Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Ranking all 29 MLS teams by tier for 2023

Doyle Tiers 2.23.23

As is now tradition, my final piece of season preview content starts with a tip of the cap to the great Zach Lowe for the inspiration, courtesy of his Annual Tiers of the NBA opus. What follows are not hard-and-fast Power Rankings, per se, but rather something a little looser in terms of talent level, cohesion, chemistry and all the et ceteras that make teams tick (or not).

These teams are mostly in the order I think they'll finish, but what really matters is the tier designation.

Tier I: The Favorites

Locked into Tier 1 with zero hesitation or second thoughts. The Union missed winning the Supporters’ Shield on the first tiebreaker (total wins, not goal differential!) last year, and missed winning MLS Cup on the most absurd ending we’ve ever had in this league (apologies to Eddie Pope).

They bring back over 90% of the minutes from that team, and most of those players are at a point in their developmental curve where you’d expect them to improve. They added depth in midfield and at center back, and went out and finally got a dribbly boi (Joaquín Torres) to come in as a super-sub up top.

The Union did overperform their underlying numbers last year, but I’m less worried about that with them than I tend to be with other teams for two reasons:

  1. Philly have elite talent all over the field.
  2. The Union play a Red Bull-esque style that’s well known to break statistical models.

One other reason to be extremely bullish on this side is their steady, linear improvement under head coach Jim Curtin.

So riddle me this: What does a team that just missed winning the double in 2022 and is known for improving every year do in 2023?

Yeah, that’s where expectations are at for this bunch.

My Worry

We’ve seen CCL runs crush teams year after year after year (hello, Seattle!), and Philly are most likely going to make an extended CCL run.

The other concern is the one big piece they lost from last year, backup center forward Cory Burke, was maybe the best sub in the league last season. It’ll be tough without him.

First-Choice XI

4-4-2 diamond: Blake; Wagner, Glesnes, Elliott, Mbaizo; Flach, Martinez, Bedoya; Gazdag; Uhre, Carranza

I was straight bullied into putting this team in Tier 1 whenever I showed this list around for feedback, and the general consensus was “c’mon, they’ve still got a ton of talent and you know they’re going to go out and add more. The holes you see on their roster right now won’t be there when the season kicks into gear.”

Fair enough. I mostly trust that will be the case, and hell, I can admit I kind of love the idea of Kwadwo Opoku as a No. 9 to start the year. He’s really smart with his off-ball movement and is relentless with his pressing, which should help an LAFC side that doesn’t always get amazing defense at the point of attack.

They loaded up on the backline, got an exciting young winger, and are one piece away from having what I would consider adequate central midfield depth. And yeah, they’ve still got an open DP slot and still have José Cifuentes, who I’m guessing won’t be sold until the summer window (or maybe not at all?).

So I’ll concede the point that while this group doesn't look quite as good as Philly, they belong in Tier 1 nonetheless.

My Worry

Even though I love Mahala, the No. 9 issue looms. Plus Carlos Vela really needed his minutes managed down the stretch last year (he went 90 once over the final three months of the season), and penalty shootouts aside, Andre Blake gives the Union something in goal that LAFC can not match.

They also have the same CCL issue staring them in the face, but without the kind of depth the Union can call on.

This isn’t to say the bottom’s going to drop out on this team. But I could see a very up-and-down year because of continental duties and roster flux, a la NYCFC in 2022.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: McCarthy; Palacios, Long, Murillo, Hollingshead; Acosta, Ilie, Cifuentes; Bouanga, Opoku, Vela

Tier II: Contenders

Full disclosure: I picked Cincy to win the East, and am in the process of convincing myself that they’re going to win the Shield as well.

The argument is that they return one of the league’s best attacks (so long as Brenner is sufficiently bought in, a potential issue after his move to Nottingham Forest failed), which should be upgraded via familiarity and the addition of Santi Arias at right wingback, combined with a vastly improved defense thanks to a full season of Obinna Nwobodo in midfield and Matt Miazga along the backline.

With those two in the lineup, Cincy lost just once in nine games and picked up 1.8 points per game. That’s not quite good enough to win the Shield, but it’s in the neighborhood.

They showed it in the playoffs by beating the Red Bulls on the road and then giving Philly absolute hell. Which is to say that by the eye test, they’d just about ascended to contender status at the end of last season.

They’ll be there from Day 1 this time around.

My Worry

Unhappy players can ruin a locker room, and a ruined locker room can have a massively negative impact on the field. Managing Brenner’s disappointment is the first really, really big test for this team in 2023.

First-Choice XI

3-4-1-2: Celentano; Murphy, Miazga, Hagglund; Barreal, Moreno, Nwobodo, Arias; Acosta; Brenner, Vazquez

Seattle’s the other team I’m strongly considering for the Shield. I just really liked what I saw from them in that Club World Cup cameo at the start of the month – the structure was good, the center backs were impressive in how connected they were and how well they moved the ball upfield, and the guys who spent a big chunk of last year injured (Raúl Ruidíaz, João Paulo) did not look it in that game.

Add in a spritely performance from Nico Lodeiro and a really promising outing at d-mid from Josh Atencio, and I’m just about sold.

The other argument for the Sounders is that via academy development and some shrewd offseason maneuvering from new GM Craig Waibel they added depth (I loved the Héber signing) and, with that, more flexibility.

Plus they haven’t won the Shield under Brian Schmetzer. With no CCL to worry about and an almost completely healthy roster to start the season, I like their chances this year.

My Worry

The big one is that the left side, with Nouhou at left back and Jordan Morris at left wing, just doesn’t really mesh. Even after Schmetzer made a good tactical adjustment at the Club World Cup (Nouhou slid inside to become a third center back and overlapped very infrequently as Seattle morphed into a 3-2-3-2 possession shape), that didn’t really solve the issue of the Sounders generating nothing up that side.

Teams played for that last year, just clearing out one half of the field because they knew the Sounders didn’t create danger over there. Nouhou provides nothing in attack and Morris just isn’t a chalk-on-the-boots winger.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Frei; Nouhou, Ragen, Yeimar, A. Roldan; João Paulo, Rusnak; Morris, Lodeiro, C. Roldan; Ruidíaz

It can be dangerous to buy in on a team that won the offseason – and Orlando, at this point, really do appear to be the winner of this offseason. By definition, you’re buying high.

But it’s easy to look at this group, which managed 48 points and a trophy (US Open Cup champs) last season, then look at the reinforcements (a DP, several U22s, a trio of what look like excellent SuperDraft picks, a smart free-signing or two) and start nodding. They very clearly liked the foundation of the roster and kept it together, but very clearly had ideas of how and where they needed to reinforce/upgrade. And so they spent two months kicking over every rock in sight to find the type of talent who could elevate this team a level or two.

I’m guessing manager Oscar Pareja figures out how to make this work.

My Worry

CCL to start the season, though since it’s Tigres – second in the Liga MX Clausura table, and still the highest-spending team in North America – chances are it’ll be a short trip for the Lions.

The other underlying issue is that Robin Jansson and Antonio Carlos spent most of last year not being healthy, and central defense is where I’m least convinced about this team’s depth. They need those two guys to start 60 games combined if they’re going to have a shot at the Shield, and they’ll need Pedro Gallese to be better in net than he was last year as well.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: Gallese; Halliday, Jansson, Carlos, Petrasso; Araujo, Pereyra, Ojeda; Angulo, McGuire, Torres

(They’ve been playing a 3-4-2-1 in preseason, but went with a 4-2-3-1ish 4-3-3 in their final tune-up, so that’s what I’ve got them in here.)

Feels a little high, right? I thought it did myself, but then I remembered that the Red Bulls finished fourth in the East on 53 points last year despite a very underwhelming attack and a midfield constantly in flux as young players moved in and out of head coach Gerhard Struber’s doghouse.

They’ve returned 10 of 11 starters from that side, and while Aaron Long is a loss in central defense, Andrés Reyes just slots straight into the XI. No muss no fuss.

I’ve buried the lede, though: RB global finally gave the Harrison branch the resources they needed to do something about that underwhelming attack I mentioned, buying out underperforming DP forward Patryk Klimala and bringing in record signing Dante Vanzeir. They also inked Cory Burke as a free agent and exercised the purchase option on Elias Manoel’s loan agreement.

The No. 9 situation was tragic in 2022. In 2023, it should be a strength. And the midfield, with the youngsters more experienced and Luquinhas more settled, should be better as well.

My Worry

It looks very much like Struber will roll this group out in a 4-2-2-2, which is the formation of Ralf Rangnick’s heart – the one he originally used when he introduced Energy Drink Soccer soccer to the world 15 years ago. There are two issues with that:

  1. Four separate coaches have attempted to use the 4-2-2-2 with RBNY. It has not worked for any of them.
  2. Over Struber’s two years in charge, they’ve generally been much worse playing with four at the back than with three (or five, depending on how you look at it).

Compounding that second point is although I’m high as hell on Reyes, he managed just 700 minutes last year and has never played more than 1,500 in an MLS season since he arrived in 2020. The kid just can’t stay healthy, and the depth behind him and Sean Nealis is entirely unproven.

They need to add another center back.

First-Choice XI

4-2-2-2: Coronel; Tolkin, Reyes, S. Nealis, Duncan; Casseres Jr., Edelman; Morgan, Luquinhas; Vanzeir, Manoel

Here’s the argument:

  • 56 points, second place in the West basically all year long.
  • Won two playoff games.
  • Posted a very good goal differential (+16).
  • Foundational pieces are an MVP-caliber No. 10, a top-five goalkeeper, an elite young d-mid and a high-usage playmaking winger.
  • Upgraded at the No. 9, which should bring more goalscoring diversity to what’s already a high-scoring side.

They also managed to add a bit of depth in a few spots (though I don’t think anybody will be confusing them for Philly in that regard).

All this comes within the context of Josh Wolff’s system, which is clear and executable. Austin’s players go out there and work from the same script, which is a built-in advantage that not every team has.

My Worry

Ok, pour up. You ready? Here goes:

Regression to the mean.

For all their talent and systemic clarity, Austin massively overperformed their underlying numbers. They probably won’t do so two years in a row, so they’ve got to tighten things up and allow fewer chances that call upon heroics from Brad Stuver.

That might be difficult, however, because as much of a scoring boost as I think it’s fair to expect of Gyasi Zardes, he’s not the defensive presence up top that Maxi Urruti is. And Urruti’s willingness to run himself to death cutting off easy distribution into the heart of the Verde midfield was an underappreciated part of the whole team’s defensive improvement last year.

The other part, which was not underrated, was the presence of Ruben Gabrielsen in central defense. Austin went out on the transfer market and replaced him with Finnish international Leo Väisänen, but that kid’s got his hands full because Gabrielsen was legit last year.

And, also, CCL looms. I don’t think they have the depth to juggle a prolonged run with their regular-season campaign.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Stuver; Gallagher, Väisänen, Cascante, Lima; Ring, Pereira; Fagundez, Driussi, Rigoni; Zardes

Tier III: High-Upside Mystery Box

Dallas got to where they were last year – third in the West, +11 goal differential and a playoff win – thanks to the control they exerted over games. Nico Estévez, in year one, instituted a fairly complex positional play system that prioritized pitch balance and rest defense as a way of preventing cheap transition goals. That was the nature of the possession they generated and their overall approach.

Bonus: It occasionally generated scoring chances as well. Center forward Jesús Ferreira bagged 18 goals, with most coming off of well-scripted and coordinated movements. Right winger Paul Arriola had 10 and left winger Alan Velasco potted six. The front three, in their first year together, were good.

So the “high upside” part of this comes from the very real chance that a young team takes a solid step forward in 2023. They’re mostly on the right part of the age curve to expect as much, and have an unused Designated Player slot just sitting there, waiting to be put into action.

My Worry

For one, they put so much emphasis on pitch control that they forgot to be dynamic through midfield for a good chunk of the year. Ferriera had 18, Arriola 10, Velasco 6 and no one else more than three (and that guy, backup No. 9 Franco Jara, is gone). That’s rough, even if recent acquisition Jesús Jiménez does, in theory, provide some insurance.

And for two, they let Matt Hedges walk in free agency.

I get it – Hedges was on a big number and will be 33 by the time the season’s two months old. But teams that have let proven, domestic center backs walk in the past have tended to regret it.

The other looming issue, as far as I’m concerned, is that Ferreira’s not really a No. 9. That is probably a very stupid thing to say a year after he scored 18 goals, but I think in an ideal world he’s playing the role Sebastián Driussi plays for Austin underneath a more traditional center forward. Jiménez is kiiiind of that, but not really.

So if Ferreira regresses as a goalscorer, the team as it’s currently set up does not have a way to compensate.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: Paes; Farfan, Martinez, Ibeagha, Jesus; Pomykal, Quignon, Lletget; Velasco, Ferreira, Arriola

If it was any other team caught staring at such a massive teardown and rebuild – Maxi Moralez, Sean Johnson, Alex Callens and Anton Tinnerholm were all elite at their spots in this league (Johnson still is, he’ll just be elite in Toronto now), and Héber was starting caliber – I’d toss them in the bin.

But the Pigeons have that City Football Group pipeline, and that CFG pipeline has constantly infused them with both a highly successful system of play and with high-level players. So there is a level of confidence around the league that while, yes, those guys will be missed, Nick Cushing will figure it out.

And understand that “high-level” still means “multiple potential Best XI guys on the field at the same time.” Gabby Pereira is maybe my favorite young attacker in the league, Keaton Parks is a one-man field-tilt machine at d-mid. If they formally push the Santi Rodríguez deal across the line, he’s at that level as well.

My Worry

So is Talles Magno, but not as a No. 9 – the early returns from last year’s experiment with him at that spot were not great. I’m very worried about the plan to play him there from the jump. Keeping Parks healthy has always been a challenge, but they desperately need him to be because he’s plopped in front of the underwhelming defensive pairing of Thiago Martins and Maxime Chanot, who will be in front of either one inexperienced goalkeeper (Matt Freese?) or another (Luis Barraza?).

It’s a lot. It’s just a whole damn lot, and after writing this blurb I’m actually leaning toward bumping them down a tier. Losing half a lineup’s worth of elite players is just so much.

Still, they’ve got just enough for me to err on the side of “they’ll probably figure out how to be good again” even if it doesn’t happen right away.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Freese; Cufré, Martins, Chanot, Gray; Parks, Morales; Andrade, Rodriguez, Pereira; Magno

They were one of the best teams in the league down the stretch last year, guided by what’s arguably the league’s best three-man central midfield in Gastón Brugman, Mark Delgado and Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate Riqui Puig. They were just about perfectly balanced in the most valuable real estate on the pitch.

They also have two center forwards capable of making the Best XI, a left back capable of the same, and while I don’t think anybody should point at the central defense and say “that’s a strength,” I don’t think it’s as big a weakness as it’s been in years past.

Plus I really like the Memo Rodríguez pick-up. He’s a smart player who doesn’t need the ball to be effective. Put him opposite a high-level, goalscoring winger, and he will get in position to walk the ball into the net seven or eight times over the course of the year.

My Worry

So, about finding that high-level, goalscoring winger…

I’m not going to say it’s telling that the Galaxy, who are staring at a transfer ban this summer (they can still make in-league trades), moved Kévin Cabral out nearly two months ago and still haven’t filled that DP slot. My suspicion all along has been that Puig would be moved into the open DP slot and that any winger brought in would be via the U22 Initiative, or maybe just a regular signing.

Guys like that can still be very good. (Tyler Boyd? He has a great highlight reel, though the only time he scored more than six goals in a single season was in the now-defunct New Zealand premiership almost a decade ago). But right now the Galaxy are hellbent on playing a formation that doesn’t seem to maximize their personnel, and that is traditionally not the best way to get the most out of the talent on any roster.

Would it help if the front office ponied up and bought out Douglas Costa? Absolutely. But it feels like if that was going to happen, it would’ve by now.

So in summation: Great midfield, great forwards, ok defense, questionable goalkeeper, and no high-level wingers for a team that’s determined on playing a 4-2-3-1. Oh, and they just sold their dynamic, two-way right back (though another young, dynamic right back is on the way).

Doesn’t seem great, but that midfield and those strikers are so incredible they might hit 60 points anyway.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Bond; Edwards, Mavinga, Caceres, Leerdam; Brugman, Delgado; Rodríguez, Puig, Álvarez; Chicharito

A star No. 10, a star goalkeeper – I think, entering the season, that Djordje Petrovic is the favorite to win the Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award by a wider margin than anybody else in the league is favored to win anything – a couple of attacking fullbacks, a couple of DP strikers, some veteran center backs… there’s a good foundation here even if last year was mostly flimsy and miserable.

The “flimsy” part was because of a lack of solidity and ball-winning in central midfield, which the Revs addressed by adding Latif Blessing (he’ll likely play as a No. 8 instead of the pressing 10 role he had with LAFC) and by developing a pair of kids from the academy (keep an eye on Noel Buck and Jack Panayotou), as well as a rickety central defense that they hopefully fixed by trading for no-frills veteran Dave Romney.

The miserable part was that the attack had so many injuries that it just never quite clicked, even though Carles Gil was dealing all year long. But they’ve got a bunch of wingers now, and a bunch of center forwards (too many, to be honest), so if Gil keeps dealing the Revs will start scoring again.

My Worry

Blessing’s super-power as a No. 10 was going into a ton of 30/70s and winning 40% of them. LAFC turned those into chance after chance after chance.

You can’t do that as a No. 8, though, when you’re deeper in the structure and a lost challenge turns instantly into a counterattack. Blessing’s going to have to adjust his mindset in those moments from “win the ball” to “contain the opponent until my team can get back into their shape.” And if he can’t, then it’ll be up to either those two teenagers I mentioned or to Tommy McNamara – a solid veteran, but by no means a ball-winner.

The other, bigger problem is that Bruce Arena’s best teams have always ridden their best players, and while Gil and goalkeeper Petrovic are up for it, it’s tough to bet too large on both DP forwards Giacomo Vrioni and Gustavo Bou. I don’t think the Revs will consistently max out if both of them are on the field at the same time.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Petrovic; Jones, Romney, Kessler, Bye; Buck, Polster; Borrero, C. Gil, Rivera; Vrioni

The Timbers went out and made the biggest splash of the offseason thus far, spending eight figures for Brazilian No. 10 Evander, who was leading the Europa League in assists at the time. That’s the kind of pedigree that MLS teams couldn’t even get in the room to talk to three years ago.

He’ll slot into the middle of the “3” line in the 4-2-3-1, alongside Santi Moreno and Yimmi Chara, likely with Sebastián Blanco in a reserve role anywhere across that three-man group.

I like the deep-lying midfield duo of Eryk Williamson and Diego Chara they’re playing in front of, right back Juan David Mosquera could be the best young fullback in the league, and goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic was excellent in 2022.

My Worry

Other than that “3” line they don’t have depth basically anywhere. Injuries have killed their forward corps, and though GM Ned Grabavoy has said help is on the way, 1) it’s not here yet, and 2) the way their roster is structured, I don’t think they can go out and make a season-altering signing there.

They also need a big signing in central defense, which I assume is coming following the trade of Bill Tuiloma to Charlotte for a bagful of GAM. And man do they need Ivacic not to regress, and Diego Chara not to get old, and Williamson not to get hurt.

All that could happen, mind you. And if it does, the Timbers could be really, really good.

But last year – injuries, lack of chemistry, defensive slop – could happen, too.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Ivacic; Bravo, Zuparic, McGraw, Mosquera; Williamson, D. Chara; Moreno, Evander, Y. Chara; Fogaça

Wooo boy. I had to be talked into putting them here instead of a level down, so here’s the argument that won me over: The backline is still intact, and arguably upgraded with the arrival of Aaron Herrera. Goalkeeper James Pantemis from the start will be a massive upgrade over what the since-departed Sebastian Breza provided through the first 20 games of last season, and they were more than just adequate when Djordje Mihailovic was out injured in 2022.

So while they’ve lost a lot, they’ve also brought back a ton and are the kind of veteran team that shouldn’t just completely drop off after a 65-point season that, in a lot of ways, accurately reflected just how good they actually were.

Plus it’s Montréal. They’re starting to get a deserved rep for matching productivity to potential with all those talented young players coming through the system, and manager Hernan Losada certainly wasn’t afraid to play the kids when he was in D.C.

My Worry

They survived Djordje-less minutes last year, but were nowhere as good when he was out. And the guy most likely to fill those minutes in 2023, Matko Miljevic, is starting the season on the sideline after knee surgery.

I am less worried about replacing Ismaël Koné or Alistair Johnston simply because I think those concerns have been adequately addressed. I do, however, have massive questions about the front line, as Kei Kamara explicitly wants out (and is almost 40), while Romell Quioto is now solidly into his 30s and has never played 2,000+ minutes in back-to-back seasons.

Undergirding all of it, though, is the fact that Losada’s a very different coach than Wilfried Nancy. Nancy’s teams controlled tempo with methodical, structured midfield play that flowed directly from the strengths of the team’s best player, d-mid Victor Wanyama. Losada’s Maximum Overdrive approach doesn’t control tempo – it blasts the throttle wide open. Will Wanyama keep up with that? Will the less-than-super-mobile backline?

That type of tactical shift layered on top of an exodus of elite personnel… it’s a lot.

First-Choice XI

3-4-2-1: Pantemis; Miller, Camacho, Waterman; Lappalainen, Piette, Wanyama, Herrera; Hamdi, Quioto; Toye

There are two big things here. First is that they get a full year of d-mid Andrés Cubas, who was one of the best ball-winners in the league last season, and I’ve got down on my scorecard as a top-five d-mid in MLS. He’s the type of player we could be talking about as a Best XI presented by Continental Tire candidate by the time the season’s said and done (even though d-mids almost never make Best XI).

The second is that the way the rest of the roster’s constructed just makes sense. It took a while, and they had to do it on a budget, but a five-man midfield of Cubas, Alessandro Schöpf, Julian Gressel, Ryan Gauld and Pedro Vite looks just about perfectly balanced to me, and provides head coach Vanni Sartini the ability to flex out of one formation to another on the fly (we’ve seen this in preseason with the ‘Caps primarily playing out of a 4-3-2-1, but pushing Gressel out wide to shift into a 3-2-2-3 in possession).

They added Sergio Córdova up top, and if the goalkeeping situation (hi, Yohei Takaoka) improves upon last year, it’s entirely possible that they put together a “Montréal 2022” type season.

My Worry

They’ve been so up and down under Sartini that it’s tough to bet on that. I think in some ways it’s an issue of over-coaching – this team spent a lot of last season looking like they were thinking through their rotations rather than playing soccer. And then when desperation finally set in down the stretch, it was too late to actually catch the teams in front of them and push over the line.

The other issues are on the backline (it’s tough to be certain about the starters at this point) and in goal. It’s supposed to be Takaoka, and he’s got the profile of a guy who’ll be good in this league. But this team can’t afford another season with a slow start, especially with CCL play (CanChamp winners) looming.

First-Choice XI

4-3-2-1: Takaoka; Martins, Veselinovic, Laborda, Brown; Schöpf, Cubas, Gressel; Gauld, Vite; Córdova

I was down on the Crew – at first glance that roster’s thin and a few of the pieces don’t quite fit – until I started getting messages from folks who’ve watched them in person in preseason. The scouting reports are uniformly glowing, and it seems like the entire team has bought into new head coach Wilfried Nancy’s approach from the jump.

And that’s the high-upside part of this Crew team: They have quality attacking talent (I’m toying with picking Cucho Hernandez as my Golden Boot presented by Audi winner) that can propel them toward, or even to the top of the table provided 1) the defense and midfield execute on the ball the way Nancy’s Montréal team did last year, and 2) the young players in Ohio develop in the same way the young players in Quebec managed to.

The reason you go out and get Nancy is because you believe both are possible. Paying to get him from Montréal is a way of showing belief in Aidan Morris, Jacen Russell-Rowe, Sean Zawadzki and even Alexandru Matan.

My Worry

Even for the best coaches it often takes more than a year for a new system to really land. That’s the primary one.

The secondary concern is that so much of what worked in Montréal last year revolved around Victor Wanyama’s ability to decide when to make the field big and when to make it small. He was brilliant at it, and neither Morris nor Darlington Nagbe really have that club in the bag.

So it could be a more limited approach to pitch control, which could end up putting more pressure on a still-under-construction defense. That’s a legit concern.

First-Choice XI

3-4-2-1: Room; Williams, Degenek, Moreira; Medranda, Nagbe, A. Morris, Farsi; Matan, Zelarayan; Cucho

The argument now is the same one I’ve been making all winter: They were massively better on both sides of the ball once Willy Agada and Erik Thommy arrived midseason and got into the XI – they went 5W-2L-2D when both those guys started, which is a Shield-winning pace. Since they’re both here from Matchday 1 in 2023, as is almost everyone else relevant, and some reinforcements have arrived at d-mid and left back, there is little reason to expect a major regression from that late-autumn pace.

Sporting also have the advantage of complete clarity in terms of how they play. Everyone knows Peter Vermes’ game model, and so it’s on the players to execute it. There’s no confusion out there.

Add in the potential return of both DPs Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda, and Vermes has a cabinet full of ingredients to cook with this year.

My Worry

While there’s no confusion about the game model, this team still had major trouble executing Vermes’ (or anyone’s) vision for the first two-thirds of 2022 because the talent level just wasn’t high enough. That has been at least partially addressed, but what if Agada’s form was a blip? What if Thommy picks up the type of injury that has hit him all too often throughout his career? What if Pulido and Kinda just can’t come back and be difference-makers?

And those aren’t even the big ones. These are:

What if the version of goalkeeper Tim Melia we all saw last year is here to stay? That, on its own, would be really, really big trouble. But combine it with a central back situation that is yet again up in the air – Kortne Ford ruptured his Achilles’ and is set to miss all of 2023 – and there is a very clear path to the bottom dropping out no matter how good Willy, Thommy and the rest of the attack are.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: Melia; Leibold, Fontas, Voloder, Zusi; Radoja, Walter, Thommy; Salloi, Agada, Russell

The argument for this team having a high upside is this:

  • By adding two productive, in-their-prime attackers (Giorgos Giakoumakis and Derrick Etienne, Jr.) who don’t need the ball to feet to be effective, the attack should be better balanced and more dynamic.
  • There should be better familiarity with both each other and with the league among the Argie midfield cohort (Thiago Almada, Santiago Sosa, Franco Ibarra).
  • The center back pairing of Miles Robinson and newly-acquired Luis Abram is potentially one of the best in the league.
  • They were annihilated by injuries last year and still hung into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race until the very end.

On paper this team just works better than the past few years, and while I don’t think anyone is expecting Giakoumakis to be 2017-19 Josef, he should be better than 2021-22 Josef (who still scored goals but did virtually nothing else).

My Worry

Neither Sosa nor Ibarra, nor Matheus Rossetto, have been particularly good MLS players thus far in their careers. Thirty-seven-year-old Ozzie Alonso coming off a major injury is maybe still the best deep-lying central midfielder on the team and woo boy is that not great.

Meanwhile, 38-year-old Brad Guzan is still the starting goalkeeper. And my word was the defense flammable throughout preseason. Yes, it’s just preseason and sometimes that can mean nothing. But sometimes it can mean a whole lot.

You could talk me into anything from 35 to 65 points for this team.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Guzan; Gutman, Abram, Robinson, Lennon; Sosa, Alonso; Etienne, Jr., Almada, Araujo; Giakoumakis

You could talk me into anything from 35 to 65 points for this team. The argument for 65 (or even 70) is pretty easy: They almost completely avoid injuries like LAFC and Philly did last year, get MVP-caliber performances from their DP wingers, and get massive improvement in goal and central defense thanks to the new additions.

Add in just one more youngish midfielder of the type who can provide steady clean-up minutes at the 6, and there is a path for the most top-heavy roster construction in the league to actually work, especially if Mark-Anthony Kaye rediscovers his best form under Bob Bradley.

My Worry

The starting front three are aged 31, 33 and 29. The starting midfielders are 28, 30 and 35, and the top sub there is 36. The center backs are 28 and soon-to-be 33. The goalkeeper’s 33.

It’s not an impossible amount of luck with injuries and general durability that they need, but it does feel improbable. And unless they have three or four major signings hidden in their pockets – which they might, since their current DP usage allows them access to all three U22 Initiative spots, and boy could they use a José Cifuentes of their own – they will be by far the league’s shallowest roster.

It’s precarious as hell. This team’s already strolling along the knife’s edge.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: Johnson; Petretta, Hedges, Rosted, Laryea; Kaye, Bradley, Osorio; Insigne, Diomande, Bernardeschi

Hany Mukhtar pulled off an all-time carry job last year and I straight-up do not think they got him enough attacking help this offseason, so I initially had them a tier below this.

However, just think about it: Hany is one of the very best attacking midfielders this league’s ever seen and is still in his prime. Walker Zimmerman is one of the very best center backs this league has ever seen and is still in his prime. They have depth and speed on the wings. They have veteran depth in central midfield. They have two of the league’s better fullbacks. And Joe Willis should bounce back after a disappointing year in net.

Calling this group “high-upside” is probably a stretch, but unless Hany completely falls off a cliff they should fit pretty snugly into the 45-to-55-point range, and be in the playoff hunt until the very end.

My Worry

Hany’s put together two incredible, MVP-caliber seasons. Here, in the league’s entire history, is the list of players who have put together three straight seasons like that:

  • Robbie Keane (2013-15)
  • Josef Martinez (2017-19)

And that, folks, is it.

So they’re asking Hany to keep doing that, and they’re asking veteran center forwards C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury, who are solidly into their 30s, to be both healthier and more productive than last year. And for 32-year-old Fafà Picault to be the high-level attacking addition that this team has needed.

It could work since the schedule is a lot kinder this year, and since they shouldn’t be so bad defensively on set pieces. But given where most of this team is on the age curve, it feels like a step backwards is more likely than a step forward.

First-Choice XI

4-4-1-1: Willis; Lovitz, Maher, Zimmerman, Moore; Picault, Davis, Godoy, Leal; Mukhtar; Sapong

I’ve been letting other people talk me into moving teams up into this tier, but for the Crown I actually talked myself into it. The simple fact is that I like the midfield build and I love the style of play head coach Christian Lattanzio implemented over the second half of the season. Charlotte weren’t exactly possession-dominant, but they used the ball a ton to unbalance opponents and, as the season went on and they corrected many of the personnel mistakes they made in the initial roster build, they turned more and more of those good moments into goals, wins and points.

They added depth and quality to the midfield behind presumed starters Karol Swiderski, Brandt Bronico and Derrick Jones. They made a really good trade for Bill Tuiloma, whose ball-carrying off the backline is dynamic as hell, and who is a devastating set-piece threat. They gave Lattanzio options on the wing, made a fun move to trade up for the top pick in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas, and signed a DP No. 9 who looks good on paper.

They’ve come a long way since this time last season.

My Worry

Their starting left winger, DP Kamil Jozwiak, has one professional goal in the past 31 months. Their likely starting right winger, Kerwin Vargas, had zero goals or assists in 13 appearances last year, and has never scored a top-flight goal. The good news is that Lattanzio’s got plenty of other options there, and my guess is he’ll explore them.

Goalkeeper is a weak spot, which is made doubly difficult because much of the strength we saw down the stretch from this team came from how solid the center back pairing of Anton Walkes and Adilson Malanda were. Beyond just the emotional impact of Walkes' tragic death, in which Charlotte lost a beloved teammate (by all accounts Walkes was one of the centerpiece personalities in what became a close locker room over the course of the year), putting together a new partnership in this situation just seems so, so fraught.

It’s a tough reality to even think about, let alone write about.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Kahlina; Mora, Malanda, Tuiloma, Byrne; Jones, Bronico; Jozwiak, Swiderski, Vargas; Copetti

As with Charlotte, I’ve talked myself into putting the Quakes at this level. It comes down to an improved roster (the Carlos Gruezo signing, which I’ll get into in a minute, is one of my favorite moves of the offseason) and the sort of hidden fact that they were borderline playoff-caliber last year after Matias Almeyda was finally dismissed.

In Almeyda’s seven games to start 2022 the Quakes went 0W-4L-3D with a -6 goal differential and 17 goals allowed. Then Alex Covelo took over, scrapped Almedya’s man-marking insanity and steered the team to an 8W-11L-8D record with a -11 goal differential over the rest of the season. Pro-rate that over the course of the entire 34-game schedule and it puts the Quakes on around 40 or 41 points, which is the same neighborhood as Seattle, Sporting KC, Atlanta, New England and Charlotte.

I’m assuming Luchi Gonzalez’s blueprint will look a lot more like Covelo’s than Almeyda’s.

Now mix in Gruezo, whose tactical solidity and ball-winning means the midfield gets to attack a little more freely, and mix in veteran center back Jonathan Mensah, who should be an upgrade, and a year of growth for Cade Cowell (looking primed for a breakout) and Jeremy Ebobisse (17 goals in his first season as a starting No. 9 in this league), and I don’t think it’s entirely crazy to see a world where this team makes a year-over-year jump similar to the one Austin made last season.

My Worry

It’s two things: the defense, which has been almost completely remade and is thus a known unknown, and a lack of center forward depth behind Ebobisse.

The 26-year-old was an ironman last year, starting all 34 games and logging nearly 3,000 minutes. There is no replacing him if he misses significant time.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Daniel; Trauco, Rodrigues, Mensah, Akapo; Yueill, Gruezo; Cowell, Monteiro, Espinoza; Ebobisse

Tier IV: I’ve Got Questions

From a certain point of view the Loons bring back all their starters from the team’s Decision Day win and subsequent playoff appearance last year, and that is obviously good. They’ve got themselves a star in Dayne St. Clair (who could very well win Goalkeeper of the Year), Hassani Dotson returning from injury and a couple of high-upside youngish attackers in Bongi Hlongwane and Mender García.

They also have depth in midfield and, in Robin Lod, maybe the most underrated player in the entire league. He was phenomenal as a No. 8 last season, and Minnesota’s got the pieces to put him there full-time in 2023. Sure, that’ll mean benching some other midfielder who’s probably pretty good, but that’s the point of having a deep roster, isn’t it?

My Worry

Lod was phenomenal as a No. 8 in 2023, but as of right now, I think he’s going to be the starting No. 10. If you’ve been following this team at all over the past couple of months you know that the centerpiece, Emanuel Reynoso, is still in Argentina and that he’s been suspended without pay for failure to report to preseason.

Very few teams are equipped to be without their best player, but Minnesota are uniquely so because they are the most heliocentric attack in the league. Everything they do runs through Reynoso – who is a warlock – to the point that he took more than a quarter of the entire team’s final third touches last season. That’s absurd.

Without a true No. 10’s magic out there, Adrian Heath’s game model just doesn’t work.

Remember, though, that Reynoso wasn’t the only irreplaceable guy on this roster. Center back Bakaye Dibassy ruptured his quadriceps tendon late last August, 27 games into the season. The Loons went 1W-5L-1D the rest of the way and needed a full-on, desperation win on Decision Day to sneak into the playoffs.

Dibassy’s still hurt, and while Minnesota invested in Mexican center back Miguel Tapias to fill the breach, it’s very, very tough to replace a Defender of the Year-caliber veteran.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: St. Clair; Lawrence, Tapias, Boxall, Taylor; Trapp, Arriaga; Fragapane, Lod, Hlongwane; Amarilla

The argument for RSL here is that the things that carried them in 2022 – big switches to open the field of play, lots of speed on the flanks and an endless supply of xDAWG – are still around in 2023. And if that recipe was good enough last year without Damir Kreilach, who is back from injury, and with less than a full season from DP winger Jefferson Savarino, and without big-money signing Andrés Gómez, who will presumably be lined up across from Savarino on the other wing, then why won’t it work this year?

And you know what? Fair enough. Pablo Mastroeni always gets his team to buy in, and he’s not at all dogmatic about where he finds talent to fit his game model, and those wingers can fly, and Kreilach is a Best XI-caliber talent if he really is back to full fitness.

So RSL have depth and speed and commitment to how they play. Which maybe makes this like the fifth straight offseason in which everyone is underestimating them.

My Worry

The rest of the West really did get better just based on pure talent, and I don’t think the same can be argued that strenuously for RSL. Yeah, they added Gómez, but he’s far from a sure thing for one, and for two, they lost Sergio Córdova, who finally seemed to buy into his center forward role in July and who subsequently scored eight goals in his last 15 appearances across all competitions, including a brace in the playoffs.

They’re weaker without him at center forward, and they offloaded Aaron Herrera, who’s a Best XI-caliber right back, for GAM. Kreilach, soon to be 34 and having just missed nearly an entire season, is a massive question mark, and while goalkeeper Zac MacMath was good in the first half of last season, the second half was a STRUGGLE.

First-Choice XI

4-4-1-1: MacMath; Oviedo, Silva, Glad, Brody; Gomez, Ojeda, Ruiz, Savarino; Kreilach; Rubin

Gregore and Jean Mota are good. Leo Campana looked good, if not quite great, during the stretches in which he was healthy, and Josef Martinez can still score some bangers.

They made a couple of signings along a backline that was actually quite weak last year, which should help in theory, as should a full year of Drake Callender in goal (though bear in mind he dropped off hard in the second half of the year following a torrid start).

I don’t think there’s any question that Miami are deeper and better than they were 12 months ago, and certainly they have a structure that can get them over the hump and into the playoffs. After all, we saw that happen last year, didn’t we?

My Worry

Last year’s playoff push was kind of a mirage based upon Gonzalo Higuain’s torrid stretch to finish his career and Alejandro Pozuelo’s MVP-caliber magic as a No. 10. They were able to surround those guys with runners and workers who’d do the piano carrying while the stars did the piano playing.

Those two stars are gone. And while I understand why – they are aiming to sign Leo Messi this summer – it’s hard to wait half a season for a No. 10 who might not actually come.

And beyond that, Miami are going to be very easy to build out against with the Josef/Campana front line not closing anyone down. I think that midfield’s going to spend a lot of time chasing the game, getting stretched and putting pressure on the backline. And I don’t see a ton of reasons to be convinced that the backline can hold up to that.

First-Choice XI

4-4-2 diamond: Callender; Negri, McVey, Kryvtsov, Yedlin; Pizarro, Mota, Gregore; Jean; Josef, Campana

I like a lot about how the Rapids approach their roster build, and I like a lot about how Robin Fraser wants his team to play as a head coach. They’ve ended up putting together a team with no real weak links, and one that has a ton of complementary pieces, and thus should come together and be more than the sum of its parts.

And along the way, I reckon they’ll play a lot of fun-to-watch soccer. That obviously didn’t happen much because of injuries, underperformance and one too many departures, but it wouldn’t shock me if, this year, they ended up looking a lot more like the team they were in 2021 than what they put on the field in 2022.

Plus we’ve seen a teenage forward blow up and get sold for eight figures each of the past two seasons. If there’s an odds-on favorite to make it three in a row, it’s Rapids homegrown Darren Yapi.

To be clear, I don’t think he’s the level of prospect that Ricardo Pepi or Jhon Durán were at the same age, but he’s gonna get minutes. And if he starts putting the ball in the net during those minutes…

My Worry

The water is rising too, uh, rapidly. The soccer Colorado played in 2021 was great, but the talent level in this league is skyrocketing and I have my doubts about the Rapids’ ability to keep up with the Joneses on what is comparatively a shoestring budget.

While it was the defense that fell apart last year, the gap is especially apparent in the attack. Diego Rubio had 16 goals in 2022; he had 19 total in the previous three years combined.

Yapi is 18. Michael Barrios, Jonathan Lewis and Kévin Cabral all know where the goal is, but none have, you know, put the ball into it consistently as pros. Braian Galván, who might actually be starting, is just as unproven. The central midfield is more functional and hard-working than explosive.

I think it’s more likely that the Rapids play good ball but don’t have the final third difference-makers to turn that into 50 points than it is that they play badly and fall on their faces again. And I find it impossible to believe a repeat of 2021’s magic is in the offing.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: Ilić; Gersbach, Maxsø, Abubakar, Rosenberry; Bassett, Price, Ronan; Cabral, Rubio, Galvan

Tier V: Prove Me Wrong

The good news is that Houston finished the preseason strong, beating the hell out of FC Dallas last weekend and looking coherent in doing so. A few strongly positive data points from that one:

  • Coco Carrasquilla was awesome. As in “this guy really could be the best all-around midfielder in the league this year” awesome.
  • Ethan Bartlow looked really, really comfortable paired in central defense with Teenage Hadebe. I rated Bartlow coming out of college and am bummed he didn’t play more the past couple of years. Maybe, with Ben Olsen in town, he’ll get his chance.
  • A confident Corey Baird is an effective Corey Baird. And Baird looked confident as hell against Dallas.
  • Héctor Herrera looked bought in.

There’s talent here, and Olsen has done more with less in the past.

My Worry

There’s not all that much talent, to be honest, and the bigger problem is that so much of it is mismatched. That includes Herrera, who displayed what I would consider being Steven Gerrard-with-the-Galaxy levels of commitment in 2022, and who’s not the snuggest fit in a three-man central midfield with Coco and Artur since none of them are true chance creators.

You can compensate for that if your wingers are elite, but Houston’s aren’t.

Both fullback slots are kind of a mess – Daniel Steres had to play RB vs. Dallas, and Brad Smith is at least six weeks away from getting on the field at left back. That leaves either kids or career backups around that entirely unproven (however good they looked against Dallas) center back pairing.

There can be some fun moments but I don’t see a ton of upside here.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Clark; van der Kust, Bartlow, Hadebe, Escobar; Herrera, Artur; Bassi, Carrasquilla, Baird; Ferreira

The Fire are like Houston in a lot of ways. I can look through their roster and pick out solid players on virtually every line, along with kids with potential (though two fewer than last year, obviously) and pretty talented veterans who can produce if given the right structure around them.

I really like Federico Navarro. Wyatt Omsberg has legitimate high-end upside for a center back that the Fire were finally discovering last year before he got hurt. Some folks rate Chris Brady higher than Gaga Slonina, and though I’m not one of them, Brady has been a phenomenal shot-stopper at the youth levels. Brian Gutiérrez has the type of vision and passing touch that opens games up. Kacper Przybylko and Chris Mueller are solid pros who’ve had very good years in the not-so-distant past.

My Worry

It’s all might and maybe and untapped potential and massively underperforming DPs. Xherdan Shaqiri was a disappointment last season, and probably doesn’t have the pure creative chops to be a high-level No. 10 in this league, while young Jairo Torres spent most of the year injured and looked uncomfortable on the wing when he wasn’t. Gastón Giménez was moved off of his DP deal, but everything he brings with his distribution he takes off the table with his lack of field coverage/defensive commitment.

Another way of putting it is that the Fire missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season, sold their two best/most exciting players, and have mostly decided to run it back. All while the East has improved around them.

Expectations in the fanbase are roughly where you’d expect them to be.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Brady; M. Navarro, Czichos, Terán, Souquet; Gimenez, F. Navarro; Mueller, Shaqiri, Torres; Przybylko

It’s hard to be an expansion team, but St. Louis’s braintrust have smartly kept some powder dry on their player acquisition methods – they have one open DP slot and the ability to open up another, plus U22 Initiative slots to play with if things go badly at the start of the season. “Plan for the best and prepare for the worst” is not a bad way to go about one’s business as a GM.

The other thing CITY’s got going for them is a clear and executable game model, i.e. Energy Drink Soccer. Expect them to look and play like the Red Bulls. That might draw snickers from certain quarters, but RBNY have made the playoffs 13 years running, and have done the past half-decade of that stretch without what anyone would consider to be overwhelming talent. And yes, head coach Bradley Carnell was there for a chunk of it.

So it’s clear what kind of team they’re trying to be. I don’t think it’ll be the prettiest soccer in the world, but it doesn’t need to be in order to be effective.

My Worry

There are two big ones:

  1. Goalkeeper (and captain) Roman Bürki was not a good shot-stopper his final few years in the Bundesliga. And as good as the dude is expected to be with his feet, job No. 1 is keeping the ball out of the net.
  2. Virtually none of the attacking talent is proven at an MLS level.

Maybe these concerns will prove to be unfounded, but St. Louis will likely be at a talent deficit against anyone they face. That’s not a great recipe no matter how committed to pressing you are.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Bürki; Nelson, Parker, Hiebert, Nerwinski; Löwen, Blom; Alm, Ostrák, Stroud; Klauss

For years fans have been asking for ownership to open up the checkbook and bring in the kind of high-end attacking talent that could return United to something akin to their glory days. And while early returns after last summer’s splurge weren’t great – actually they were bad – not everything works out right away for one, and for two, that front office just kept adding veteran pieces throughout the winter.

So D.C. probably will be better this year. A 20-goal season from Christian Benteke wouldn’t be surprising, and they’ve got some exciting young kids on the roster, and the situation at goalkeeper should be light years better, and the midfield can’t possibly be worse.

My Worry

But yeah, there’s a reason they’re at this level. Head coach Wayne Rooney has said 16-year-old Matai Akinmboni is likely to start, and while that’s exciting, there’s a reason so few 16-year-old center backs ever even get on the field, let alone start.

One of last year’s summer signings, central midfielder Ravel Morrison, is 50/50 on getting bought out (who could possibly have seen that coming?), and their other big midfield signing from last summer, Victor Pálsson, was… not great. And presumed starting left winger Martín Rodríguez tore his ACL and is reportedly done for the year before the season’s even begun.

Rooney’s contract only runs to the end of the year, by the way. So there’s some moral hazard at play with regard to roster building where, from his perspective, it probably makes sense to sacrifice a bit of the future for a marginally better chance in the moment.

Maybe it’ll be worth it if this group makes the playoffs – which is not out of the question. But it doesn’t seem super likely to me.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: Miller; Jeahze, Akinmboni, Birnbaum, Ruan; Klich, Pálsson, Durkin; Ku-DiPietro, Benteke, Fountas