22MLS_Biggest Storylines

The page has nearly turned to 2023 and season No. 28 for Major League Soccer.

Before then, let’s reflect on the biggest storylines that defined 2022 – or season No. 27 – in this ever-growing league.

Onwards, in no particular order.

LAFC complete the double

Only eight teams in MLS history have won both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup during the same season. LAFC, over a month-long period this fall, joined that esteemed list.

With brevity in mind, some key markers on the Black & Gold’s road to silverware…

  • Acquiring at least four key starters (Ilie Sánchez chief among them) during their MLS experience-centric winter transfer window
  • Retaining captain Carlos Vela on a DP deal
  • Summertime transfer reinforcements, highlighted by signing Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini on non-DP deals
  • Steve Cherundolo won two trophies during his first season of top-flight coaching

And they’ll always have two moments that defined it all, starting with new DP forward Dénis Bouanga’s Shield-clincher at Portland.

GOAL: Dénis Bouanga, LAFC - 95th minute

Then, of course, there is Bale’s legendary equalizing header deep into extra time of MLS Cup.

Gareth Bale! LAFC star's MLS Cup goal heard around the world

There’s so much more – John McCarthy’s goalkeeping heroics in MLS Cup, sending five players to the World Cup, continuing to transfer on young talent, et cetera. For the fifth-year club, from start to finish, it was Hollywood stuff.

Seattle ascend the CCL mountaintop (and make more history)

To use Garth Lagerwey’s words, the 2022 Seattle Sounders achieved immortality.

They are MLS’s first-ever Concacaf Champions League winner (modern-day), ending Liga MX’s run of dominance with a 5-2 aggregate final win over Pumas UNAM. Now, they’re off to Morocco for the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup in early February.

WATCH: History made! Sounders raise MLS's first Concacaf Champions League trophy

But that continental conquest (combined with injuries) came at an expense. The Sounders’ 13-year streak of making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs ended. Seattle finished an uncharacteristic 11th in the Western Conference standings, the club’s only postseason-less season since they joined MLS in 2009.

Peaks and valleys.

Philadelphia turn outright dominant

Teams are mostly remembered for trophies they won, and in that respect the 2022 Philadelphia Union fell painstakingly short. They lost the Supporters’ Shield to LAFC on the most-wins tiebreaker despite being equal on 67 points, then they lost MLS Cup against – you guessed it – LAFC on penalty kicks.

But let’s not forget, long-term, just how dominant Philadelphia were. They were a buzzsaw all summer and posted both the second-best goal differential (+46) and goals-against total (26) in MLS history. It was no surprise to see:

We could keep going. It was a truly spectacular year by #DOOP.

Hany The Great

Arguably no player is more singularly crucial to his team’s success than Hany Mukhtar, the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP and the 2022 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner.

The German midfielder led the league with 34 goal contributions (23 goals, 11 assists), which amounted to an incredible 65.4% of Nashville’s goals. Signed as Nashville’s first-ever DP in August 2019, the former Brøndby (Denmark) man was borderline unstoppable.

The next step for Nashville? Getting someone to complement Mukhtar so the attacking burden doesn’t rest so squarely on his shoulders.

2022 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi: Nashville SC's Hany Mukhtar wins

Sebastián Driussi fuels Austin

Speaking of the 2022 MVP race, Sebastián Driussi finished second in the voting to Mukhtar. With 22 goals and seven assists in 34 games, he was Austin FC’s Mr. Clutch time and time again.

With the Argentine second striker/attacking midfielder leading the way, Austin earned 25 more points during the 2022 season than they did in 2021, tying the MLS record for the largest points improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 for an expansion team. Phrased another way, they went from the Western Conference’s basement to the Western Conference Final.

Driussi, signed two summers ago from Russia’s Zenit St. Petersburg, is an absolute star for the Verde & Black.

CF Montréal ball out

They were borderline elite for long stretches.

The downside: An exodus has unfolded this winter.

  • Head coach Wilfried Nancy departed for the Columbus Crew. In came Hernan Losada, getting a second MLS chance after his 15-month stint in charge of D.C. United.
  • Three international-level talents have been transferred abroad: Djordje Mihailovic to AZ Alkmaar (Eredivise), Alistair Johnston to Celtic FC (Scottish Premiership) and Ismaël Koné to Watford FC (EFL Championship).
  • Victor Wanyama, their captain and lone Designated Player in 2022, has departed.

MLS is becoming more of a selling club with each passing year – and with that comes the challenge of sustaining year-over-year success. Perhaps CFMTL have the club structure/identity to withstand it in 2023 (three open DP spots will help if ownership uses them).

FC Cincinnati escape the trenches

FC Cincinnati’s first three seasons in MLS produced three consecutive Wooden Spoons (last place overall). Life was brutal for one of the league’s newest clubs:

  • 2019: 6W-22L-6D record, -44 goal differential
  • 2020: 4W-15L-4D record, -24 goal differential
  • 2021: 4W-22L-8D record, -37 goal differential

Then Chris Albright (general manager) and Pat Noonan (head coach) came to town, turning Cincy into Philadelphia Union lite. The immediate result:

  • 2022: 12W-9L-13D record, +8 goal differential

They won their first-ever playoff game after finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference. Breakout star Brandon Vázquez, assist king Luciano Acosta and Brenner combined for 46 goals and 33 assists. D-mid Obinna Nwobodo and center back Matt Miazga joined the fold. SuperDraft pick Roman Celentano turned into a solid MLS goalkeeper.

Life has changed quickly for the Orange & Blue, giving their fans at TQL Stadium something to be proud of.

Toronto get an Azzurri boost

Basically this.

Toronto FC, for a brief time this summer, seemed set for a transcendent climb into the playoff picture. Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi were balling out. The midfield trio of Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye made a ton of sense. Richie Laryea was back in town.

The project never reached that crowning moment, of course. Toronto finished 13th in the Eastern Conference and their rebuild continues into 2023. But the Italians sure made it fun as hell.

Charlotte FC join the fold

The year-one journey for an expansion club is strife with ups and downs. Charlotte FC were no exception.

Miguel Angel Ramirez’s infamous “estamos jodidos” quote in preseason. Christian Lattanzio taking over as interim coach. A work-in-progress roster. Narrowly missing the playoffs.

But Charlotte FC’s crowds mean business, another Southeast success story coming to life. In Week 2, they set a new MLS standalone attendance record with 74,479 fans. What a sight it was.

A day to remember for Charlotte FC's home opener | Sights & Sounds

Wayne Rooney returns…

…this time as D.C. United manager. 

Wazza couldn’t rescue their 2022 season, as the Black-and-Red finished bottom of the league table. They’ve been the busiest team this offseason, though, continuing the roster overhaul that began in July when Rooney was hired to lead the club he played for from 2018-19.

Taty, Delia leave NYCFC

The Taty Castellanos transfer saga feels like ages ago, doesn’t it? The short version is the Argentine striker is now on loan from NYCFC to LaLiga side Girona, another City Football Group club. His reported $15 million valuation by NYCFC wasn’t met, but the club/player still facilitated a move to Europe in July.

For much of the summer, that move seemed to derail NYCFC’s MLS Cup 2021 title defense. Castellanos was the clear Golden Boot favorite (repeat territory), and when combined with manager Ronny Deila departing midseason to lead Belgium’s Standard Liege, the Cityzens got derailed.

But they eventually found their way under interim-turned-permanent manager Nick Cushing. NYCFC reached the Eastern Conference Final and won Campeones Cup, climbing out of a Taty/Ronny-sized hole.

Gaga heads to Chelsea

Chicago Fire FC, in early August, transferred homegrown goalkeeper Gaga Slonina to English Premier League powerhouse Chelsea FC for up to $15 million with add-ons ($10 million base + sell-on fee). That amounted to a Fire-record transfer and one of the largest outgoing fees for an MLS youth product.

Let that sink in – then realize Slonina is only 18. 

We’ll see if Slonina’s near-term future is indeed at Chelsea, or if he joins their infamous loan army across Europe. Whatever awaits, the rising US international has a bright future.

Josef, Atlanta reach an impasse

What we know: After Atlanta United’s away game at the Portland Timbers, star striker Josef Martínez and head coach Gonzalo Pineda got into a disagreement. Martinez, per reporting from The Athletic, flipped over a table that had the postgame meal (chicken and rice) on it. He was later suspended and didn’t start a game from mid-August onwards.

What we don’t know: If Martínez’s future rests in Atlanta or elsewhere. He’s reportedly not returning for 2023, but there’s no official word one way or another. So we’re in wait-and-see mode to see if there’s a contract buyout, transfer out of MLS or transfer within MLS. He’s under contract for 2023.

A club legend who’s battled injuries, the Josef/Atlanta situation is… let’s call it compelling.

Pipa finds happiness

Gonzalo Higuaín rediscovered his love for the game. From his retirement press conference in early October:

“This year has been one of the ones I’ve enjoyed most. I never thought MLS would give me that. My intention was to come to enjoy and compete, but I never thought it would turn into one of my best moments of my career. This year has been just that, thanks to everyone who has helped me.”

The Argentine legend was sensational down the stretch, going from being benched for Leo Campana to being the heartbeat of Inter Miami’s remade squad. His 16 goals and three assists in 28 games fueled a playoff appearance, and he memorably said “the dream is over and another life begins” after his final professional match.

Higuaín’s career is over, but Miami are no pushovers – especially as head coach Phil Neville and sporting director Chris Henderson lead their bright future.

Riqui Puig arrives

Would it really surprise anyone if Riqui Puig puts together a Best XI-caliber season in 2023? That’s a leading question, but it’s also not one that requires a quantum leap.

Puig arrived at the Galaxy from FC Barcelona in early August, then had three goals and five assists across about 1,000 minutes. That sparked LA’s playoff return alongside fellow summer signings Gastón Brugman and Martín Cáceres

The Spanish midfielder, only 23, looks like an elite MLS attacking midfielder. For better or worse, Puig used to be likened to Andres Iniesta when coming through Barca’s famed La Masia academy.

Orlando City win first trophy

It will forever be known as the Facundo Torres game.

Orlando City’s club-record signing had two goals and one assist in their 3-0 win over Sacramento Republic (USL Championship), winning the 2022 US Open Cup. That stood as Orlando’s first MLS-era trophy and sent them into the 2023 Concacaf Champions League.

The Lions never consistently reached third gear this past season, squeezing into the East’s playoff field on Decision Day. Their squad, especially in the final third, was in rebuild mode. But Torres is a special talent and their trophy case is no longer barren.

Facundo Torres wins the US Open Cup for Orlando with a brace

Revs, Rapids regress

Need a reminder of how parity-rich and unpredictable MLS is? 

In 2021, the New England Revolution won the Supporters’ Shield and set a single-season points record (73). Meanwhile, the Colorado Rapids had their best-ever MLS season and finished atop the Western Conference table.

Then in 2022, both clubs missed the playoffs entirely. The Revs secured a combined/reported $24 million in outgoing transfer fees, and Colorado lost several key pieces from their squad. Neither club properly threaded the needle of selling/replacing, and they finished with about 1.25 points per game on average.

Columbus beat themselves

Sometimes a picture tells the whole story.

The Caleb Porter era ended because the Columbus Crew couldn’t hold onto leads. Stars like Cucho Hernández and Lucas Zelarayán went supernova at times, but the defense… those struggles were one of the more perplexing things we’ve ever seen in MLS.

FC Dallas get a new front three…

…and they were spectacular.

After transferring homegrown striker Ricardo Pepi for $20 million to German Bundesliga side FC Augsburg, they reinvested in the squad. Homegrown striker Jesús Ferreira got a Young DP deal and became the 2022 MLS Young Player of the Year; club-record signing Alan Velasco arrived from Argentina’s Independiente; and Paul Arriola arrived from D.C. United in an MLS-record trade.

By season’s end, that trio combined for 34 goals and 20 assists. They brought FCD back into the playoffs, leading the way under first-year head coach Nico Estevez.

Young Player of the Year - Best of Jesus Ferreira

SKC: What could have been

Before Sporting KC even played a game in 2022, they were down two DPs: Gadi Kinda and Alan Pulido were both out long-term with knee injuries. The likes of Dániel Sallói and Johnny Russell regressed from their incredible 2021 seasons, and the club was contending for a Wooden Spoon.

Things never turned completely around, but the summertime additions of Erik Thommy and Willy Agada were like a nitrous boost. SKC were in top form at the end of the year, playing playoff spoiler and some really entertaining soccer. Their early-season hole was just too steep to climb out of.

Now, with all these pieces rearing to go for 2023, SKC are the early favorite for a major bounce-back campaign.

World Cup representation

Some fast facts about MLS and the 2022 FIFA World Cup:

  • There were 36 MLS players and one MLS NEXT Pro player – spread across 22 clubs – competing in Qatar.
  • That group was spread across 12 different countries, and Canada (11) and the United States (9) made up over half that total.
  • CF Montréal (6), 2022 MLS Cup champions LAFC (5), and 2022 CCL winners Seattle Sounders FC (4) were the most-represented clubs.
  • The 36 MLS players were only eclipsed globally by the Premier League, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 in overall call-ups.
Almada wins World Cup

The one player who wasn’t in that above tweet? Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada, an injury replacement for eventual champions Argentina.

Almada, 21, played six minutes for Argentina off the bench and became the first active MLS player (13th overall) to win a World Cup title. The MLS-record signing (reported $16 million from Velez Sarsfield last winter) is going places.

A few more…

• GEODIS Park: Nashville debuted the largest soccer-specific stadium in the US and Canada at 30,000 seats.

• CanChamp winners: There was no postseason soccer in Vancouver, though Vanni Sartini’s group won the Canadian Championship for the first time since 2015. They’re also in the CCL for 2023.

• A collection: San Jose appointing Luchi Gonzalez as head coach for 2023 … St. Louis CITY SC laying the groundwork for their expansion season … Houston hitting reset on their rebuild … Red Bulls making a 13th straight playoff trip … Portland going from hosting MLS Cup 2021 to not making the playoffs … Bakaye Dibassy’s injury being the proverbial nail in Minnesota’s 2022 season