Voices: Sam Jones

Why every team should be excited as 2023 preseason begins

Thiago Almada preseason

Preseason is here.

Here’s what each team has to look forward to as Matchday 1 for 2023 grows ever closer.

Atlanta United are loading up to take a big swing. Last week they began the process of going back to potentially go forward by ditching a handful of bad/underperforming contracts. With just a few moves, the Five Stripes have set themselves up to add at least three starting-caliber players to a team that felt just a couple of players away from contending again.

It’s not the highest bar to clear, but Gyasi Zardes should be the best striker Austin have ever had. They’re plugging him into what’s essentially the same team that finished second in the West last year minus center back Ruben Gabrielsen. But they’ve already replaced him with Leo Väisänen. It’s not often expansion teams take a step forward in year three, but Los Verdes are set up to at least keep from falling too far.

Year. Two. Bump.

Whether it’s players or expansion teams in MLS, year two seems to be a launching point. Charlotte fans don’t even have to look back far for an example of an expansion team that showed solid tactical principles in year one before taking off the next season. Asking them to be 2022 Austin feels a little lofty, of course, but The Crown won’t have to improve much to make the playoffs.

Uhhhhh… well, I mean, they’re due, right?

The Fire have missed the playoffs far more often than they’ve made the playoffs for the last decade-plus. And while they haven’t exactly made a ton of major moves so far, they at least head into the preseason with Colombian striker Jhon Duran still around. There’s a chance the 19-year-old builds on an eight-goal 2022 and becomes an outright star this season. Maybe that’s enough to break a playoff drought?

As of right now, they still have a three-headed monster. Brandon Vazquez, Brenner and Lucho Acosta are all around – and they have room to add behind them at areas of need like center back and wingback. It won’t take much to turn this into an MLS Cup-caliber roster and ohmygod I’m writing this about FC Cincinnati.

Is Kevin Cabral the ultimate Rapids signing? On a team that’s had excellent success taking undervalued players and provoking high-value performances, Cabral might be the biggest test of Robin Fraser and Co.’s ability to get the most out of folks who need a fresh start. If Cabral can start finishing the big chances he’s been prone to missing, then he’ll be one of the more productive wingers in the league.

There’s an easy argument to make that Wilfried Nancy has been the best manager in the league over the last two seasons. He got far more out of his CF Montréal roster than most would have. Which is great news for a Crew team that spent the last two seasons getting far less out of their roster than they should have.

They’re not doing nothing! No one can say they’ve been doing nothing. Are any of the many things they’ve been doing actually good? I don’t know! And these things they’ve been doing are all things you can do and are things that have been done. That’s different from not doing anything.

Not much has changed from the team that finished third in the West last year. Matt Hedges is out and that’s cause for concern, but Sebastien Ibeagha should be somewhere near an adequate replacement. This is a good team with a chance to get a little more cohesive this year. The floor is high. A year-two bump for Alan Velasco could make their ceiling high, too.

Well, if there’s anyone who understands how to take a mid-tier roster and bring them to the playoffs, it’s… well, I mean it’s not necessarily Ben Olsen, but he has done it before. And Houston are making some moves!

Inter Miami have either zero or one or two Designated Player spots open right now. The exact answer isn’t clear and it’s seemingly dependent on what happens with Rodolfo Pizarro? But when all is said and done, they’ll likely end up with two new DPs. After last year’s playoff appearance and with Inter Miami’s ability to attract big names, that should be more than enough reason for optimism.

Grabbing Aaron Long in free agency has the rest of MLS furious again. LAFC can and will keep getting away with it. Of course, the Long signing came at just the right time to distract everyone from the fact they just made a reported $5 million transfer for U22 winger Stipe Biuk. Becoming the second MLS team to win Concacaf Champions League is very much in play.

A full season of Riqui Puig just might be one of the best full seasons we’ve ever seen from a playmaker in MLS. They also picked up a DP spot from shipping off Kevin Cabral to Colorado. Douglas Costa might be leaving, too. And they can’t miss again on a DP winger (or two). Ri…right?

Consistency is good, right? It’s at least fine. It can’t be bad. Probably. Maybe.

Last year, Hernan Losada didn't necessarily get dismissed for poor results. Losada’s D.C. United teams generally had excellent underlying numbers that went beyond the quality of the roster. If some personal and professional growth has happened since those days, the Argentine coach might just get the post-Wilfried Nancy version of this roster up and running (and running) quickly.

Aké Loba is gone and there’s a DP spot open! Or… uh… there might be a DP spot open soon if his purchase option is activated! But there’s at least a chance they might have a DP spot open soon!

The moves to pick up Latif Blessing and Dave Romney seem very, very solid. On top of that, New England should be on track to get a full season from Dylan Borrero and Djordje Petrovic, who might just be the best goalkeeper… in the history of the league? Anyway, they’ve addressed a couple of key concerns and at least seem like a solid bet to make the playoffs.

Well… it’s been a weird one. Especially by NYCFC standards. But NYCFC’s scouting track record has been generally excellent and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them somewhat seamlessly replace all they’ve lost this offseason. And they have lost a lot…

Cory Burke is in and Elias Manoel is back. Maybe, just maybe, the Red Bulls will get the kind of production they’ve been hoping for from their forwards. 

Anyway, can’t wait to search for this same statement a year from now so I can copy and paste it with new names.

There’s been roster movement from the Lions this offseason – and it all feels needed. They were just a little stagnant in 2022. Some new blood mixed in with some familiar faces like Mauricio Pereyra and Pedro Gallese – who both return on new deals – should do Orlando a lot of good. Especially since that new blood includes DP winger Martin Ojeda.

It seemed like they might lose… someone. Anyone? And yet, here we are, with the second-best team in the league and by far the best team in the East having lost zero starters and inking Daniel Gazdag to a new DP deal.

Do I really need to add anything beyond “club-record signing”?

(his name is Evander)

Do I really need to add anything beyond “club-record signing”?

…Oh, it looks like I need to actually add something this time. I’ll just let Tom Bogert do it for me instead: “Real Salt Lake are reportedly finalizing a potential club-record deal to sign winger Andrés Gómez from Millonarios FC, a source tells MLSsoccer.com. Gómez would likely be added to their roster as a U22 Initiative signing.”

Maybe a full offseason is what it takes to get all the Matias Almeyda out of a team’s system? 

Either way, Luchi Gonzalez should have this Earthquakes team moving in the right direction at some point this year. Eventually.

Ignoring any complaints about his cap hit, Heber is objectively a pretty outstanding choice to have as a backup striker. For a team that’s struggled to score at times without Raul Ruidiaz available, it has to feel nice to have a safety net behind him. 

Oh, and it sure seems like Joao Paulo and Obed Vargas are healthy. It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal that is.

Very few teams were better than SKC down the stretch last season. Seriously, very few teams had more points or better underlying numbers from July onward. That’s largely thanks to how excellent William Agada and Erik Thommy were once they got plugged in. If Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda can get back to form after last year’s season-ending knee injuries, SKC could clear the playoff line. If new No. 6 Nemanja Radoja can make an immediate impact, they could clear it with ease.

The first-ever Designated Team.

The defense straight-up cannot be worse. It just can’t. Especially now that they’ve won the race for free-agent center back Matt Hedges.

This entire team screams “solid group that does well enough throughout the year to earn an away playoff game.” That may not move the needle for folks in Vancouver but, hey, it could be far, far worse.