Voices: Joseph Lowery

MLS rosters: 3 players each Eastern Conference club should build around in 2024


Every MLS team has one priority right now: building their squads before the 2024 regular season.

With the offseason well and truly underway, free agency open, trades flying through the air left and right, and clubs working on transfers, now is a great time to take stock of each team’s cornerstones.

Who should teams try to build around this winter? We’re answering that question by spotlighting three key players for each club. While three is a somewhat arbitrary number, it gives us a high-level picture of each squad.

  • Thiago Almada (M)
  • Giorgos Giakoumakis (F)
  • Tristan Muyumba (M)

This trio might not be long for Atlanta given the European interest surrounding Almada. But provided these three are suiting up for the Five Stripes, they’ll be legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference. With Almada’s playmaking, Giakoumakis’ elite goal-scoring ability up front, and Muyumba’s all-around quality in midfield, the foundation is solid in Georgia. Even if Almada moves, Atlanta will have plenty of cash to find a top-tier replacement at the No. 10 spot.

  • Kristijan Kahlina (GK)
  • Karol Swiderski (F)
  • Ben Bender (M)

Charlotte FC are a team in flux right now. Will Swiderski be back next season? New head coach Dean Smith will certainly hope so. Swiderski was Charlotte’s best attacker last year, despite lacking a set role.

Kahlina was one of the better goalkeepers in all of MLS in 2023, saving nearly a fifth of a goal more than expected per 90 minutes, according to FBref. Looking for a third key player was difficult, but at 22, Bender looks like the most promising midfielder of the bunch.

There’s plenty of room to chop and change before 2024.

  • Chris Brady (GK)
  • Brian Gutiérrez (M)
  • Xherdan Shaqiri (M)

I’ll be honest: I almost left Shaqiri out. The 32-year-old DP has been fine-to-good, but seldom great during his time in MLS. We know he can be special – we’ve seen it for Switzerland many, many times. And truthfully, there aren’t enough quality pieces in Chicago for anyone to push past Shaqiri into this top three.

Even with the potential of a DP striker joining after the new year, Shaqiri and young attacking midfielder Gutiérrez represent a promising pair. Toss in Brady, the best young goalkeeper in MLS, and there are decent pieces in Chicago.

  • Luciano Acosta (M)
  • Aaron Boupendza (F)
  • Obinna Nwobodo (M)

Leaving Matt Miazga and Álvaro Barreal off this list was difficult, though not knowing if Barreal will be back in MLS next year makes his exclusion a bit easier. Still, how can you argue with Acosta, Boupendza and Nwobodo for Cincinnati?

With Acosta pulling the strings, Boupendza making ridiculous plays in the final third and Nwobodo cleaning up messes in midfield, Cincy GM Chris Albright has assembled one of the strongest spines in MLS.

  • Cucho Hernández (F)
  • Diego Rossi (F)
  • Darlington Nagbe (M)

If I could pick any player in MLS to build my team around, Cucho would be second on my list after Almada. With 40 goal contributions in all competitions, the 24-year-old was lights-out in 2023. A full preseason for Rossi should only help elevate the Crew’s attack, one that will still benefit from Nagbe’s calming presence at the base of midfield.

The defending champs have some nice, shiny building blocks on their hands.

  • Christian Benteke (F)
  • Mateusz Klich (M)
  • Theodore Ku-Dipietro (M)

While they’re not rolling in talent like the two teams above them, D.C. United have a handful of players who are poised for a good 2024. Benteke, one of the most physically dominant strikers on the planet, snagged 14 goals last year and should do the same this year regardless of who takes over as head coach. Klich, another veteran, moves the ball and creates chances at a high level from midfield. Finally, at just 21, Ku-Dipietro finds good spots off the ball and adds a ton of value with his dribbling.

  • Lionel Messi (F)
  • Sergio Busquets (M)
  • Tomás Avilés (D)

The two biggest pieces of Inter Miami’s squad pick themselves. Messi is, uh, Messi, while Busquets remains an elite No. 6. After those two, Jordi Alba and Facundo Farías both deserve some love, but I’m giving the third key player slot to Avilés.

At 19, Avilés arrived from Argentina midseason and started 11 league games. His poise and skill on the ball mixed with his defensive range from the center-back position will give Miami’s attack-minded players even more room to operate in 2024.

  • Victor Wanyama (M)
  • Kwadwo Opoku (F)
  • Sunusi Ibrahim (F)

Whoever ends up taking CF Montréal’s head coaching position will need to find a way to maximize Wanyama, the team’s only Designated Player. At 32, he can still be a hugely valuable possession piece. We’ve seen it before from Wanyama, but Opoku and Ibrahim are both more speculative picks. That said, it’s not hard to picture a 3-4-3 shape working well for Montréal next year with those two stretching opposing backlines and rotating across the frontline alongside one more forward.

  • Hany Mukhtar (M/F)
  • Sam Surridge (F)
  • Walker Zimmerman (D)

While Nashville’s midfield line is very much under construction, these three represent a solid base. Mukhtar's mixture of goal threat and chance creation is elite in MLS. The connection between Mukhtar and Surridge during Leagues Cup was lovely, even if it didn’t translate to the regular season. Plus, with Zimmerman’s steady hand in defense, Nashville are rarely overwhelmed.

  • Carles Gil (M)
  • DeJuan Jones (D)
  • Noel Buck (M)

Gil is a no-brainer. He’s a former Landon Donovan MLS MVP and one of the elite No. 10s in the league. Looking at the rest of the squad, New England and new head coach Caleb Porter should be doing everything they can to keep Jones and his attacking output, especially given Brandon Bye’s knee injury.

The obvious name to round out the Revs’ centerpieces is Tomás Chancalay, but I’ll admit: I’m not high on him in the way some other folks are. With Dylan Borrero likely to still be rehabbing his knee (ACL tear) to start the year, why not just look past the whole winger pool for New England and watch Buck cook instead? The 18-year-old is the best young No. 8 in the league.

  • Emil Forsberg (M)
  • John Tolkin (D)
  • Andres Reyes (D)

Signing Forsberg as a DP is a potentially massive move from the Red Bulls. Not only does it represent the first meaningful incoming move from the Leipzig branch to the New York branch of Red Bull Global, but it gives RBNY a capable playmaker in the final third for the first time in years.

Forsberg just might be the kind of player who can lead a trophy-caliber team in MLS. If that’s the case, Tolkin and Reyes are high-value pieces at left back and center back, respectively. Both have European ceilings, but will help the team as long as they’re on this side of the Atlantic.

  • Mounsef Bakrar (F)
  • Talles Magno (F)
  • Santiago Rodríguez (M)

Bakrar didn’t light MLS on fire after joining NYCFC midseason, but the 22-year-old striker put up some awesome underlying numbers. He’s going to lead the line for Nick Cushing’s team in 2024. Speaking of Cushing, if he lets Magno own the left halfspace with Rodríguez connecting from slightly deeper in midfield, New York City will be a hard team to stop in 2024.

  • Robin Jansson (D)
  • César Araújo (M)
  • Martín Ojeda (M/F)

Especially now with Antônio Carlos off to Brazil, Jansson is the dominant presence in Orlando City’s backline. Jansson is a well-rounded center back – probably the best in MLS – who will only continue to benefit from Araújo’s defensive solidity at the base of midfield. Those two players keep Orlando in games.

In the attack, Facundo Torres is the easy name. But moving Torres, who’s a bit of a positional tweeter in the attacking midfield line, after a career year in 2023 could simplify Orlando’s attacking structure in 2024. If Torres goes, Ojeda, who’s also a DP, would have an obvious spot on the wing with a DP-level No. 10 potentially inbound.

  • Andre Blake (GK)
  • Jakob Glesnes (D)
  • Julián Carranza (F)

It’s going to be tough for Philly to keep Carranza around for another year, but they should try their best. It’s not easy to replace 14 regular-season goals on a modest budget!

Then there’s Blake, who wasn’t perfect last year but continues to be one of the better goalkeepers in MLS. And Glesnes, who’s one of the top center backs in MLS. As they hold things down in the back, the Union will be a tough team to play against regardless of what happens up front.

  • Latif Blessing (M)
  • Jonathan Osorio (M)
  • Sean Johnson (GK)

We don’t know for certain that Toronto FC’s big-name Italian wingers, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, will be in MLS through the winter. Could they refocus and dominate in 2024? Absolutely. Should anyone in Toronto bank on that? Buyer beware.

When you strip the pricey DPs out of the equation, Toronto clearly have work to do. At the moment, head coach John Herdman pretty much just has a pair of hard-working No. 8s in Blessing and Osorio and a veteran goalkeeper in Johnson to fall back on.