So on the eve of another new season it’s time for the annual lottery of predicting who will finish where in MLS. Given that this year looks more competitive than ever and that last season neither of my Conference winners (LAFC and Columbus) actually even made the play-offs, it is with very little confidence that I suggest the following for 2022…
1. PHILADELPHIA UNION
They’ve been course and distance before, they were unfortunate in the extreme with the timing of a Covid outbreak just before the Eastern Conference final last season and have real consistency under Jim Curtin, even though the loss of his assistant Pat Noonan could be keenly felt. The departures of Jamiro Monteiro and Kacper Przybylko will also be noticeable but with so many talented youngsters coming through and 2 new DP forwards in Mikael Uhre and Julian Carranza arriving there’s a lot to like about this squad. They don’t often make the headlines but get on with their business very effectively and I expect another impressive season on the banks of the Delaware River.
2. NEW YORK CITY FC
I may have suggested NYCFC would miss out on the play-offs last season, and for a long time it looked like I might be right. But it all came good in the end and rather than struggle the following year as many MLS Cup winners tend to do I actually think that the success of 2021 will only provide a platform for greater glories long term. The squad hasn’t been strengthened significantly with the exception of centre back Thiago Martins and James Sands will be a big miss. But Taty Castellanos, for now at least, remains (that may well change come the summer) and that guarantees goals – plus I think Talles Magno, Thiago Andrade and Santi Rodriguez will all have an even greater impact in attack in their 2nd seasons in MLS. NYCFC should remain a real force this year.
3. ATLANTA UNITED
On paper they have some of the most high end talent in the league and Gonzalo Pineda showed enough after taking over last season to suggest he could be the right man to harness it. The Five Stripes have yet to hit the heights of 2018 since winning MLS Cup in their 2nd season but all the ingredients are there and I suspect they’ll be challenging at the top of the East this year. The patient wait to be able to bring in Thiago Almada shows how highly they rate their latest record signing and if Josef can stay fit and build on last year he may well be closer to that 2018 vintage, therefore so too would Atlanta – even if I have a few concerns about defensive depth after the departures of Anton Walkes and George Bello.
4. COLUMBUS CREW
The Crew were a big let down last season in a desperately disappointing defence of MLS Cup. Their squad looked stronger on paper than the one that won it in 2020 and although injuries played a part there were clearly other reasons why they massively underperformed. I’d be very surprised if it happened again though – history suggests Caleb Porter’s teams rarely suffer 2 barren years back to back. Lucas Zelarayan remains one of the most talented players in this league, Gyasi Zardes will miss chances but continue to put himself in positions to make sure he scores goals and the arrival of Milose Degenek should help at the back. I think the Crew have the quality to put last year behind them pretty quickly.
5. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
The record breaking Revs were outstanding last year and should be contenders again, even if I struggle to see them matching such heights. I’m sure they’d sacrifice a little of that regular season consistency for a longer play-off run which I believe is eminently possible. It’s no surprise to see Bruce Arena again turn to experienced reinforcements, namely Sebastian Lletget, Omar Gonzalez and, fascinatingly, Jozy Altidore – all of whom he’s worked with before. All 3 DPs remain although the expectation is Adam Buksa will go in the summer when Matt Turner will also depart for Arsenal, and that will surely hit their chances come the 2nd half of the season. Tajon Buchanan will be tough to replace as well but the Revs should still have more than enough for another crack at the play-offs.
6. TORONTO FC
How things unfold in Ontario should be one of the stories of the season. After a terrible 2021 TFC have basically ripped it up and started again – they won’t settle for a repeat. And in Bob Bradley they have one of the most experienced coaches to oversee the rebuild, with the ideal insight into the squad provided by son Michael. Big names have gone, plenty come in and it may well take time for things to gel after such an overhaul. The standout signing won’t arrive until the summer but Lorenzo Insigne really should be a game changer – if they can grind out a few results in the first half of the season there’s every chance they could hit the play-offs in peak form as genuine contenders. Carlos Salcedo looks an excellent addition at the back but having shed most of their full-backs over the off-season that particular position looks a work in progress and further new arrivals are probably needed.
7. ORLANDO CITY
It’s all change in attack for the Lions this season – Dike, Nani and Mueller all moving on – and that could mean a bumpy ride early on for Oscar Parejo’s side. Their replacements look exciting, Facundo Torres, Ercan Kara and Cesar Araujo all bring either genuine potential or proven pedigree but it’s asking a lot for them all to hit the ground running in their first MLS seasons. The rest of the side is fairly settled though which will help and having ended their play-off duck over the course of the last couple of campaigns I think they’ll just have enough to finish the right side of the red line again, but they won’t be short of rivals snapping at their heels.
8. NEW YORK RED BULLS
Having made the play-offs for the last 12 seasons it’s incredibly difficult and possibly foolish to predict the Red Bulls might miss out this year, but that won’t stop me and I fear that sequence could be snapped this season. And that’s despite the fact there’s a lot to like about Gerhard Struber’s young squad. But if anything they might be too young, there’s a distinct lack of experience and leadership, particularly after the departure of a stalwart like Sean Davis. Caden Clark returns on loan and should be key whilst Lewis Morgan looks an excellent signing. But some of Struber’s public utterances suggest he’s not entirely satisfied with the make-up of the squad yet and it may take a year outside the play-offs to ultimately help them push on again longer term.
9. CHICAGO FIRE
Another fascinating watch this year – the Fire mean business and the addition of Xherdan Shaqiri in particular should be box office. But yet another rebuild tells the story of years of underachievement and I’m not sure all of that can be overturned in one off-season. I do like a lot of the business they’ve done under Ezra Hendrickson but the new coach, like many of his players, needs to have an impact very quickly. The former Columbus assistant has excellent credentials and I think could be a very astute appointment, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised should they make the play-offs. But patience in the project may be required, if Joe Mansueto perseveres with the plan I think he’ll be rewarded, there certainly seems more structure to this latest revamp, but this year might be too soon.
10. CF MONTREAL
Another tough club to rank – I could just as easily see them make the play-offs as finish at the bottom of the East – so have gone for somewhere in between. Wilfried Nancy has proven an excellent fit as coach, stepping in in difficult circumstances for last season and doing a very credible job. They’ll benefit from relative consistency of selection, turning a number of last years loans into permanent deals and I really like the addition of Alistair Johnston from Nashville. Djordie Mihailovic will need to build on a very impressive 2021 but they may just lack that something extra in a very competitive conference.
11. DC UNITED
Hernan Losada impressed a lot of people with the job he did in the Capital in his first season in charge. But his system, admirable as it is, is one that demands an awful lot of the players and the opposition may be better equipped to combat it this time around, particularly as the squad looks a bit short to me. Paul Arriola and Kevin Paredes are the big name departures and more will be needed from the talented Edison Flores than he was able to provide last year. There’s an element of jeopardy in predicting this low a finish for DC but there are too many question marks compared to some of their competitors.
12. INTER MIAMI
I remain convinced that Inter Miami will get to where they want to be eventually but I don’t think it will be this year. They’re another club who failed to match expectations last season and have effectively started again with a new look squad, but it’s not one I’m necessarily convinced by – restricted as they are by the financial penalties imposed over the Blaise Matuidi saga. He was one big name player who desperately disappointed and seemingly won’t be back so Gonzalo Higuain shoulders even greater responsibility. But with Pizarro, Morgan, Gonzalez Pirez and Shawcross amongst the many other departures it’s going to be a real test for Phil Neville this season. DeAndre Yedlin looks a great signing but other squads appear much stronger and further down the line at this stage.
13. FC CINCINATTI
This is season 4 for FCC who’ve struggled so badly so far in MLS and I’d be surprised to see that change too much this year. I think Pat Noonan’s appointment as their latest head choice is an excellent choice and he should work well with General Manager Chris Albright having been together at Philadelphia. But the job is a huge one for both of them. Cincinnati have the stadium and the support but so far the squad hasn’t delivered. There’s been a huge turnover in personnel over those first 3 years but I’m not sure the current iteration will be significantly stronger even if Luciano Acosta has the proven ability to be one of the league’s better playmakers.
14. CHARLOTTE FC
After the high bar set by Atlanta and LAFC the more recent expansion sides have struggled to make much of an impact initially and I suspect that may well be the case for Charlotte as well. To throw an entirely new squad of players together and expect instant success is a notoriously difficult task – the aforementioned examples being the exception rather than the rule. Charlotte’s inaugural squad contains some impressive signings, Anton Walkes was a great get in the Expansion Draft, but looks unbalanced – and much will depend if DP centre forward Karol Swiderski can start scoring straight away. If not it’s hard to see where the goals might come from and a first season of struggle wouldn’t be a surprise for Miguel Angel Ramirez’s side.
1. SEATTLE SOUNDERS
Not exactly a left field selection but an already strong Sounders squad looks in especially good shape going into this season. Perennial contenders, they’ve kept pretty much everyone they wanted to, added a DP from RSL in free agency in the form of Albert Rusnak and should have Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris fully fit this term which wasn’t really the case at any stage last season. They’re proven winners under Brian Schmetzer, made a record breaking unbeaten start to last season and will be fuelled by the play-off disappointment that followed. In terms of quality and depth the Sounders squad certainly seems the strongest in the West.
2. LA GALAXY
This is something of a shot to nothing but outside of Seattle there’s not really another side in an evenly matched Western Conference which stands out above the others. I still have significant reservations about the Galaxy’s defending although the introduction of Marky Delgado in front of that defence should help as he reunites with Greg Vanney. The coach’s first season promised much but ultimately ended in Decision Day disappointment and missing out on the play-offs – they should be able to bounce back this year, particularly if Douglas Costa stays fit. He could be an outstanding addition in attack and help provide the service for Chicharito to continue his scoring form of last season. There’s plenty of goals in this side, I’m expecting Alvarez and Araujo to come on again and maybe earn moves to Europe, so just a few tweaks at the other end should be enough to turn them back into contenders.
3. MINNESOTA UNITED
I like the look of the Loons this season, they have a nice balance between youth and experience and a genuine game changer in Emanuel Reynoso. The return of Luis Amarilla is an interesting one and the Paraguayan has the potential to add to their attacking options significantly. Hassani Dotson is a young player who impressed me over the last couple of years and may well get a run in central midfield after the departures of Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus. Consistency under coach Adrian Heath should help Minnesota remain in the higher echelons of the table out West.
4. NASHVILLE SC
Switching to the Western Conference for this season, Nashville really could mix things up. On the one hand all the travelling they’re going to have to do will make their job more difficult and is perhaps the primary reason why I don’t have them even higher. But they’re supremely organised under Gary Smith and added much more of a goal threat last season. I really think they have the quality to make a splash in the West, even if Hany Mukhtar will likely need to have another MVP calibre season – which I think he’s more than capable of doing. They’ve added even more experience in Sean Davis and Teal Bunbury but Alistair Johnston’s move to Montreal does detract from the defence.
It should be a box office season in Hollywood one way or the other. As good a job as Bob Bradley did in establishing LAFC in MLS I think a parting of the ways was absolutely right for both club and coach at this stage. The Black and Gold needed to freshen things up although obviously the jury remains out on 1st year MLS coach Steve Cherundolo who steps in for this season. Failure to make the play-offs last year was an underachievement by a talented squad so there’s a real desire to put that right and I really like a lot of the transfer business they’ve done. Maxime Crepeau is a significant upgrade in goal, Acosta, Escobar and Hollingshead are all proven MLS performers, Cristian Arango had a big impact after arriving mid-season last year and should be even better this time around. Then there’s Carlos Vela, who if he can stay fit and find something like his best form remains an elite talent. All the pieces are there but there’s been a lot of changes and it may take a while to fit them all together at the expense of some consistency.
6. PORTLAND TIMBERS
Almost impossible to predict a play-off line-up without Portland in it, even if I do have some misgivings about an ageing squad. There’s also the hangover to deal with of defeat on home soil in MLS Cup and a worrying reliance on Sebastian Blanco, who’s fitness has been fragile over the last 18 months so but he has the talent to make all the difference. A big plus will be the return of Eryk Williamson from injury in midfield. This side have the knowhow in big moments, and although the current crop can’t go on forever, emphasised by a first season without Diego Valeri, I think Giovanni Savarese may be able to squeeze another year out of this group and the Timbers will remain a tough test for any team.
7. SPORTING KC
Another team tough to write off I think SKC may struggle to hit the heights of more recent regular seasons and even contemplated placing them outside the play-offs, particularly with Alan Pulido ruled out for the whole year. The quality of their wide men Salloi and Russell persuaded me against that but I do think it may be more of a struggle for Peter Vermes’ side this time around. They’ll all know their jobs under Vermes of course and his style is well established, which should be enough to make the post season again.
8. COLORADO RAPIDS
This was a tough one – having predicted a strong season for the Rapids last year and seen them exceed even those expectations by winning the West. I do think it will be tough to get anywhere near a repeat though this time around, particularly in the absence of any DP’s or an elite goalscorer. Address that and the parameters change but Cole Bassett’s move to Europe with Feyenoord and Kellyn Acosta’s trade to LAFC could hit them hard even if midfield still looks an area of strength. Their season starts under something of a shadow with their penalty shoot out exit in the Champions League, but that ultimately that might help their MLS cause. Robin Fraser has done a sensational job but keeping them as competitive as last season would be even more impressive than hitting those heights in the first place.
9. FC DALLAS
Despite the departure of Ricardo Pepi I really like the look of this Dallas squad this season – I think they’ve reinvested wisely and actually look stronger overall without last years main man. Whether that’s enough to turn them into a play-off team in a first season under Nico Estevez is another matter. The additions of Paul Arriola and Alan Velasco are really exciting ones in attack where Jesus Ferreira shapes up to replace Pepi as the home grown golden boy – but they require a lot of things to come together if they’re to crash the play-offs. Ones to watch certainly and it’s possible but not probable.
10. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS
The Whitecaps provided great entertainment when Vanni Sartini took over last season and helped them make the play-offs against the odds. He was fully deserving of the job full time and will expect to use that as a platform to push on this year – but the strength of the West will make that difficult. Ryan Gauld and Brian White will need to sustain their excellent form from the 2nd half of last season when they really got on a roll. If they do that they’ve got a shot. But they’ll miss Maxime Crepeau in goal and some of the risks they take lend me to believe there may be a few teams better placed for the play-offs this time.
11. AUSTIN FC
I was relatively confident of an impressive expansion season for Austin last year and it never really took over. This time I think it’ll be about steady but unspectacular progress. They’ll have learned a lot from last year, made some changes to the roster and I certainly think they’ll be competitive – but perhaps without the extra edge to really get involved in the play-off race. Tomas Pochettino didn’t quite deliver as a DP and has gone to River Plate on loan and finding the right blend remains a learning curve which I think will trend in the right direction without making too many headlines this season.
12. REAL SALT LAKE
RSL provided us with one of the great underdog stories of the season last year with their remarkable against the odds run to the Conference final. So it seems harsh to almost write them off this time, admittedly something done regularly which tends to fuel their us against the world mentality. They reached the play-offs last year with ownership in a state of flux and an interim coach – both situations that have since been addressed. They now have greater stability, and there’s no doubt Pablo Mastroeni deserved to lose that interim tag after the job that he did, but bizarrely do they now lose a little bit of their edge? They’ve certainly lost one of their best players in Albert Rusnak so sustaining the success of last season looks a tall order. Those new owners haven’t been in situ for long though so should they make a splash in the transfer market the outlook could change quickly.
13. HOUSTON DYNAMO
Ted Segal took over the Dynamo during last season and wasted no time making his ambitions clear. He’s now had a little longer to mark his mark and I’m convinced everything is in place to make a success of a franchise that has struggled badly in recent years. But I think there’s a bit too much to be done for that to happen this season and they’ll still be playing catch up. They’ve broken their transfer record to sign Sebastian Ferreira, Steve Clark is an astute signing in goal and they could easily finish much higher than I have them – they’ll get there – just probably not quite yet.
14. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
I actually quite like the look of the Quakes squad and in most season’s they’d be a fair bit higher in this list. But there’s no stand out candidate to be bottom of the West and I fear for San Jose in the post-Wondolowski era for a couple of reasons. Partly a lack of depth should a strong starting line-up get stretched but perhaps more pertinently an apparent disconnect between club and coach. They no longer appear as committed to Matias Almeyda’s specific approach, gone are most of the players he brought in having previously worked with and entering the final year of his contract the signs point towards the end of his era – which doesn’t bode well at the start of a new season.