the Fire.
- Inter Miami CF - Rodolfo Pizarro is back, Josef Martinez replaces Gonzalo Higuain, and Damion Lowe is in Philly. Miami didn’t really seem to get better or worse this year, just … different. They keep saying some “Messi” guy is going to fix their mediocre squad, but I think he’s playing somewhere in France. Not much to see here, especially since they probably won’t let you watch practice.
- CF Montreal - Poor Montreal. They lost nearly everything that made them special last year when they sold Ismaël Koné, Djordje Mihailovic, and Alistair Johnston. On top of that, Nancy is in Ohio and Kei Kamara wants to leave. It’s shaping up to be a nightmare season for Montreal this year unless a star emerges from the existing roster.
Take a breath. You good? Alright, time for the West, sans MNUFC.
- Austin FC - An already solid roster added one of the best goalscorers in league history in Gyasi Zardes. They have to prove that 2022’s success was more than just a fluke this year. Is Sebastian Driussi for real? Is Josh Wolff a genius? Who knows, go prove it.
- FC Dallas - As always, this is a solid squad with seriously talented players. Their USMNT trio of Jesus Ferreira, Paul Arriola and Sebastian Lletget is always going to be dangerous. Aside from the loss of Matt Hedges to Toronto, Dallas haven’t seen any terribly significant changes in their lineup. They’re probably going to do exactly as well as last year; they’re the Nashville of the West.
- Seattle Sounders FC - The Sounders have one of the league’s most talented rosters. There was very little turnover for Seattle this year, just the exit of Will Bruin and addition of Héber in his stead. Without a repeat injury crisis or fixture congestion to worry about, they should be back to their regularly scheduled dominating this season.
- Sporting Kansas City - Though they started out dreadfully, SKC seemed to figure things out near the end of last season. With a few small additions, this could be a huge year for the team Ronaldo almost decided to join. Peter Vermes is a great coach; I back him to lead quite the bounceback campaign.
- LAFC - The defending champs unloaded Chicho Arango, Gareth Bale, and Latif Blessing. Aaron Long joins to bolster the defense, while Stipe Biuk could blossom into something interesting going forward. They’ll always be good as long as they have Carlos Vela, though it feels like they’ve taken a step back this offseason. I’m calling it now — there will not be a repeat champion this season.
- Portland Timbers - Despite relatively little transfer movement, club-record signing Evander is an incredible player. He could finally fill the gap left by Diego Valeri, pushing this good Timbers team to the next level. They’re going to make the playoffs: for Portland, that means anything is possible.
- LA Galaxy - The Galaxy cleared house this offseason, but they haven’t made any significant additions. Relying on Riqui Puig’s talent might work out a few times, but a thin and relatively unimpressive supporting cast will likely leave fans disappointed this year. Ever the overrated squad, I can’t see them achieving much more than playoff qualification.
- Real Salt Lake - Boring, not much to see here. They have a pretty cool jersey, a couple of intriguing signings. They’re going to either barely make the playoffs or miss them completely, rinse, repeat.
Fighting for Postseason:
- Vancouver Whitecaps FC - The Caps have a good team. They’ll probably be a fringe playoff team once again with their current squad, as long as Ryan Gauld can continue to play as well as he did last season.
- San Jose Earthquakes - Yet another uninspiring team with a few inspiring individuals. Cade Cowell is the brightest spot here, and the addition of Jonathan Mensah should make a big difference. Carlos Gruezo comes in as a new club-record signing, but I doubt it will be enough to change their fortunes this season.
Participation Trophies Incoming:
- Colorado Rapids - Despite a few good signings, there’s little to nothing to be excited about here. Unless someone really steps up their game and surprises us, the bar is pretty low. If Kevin Cabral can finally come to life in this league, there may be something there. They might make the playoffs, but probably not.
- Houston Dynamo FC - The Chicago Fire of the Western Conference, without the youth development. Hector Herrera won’t be enough to save the Dynamo. Another lackluster year is almost certainly on the way from Space City.
- St Louis CITY SC - The newest MLS side announced their arrival to the league by splashing some cash on … Roman Burki. Wow. He’s a good keeper, but not the profile that’s really going to move the needle all that much in this league. I noticed they like capitalization, so I’ll cater this to them; you’re going to finish LAST.
So that’s the league for you. Too bad everyone is doomed to fail, Minnesota United has this season pretty much sewn up. I see you, Charles Boehm, predicting a 13th place finish for the Loons. And you, Tom Bogert, how could you possibly think they’re finishing 12th? I’m keeping receipts too, let’s compare notes when the trophy is lifted.