MLS enters its 27th season finally looking as though it has found its footing in the world pecking order. It is not on par with the biggest leagues in Europe, but it quickly finding itself with just about any other circuit in the world.
Once saddled with the label “retirement league”, MLS is now sending players abroad at a previously unseen clip while bringing in younger foreigners as well. By The Athletic’s accounting, MLS teams made player sales totaling $65 million during the current transfer window while spending well over $100 million on incoming players, the vast majority of whom are on the right side of 30.
While it may still be many years until MLS fulfills its ambition of becoming a “league of choice” it is at least now a legitimate part of the global marketplace and undeniably worth any domestic soccer fan’s attention.
We asked our team bloggers to explain why they think each of their teams is worth paying attention to (teams listed in predicted order of finish by conference).
1. New York City FC
NYCFC exhibits the kind of attractive, progressive, technical soccer that all MLS teams aspire to play — and that all MLS fans want to see on the pitch — but that few teams can pull off with any consistency. For years, that on-field elegance was a source of frustration: All those pretty passes, all those missed chances. Aesthetically, NYCFC should have won the MLS Cup several times by now. Winning the title last year wasn’t just a thrill, it was a relief. It vindicated the club’s style of play — not only did NYCFC beat four formidable opponents, grabbing three tough away wins on short rest — they did it with their trademark style.
Now that the proof-of-concept was a success, expect more of the same in 2022. Just as important, NYCFC will do it largely with players brought up through the club’s academies or scouted and signed when they were young and raw. While other teams are paying record transfer fees for stars you already have in your 2018 Panini album, NYCFC has been investing heavily in developing players with little name recognition outside of the Bronx but whose collective talent could win the MLS Cup once again. – Oliver Strand, Hudson River Blue
The Revolution are bringing back the majority of the roster that not only won the Supporters’ Shield but broke the league record for points in a season. That includes 2021 MVP Carles Gil and Goalkeeper of the Year Matt Turner, at least until he moves to Arsenal this summer. With Bruce Arena giving the squad even more experience with Sebastian Lletget, Omar Gonzalez and Jozy Altidore, the Revs seem primed for an MLS Cup run in 2022. Don’t let the way last year ended — with an early playoff exit — shrowd the fact that this is still a very capable MLS Cup contender. – Sam Minton, The Bent Musket
The Union has the potential to be a really exciting team to watch. They’re a team of hot and cold periods, and when they’re hot, Philadelphia is so fun to watch. The defense is impeccable and the offense can break down teams on the sides and down the center. There’s also no ignoring the Union’s academy. Want to watch the next starts of Serie A or the Austrian Bundesliga? Jack McGlynn, Paxten Aaronson, and Quinn Sullivan are the big three of the Union’s academy, but they have plenty of kids on the back-burner. Jack de Vries is getting minutes in Italy, and Nathan Harriel is due for more minutes back home. Keep an eye on the youths. – Joe Lister, Brotherly Game
4. Atlanta United
The best reason to pay attention to Atlanta United in 2022 is Mama, of course. Bless your heart. The super talented and ridiculously expensive quartet of (Josef) Martinez, (Luiz) Araujo, (Marcelino) Moreno, and (Thiago) Almada looks to be outright scary to defenders, and it’s no secret they have huge expectations this season. The four of them, combined with a very aggressive midfield and a stout backline, will be playing high-flying, fast-paced, attacking soccer. Araujo and Almada have already publicly called for the MLS Cup, Josef has stated his desire to fight to 200 career goals, and “Mando” Moreno has remained the silent killer he’s always been. The pedigree of this team indicates that, at minimum, supporters should be in for some absolute , but it’s safe to say they’ll be looking to bring Atlanta’s swag back. Head coach Gonzalo Pineda hasn’t been shy, either, about the form of soccer he wants his team to play, and by unshackling the Five Stripes’ attacking players after he arrived in the summer of 2021 he effectively led them to one of the best points-per-game ratios in MLS. The manager has his sights set on nothing less than silverware, and he’ll be unleashing an angry Mama wielding one massive chancleta. – Tyler Pilgrim, Dirty South Soccer
5. Columbus Crew
There was a lot of hype surrounding the Crew last year given the championship the season prior and the additions the club made. Although season ended ignominiously, most of those struggles can be blamed on a rash of injuries throughout the year.
While Black & Gold fans shouldn’t expect a perfect bill of health in 2022, it’s hard to imagine anything close to last season. To close last year, with most of the key players available, the Crew only lost twice in the team’s last 10 games. There remains plenty of talent on this roster, with players with championship experience still in their prime and looking to make up for what happened in 2021. – Patrick Murphy, Massive Report
6. Orlando City SC
Orlando City has added two extremely young South American imports in Facundo Torres and Cesar Araujo and a relatively young DP striker in Ercan Kara, who is 26. The 2022 team has a proven goalkeeper, back line, and central midfield. It also has a proven string puller in No. 10 Mauricio Pereyra. The biggest unknown is what the young additions will bring to the team, and the key to this year’s squad staying in the playoff positions is how quickly Torres and Kara adjust and can provide the offense the Lions need to replace. – Michael Citro, The Mane Land
It’s a new era for Toronto FC. Jozy Altidore headlines the 18 players who have already left (or will be leaving), and although the club is rebuilding under new manager/Sporting Director Bob Bradley, don’t expect this season to be a complete write-off. If the Reds can find a way to survive until the summer and stay within reaching distance of the MLS Cup Playoffs when Lorenzo Insigne (and others…) arrive, there’s a real chance TFC become immediate contenders the second half of the year. – Michael Singh, Waking the Red
8. New York Red Bulls
After a couple of years of damage assessment and rebuilding by sporting executive Kevin Thelwell, the Red Bulls finally appear primed to contend again in 2022. First-year head coach Gerhard Struber built a strong defensive structure last season while Thelwell lowered the squad’s age considerably, and now the team has surrounded talented young striker Patryk Klimala with experienced wingers Lewis Morgan and Luquinhas to spark an attack that often struggled to capitalize on strong team performances in 2021. – Ben Cork, Once a Metro
9. D.C. United
United’s 2021 games saw a total of 110 goals scored between both teams, second-most in MLS. While United might not give you the most elegant experience, #MAXIMUMOVERDRIVE is the best bang for your buck in MLS. You buy a ticket to have a good time, not a quiet act of contemplation as two teams re-enact the “center holds it” joke from The Simpsons. Those teams are boring! Life is too short to play 700 sideways passes.
United is forever trying to force the issue and make something happen. They’re capable of ripping good teams to shreds, or of giving some anonymous mid-table team four 3v1 breaks in a single half. They’re not the best team in MLS, but they are among the best at forcing other teams to play on their terms. That means even the most staid teams end up in wild, all-or-nothing games against DCU. – Jason Anderson, Black and Red United
Despite finishing 10th last season there is a feeling of progress. CFM is now 12 months into head coach Wilfred Nancy’s blueprint and success will be determined by how much the young squad has developed. Much of the offensive performance will likely be determined by fringe USMNT player Djordje Mihailovic while the defense will be led by new arrival The Alistair Johnston. The roster is more talented than the one Nancy nearly steered into the playoffs last year, which should at least keep them in contention. – Paul Vance, Mount Royal Soccer
11. Chicago Fire
Since Joe Mansueto took over as sole owner in late 2019, the Fire have slowly been creating a sleeping giant, spending huge amounts of money on off-the-pitch improvements, the move back to Soldier Field, a new sister club in Switzerland, and plans for a new, best-in-MLS training facility. But during that stretch, the on-field product has remained poor. Xherdan Shaqiri’s signing may finally be the spark this club needs to become relevant in MLS again. Other than a one-and-done playoff appearance in 2017, the Fire have been an afterthought to nearly everyone around the league for more than a decade. Mansueto’s willingness to spend big on a club he loves and cares about will eventually pay off, and adding a dynamic attacker like Switzerland international Shaqiri, who is still only 30, could finally get things going in the right direction in Chicago. – Patrick McCraney, Hot Time in Old Town
12. Inter Miami
Miami has a roster that is brand-new and entirely unproven in MLS, and a coach who, if he succeeds, would be overachieving on the touchline for the first time ever. They could be a gritty team that gets results through spirit and savvy, but they could also be a debacle again. MLS culture holds both of those genres in high regard, so either way, the Herons should be entertaining. – Jason Anderson
13. FC Cincinnati
After three miserable last-place seasons, FC Cincinnati finally looks like they might finally have a plan in place for long-term success. In Chris Albright and Pat Noonan, Cincinnati now has a general and head coach, respectively, with experience in the league. Both came highly regarded from the Philadelphia Union. And it looks like those two intend to build out the team with experienced players chosen for specific roles, complemented with young faces. While many players have been moved, the club has held on to their ambitious 2021 signings, Lucho Acosta and Brenner. With a sufficient supporting cast, the team could legitimately put out some consistently exciting soccer. This year could finally, finally, be the year where Cincinnati gets up and gets going. There’s hope again this year. – Adnan Ilyas
14. Charlotte FC
The best thing going for Charlotte right now is manager Miguel Angel Ramirez. While managing in the Ecuadorian first division for Independiente, Ramirez won the Copa Sudamericana (that region’s equivalent to the Europa League) with a much less glamorous lineup than some of his competition and he will be looking to repeat that feat in Charlotte.
The manager, however, is not quite so optimistic. When asked recently how he saw the season going, he said that he would wait and see how the rest of the roster moves went but that right now, “we are screwed.” That candor alone will be a wonderful addition to MLS. If the club can supplement the work it’s done already with some DP attackers, they may make things very interesting in the Eastern Conference. – Zach Hicks
1. Seattle Sounders
The Sounders have historically gotten off to slow starts — last year’s 13-game unbeaten streak to start the season being an extreme outlier — due mostly to their penchant to keep their options open during the summer. This year, however, they have something pretty close to an optimized roster from the very beginning. This is a team that is built to win now, which could include making a serious run at the Concacaf Champions League title that has eluded MLS teams in the modern era of this tournament. Predicting anything in MLS can be a fickle proposition, but the Sounders have the look of a team that could make history. – Jeremiah Oshan, Sounder at Heart
2. Nashville SC
You may have missed it, but Nashville SC has put together one of the best expansion builds in MLS history. They’ve made the playoffs each of their two seasons and are going into Year 3 with some genuine momentum. They’ll be doing that while moving into a stadium of their own, a state-of-the-art building that will host 30,000 fans (with 20,000 season tickets already sold at the time of this writing). Opposing teams attempting to walk out of Nashville with a win will be that much more of a challenge once Nashville SC Stadium opens on May 1. – Zachary Junda
3. Sporting Kansas City
Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes seems to have embraced the MLS U-22 initiative this year. SKC brought in speedy and skilled Belgian left back Logan Ndenbe, possession passing German center back Robert Voloder and tricky Cypriot winger Marinos Tzionis. The most recent signing is 25-year-old Nikola Vujnovic, a Montenegrin international striker on loan from Serbian side FK Vozdovac. Vujnovic adds depth and a scoring touch to the front line that was needed with Alan Pulido out for the year. That is a reason to pay attention enough right there, SKC has performed well without Pulido but can they do it all year? – Thad Bell, The Blue Testament
4. Colorado Rapids
The way Colorado’s front office has built the Rapids is to be good and fun to watch. The Rapids have been putting in goals in various fun ways for several years, but under Fraser, the club has become one of the stronger defensive teams in MLS. The Rapids play an all-around style centered around MLS veterans and internationals you probably haven’t heard of. They’re scrappy and even the underdog when they’re not — which they are not this year as reigning Western Conference regular-season champs. This season will be all about whether the Rapids can sustain success and stay winning after a round of selling. If Colorado can still stay near the top of the West, they’re vying for long-term success in the league. If the Rapids falter, it’s the same old flash in the pan club we’ve seen for much of their existence. – Jake Shapiro, Burgundy Wave
Whether you love LAFC or enjoy watching them fall flat on their face, watching first-year head coach Steve Cherundolo and forward Cristian Arango will be of interest to you. With a new MLS head coach this can go either surprisingly well, or possibly horrible. Luckily for LAFC fans, Cherundolo spent the last year working within the club, so this group isn’t completely foreign to him. There’s also Arango, who just had his first full preseason with the club. Arriving to the club midseason last year, he netted 14 goals in just 17 appearances. Now that he has a whole offseason under his belt, expect even more goals to flow. – Trebor Tracy, Angels on Parade
T6. Portland Timbers
Outside of goalkeeper, this is essentially the same team that made the MLS Cup Final last season. While the succession at ‘keeper is a significant question mark, the personnel in front of the net has chemistry and familiarity — and a bitter taste in their mouths after the heartbreak of coming so close to MLS Cup last year. In Santiago Moreno, the Timbers have an electric talent and candidate for one of the breakout players of the season. In Diego Chara, they have an ageless wonder who still hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. And in Sebastian Blanco, they have a player that when healthy is a game-breaking level of attacking talent. If everyone stays healthy, the players that are expected to step up, and Portland shows the same resilience and fight they did in the latter part of last season, then the Timbers will likely be right in the thick of the fight for hardware once again this season. – Sam Svilar, Stumptown Footy
T6. LA Galaxy
Goals. Lots of goals, drenched in sauce. At least, that’s the hope when you have Douglas Costa, Chicharito, and an improved Kévin Cabral in the attack. Even with an injury that interrupted his season, Chicharito bagged 17 goals in 21 matches played last year. If he produce at anywhere near that level, this team should be fun to watch. Throw in Costa, and you have two players that are absolutely the types to try things and attempt bangers from deep outside the box. The young Frenchman, Cabral, had some rough moments as he adjusted to a new team and a new league in 2021, but so far this preseason he has looked more than improved, he looks confident. It wouldn’t surprise if this year’s Golden Boot Winner was on this roster. – Trebor Tracy, LAG Confidential
8. Vancouver Whitecaps
Brian White and Ryan Gauld could be one of the most potent attacking duos in MLS this season. Vanni Sartini’s tactical style also ensures these two have room to create space for each other in the final third and both of them proved clinical near the end of 2021 when they had an opportunity in front of goal. Lucas Cavalini, if he can stay healthy and regain form, might also join in the mix. – Samuel Rowan
9. Minnesota United
Minnesota has done their best team-building since entering the league in 2017, not only are the players good and fun to watch but they can be downright dominating at times. If there’s one player to be excited about it’s two-way midfielder Hassani Dotson, who is probably the single most versatile player on the team as he can play practically every position at a very high caliber. Having played defender, midfielder, and forward Dotson truly is a sight to behold and a jack of all trades. The Loons top to bottom on their Matchday 18 are really a 180 degree turn from their 2017 MLS start, something that absolutely should drive fans to see the club even more. – Ashle Norling, E Pluribus Loonum
10. Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake is finally unshackled from poor ownership and subsequent no-ownership situations, leaving the team with a newfound sense of freedom. On the field, Bobby Wood is reportedly fit for the first time since his arrival at the club, and with a good amount of preseason under his belt, there’s plenty of reason to think that he might be an important player. If he finds an ability to finish, he might be an important figure. The other side of the coin? Real Salt Lake might finally land a true designated player or two, which is sorely needed following the free agency departure of Albert Rusnak. – Matt Montgomery, RSL Soapbox
11. FC Dallas
After a dismal 2021 campaign, everything feels new and improved for FC Dallas fans with new manager Nico Estevez. The team will continue to be led by Homegrown talent throughout the lineup. But the new influx of talent with Paul Arriola, Alan Velasco, and Nanu could be the reason this club returns to the playoffs in 2022. – Drew Epperly, Big D Soccer
12. Austin FC
The second season of Austin FC should be more fun, allowing the incredible fan support, especially in the supporters’ section, to shine through. The additions in attack, including Ethan Finley and Maxi Urruti, provide experience, finishing ability, and, in the case of Finley, a winger willing and capable to make runs behind defenders after Wolff frequently bemoaned the lack of verticality in 2021. With winger Cecilio Dominguez able to play his natural position on the wing all year with support from fellow designated player Sebastian Driussi, the Oaks should be able to find the finishing quality that escaped them for much of their inaugural season. – Wescott Eberts
13. Houston Dynamo
Look, this team is not going to be great. This won’t be a team that runs up and down at break-neck pace, scoring goals at will. This also will not be the kind of team that grinds out 1-0 wins with lock-down defense. What is this team going to be then? That is a great question and the best reason to pay attention to the Houston Dynamo: There is so much to learn. What are Paulo Nagamura’s tactics going to look like? Will a DP forward in Sebastian Ferreira be able to score goals in MLS? What is Zeca going to bring to the team?
With new blood in charge from the owner to the GM to the coaching staff, there are so many questions to answer about this team as the 2021 season progresses. After so much deserved and sometimes undeserved criticism, the Dynamo are changing from top to bottom, from the owner to the coach to the players. The change is exciting and to witness it in real time is worth the watch. – Dustyn Richardson, Dynamo Theory
14. San Jose Earthquakes
The players on the San Jose Earthquakes all have something to prove this year. For example, Jeremy Ebobisse has to prove that he was worth his high transfer fee. Cade Cowell has to prove himself to the European suitors that come to scout him at the games. Chofis Lopez has to prove to the San Jose Earthquakes front office that he’s worth his $3 million price tag that Chivas has on him. Cristian Espinoza has to prove that he’s one of the most underrated players in the league. As you can see, almost every single player on this roster has something to prove. Let’s not forget who has to prove the most, that is Matias Almeyda. Most MLS fans and pundits both would label as the Almeyda “Man Mark” system as a flop in MLS. Given all the excuses as to why it hasn’t worked these past three years, now is the time to make everyone eat their words. – Favian Renkel