What an offseason in MLS. Atlanta United brought in a new Designated Player, Philadelphia Union sold an academy player for a big return and LAFC made a signing that makes everyone look up the roster rules. It was truly an offseason like any other.
But, as fun as it was, MLS is Back. Which means everyone’s favorite totally objective and correct ranking system is back.
Just remember, it’s important you think of these as completely infallible and certain to be correct for the entirety of the season. I frankly can’t imagine anything changing, can you?
Just, ya know, casually bringing back every starter from a team that in 2022 tied for the most points in the league, set a record for goal differential and came minutes away from winning MLS Cup.
Oh, they also added MLS-proven depth pieces at three positions that would be starting quality for other teams.
So, yeah. Good luck to everyone who’s not Philadelphia.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. CLB
Everyone expected José Cifuentes and Diego Palacios to leave, and then… they just didn’t. That’s mostly great news for LAFC and terrible news for the rest of the conference. They return most of their starting XI from last year’s double-winning team. Just add in center back Aaron Long and remove striker Chicho Arango, basically.
The Death Star does have an exhaust port, though. They’ll need a new No. 9 and potentially more depth in midfield as they juggle Concacaf Champions League commitments early on.
Or, ya know, they win every competition they’re in with ease thanks to a breakout year from Dénis Bouanga and general excellence across the board from perhaps the most talented XI in the league. That’s on the board, too.
First match: Feb. 25 at LA
The Verde & Black picked up striker Gyasi Zardes in free agency, replaced center back Ruben Gabrielsen with Finland international Leo Väisänen, and generally maintained continuity everywhere else from a team that finished second in the Western Conference. Also, they have an MLS cheat code in Sebastián Driussi.
However, their ceiling will likely be determined by whether or not DP winger Emiliano Rigoni can come good during his second year in MLS. In addition to those concerns and a potentially hard regression to the mean from their league-best xG overperformance last year, Austin will be dealing with a CCL run. That last part has slowed down deeper teams when it comes to the regular season.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. STL
Would you believe it? An FC Cincinnati team with expectations. Major expectations. Like, trophy-winning expectations. Head coach Pat Noonan and general manager Chris Albright seem to have this team on the verge of something special during their second season in charge.
You should be very familiar with their hyper-charged front three at this point, but Cincy’s late-season additions of Obinna Nwobodo and Matt Miazga went a long way toward fixing their defensive issues. Then this offseason they added midfield depth with U22 Initative signing Marco Angulo, brought in another probable starting center back in Yerson Mosquera from Wolves, and likely improved at right wingback with Santiago Arias.
They have as much firepower as anyone in the league. They’ve added starters. They’ve added depth. They’re set to be a genuine contender from the jump.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. HOU
But last year’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs miss highlighted some increasing concerns around the team’s age, cohesion and ability to stay healthy. When push comes to shove, I’m certainly not brave enough to bet against this team. And when they’re healthy, they’re still as good a group as they come in MLS.
First match: Feb. 26 vs. COL
All of the offseason moves. All of them.
The Lions are getting a lot of buzz heading into 2023 thanks to the refresh they gave their roster across the last few months. In addition to successfully bringing back attacking midfielder Mauricio Pereyra and goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, they added DP winger Martín Ojeda, probable starting left back Rafael Santos, and a cast of new faces that could either become solid depth or eventual starters.
It is, at the very least, a needed reworking for a team that started to feel a little stale last year. They should appear rejuvenated.
That said, teams have missed on DPs before. If Ojeda does hit though… well, a team that lurched towards a playoff spot last year shouldn’t have to grind so much this time around.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. RBNY
Are we looking at what’s potentially the best Red Bulls team since 2018? It kind of feels like we are.
Y’all are going to roll your eyes at this, but if they’ve found the right guy at striker, this team should be great. Now, I know, it seems like we say that a lot around here. But they’ve taken a legitimate home-run swing by bringing in new DP forward Dante Vanzeir and they’ve even created a solid contingency plan by bringing in Elias Manoel and Cory Burke. One of these guys has to hit, right?
Even if they don’t quite reach the highs of peak Bradley Wright-Phillips, this team will be solid and Red Bulls-y. They’re going to get points, and they’re probably going to end up in the playoffs for a record 14th straight season. But their ceiling, as always, will be determined by their match-winners or lack thereof.
First match: Feb. 25 at ORL
They were great down the stretch last year, Chicharito is Chicharito, and midfielders Riqui Puig and Gaston Brugman will be entering their first full year in the league. Those few things should be enough to convince you the Galaxy are a playoff team.
As for the rest of the roster… it feels like there are some holes? And due to some summer transfer window sanctions, they’re running out of time to make corrections.
It appears they have enough high-end talent to finish in a home playoff spot, but are the weak links going to prove a little too weak for them to push for a trophy?
First match: Feb. 25 vs. LAFC
Pretty much everyone is back from a good team... except for Matt Hedges. It wouldn’t be the first time losing a key center back from a good team during the offseason did a number on FC Dallas. They found a solid replacement in Sebastien Ibeagha and there’s a ton of continuity across the board from last year’s third-best team in the West.
The question is if continuity is enough to raise their ceiling during manager Nico Estevez’s second year. It may just depend on 20-year-old DP winger Alan Velasco. If he can build on a strong first MLS season, they might just be a team capable of truly challenging for trophies.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. MIN
It’s year two under manager/sporting director Bob Bradley, year two for Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne, and year one for free-agent center back Matt Hedges and free-agent goalkeeper Sean Johnson. That’s five reasons to have serious optimism about this team in 2023.
They’ve actively been working to fix their biggest issues, and it’s resulted in a starting XI that seems set to challenge the best groups in the league. That’s only if they’re fully, 100% healthy though.
As good as this team is on the top end, they’re paper-thin at spots, and it still feels like they have work to do to fill out the roster. But if they take the kind of leap forward that’s fair to expect, they could be a legit challenger. They just have to stay healthy enough to keep the bottom from falling out.
First match: Feb. 25 at DC
It’s all on Evander, isn’t it?
The Timbers made the offseason’s most expensive signing by bringing in the attacking midfielder and then called it quits (so far) for the rest of the window. It’s a big gamble, but if Evander lives up to his reported $10 million price tag and the level of production he had with Midtjylland in Denmark, it could pay off in a big way.
If not… nothing has really changed from a team that missed the playoffs last season.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. SKC
Hany Mukhtar still doesn’t have much help. It’s hard to ignore that storyline.
Nashville will play solid defense, grab a handful of draws and likely be a playoff team. But some questions exist. They traded away longtime starting center back Dave Romney and have no DP spots open despite Aké Loba’s loan to Liga MX. And the midfield feels uncertain. We could find out just how high the floor is for a Nashville team that has always felt steady.
Or, ya know, Hany puts up 25 goals and 10 assists in his MVP/Golden Boot-defending season… and everything stays about the same.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. NYC
NYCFC’s offseason talent exodus, just wow. But their scouting network has been so successful that nobody seems to be all that worried. That’s even with some still-readily-apparent roster holes just a few days before opening weekend.
The bottom line is that even if Alexander Callens, Maxi Moralez and Sean Johnson all left, you can still highlight NYCFC’s ridiculous collection of young attacking talent and feel confident they’ll remain dangerous. Still, this could go so many ways. The variance for 2023 NYCFC is all over the place.
First match: Feb. 25 at NSH
They ended last year on a heater after William Agada began scoring for fun and Erik Thommy solidified the midfield – two huge summertime signings. That wasn’t enough to make up for a difficult start, but it was enough to inspire some confidence for 2023, especially with Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda set to return from injury.
First match: Feb. 25 at POR
This could go so many ways for the Five Stripes. Adding DP striker Giorgos Giakoumakis and winger Derrick Etienne Jr. should make this as balanced an attack as we’ve seen in Atlanta in a long time, but there are question marks. Central midfield is a weak point, depth is a concern, and Brad Guzan and Miles Robinson are both returning from Achilles tears.
The first year of Garth Lagerwey’s tenure as Atlanta United president/CEO could be up and down. But it also might be a preamble to bigger things on the horizon as the Five Stripes try to make up for three years of mediocrity.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. SJ
The Crew blew approximately 124 leads last season, and thus ended Caleb Porter’s managerial tenure and the Crew’s playoff hopes. So they then went out and pulled an absolute coup, swiping CF Montréal’s manager Wilfried Nancy and immediately positioning themselves as a possible favorite in the Eastern Conference. Nancy was that good in his time in Montréal.
That being said, the roster hasn’t exactly improved this offseason. Derrick Etienne Jr., Artur, Pedro Santos and Jonathan Mensah are all gone and haven’t been replaced. Then again, do any of those departures really matter if Cucho Hernandez and Lucas Zelarayan get hot and stay hot?
First match: Feb. 25 at PHI
Aaron Herrera and Sergio Córdova are both gone. That feels big for a team that isn’t loaded on top-end talent. But they’re RSL, and they’re going to bust their rear-ends for all 90 minutes every game (xDAWG) and that just may be enough to, once again, get them back to the playoffs.
First match: Feb. 25 at VAN
Are we about to see the next expansion team take a massive leap forward in their second season? The ingredients seem to be there.
Charlotte developed a tactical identity under manager Christian Lattanzio that generated results as 2022 went on, they found a potential star in Karol Swiderski, and they added seemingly quality pieces during the offseason. DP striker Enzo Copetti and longtime Portland center back Bill Tuiloma both stand out in that regard.
We’ll see if those additions are enough to make up ground elsewhere, but we know better than to count out a team in year two.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. NE
The Revs quietly had an effective offseason. They grabbed Dave Romney from Nashville to bolster their backline and took a low-risk, high-reward chance on Latif Blessing that could help solve some midfield issues.
They still have to figure out how to piece together all their attacking talent and, as incredible as Djordje Petrovic is, relying on him to keep out shots at a historic rate again maybe isn’t the best bet.
Even still, this group could quickly gel into a playoff-caliber team. Their record-setting 2021 probably isn’t on the table, but a nice bounceback season certainly is.
First match: Feb. 25 at CLT
Exit Wilfried Nancy. Enter Hernan Losada.
Despite Nancy’s departure to Columbus, Montréal’s roster actually held up better than most were expecting. Even with Djordje Mihailovic, Alistair Johnston and Ismaël Koné leaving, they bring back eight starters – including DP midfielder Victor Wanyama – and they added wingback Aaron Herrera in one of the steals of the offseason. That’s a lot of top-end talent gone, but the rest of the group is solid.
Now we’ll see how sharp of a tactical turn awaits. Nancy’s possession-based game model has been exchanged for Diet Energy Drink soccer, which could lead to some growing pains.
First match: Feb. 25 at MIA
The Rapids made one of the riskiest moves of the offseason by taking DP winger Kévin Cabral from LA. He just didn’t get the job done for the Galaxy despite finding chances to score with relative consistency. But in the context of Colorado, it’s a totally in-character move that will almost certainly result in Cabral coming good in a major way this year. No one should be surprised when he puts up numbers.
If Cabral is a miss, it’s tough to envision Colorado nearing their highs of 2021. But the rest of the roster feels typically solid and DP center back Andreas Maxsø comes very well-regarded. A playoff run is seriously possible.
First match: Feb. 26 at SEA
The Whitecaps should be about as good as you expect a good Whitecaps team to be. They’ve made a lot of smart signings and could slot into that tier of teams that are good enough to make the playoffs but don’t have the high-end talent to compete for a title.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. RSL
This XI actually seems really solid? They’re balanced and they have dynamic pieces that can find the net with some consistency.
Now the task for manager Luchi Gonzalez is to shake all the Matias Almeyda out of this team once and for all and get them on level footing defensively. They moved quickly to bring in center back Jonathan Mensah after Nathan’s ACL tear, and landed DP Carlos Gruezo (he should be a top-end MLS d-mid).
It’s a big if… but if San Jose can hold it together enough defensively, a playoff spot is entirely realistic.
First match: Feb. 25 at ATL
Until Emanuel Reynoso is around, there are some concerns.
Just to catch you up: Reynoso, their DP No. 10, has yet to join the team. That’s kind of all we definitively know about the situation? You can’t overstate how important he’s been to Minnesota.
To repeat some stats I’ve been repeating a lot lately: Reynoso led the league last year in "touch percentage", making up 13.5% of Minnesota's total touches in 2022. If you look at Minnesota's touches in only the final third, Reynoso had a league-leading 25.5% of them. If the Argentine isn’t around, the Loons are going to need new solutions… ASAP.
First match: Feb. 25 at DAL
Leo Campana is back, but Gonzalo Higuaín and Alejandro Pozuelo are not. You have to wonder where goals are going to come from without them. I have doubts they’re going to come from putting Josef Martínez in a two-striker system, but that seems to be what Miami are intent on doing right now.
Also, there’s a chance they haven’t improved defensively. They gave up a ton of goals last year and they’re banking on the hope that sending starting center back Damion Lowe to Philadelphia and replacing him with Shakhtar Donetsk transfer Sergii Kryvtsov will pay off.
Of course, a lot of these doubts go away very quickly if they pull off one particular move this summer. They’ve set themselves up to bring in Lionel Messi and reportedly still seem confident they can bring him in. We’ll see.
First match: Feb. 25 vs. MTL
After serious roster turnover, D.C. United seem like they’re in a win-now mode under Wayne Rooney. But it’s unclear how easily wins will actually come. They’ll be looking for new DP midfielder Mateusz Klich to make an immediate impact and for fellow DPs Christian Benteke and Taxi Fountas to put up big numbers. Not too many folks are confident in that happening right now. But maybe a quick start can change some hearts and minds?
First match: Feb. 25 vs. TOR
It doesn’t seem like Chicago are going to change much in their decade-plus run of struggling to make the playoffs. At least not yet. A DP No. 9 should be on the way at some point, and the rest of the roster seems good enough to grab points here and there.
Maybe we’re all being a little too harsh and will feel bad about this ranking down the road. It’s Ezra Hendrickson and Xherdan Shaqiri’s second year, and that Year Two bump can come for anyone, right?
First match: March 4 vs. NYC
The Dynamo are one of the few teams breaking in a new manager this season. Normally, that would mean a lot of unknowns and varied timelines. In this case, the new manager is Ben Olsen and he’s been in MLS in some capacity every year but one since 1998.
That’s not to say there aren’t question marks. You have to wonder what kind of changes Olsen has made to his approach and game model after a year off. You also have to wonder how Olsen will apply it to a team that still feels like it's a number of pieces away from really competing.
First match: Feb. 25 at CIN
The new kids are all set to do their best Red Bulls impression under manager Bradley Carnell. We’ll just have to wait and see how that goes under a first-year manager with a first-year team.
First match: Feb. 25 at ATX