MLS East Preview 2023
Eastern Conference Preview: Philly Love, Strong in New York, Orlando improved
February 23, 2023
THE KICKOFF TO THE 2022 MLS season is just a few days away and it is time to predict the Eastern Conference. Just as we know that this league is always difficult to predict, normally the West seems to be a bit harder than the East. But this year, we are going to say there is more volatility in the East. We like Philadelphia. Everyone likes Philadelphia. But after them, it seems like everything is up for grabs in the East.
The East still has its share of surprises. Who saw New England missing the playoffs after its record-breaking 2021 season? Who saw Cincinnati going from three-straight Wooden Spoons to a very good team. But this year, teams like the Revs, Orlando, the Crew, Atlanta, Nashville, the two New York teams, or Inter Miami can all be really good – or miss the playoffs entirely.
Given the expanded playoff format – eighth and ninth have a one game playoff to make the first round. The top seven plus the playoff winner make the first round which is a best of three. Then the later rounds are all back to one-game. It’s more complicated, but whatever.
The point is that nine teams making the playoffs will make this forgiving, perhaps too forgiving. But it should keep the middle of the pack desperate into the fall.
Prediction: First in the East
Philadelphia was the best team in the East last year and they only lost to LAFC in the final on the tightest of margins. For long periods, they were playing the best in the entire league. Now they bring back every starter and have the league’s best coach in Jim Curtin. That’s not a bad starting point.
Then you combine that most of their roster is either young or in their prime, the chances are that they should be even better. Only captain Alejandro Bedoya is past his prime years but who is behind him? Jack McGlynn, one of the best American U-20 players in the game. Daniel Gazdag is one of the best players in the league and the attacking front line consists of Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre.
There are some challenges for the Union and internally Curtin is going to have to find minutes to keep a deep and talented team happy. The team already sold Paxten Aaronson before he ever became a big first-team contributor like his brother. But how do they find minutes for McGlynn? Quinn Sullivan played even less and he has been the leading scorer (goals plus assists) for the U.S. U-20 team all cycle. How does he play? Brandan Craig is a top defensive prospect but he plays in back of the league’s top central defense pairing in 2022 – Jack Elliot and Jakob Glesnes.
Philadelphia wants to be a hub of youth development and it wants to win. But it will need to find ways to win while giving its products more minutes. Otherwise, it could run into problems. The good news is that Curtin realizes this and after the U-20 World Cup in May, he could take some action.
No matter what, this is a good Union team that is deep, young, and talented.
Key additions: Damion Lowe, Andres Perea, Joaquin Torres
Key departures: Paxten Aaronson, Cory Burke
Prediction: Second in the East
Cincinnati’s front line of Brandon Vazquez, Brenner, and Luciano Acosta was perhaps the best in the league. Despite transfer rumors circulating for much of the winter for each of them, the trio will return. The questions then becomes if they peaked in 2022, if they are stale, or if they are distracted by transfer talk and want to move on?
Cincinnati has done a lot to help its struggling defense. Young Ecuadorian defensive midfielder Marc Angulo was brought in from Independiente del Valle and will sit in front of the backline. That will help take the pressure off Matt Miazga, last season’s big midseason acquisition, and newly acquired Yerson Mosquera on loan from Wolves.
Overall, the team brings back a great front line and has improved on the defensive side. All of this done under a promising head coach in Pat Noonan. It’s fair to be optimistic.
Key additions: Yerson Mosquera, Marc Angulo
Key departures: Ronald Matarrita
New York Red Bulls
Prediction: Third in the East
Last season, the biggest concern over the New York Red Bulls was the need for a pure scorer as Patryk Klimala was just not producing. The team moved him out and brought in Dante Vanzeir who was putting up big numbers in Belgium’s First Division with Union SG. On top of that, they brought in Cory Burke from Philadelphia and made Elias Manoel’s loan last season a permanent transfer. That is a huge upgrade in the attack.
The team will, of course, be led by Lewis Morgan who was the leading scorer in 2022 and was the difference maker. Luquinhas went quiet in the second half of the season but is still a big part of the attack.
The midfield is deep. Not all of the contingent of Frankie Amaya, Cristian Casseres, Wiki Carmona, Daniel Edelman (U.S. U-20 captain), and Dru Yearwood will start, but all will play and they are nice options. Peter Stroud is a high-end homegrown signing. Fullback also in good shape with John Tolkin on the left and Kyle Duncan on the right with Dylan Nealis as a backup.
The big question comes in central defense. Aaron Long left to return to California with LAFC and he accomplished a lot with the Red Bulls but was never fully the same after his Achilles injury in 2021. Sean Nealis is now the Red Bull captain and will he be able to fill the void? The fact that he is the captain shows the confidence the team has in him. Andres Reyes as well will be in central defense.
Overall, there is a lot to like about this Red Bull team. The attack should be more productive and everyone else is grown up. They also have an open DP spot. Central defense is a concern but the midfield sitting in front of them will help.
Key additions: Dante Vanzeir, Cory Burke
Key departures: Aaron Long, Patryk Klimala
New York City FC
Prediction: Fourth in the East
Heading into the opening weekend, we don’t yet know if NYCFC has reached a deal to bring Santiago Rodriguez back to the Bronx or if it has reached a deal to acquire American midfielder Richie Ledezma on loan from PSV Eindhoven. Both are reportedly close but both have been close for awhile and still have not been finalized.
That’s important information that will go a long way in giving us an indication whether or not NYCFC is good or a contender. Regardless, they will be competitive.
Thiago Andrade, Talles Magno, and Gabriel Pereira is a good front line but is extremely young (21, 20, and 22 ages respectively) and it will be interesting to see how they hold up over the course of a season. The midfield with Keaton Parks and Alfredo Morales has decent experience in this league. The team added right back Mitja Ileni? and its central defense pairing of Maxime Chanot and Thiago Martins. Matt Freese will get a chance to start but it will be a tough climb to meet Sean Johnson’s level the past few seasons.
Overall, it is a very nice team and if Rodriguez and Ledezma join, it could pass the Red Bulls or Cincinnati to push Philly.
Key additions: Braian Cufré, Mitja Ileni?, Matt Freese.
Key departures: Sean Johnson, Maxi Moralez, Alex Callens.
Orlando City SC
Prediction: Fifth in the East
Orlando City is set make a big leap in 2023 with several nice moves.
Martín Ojeda was a huge acquisition, and he was one of the best wingers in Argentina last season with Godoy Cruz. Buying Rafael Santos from Cruzeiro will cushion the loss of Joao Moutinhio. At age 33, Junior Urso's surprisingly left in November. Young Argentine winger Ramiro Enrique will bring in some impressive depth on the wings and Icelandic international Dagur Dan Þórhallsson will also add to the midfield depth.
But the club was able to sign DP. No. 10 Mauricio Pereyra to a new deal and that will keep the team in a good place.
It’s right to be optimistic in Orlando and if Ojeda can have the impact that the club hopes while combining with Pereyra and the other DP attackers, Ercan Kara and Facundo Torres, Orlando can finish near the top of the East.
On another note, Orlando has some interesting homegrown players and it will be telling if Oscar Pareja can begin to get meaningful minutes from them. Michael Halliday is in the U.S. U-20 team. Favian Loyola was a standout with the U.S. U-19 team, as was Alex Freeman. This would be a big boost to the organization to get homegrown production.
Key Additions: Martín Ojeda, Dagur Dan Þórhallsson, Rafael Santos
Key Departures: Joao Moutinhio, Junior Urso, Ramiro Enrique
Columbus Crew SC
Prediction: Sixth in the East
Wilfried Nancy is a good hire as a coach and he did a great job in Montreal. And on top of it, forward Cucho Hernandez and attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan are legitimate top designated players. But after that, the team gets a lot of thin and the team has lost a lot of talent – Jonathan Mensah, Artur, Pedro Santos. The incoming imports simply don’t match it. Christian Ramirez comes back to the league after an up and down time with Aberdeen and Jimmy Medranda joins from Seattle.
Darlington Nagbe will turn 33 this year and the club is placing a lot of hope on Aidan Morris in central midfield. In defense, there are too many question marks.
Nancy has some good starting points and he’s a good coach – but he has work to do.
Key additions: Christian Ramirez, Jimmy Medranda
Key departures: Arthur, Jonathan Mensah, Artur
New England Revolution
Prediction: Seventh in the East
After winning the Supporters Shield in 2021, it was a massive step back for New England in 2022 where they failed to make the playoffs. But the Revs have seen a lot of talent leave since 2021 – Matt Turner, Adam Buksa, and Tajon Buchanan are just three players who have been sold from that team.
The good news is that the Revolution should be better than 2022 and should make the now expanded playoffs. But the bad news is that they won’t be among the top teams.
There are still open questions about forward Giacomo Vrioni who was acquired last summer to a DP deal. When DP’s turn 30 and are playing on turf, will they age well? Some do, like Lodeiro. But will Carles Gil continue to play like an MVP candidate. The other DP, Gustavo Bou, is now 33.
The good news, is that I like the central midfield of Matt Polstar, Dylan Borrero, and Latif Blessing is a great addition in someone who knows how to win in this league. Fullbacks DeJuan Jones and Brandon Bye are also way above average in the league. Central defense in newly acquired Dave Romney and Henry Kessler are a coin flip. Both have had periods of doing well and struggling in the league. But goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic is a great replacement for Turner.
We are also looking forward to seeing the progression of top homegrown players like Esmir Bajraktarevi?, Damian Rivera, and Noel Buck with Buck and Bajraktarevi? having roles with U.S. youth national teams.
Overall, it’s a good Revolution team. Expect improvement from 2022 but not a return to 2021.
Key Additions: Latif Blessing, Dave Romney, Bobby Wood
Key Departures: No significant departures
Prediction: Eighth in the East
When you look at the roster for Atlanta United, you see talent that should have it easily within the top four for the East. But putting it all together has been the problem for Atlanta since Tata Martino left after the 2018 season. Head coach Gonzalo Pineda has more to work with in 2023 than last year.
Giorgos Giakoumakis is a big addition at forward and he has had a string of very productive minutes in the Eredivisie (26 goals with VVV Venlo) and then in Scotland with Celtic. Derrick Etienne Jr. has been a winner in this league with Columbus and the Red Bulls and he brings good experience.
The engine of the team will Brazilian midfielder Luiz Araújo, 26, who won Ligue 1 with Lille in 2021, Thiago Almada who is only 21 and was on the roster for Agentina's World Cup winning team in December, and Santiago Sosa, 23, who has been with the team since 2021 when he arrived from River Plate.
But central defense is a huge upgrade. For one, Miles Robinson returns after missing almost all of 2022 with a torn Achilles. He will partner with the newly acquired Luis Abram who is a Peru international in his prime. Will Robinson be at the level he was at in 2021? Who knows. The same with the return of Brad Guzan who also missed 2022 due to injury and is now 38. Fullbacks are also strong with Andrew Guttman, Brooks Lennon, and U.S. U-20 left back Caleb Wiley.
The team is loaded with talent. The challenge is head coach Gonzalo Pineda putting it together. In 2022, it was alarming to hear the comments from recently departed legendary forward Josef Martinez who questioned the team’s recent signings and professional approach. Martinez might have been wrong to air his comments to the media, but he is a guy who cared about Atlanta and said what he said because he cares. Atlanta failed to make the playoffs and the burden is on them to have them play up to the sum of their parts.
Key Additions: Giorgos Giakoumakis, Luis Abram, Derrick Etienne Jr.
Key Departures: Josef Martinez, Alan Franco, Marcelino Moreno
Prediction: Ninth in the East
After a tough year in 2021 where the club was dealing with punishments from violating the league’s salary rules, Inter Miami rebounded in 2022 and made the playoffs. Now it is a question of whether or not the team will continue to improve or fall back down.
The answer is probably in the middle. Many teams in the East made upgrades and while Miami did as well, they probably didn’t improve enough. The playoffs are still within reach for Phil Neville’s team.
The retirement of Gonzalo Higuaín and the departure of Alejandro Pozuelo are noticeable. As a replacement up top, it will be telling to see what kind of form Josef Martinez is in but he will certainly be motivated after his exit from Atlanta. Signing Leo Campana to a new deal is also smart. The move to acquire Sergii Kryvtsov could be a nice replacement for Damian Lowe.
Inter Miami is also going to rely on some development from within – which is good. Benjamin Cremaschi is one of the more anticipated American homegrown signings after making inroads with both the U.S. and Argentina's U-20 team, playing up a cycle. Left back Noah Allen is in the current U.S. U-20 pool. U.S. Olympic hopeful Bryce Duke, 21, made 28 appearances in 2022 after arriving from LAFC.
Key Additions: Josef Martinez, Sergii Kryvtsov
Key Departures: Gonzalo Higuain, Alejandro Pozuelo, Damian Lowe
Prediction: 10th in the East
It was a decent inaugural season from Charlotte FC in 2022 despite an awkward coaching change early in the season. But head coach Christian Lattanzio did a good job the rest of the way.
The offseason for the club saw some upgrades but also tragedy as midfielder Anton Walkes died in a boating accident in preseason.
But the arrival of veteran Premier League midfielder Ashley Westwood will help and the arrival of DP forward Enzo Copetti should be an offensive boost as Copetti, 27, scored 19 goals in 40 games for Racing Club in Argentina. Meanwhile, DP midfielder Jordy Alcívar left after not living up to expectations in 2022.
The talent is there on paper for Charlotte to make the playoffs in the expanded format. But getting players such as DP Kamil Jó?wiak and others to live up to expectations is the challenge.
Key Acquisitions: Enzo Copetti, Ashley Westwood, Bill Tuiloma
Key Departures: Jordy Alcívar, Anton Walkes
Prediction: 11th in the East
Toronto struggled in the first half of the season but obviously improved with the arrival of Italian internationals Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. While the club fell well short of the playoffs in 2022, the team has high level talent in two players to win any one game in this league. They are always a threat.
But can they make a season out of these two? That’s the question.
Adama Diomande, now 33, signed in January to be the top No. 9 and while he had success in MLS with LAFC, he has struggled in various stints in Asia and back in Norway since he left California in 2020. Jonathan Osorio and Mark Anthony Kaye are two Canadian international midfielders but both have seen their stock fall in 2022. Michael Bradley, now 35, is a step slower but is still carrying a big workload.
Toronto has been looking for older, experienced players and has brought in Sean Johnson in goal and Matt Hedges in central defense. Brandon Servania’s acquisition is different as he could provide some youth across the various midfield positions. Left back Raoul Petretta arrived from Turkey.
A big question is how head coach Bob Bradley begins integrating young players. The club’s academy has developed some top Canadian youth internationals. The club needs to get younger in the supporting cast around the Italian duo.
Key Additions: Raoul Petretta, Sean Johnson, Matt Hedges, Sigurd Rosted, Brandon Servania
Key Departures: Chris Mavinga, Alex Bono, Domenico Criscito
Prediction: 12th in the East
Nashville has one of the best players in the league at No. 10 Hany Mukhtar who won the MVP last year after an incredible season. Then it has one of the most effective central defenders in the league at Walker Zimmerman, who wins wherever he goes. For any team, that’s a great starting point. But after that, there is a lot of concern. The roster lacks balance and that could cost them a spot in the postseason – even with the expanded playoffs.
Ake Loba is on loan with Mazatlan in Liga Mx and will continue to occupy a DP spot. He was a club record signing and never fit in. That's been bad on many levels as he is one less scoring option and the club has no room to move on a DP now.
Fafa Picault was a good acquisition and will help giving his steady production in MLS with three teams, most recently on a bad Houston team. CJ Sapong is also dependable but, at 34, is past his prime.
Sean Davis, now 30, and Dax McCarty, now 35, are central midfielders who aren't going to be better than they were in 2022.
The expanded playoffs and some experienced veterans could keep the team in the mix for the playoffs, but this roster has serious holes.
Where are the goals going to come from after Hany?
Key Additions: Fafa Picault, Nebiyou Perry, Tyler Freeman, Nick Depuy
Key Departures: Ake Loba, Dave Romney
Prediction: 13th in the East
Montreal was very good in 2022 but it’s wise to expect a big drop off in 2023. For one Wilfried Nancy was an excellent head coach but had a rocky relationship with owner Joey Saputo and left for Columbus. Nancy is replaced by Hernan Losada whose only experience in MLS, with DC United, went poorly. Losada employs a fast-paced “Red Bull” approach. That alone is a big change.
Plus Montreal lost three of its best players this offseason to sales in Europe. American Djordje Mihailovic along with Canadian internationals Alistair Johnston and Ismaël Koné. As of now, Defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama is the only DP. The club brought in American defenders Aaron Herrera at right back and George Campbell in central defense, but that won’t make up for the losses.
Montreal is going to have to rely heavily on existing players raising their game. U.S. Olympic hopeful Matko Miljevic will play Djorde Mihailovic and homegrowns will have to step in.
It would be a massive accomplishment if Losada keeps this team in the mix for the playoffs, even in the new expanded format.
Key Additions: Aaron Herrera, George Campbell
Key Departures: Djordje Mihailovic, Alistair Johnston, Ismaël Koné.
Chicago Fire FC
Prediction: 14th in the East
The Chicago Fire sold Jhon Duran and Gaga Slonina for roughly $35 million combined if incentives are met. But incoming acquisitions (attacker Maren Haile-Selassie and right back Arnaud Souquet) do not make this team significantly better. The problem is that this team needed to get a lot better from 2022 to be in contention for the playoffs. There are some good players – DP’s Xherdan Shaqiri – is the most known but he scored seven goals last season. The team’s other DP, midfielder Jairo Torres, didn’t score at all.
The team just needs too much improvement across the board to feel optimistic. Ezra Hendrickson has the makings of a good coach but he was dealt a tough hand.
Key Additions: Maren Haile-Selassie, Arnaud Souquet
Key Departures: Gaga Slonina, Jhon Durán, Jhon Espinoza.
Prediction: 15th in the East
Last season, DC United won the Wooden Spoon after Cincinnati held it for three years. They made a bunch of changes to the team in the offseason and might be improved, but there are still too many open ends to feel good about the team’s chances in the second season under Wayne Rooney.
Christian Benteke is now in his second season as the team's No. 9 but will he live up to expectations. He had just one goal in seven games in 2022 but he should have more help in 2023. The team added DP Mateusz Klich, 32, to the roster and he was popular at Leeds. But again, older and unproven in this league. It might work out, or it might not. The third DP, Taxi Fountas, will remain the engine of this team.
There just isn’t enough significant upgrades to get optimistic about this team in 2023. The team does have a nice list of promising young homegrown players such as Kristian Fletcher, Ted Ku-DiPietro, Matai Akinmboni, and Jackson Hopkins that need to start getting integrated into the first team level for the long-term future.
Key Additions: Mateusz Klich, Tyler Miller, Ruan
Key Departures: Ola Kamara, Bill Hamid, David Ochoa