If you needed a bit to recover from MLS Cup 2022, I don’t blame you.
LAFC’s dramatic victory over the Philadelphia Union after a penalty shootout – featuring six total goals split evenly, including each team scoring deep into stoppage time of extra time – immediately entered the pantheon of best-ever MLS games.
That Nov. 5 thriller at BMO Stadium was three-and-a-half months ago. A lot has happened over the winter in the world of MLS. Let’s catch up on the big changes, on and off the field.
MLS Season Pass on Apple TV
We have to start here, don’t we? How we all consume the games (fans and folks who make a living around this sport like me alike) has changed with a 10-year, historic media rights deal for Apple TV to broadcast MLS.
All in one place. No blackouts. Any device. A more consistent schedule. Brand new studios. Brand new analysts and shows and talent. It’s going to be awesome.
There is a lot more info on MLS Season Pass here. One key point: Regional and local networks aren’t broadcasting MLS games anymore. Select ones will appear on linear partners.
European clubs spent a whole lot of money to acquire MLS talent
On the field, MLS had another busy winter in terms of transferring players abroad. From stars to rising talent to rotation players, the league’s place in the global marketplace continues to grow each year.
The biggest deals, in terms of transfer fees:
- Jhon Durán: Chicago Fire to Aston Villa (Premier League), up to $22 million
- Gaga Slonina: Chicago Fire to Chelsea (Premier League), up to $15 million
- Ismaël Koné: CF Montréal to Watford (Championship), around $8 million
- Djordje Mihailovic: CF Montréal to AZ Alkmaar (Eredivise), $6 million
- Paxten Aaronson: Philadelphia Union to Eintracht Frankfurt (Bundesliga), $4 million + add-ons + sell-on %
- Julián Araujo: LA Galaxy to Barcelona (LaLiga), $4 million + add-ons + sell-on%
- Alistair Johnston: CF Montréal to Celtic (Scottish Premiership), $3.5 million
That’s a whole lot of big deals. Up to $37 million just to the Chicago Fire… who finished third-from-bottom in the Eastern Conference last season.
This trend is not ending. It’s only becoming more important and more apparent. New pathways are forged every year; player profiles and prices continue to diversify. That list includes a handful of talented homegrowns… it also includes a highly-rated South American teenager and a SuperDraft selection.
MLS clubs spent a whole lot of money to acquire talent from everywhere
Technical staffers I speak with often joke about the “selling club” moniker. Every league is a selling league, every club is a selling club outside of, what, like four clubs worldwide?
While MLS exported players, clubs replenished the pool of talent adequately. New stars you need to know like Evander (Portland Timbers), Martín Ojeda (Orlando City), Giorgos Giakoumakis (Atlanta United), Dante Vanzeir (New York Red Bulls), Enzo Copetti (Charlotte FC), Mateusz Klich (D.C. United) and many more are all ready to make their debuts.
The nature of global soccer makes it exciting and busy to keep up with the player pool and stars. It’s more like college sports in a way with roster turnover than, say, the NBA.
Here comes St. Louis!
St. Louis CITY SC kick off their inaugural MLS season on Saturday, joining as the league’s 29th team.
St. Louis is among the most storied soccer cities in the U.S. The appetite for an MLS team was strong, with season tickets selling out immediately and a waitlist already growing.
On the field, St. Louis are built in a high-pressing, transition style similar to the New York Red Bulls (among many other teams in MLS now as the game model has become more popular). The club named German executive Lutz Pfannenstiel - who has experience all throughout the globe - as sporting director to build the roster, working with Hoffenheim and Dusseldorf before coming to the Midwest.
Pfannenstiel hired Bradley Carnell (who was an RBNY assistant) as their inaugural head coach. Key players include former Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Bürki, MLS veteran center back Tim Parker, DP forward Klauss, DP midfielder Eduard Löwen, defensive midfielder Njabulo Blom and more.
Major free agency moves
Some familiar faces will be in new places this season, including perhaps the most top-end talent to change teams in MLS free agency than ever before.
With less restrictive free agency requirements, the pool was deep. Two players who are all-time club leaders in appearances have moved teams, as Sean Johnson left NYCFC to join Toronto FC and Matt Hedges departed FC Dallas for Toronto as well.
To name a few more:
Coaching carousel spins again
More teams, more coaches. More pressure, more coaching changes. This year, eight coaches will have their first full season in charge at new MLS clubs. Three – D.C. United’s Wayne Rooney, Charlotte FC’s Christian Lattanzio, NYCFC’s Nick Cushing – took over during the 2022 season. A fourth, STL’s Carnell, was covered at length above.
The other four? Heavy D.C. United connections. The club’s last two head coaches (Ben Olsen, Hernan Losada) each got new jobs in MLS this offseason. Olsen takes over the Houston Dynamo, while Losada joins CF Montréal.
The CFMTL gig opened when the Columbus Crew appointed 2022 Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year finalist Wilfried Nancy as their new manager. Lastly, former FC Dallas and USMNT assistant Luchi Gonzalez finally starts life in San Jose after being officially named head coach in the summer.
New playoff system
Just announced this week, the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs will look different.
The key bits of information:
- Nine teams in each conference qualify, with No. 8 vs. No. 9 playing a win-or-go-home Wild Card Round.
- From there, Round One is now a best-of-three series. If a match is tied, it will go straight to penalties. Two wins get you through.
- After that? Back to single-elimination like last season, where the better seed gets hosting priority from the Conference Semifinals through MLS Cup presented by Audi.
That’s the big-picture overview. You can dive in for a more extended read here.
So, who’s the top tier contending for trophies?
Doyle writes the definitive tiers list and we generally agree. He provides a whole lot more analysis – it’s one of my favorite articles every year, so I encourage you to deep dive in there – but this whole article is the cliff notes of everything. I’ll keep mine brief on the favorites for trophy contention.
Alphas: Philadelphia Union, LAFC
- Philly might be in a tier of their own, honestly, but we can’t disrespect the reigning MLS Cup/Supporters’ Shield winners. Regardless, both these teams are expecting to win something this year. Both retained most top-end talent from last year’s group (pretty much all for Philly) and remain the measuring stick for everyone else.
Really good teams, ready to compete: FC Dallas, Austin FC, LA Galaxy, FC Cincinnati, Orlando City, Seattle Sounders, Nashville SC
- This group can be boiled down to a solid 2022 and realistic expectations to be hosting playoff games. Some questions exist, but not a ton. These are generally the safer bets to be good and, perhaps, great.
Wildcards: Portland Timbers, Toronto FC, New England Revolution, Inter Miami, Columbus Crew
The expanded Leagues Cup is finally here.
All 29 MLS clubs and all 18 Liga MX clubs will come together for a month-long tournament starting in July, with the domestic schedules on pause for the first edition of the full, expanded tournament. It’s a World Cup-style group stage then a knockout competition, with a trophy/prize money and Concacaf Champions League spots on the line.
The groups are already out, with reigning MLS Cup champion LAFC and Apertura winner Pachuca each getting byes until the knockout round.
I will certainly write longer features on this. I will be tweeting about these players a lot as well. But for now, keep an eye on these dudes before they’re the next multi-million dollar transfers to Europe or South America.
- Facundo Torres, Orlando City
- John Tolkin, New York Red Bulls
- José Cifuentes, LAFC
- Thiago Almada, Atlanta United
- Brenner, FC Cincinnati
- Alan Velasco, FC Dallas
- Talles Magno, NYCFC
What about academy talents ready to break into the first team?
There will be a ton of minutes played by homegrown talents this year, both young and old(er). I’m going to try to steer clear of the known commodities like Jesús Ferreira, Cade Cowell, Cole Bassett (he’s back!), Aidan Morris, Danny Leyva and many more.
Some academy talents breaking into the first teams to know, in no particular order:
- Noel Buck, CM, New England Revolution
- Esmir Bajraktarevic, W, New England Revolution
- Matai Akinmboni, CB, D.C. United
- Ben Cremaschi, CM, Inter Miami
- Chris Brady, GK, Chicago Fire
- Quinn Sullivan, AM, Philadelphia Union
- Jack McGlynn, CM, Philadelphia Union
- Michael Halliday, RB, Orlando City
- Caleb Wiley, LB/LW, Atlanta United
- Darren Yapi, ST, Colorado Rapids
- Sean Rea, AM, CF Montréal
- Rida Zouhir, CM, CF Montréal
- Reed Baker-Whiting, RB/RW, Seattle Sounders
- Peter Stroud, CM, New York Red Bulls
- Juan Castilla, DM, Houston Dynamo
- Brooklyn Raines, CM, Houston Dynamo
- Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, RB/RW, Toronto FC
- Owen Wolff, AM/W, Austin FC
Another option for going deeper on this topic: Travis Clark broke down his top 50 domestic talents for TopDrawerSoccer.