The MLS returned to action in the final weekend of February, and the majority of the 29 teams now have a result in the book.
Defending champion Los Angeles FC is one of the teams that has yet to take the field to begin their 2023 season. They appear to be strong contenders again, though their roster is missing a few key figures from their championship run in 2022.
After scoring a pivotal goal in the MLS Cup, Welshman Gareth Bale retired. Though he has a lot of name value, Bale made only 12 appearances for the club. Perhaps more impactful is the departure of Cristian Arango, who transferred to Pachuca of Liga MX during the offseason. Prior to leaving LAFC, Arango tallied 30 goals and seven assists in 51 appearances across two seasons.
Despite those key exits, LA will remain a formidable matchup as nine starters return from its championship squad.
WATCH OUT FOR AUSTIN
One potential challenger in the Western Conference is Austin FC, which finished second in the conference in 2022 with 56 points. The side is led by attacking midfielder Sebastian Driussi, who piled up 22 goals and seven assists across 34 games last season and also scored in the team’s 2023 opener. The team also solidified their roster with the additions of striker Gyasi Zardes and central defender Leo Vaisanen this winter.
Despite those positives, things didn’t go according to plan to start the 2023 season, as Austin was upset 3-2 by St. Louis SC -- a club making its MLS debut. Despite the setback, Austin should be in the mix to challenge for the Western Conference title once again.
Compared to 2022, Nashville SC could be prepared to take a leap. They’ve tallied 54 and 50 points in the last two seasons and now look to make the final push into the group of elite clubs in MLS. Hany Mukhtar is the dynamic leader of attack, combining for 39 goals and 23 assists in 64 games over the past two seasons. He claimed both the scoring title and MVP in 2022. In a concerning development, Mukhtar was forced to come off the bench and only play 15 minutes in Nashville’s season opener due to hip tightness, though the team still managed to defeat New York City FC 2-0 in the opener.
Finally, to round out the Western Conference, historic powerhouse Seattle FC had a down season in 2022 but are lurking as a potential team to rebound.
The Philadelphia Union were on the opposite side of the MLS Championship last season, losing a heartbreaker. They should be considered the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference once again. Their roster remained intact throughout the winter and was even bolstered with the addition of depth through a trio of trades.
UNION COULD GET CHALLENGERS
While their attack is plenty potent, the Union’s biggest strength is their defense. In 2022, they conceded only 26 goals, 15 fewer than any other Eastern Conference rival and 11 fewer than FC Dallas -- the Western Conference leader. Philadelphia started the new campaign well with a 4-1 victory over the Columbus Crew.
After the Union, there is plenty of room for newcomers to enter the fray as a top club in the East. New York City FC is coming off a third-place finish in the conference in 2022, but it could get off to a slow start to the new campaign after the departure of goalkeeper Sean Johnson and center back Alex Callens over the winter. That may leave them vulnerable through the middle of the field, and that was on display in their season-opening loss against Nashville SC as they surrendered a goal on a set piece that was played into the middle of the box.
CF Montreal tallied 65 points in 2022, but they’ve also experienced some significant turnover in the last few months. Most recently, they traded disgruntled Kei Kamara to Chicago FC. Kamara scored nine goals last season in a mixed role as a starter and key player off the bench. Also departing was emerging superstar Djordje Mihailovic, which could combine to leave Montreal struggling to score goals early in the campaign.
Despite out-possessing Inter Miami in all areas of the field in the first game of the season, Montreal fell 2-0. The roster turnover this offseason could ultimately prove too much for them to be true contenders again in 2023.
The weaknesses of NYCFC and Montreal have the potential to leave the door open for FC Cincinnati to continue its transformation from expansion team to true Cup contender. Brenner is an exciting young striker that initially appeared bound to depart to the Premier League this winter, though the transfer ultimately fell through. He tallied 18 goals in 2022 and is joined by Brandon Vazquez – who matched Brenner’s goal-scoring output in 2022 – to form one of the most potent attacking pairs in the MLS.
The team showed its quality in the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Union in 2022, losing 1-0 on a goal in the 59th minute. That should give the club confidence heading into the 2023 season, as should its 2-1 home victory over the Houston Dynamo to begin the campaign.