Welcome to MLS 2023, and the future looks amazingly bright, at least from a “how successful and stable is this league” standpoint. Another new expansion team joins up after one of the more amazing soccer years in the history of the sport, both in the US and around the world.
MLS is a tight enough salary cap league that many clubs have the potential to have dramatic changes, for good or ill, and considering how few international players have experience with the wonderful mix that is soccer in the USA, there just is no way to know if the next Robbie Keane or Frank Lampard is on any number of MLS rosters.
The same can be said for the other end of the roster, where homegrowns and draft picks could have little to no impact or could be a leading goal-scorer, although more likely a stalwart defender or goalkeeper. Either way, few MLS teams have the depth and quality to not make moves without it hurting them, and as such, let the chaos reign.
All that being said, these aren’t rankings just yet, but rather insights into their offseason and some comments towards the start of the season. They’re grouped up into tiers.
Los Angeles FC
Of all the teams, this one returns the depth and proven level of play that implies they really could have another fantastic season but be warned, rare is the MLS team – even with this kind of returning quality – that can pull it off. If we recall correctly, it is 3rd Degree’s own Buzz Carrick who has consistently said of MLS teams – if you aren’t improving, you’re going to fall behind. Of all the returning champions we have seen, LAFC seems to be the one best set up for a return to glory, but those cautionary tales remain.
It was great to see a team that had struggled for so long find a groove and really put it all together. Alas, that is often what leads to a great season and then a drop the next. Chemistry often doesn’t survive an off-season, and many teams will have studied what Philly did well last year with an eye to defeating it in 2023. Those clubs still have to execute against those plans, so let’s not assume the Union will fall – but they do have the hallmarks of teams past who didn’t maintain a level of quality.
This is the first team that we “dropped” but only in terms of tiers. How could we not? Their coach took them to amazing heights last year and got poached. They also lost Djordje. It’s hard to say this will lead to them falling far, but yes, it is hard to see them maintaining their level from last year.
Like Philadelphia, Austin really peaked last year in ways that seem hard to replicate. That being said, there is real quality there, and maybe they maintain their over-production or otherwise find ways to remain up high.
The fact remains that Austin was better than most of the league last year, and until proven otherwise, proceed with caution. Then again, if you’re looking for teams that might not maintain their form from last year, Austin might be one to keep an eye on.
New York City FC
Player changes, especially at high-value positions like 10-9-8, 6, 4-5, etc., are risky. And for clubs who seem to think making a DP move or two is all they need, the Keane-Lampard variability can lead to massive chaos. NYCFC rolled the dice here, watch this space.
New York Red Bulls
Interestingly, the Red Bulls were very similar to their cross-metro brethren, especially at the attacking spots. It’s a big bet but it doesn’t always pay off.
Let’s put it on the table, every FC Dallas fan should love and appreciate Matt Hedges, but it’s better a year too early than a year too late. FCD relied on its defense a lot last year so there are questions to be answered.
So much of the rest of the team is returning and looking good. Shoot, they even got rid of Franco Jara and added a new forward with decent production.
Good But Not Great
Finally, they figured it out, and in a big way. It was great to see them find some form in the league struggled with after so much failure. If they can add stability to it, maybe they can figure out how to add the pieces to move up even further.
It took a while for the Chicharito Galaxy to really find its form, and even then it wasn’t top of the league. But now Hernandez is hurt (again) and they are missing other pieces. So this could be another team that might fall.
For so much of their existence, the Tennessee club has been defensely strong, on offense …. not so much. When they had an attack, they had runs that were truly special. It does not appear they have that problem solved in a more permanent way just yet. If they do, watch out because that defense is good.
Columbus Crew SC
Wilfred Nancy may not be able to pull things together in just one off-season, but there is talent on the roster so it probably is only a matter of time. Nancy seems to be the mix of international experience and openness to really understand North American players that leads to success in MLS, but time will tell.
The Loons have a problem with a major player, and otherwise don’t seem to be making “we’re solving problems and moving ahead of our competitors” kinds of moves, so there may be problems in the land of 1000 lakes.
While in some ways there was pleasure to be taken from seeing a club take such an arrogant view of the league struggle for so long. It was also interesting to see them find success last year. Their plan for this year remains outside what most MLS clubs use to find success, but at least that will keep things interesting.
Orlando City SC
Oscar Pareja has kept The Lions competitive and it looks like 2023 will be more of the same. The challenge seems to be getting a regular quality performance from their 9. They have a veteran and some young talent, and that may not give them one player they can rely on throughout the season.
There is a question for this team – is ok good enough? And especially as age is hitting some key players? This is a team that may not have done enough to keep up or move ahead, which means they may be falling back.
Real Salt Lake
For a team that has been hit by some of the more crazy technical staff challenges the league has seen over the past few years, you have to give them credit. On the other hand, like Portland, age might be hitting a few key players at the wrong time.
Good? Maybe? Maybe not? Time will tell.
This is a team that has not produced many high points but has often been a tough team to play against. A few times, they have had good stretches, as they did at the end of last year, but then they can’t maintain it. Until we see otherwise, we have to assume more of the same.
Whether it is a lack of willingness to spend, or an inability to identify talent that can really produce on a regular basis in MLS, this team has a history of struggling that they seem to be destined to continue.
We love Michael Barrios, but what is worse than holding onto a player a year too long? Being the next team to pick that player up and try to rely on them when they can’t hold down a starting spot anymore.
Considering the year they entered, you have to give the Carolina club a lot of credit. Just look how long it took teams like Cincinnati and Miami to get to this point. But as with many freshmen, their sophomore seasons tend to be a step back. Will that happen here?
New England Revolution
Il Bruce used to be automatic, and when the Revs got in a groove a little while after Arena arrived in Foxboro, it seemed like he was going to do it again, but then we saw what happened last year. It is tough to get too excited for this club right now. Gil and lots of other talent are still there, but we have to wait to see it.
Was Garth Lagerwey the difference in Seattle? Very possibly. A former player who understood the nature of North American players, he found a way to also find the right international player who could translate to MLS quickly, easily, and effectively; and to do so year after year. You don’t have that kind of success against the grain of MLS for so long for just one thing. Maybe Lagerwey left when he saw things were changing? Either way, things appear to be changing.
Sporting Kansas City
Peter Vermes doesn’t have seasons like last year very often, so they should bounce back, but is it possible the league has passed him by?
We are not going to move the Georgia club up just because Lagerwey is there as (a) it is a new place and who knows if that does and doesn’t translate, (b) it will likely take time for the major changes needed to take effect, and (c) maybe Seattle’s drop is because the league is passing Lagerwey by a little. We doubt the last one. On paper, this seems like a perfect fit between a dedicated organization and a leader who can really take a club like that places, and we would imagine success is likely more when not if, but there are just so many variables that it is hard to predict.
Not Great, Not Terrible (Yes, that’s a Chornobyl reference)
For a team that started so well early in its history, 1871 has really lost its way. From its beginning to Naperville, the Fire were legit MLS royalty. Now it’s just sad. Too bad they don’t make more of the Brimstone Cup as that would at least give them some things to celebrate…
Another of Dallas’ rivals that seems to have completely lost the plot, they are more often than not less than the sum of its parts. Can this change? Sure. But in the not-so-distant past, all three Texas teams were in the bottom tier, and now it’s just Houston down here.
San Jose Earthquakes
After Matias Almeyda literally ran the team into the ground, albeit with some success, he was fired in April of last year and now a face familiar to FC Dallas fans is at the helm in Luchi Gonzalez.
That is a big change, and it will bear watching to see what can be done. Especially in his last year in Dallas, Gonzalez was not set up for success by management. Odds are he took good notes while in Dallas and then with the US national team.
Teams with a decent but old starting lineup and no depth typically don’t fare well in the current iteration of MLS, and we doubt TFC will be any different. Back to the Hedges/Dallas comment – if Matt would have gone to a more competitive club, that would have been a sign that maybe Dallas might have got it wrong. Hedges to Toronto says the opposite.
This author has real fears about what will happen in the nation’s capital this season when it comes to MLS. The roster is not fantastic, the offseason changes are not inspiring, and the new gaffer has a two-year stint at Derby County that did not end well.
Yes, they will sell tickets because of the name Wayne Rooney, but will they win games?
St. Louis City SC
Expansion teams are hard to gauge, especially in 2023 when you have 28 other clubs, most of which have figured out how to be at least moderately competitive. When one of the big-name signings is a goalkeeper who may be on the wrong end of the age curve, we hesitate to rate them. On the other hand, that is mostly because there are quite a few unknowns and there just isn’t a way to tell where they will end up.