Happy World Cup Thanksgiving!
I hope your Thursday can be dedicated to family, soccer and smashing so much savory food that you pass out on the couch before the sun goes down. May we all be so blessed.
The theme of the season is gratitude, and there’s plenty to be thankful for this year in MLS. Here’s something to hold onto for all 29 teams, including the new boys in St. Louis!
For the most part, 2022 was a season to forget for the Five Stripes. They missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the second time in three years. Miles Robinson, Brad Guzan and Ozzie Alonso watched from the stands thanks to long-term injuries. Josef Martinez’s glorious time with the club has seemingly come to an inglorious end. Luiz Araujo was mostly underwhelming. Gonzalo Pineda’s first full year as a head coach was anything but smooth.
Thiago Almada and the play of the fullbacks were the only jump-off-the-page bright spots…
And yet, without spending a single dollar on the cap, Atlanta made the single biggest signing of the offseason. Lagerwey built Real Salt Lake into an MLS powerhouse on a budget. He built the Seattle Sounders into a continental champion by maximizing every possible resource available. What will he be able to do with Atlanta United’s unbridled ambition and Arthur Blank’s willingness to spend big on all fronts?
We’re about to find out.
Narratives that get turned on their head!
No estuvieron jodidos despues de todo! They weren’t screwed after all!
The start of the campaign was … inauspicious, to say the least. Charlotte churned through a manager (Miguel Angel Ramirez) before the calendar could turn to June, but it turned out to be for the best. Christian Lattanzio was waiting in the wings to be the man for the job and he very nearly got his team into the playoffs. They won 10 home games. They built a foundation.
One full season is better than none. There’s real joy in seeing a teenage goalkeeper develop in your academy, take over the No. 1 job, perform at a level that generates interest from the world’s biggest clubs, commit his future to the USMNT and sign the paperwork on an eight-figure transfer.
Now, we all watch what his Chelsea career has in store.
The Philadelphia Union’s front office and coaching depth.
Why attempt to reinvent the wheel – AKA hire Dutch coaches and sporting directors out of their depth – when there are capable and hungry executives and coaches a short flight away? Chris Albright and Pat Noonan (plus his staff) changed the identity of FC Cincinnati in one imperious, by previous Spoon-defined standards, season.
They were first in the West in 2021. They missed the playoffs in 2022. They did both, for all intents and purposes, without a Designated Player. There is always a path into the playoffs in this league if you have competent management. The Rapids aren’t going to spend their way out of a disappointing 2022. They’ve got to find winning margins where others might not. We know they can do it, and we know MLS has rewarded those efforts in the past.
We don’t know who will manage the Crew in 2023. We don’t know who will play on the wings. We know Columbus have two bonafide stars. In MLS, that can take you far if you surround them with the right pieces.
Their front five.
Ferreira. Velasco. Arriola. Lletget. Pomykal. All are locked into long-term contracts. It’s a good mix of young pieces with the potential to grow and in-prime veterans. All can be special (at worst, above average) players at their positions in MLS.
Now, about that back six…
Wayne Rooney’s obsession with becoming a better manager.
They need that obsession and their commitment to Rooney to pay off. The club is betting on the England legend to lead them out of … let’s call it a lack of relevancy. D.C. went all-in. They need Rooney’s roster decisions to look smart. They need Rooney to build a winning culture and change the trajectory of a club that seems to have lost its way.
A little bit of salary cap flexibility.
Pat Onstad inherited a roster build that handcuffed his ability to make foundational change in the short and medium term, but with every transfer window that goes by, the Dynamo’s situation gets just a little more manageable. Ben Olsen can up the competitive ante as manager. Hector Herrera can set the tone in midfield. Sebastian Ferreira can up his goalscoring output.
Can Houston turn that into points and progress?
Gareth Bale saving his best for one last leap. Maxime Crepeau’s selflessness. Carlos Vela’s determination to win the only Cup that mattered. Chicho Arango’s goals, despite reportedly being on the trade block. Kellyn Acosta’s mind games. Steve Cherundolo’s ability to navigate a season of constant change. LAFC’s owners for upping the transfer ante, and the front office for signing players nobody thought they could.
There’s too much to list. Everything.
It’s hard to watch your rival beat you and then lift their first Cup. There’s still work to do on the roster to compete with MLS’s best. Those wingers (two of them DPs) … have to be better.
But the Galaxy have Riqui Puig! And that makes everything way more fun, even if there are some lingering questions.
A future that potentially includes Lionel Messi.
Club. Changer. League. Changer. There have been bumps in the road, but just being in position to sign the greatest player of all time is something to toast on Thanksgiving.
Oh, and also head coach Phil Neville and sporting director Chris Henderson, who didn’t let themselves or their players get bogged down in tough circumstances (self-inflicted, by a previous regime) and built an unlikely playoff team. The future/Messi matters, but the recent past and present are bright because of the work done on the inside.
I wanted to get more creative here. So did the Loons, to be fair. It all comes back to Reynoso. Any fanbase that gets to watch a player like that every single week is #blessed.
A Canadian core.
Hany seemed like a solid, value DP signing with some upside ahead of Nashville’s expansion season in 2020. He’s been that and then some.
How about a perennial MVP candidate (and now winner) with a Golden Boot presented by Audi? He’s irreplaceable. He’s an entertainer. He’s a winner. He’s what every new club hopes for when they bust out the checkbook.
Another shot at it with Carles Gil.
Pick a player in MLS. Gil is probably better, which is why it was a bummer to see the Revs stumble through their Supporters’ Shield-defending season in 2022. When you sign a guy like Gil, you know the clock is ticking. He won’t be around forever, and New England have been waiting forever to win MLS Cup.
It’s going to be incredible…
You never forget your first (MLS era). That Oscar Pareja coaxed the US Open Cup and a playoff spot out of a team that never quite figured out how to make the jump from "solid and sometimes quite good" to "truly great" is a true accomplishment. Now, about making the jump from "solid/sometimes quite good" to "great"…
The power of the collective.
From the front office to the coaching staff to the squad, most clubs get nowhere near the maximum out of the people in their organization. The Union came up just short in MLS Cup (and the Supporters’ Shield) but nobody can argue they left any potential unexplored. Sometimes the bounces don’t go your way. Someday they will for the Union.
A (somewhat) fresh start.
This season was one to forget (after welcoming and considering every single bit of criticism, on and off the field).
Dedicated, local ownership.
The soul of the club is back, but the future of the club on the field remains a massive question mark. What’s the Designated Player budget? What does this ownership group aspire to from a soccer perspective? Every decision they make gives us a little more insight into their vision for the project.
It’s not often you get a Golden Boot-level domestic goalscorer at the beginning of his prime for just a shade over $1 million in GAM. For 2023, Luchi has some raw material to work with in NorCal.
A squad of history makers.
The 13-year playoff streak is over, but you can never take the 2022 Concacaf Champions League title away from this group. They scaled the mountain that no other MLS team could summit. They slayed the Liga MX dragon. They did the thing that nobody else could, and they’ll always have the silverware and memories to prove it.
Summer signings that make a difference.
Whoever decided to build the CityPark pitch below street level.
My favorite thing to do when I visit a stadium for the first time is to get as high up as possible to sneak a peak of the playing field from above. That view is the first one any visitor to CityPark gets the moment they walk into the building thanks to the way the pitch is dug out of the ground. It’s a wonderful design feature.
In a conversation with Vanni Sartini at the end of the year, I was struck by the ‘Caps manager’s willingness to admit (in detail) where he felt both he and the club fell short in preparation for and execution during the 2022 season. The results weren’t what Vancouver were hoping for, but the process is what will create any future success the club enjoys.