MLS is parity. MLS is chaos. MLS is unpredictable.
As you’ve seen from our widely dunked-on preseason predictions, anyone who dares prognosticate this league is only asking to become social media fodder. But we carry that burden for you.
Every year, there are surprise Audi MLS Cup Playoffs teams and non-playoff teams. Case in point: Neither of the top seeds from each conference last year (New England, Colorado) made the playoffs in 2022. That hasn’t happened since 2005.
Teams can change their fortunes quickly in this league, hence the parity and nature of the sport. This year, seven teams made the playoffs after missing the big dance last year. Seven! That’s half of the 14-team playoff field!
Here’s how they each did it.
Blending MLS experience with big-name stars
LAFC added something like 1,000 games of MLS experience this offseason as they tore down the remnants of the historic 2019 team (save for Carlos Vela, Latif Blessing and Eddie Segura) as natural progression/roster evolution came full circle. Head coach Bob Bradley left in the winter as well for Toronto FC, and Steve Cherundolo took over in Los Angeles.
They had a disappointing 2020, ending with a Round One exit, then an even more frustrating 2021, missing the playoffs entirely. Though Vela and Diego Rossi were the stars of that 2019 team, the structure underneath was filled with MLS-proven and MLS-experienced players. This offseason, there was a clear plan to get back to that.
Ilie Sanchez, Kellyn Acosta, Ryan Hollingshead and Maxime Crépeau are all new starters, added from intra-league mechanisms. Ilie has been Best XI-level good; Acosta (USMNT) and Crepeau (CanMNT) are in-prime internationals likely heading to the 2022 World Cup; Hollingshead has consistently been one of the top-five fullbacks in the league for years.
By the time the Secondary Transfer Window came around, LAFC were atop the Supporters’ Shield race. They took big swings in the summer to add Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini, Dénis Bouanga, Cristian Tello and Sebastian Méndez. Things got shaky in August with four losses in five games, but they held on and won the Shield.
Cherundolo has done really well all year to balance the minutes and keep everyone happy while ultimately coming away with silverware. Now, the road to MLS Cup on Nov. 5 runs through Banc of California Stadium as long as the Black & Gold are alive and kicking.
Further internal development led by a Coach of the Year candidate
Unlike a few others on this list, there wasn’t a big revamp or a full-blown roster rebuild. Most of the improvement for Montréal came from natural progression and a young manager doing great work.
In terms of transfers, Montréal made three loan deals permanent (Joaquín Torres, Ahmed Hamdi and Lassi Lappalainen), renewed a loan (Sebastian Breza) and re-signed a key starter when it looked like he was gone (Rudy Camacho).
In terms of big offseason additions, it was really only Alistair Johnston, who arrived in a trade from Nashville SC. Johnston has been really good. He fits perfectly with this group, like fellow CanMNT defender Kamal Miller, who was added the year prior. Another key addition was one that flew under the radar: Kei Kamara.
The MLS legend drifted out of favor for two teams in 2020, went unsigned before heading to Finland in 2021 and, about a week ahead of the 2022 season, was still unsigned. The 38-year-old has 9g/7a this year and is up to third all-time in MLS goals.
The real driver of the improvement in this group is head coach Wilfried Nancy, who may be the favorite to win Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year. So many players have taken steps forward under his coaching over the last two years, including midfielders Djordje Mihailovic ($6 million transfer to AZ Alkmaar coming in the winter) and Ismaël Koné (from unknown to CanMNT debut to a likely $5-6 million transfer this winter).
Montréal finished just two points off the Supporters’ Shield and had a year-over-year improvement of 19 points.
Further continuity in year two, little tweaks and a full season of Driussi
Even when Austin FC struggled at times in 2021, you could see the foundation of something there. The team played crisp, deliberate soccer under head coach Josh Wolff. It seemed some of the issues (transition defense, finishing, mobility in defense) could be addressed to finetune the group.
That’s just what happened.
Wolff tweaked the midfield a bit, having Dani Perreira play as the No. 6 and freeing Alex Ring to play more box-to-box. Ruben Gabrielsen was added to central defense (as was Kipp Keller), then Felipe Martins was added for further midfield competition (while TAM-signing Jhojan Valencia didn’t quite find his best form). Ethan Finlay joined at winger, and Maxi Urruti came into the striker mix – two MLS-proven attackers who have added really solid minutes for the Verde & Black.
Add in an MVP-level season from Sebastián Driussi and you’ve got the No. 2 seed out West. Driussi had 22g/7a this year after 5g/5a (in 17 matches) last year following his summertime arrival from Zenit St. Petersburg.
Club-record signing, league-record trade, new position for Ferreira
When Nico Estevez took over as FC Dallas's head coach in the winter, he wanted to instill a 4-3-3 system. That would eliminate what we thought was Jesus Ferreira’s best role, playing as a second striker underneath a more traditional forward (which, last year, was Ricardo Pepi).
It turns out the homegrown's a pretty damn good No. 9!
Ferreira had 18g/6a while leading the lines. He was named No. 1 on MLSsoccer.com’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR rankings and is the favorite for the Young Player of the Year award. He’s been wonderful and the contract extension to make him a Young DP in the winter was a shrewd move by the club.
Dallas also took the money (both real cash and allocation money) from Pepi’s club-record transfer to German Bundesliga side FC Augsburg to beef up the attack.
Rising Argentine youth international Alan Velasco was signed for a club-record fee of $7 million, while Paul Arriola was acquired in a league-record trade of $2 million General Allocation Money from D.C. United, flanking Ferreira with two new wingers. The trio makes a very snug fit together in Estevez’s system.
Dallas got a new starter in goal in Maarten Paes, then added Sebastian Lletget in a midseason trade with New England as they continued their roster revolution.
Summer transfer window work to save the season
After missing the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, including a disappointing collapse in 2021 that left them just outside the picture on Decision Day, the LA Galaxy were nearly headed for a similar fate this year.
Yet, they’re hosting a Round One playoff game. They rescued a potential late-season spiral and then some by finishing fourth in the West, when it seemed even qualifying for the playoffs was in the balance after a late-season 3-0 loss at Vancouver.
Summer signings of Riqui Puig and Gaston Brugman gave this team new life. Brugman is a traditional No. 6, something the group pretty desperately needed. Puig has looked like one of the very best players in the league.
Puig had 3g/5a in 827 MLS minutes, quickly settling into the group as the creator-in-chief. The team changed immediately when he stepped on the field from FC Barcelona.
A pair of offseason additions were key as well: left back Raheem Edwards and center-mid Mark Delgado, two former Toronto FC players under head coach Greg Vanney. Both have been very good and constant starters, both particularly key to LA's early-season form. And don't overlook the introduction of Uruguayan defender Martín Cáceres, who's likely heading to the World Cup in November.
The only thing that kept this team from challenging a bit further up the table was poor finishing/final-third effectiveness, particularly from all of the wingers. And even despite some historic PK struggles, Chicharito still finished top five in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race with 18g/2a.
New culture, new system and a few high-leverage signings
Former Philadelphia Union technical director Chris Albright took over as FC Cincinnati's general manager in October 2021. They didn’t have a ton of flexibility to really overturn the roster (and their reserve of allocation money was more like a puddle). So, the biggest change would come from a new playing style and new culture.
Pat Noonan – a former Philly assistant – was named head coach in December 2021. They were methodical with additions, even catching some criticism by opening day for not doing more to revamp a team that finished bottom of the league three years in a row.
Well, it turned out a new coach and system could go a long way when you had a former Best XI midfielder, a $13 million Brazilian youth international and a former US youth international already in attack. Luciano Acosta, Brenner and Brandon Vazquez were the heartbeat of the team, which scored the fourth-most goals in the league (64). That trio combined for an astounding 46 goals and 33 assists. They played pressing/transition, which got Acosta many more touches in the final third, where he was devastating.
After opening day is when key signings came. Junior Moreno was added by Week 2, DP defensive midfielder Obi Nwobodo in the spring and then USMNT center back Matt Miazga in the summer. The roster will continue changing over in the winter, but preparing for their first-ever MLS playoff game, they’re way ahead of schedule.
Expansion-like rebuild without all the expansion benefits
It’d be difficult to overstate how far Inter Miami have come in a year.
This winter saw 19 players arrive and 22 depart. The outgoings were much more expensive (DPs Rodolfo Pizarro and Blaise Matuidi; TAM-signings Leandro González Pirez, Nico Figal, Julián Carranza; One-time team MVP Lewis Morgan and more) than the incomings (no DPs, a few U22 Initiative signings and DeAndre Yedlin).
Miami’s situation – including sanctions related to the signing of Matuidi – meant this was supposed to be a multi-year rebuild. It wasn’t going to be pretty and it was going to take some time to reset the cap and roster mechanisms. For the first half of the season, they got virtually no contributions from DPs with Gonzalo Higuaín benched. It’s really hard to compete in MLS with zero DPs!
Under head coach Phil Neville, they became much, much harder to beat and more resilient. He deserves a ton of credit for the culture and man management (and tactics!). Sporting director Chris Henderson hit on the two expensive signings they made room for (Yedlin and Jean Mota) while finding a ton of value (U22 Initiative signing Leo Campana, trades for Bryce Duke and Ari Lassiter, and Finnish midfielder Robert Taylor) elsewhere on the roster. It was a masterclass in roster building.
Higuain’s renaissance over the second half of the season and picking up former MVP midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo for next to nothing from Toronto FC in a trade took this team from competitive to actually having a legitimate chance at the playoffs. And here they are.