MLS Eastern Conference Preview
MLS 2022: Eastern Conference preview and predictions - Revs, Philly, & Atlanta lead the way
The 2022 season is nearly here, and the upcoming season will be full of surprises – both positive and negative. ASN’s Brian Sciaretta previews the Eastern Conference with out looks and predictions for each of the 14 teams.
February 18, 2022
AS ANYONE WILL tell you, preseasons predictions in MLS are extraordinarily difficult. It’s not has difficult as it used to be and we have a general idea of who is good and who is bad, but pinpointing with a degree of confidence remains elusive.
Did anyone last season believe the Revolution would have set records for the best regular season ever? No. But we also knew teams like New York City, Philadelphia, and Orlando would be pretty good while Chicago, Cincinnati, and Inter Miami would be bad.
The Eastern Conference is weaker this season simply because a good Nashville team switched to the Western Conference and they were replaced by a Charlotte team that doesn’t look great – even by expansion standards.
There is also the issue of the league becoming a selling league. This is good thing, but it also makes it harder to pinpoint as several top teams in the conference have already lost good players or are rumored to be losing top players throughout the season. It remains impossible to predict the team’s success until we know how these losses will be replaced.
For now, the season begins in 10 days and here are ASN’s predictions based on what we know now.
The New England Revolution
Predicted finish: 1st in the Eastern Conference
The New England Revolution were really good last season and Bruce Arena’s squad set records for regular season dominance. We’ve seen teams have great regular season over the past five years (LAFC, RBNY, Atlanta) and it always becomes really tough to match the output the following year.
The Revolution should still be good this year but it seems like a stretch to think they’ll be as good as 2021. They have already lost one of the league’s best wingers in Tajon Buchanan and will lose arguably the league’s best goalkeeper this summer in Matt Turner. The only major replacements are Sebastian Lletget who will reunited with Arena and forward Jozy Altidore – who is a total wildcard at this point in his career
Meanwhile, Adam Buksa is good, but he has European interest after playing his way onto the Polish national team.
Still, you have to bet on Bruce Arena right now. The team still has its backline in tact and the reigning MVP in Carles Gil.
The Revolution still deserve to be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference but they are more beatable in 2022 than they were in 2021. Finishing atop the table could be close.
Key departures: Tajon Buchanan, Matt Turner (in the summer)
Key arrivals: Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Lletget
Predicted finish: 2nd in the Eastern Conference
The Philadelphia Union were very close to advancing to MLS Cup in 2021 and their fans have every reason to believe they should have been there as COVID prevented the teams entire defense and most of the midfield from playing in the Eastern Conference final, a narrow 2-1 loss to NYCFC.
There is a lot to like about Philadelphia this season. First, Jim Curtin is one of the best American coaches and his players love him. Second, the core of the defense remains in-tact with Jack Elliot and Jacob Glesnes in central defense just ahead of Andre Blake – one of the league’s best goalkeepers. The Union also have a terrific captain in Alejandro Bedoya.
Finally, there is a wave of homegrown players and three of them in Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, and Jack McGlynn are now heading into their second season in the league. Will the U.S. U-20 trio be ready to move from prospects to impact players? They’re still probably a season away from that, but they should make promising contributions and bring youthful energy to the team.
There are a lot of moving parts, however, as the team lost two of its best players in DP midfielder Jamiro Monteiro and forward Kacper Przybylko. The Union replaced them with Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre – and those players are both good on paper. But having that translate on the field is always a question.
It’s always a bit of a coin-flip when teams have a lot of questions but a quality coach in Jim Curtin should make people optimistic things will break in favor of the Union. Also, Ernst Tanner now has some space for another addition after trading away Monteiro.
Don’t be surprised if the Union are among the best in the Eastern Conference and don’t be surprised if they’re in strong contention for MLS Cup during the playoffs.
Key departures: Kacper Przybylko, Jamiro Monteiro
Key arrivals: Julian Carranza, Mikael Uhre
Predicted finish: 3rd in the Eastern Conference
Ever since Tata Martino left to take the Mexico job, Atlanta United have been a mess in terms of leadership. Frank DeBoer was a poor fit to replace Pineda. Gabriel Heinze was somehow even worse and he crashed and burned inside of the 2021 season. Gonzalo Pineda took over midway through the season and he will now have the benefit of the last few months of 2021 and a full preseason in 2022 to build the team as he sees fit.
Pineda has a lot of tools to work with. Miles Robinson is one of the best central defenders in the league and combining him with Alan Franco or George Campbell should, in theory, make for a good tandem. But is Brad Guzan still an elite keeper at age 37?
Atlanta United spends money and there is always a potential for the team to be very good. Luis Araujo was a big import from Lille last season but he never truly got going as the team’s leadership was in flux. Now more will be expected of the player who won Ligue 1 the year before. Ezequiel Barco is gone but Thiago Almada has arrived from Velez Sarsfield in a huge deal around $16 million.
All the offseason losses have been adequately replaced. George Bello was sold but Andrew Gutman is a very good left back who is coming off a strong season with the Red Bulls.
Another thing in Atlanta’s favor is that Josef Martinez is now fully beyond his ACL tear. He returned last season but the rust was obvious. Expectations that he return to pre-injury form are realistic.
The good thing about Atlanta isn’t that it has a few stars, it is that it looks very deep. But the question is now on Pineda to put it all together.
Key departures: George Bello, Ezequiel Barco
Key arrivals: Thiago Almada.
New York City FC
Predicted finish: 4th in the Eastern Conference
The reigning MLS Cup champions enter into 2022 with a bullseye on their back after an stunning playoff run that saw the team plow through Atlanta at home followed but road wins over New England, Philadelphia, and Portland. That run was made possible through great coaching from Ronny Deila.
Like many other team in the East, they don’t look as good on paper as they did in 2021. New York City FC also has the most questions among all the teams expected to finish in the playoff positions.
The loss of James Sands has more than been replaced by the addition of Thiago Martins – who was purchased as one of the rare DP defensive signings the league’s teams make. The Brazilian central defender will improve the backline.
But Jesus Medina was sold and is now in Russia. Maxi Moralez is now 34 and his shelf-life is limited.
The $15 million question for NYCFC is Taty Castellanos, who was the league’s leading scorer in 2021. The $15 million reflect the pricetag that NYCFC have set for him and City Football Group has turned down eight-figure offers for him recently. It seems as if his time in the Big Apple is limited.
Sure, NYCFC could then open up its big pocketbook and buy another forward, but replacing a leading scorer is never an easy thing to do. They are also going to need help from players like Herber, who saw his output decline in 2021. That will need to be reversed. The team over-relied on Castellanos and if he is sold, a lot of things will need to break its way.
They have promising youth in Brazilian forwards Thiago Andrade, and Talles Magno and both will need to step up on the offensive side.
When people are trying to predict where NYCFC will finish in 2022, the guesses will be all over the place give the number of questions. For now, they should be okay. They have good central defense, good goalkeeping, money to spend, promising prospects, Castellanos is still an NYCFC player, and most importantly – Deila is a very good coach.
Key departures: James Sands, Jesus Medina
Key arrivals: Thiago Martins
Predicted finish: 5th in the Eastern Conference
Last season was a disaster for Toronto FC on all levels. Head coach Chris Armas couldn’t connect with the players and was eventually fired. Just about every player played below expectations and of course COVID made things brutal on Canadian teams in the league as the border remained closed for long stretches.
Toronto made massive changes to the team. Bob Bradley is big step up in the coaching department. Yes, he is coming off a tough season leading LAFC, but Bradley is a good turnaround artist. He turned around the national team quickly after a brutal 2006 World Cup (and a failed public pursuit of Jurgen Klinsmann to succeed Bruce Arena), he also had success with Chicago, the Metrostarts, and Chivas in the earlier era of MLS. Coaching Egypt during a time of political upheaval wasn’t easy. He remained popular at Stabaek and Le Havre. His first LAFC season was terrific. The only blight on his resume was Swansea, which he never had the benefit of a preseason or a transfer window.
Compared with his previous assignments, Toronto should be relatively easy. The team cut out a lot of players from last year’s poor season. Yeferson Solteldo was an expensive DP who didn’t work out. It was messy with Jozy Altidore and he had to go. Omar Gonzalez was older and the team wanted to get younger. Auro Jr. returned to South America. Richie Laryea was sold to Nottingham Forest.
Now, Bradley will have a chance to mostly build Toronto FC as opposed to fixing Toronto FC. He has his son Michael, who knows him better than anyone, he has a former MLS MVP in Alejandro Pozuelo, and Carlos Salcedo should bolster the team’s poor backline in 2021.
Then in the summer, he will have one of the most anticipated designated players in league history when Lorenzo Insigne arrives from Napoli. He has the potential to make an impact beyond what Sebastian Giovinco did for the team six years ago.
If the team can remain competitive until he arrives, Toronto could explode in the second half when you combine an adjusted Toronto team along with the arrival of a current Italian national team winger.
To get to that point, Toronto is also going to need young players step up. Nine homegrowns are currently on the roster and a few of them look as if they are ready to contribute – midfielders Ralph Priso, Noble Okello , and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty looking chief among them.
Toronto needed a massive overhaul this offseason and it happened. All the moves look good on paper and it remains to be seen if it will pan out. But Toronto fans should be optimistic.
Key departures: Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez, Auro Jr. Richie Laryea, Marky Delgado
Key arrivals: Lorenzo Insigne (summer), Carlos Salcedo
Predicted finish: 6th in the Eastern Conference
Columbus is yet another team that remains tough to figure out. They won MLS Cup in 2020 and then bombed out in 2021 where they failed to make the playoffs despite having most of the core and the coaching staff in-tact.
Now in 2022 is Columbus going to be a contender or will it be a team that will fail to even make the post season? The truth is probably in the middle - so we are going to spit the difference and predict that they’ll qualify for the postseason, but not by much.
Lucas Zelarayán remains an elite player in this league and he is the engine for Columbus. He must perform well for the team to do well. There are concerns, however, with two of the other top players in Gyasi Zardes and Darlington Nagbe who are both now over 30. How will they be able to contribute over a long season?
The imports of Yaw Yeboah and Miloš Degenek from Europe should help and Jalil Anibaba will give the team needed MLS experience. Also, the return of Aiden Morris from his ACL tear should bolster the defensive midfield. The talented homegrown stepped into the spotlight when he replaced Nagbe for MLS Cup in 2020 just days after Nagbe tested positive for COVID.
But it will come down to coaching and having this team play together as a unit again. That was missing in 2021. Caleb Porter cannot afford to have his team miss the playoffs again. There is too much talent on the roster for a repeat of 2021.
Key departures: Harrison Afful, Aboubacar Keita, Waylon Francis
Key arrivals: Yaw Yeboah, Milos Degenek, Jalil Anibaba
New York Red Bulls
Predicted finish: 7th in the Eastern Conference
Will the Red Bulls keep their playoff streak alive? The last time the organization failed to qualify for the post season was 2009.
ASN thinks they will. It will be close, but they should.
The big question is how will the organization replace veteran defensive midfielder and team captain Sean Davis? Davis has been the heart and soul of the team where he became the club’s first homegrown player to rise to the captaincy. Davis played every single minute of the 2021 regular season and was critical in the team’s surge over the final six weeks to make the playoffs.
With Davis gone, it will have to be a committee of Cristian Casseres, Dru Yearwood, and Dan Edelman. Edelman is a starter on the U.S. U-20 team who has shown a lot of promise at Red Bulls II.
The rest of the team is improved. Tom Edwards will return for his second loan stint and replace Kyle Duncan at right back. John Tolkin and Caden Clark are youngsters heading into their second season and both should be better. Tolkin has impressed at left back. Patryk Klimala is now more adjusted to the league and if he can finish better, he could be dangerous. Frankie Amaya’s playing time was inconsistent in 2021 but he should also be in better shape.
Last year, the Red Bulls made questionable imports. They spent a lot on Amaya, but didn’t play him much. The paid a transfer fee for Cam Harper, and he didn’t play because the team rarely uses wingers.
In terms of imports this year, Lewis Morgan arrives from Miami and is known for being an extremely hard worker and that should fit into the high-energy Red Bull system. Luquinhas is an attacking midfielder the team has signed to a DP deal from Legia Warsaw but it remains to be seen if the Brazilian will fit in well to the Red Bull system.
But one such reason for optimism is the return of Aaron Long. The U.S. national team central defender suffered a season-ending injury in April and the team missed his presence on the backline. Now combined with Sean Nealis, the Red Bulls have a backline that should be able to compete well.
One loss that should not go unnoticed is assistant coach Bradley Carnell who was popular with the players and did well in 2020 when he replaced Chris Armas as an interim head coach.
The Red Bulls need some breaks, but they have enough returning talent to be solid. Replacing Davis is key.
Key departures: Sean Davis, Fabio, Kyle Duncan
Key arrivals: Lewis Morgan, Luquinhas, Tom Edwards, Dan Edelman
Predicted finish: 8th in the Eastern Conference
Wilfried Nancy is a good coach who got a lot out of players. Djordje Mihailovic hit 16 assists last season. Mason Toye had seven goals. A lot of players punched above their weight last year just to keep the team close to the playoffs. But ultimately, they fell short.
A lot is going to have to go right for this team to make the post season. Mihailovic is going to have to go on another tear in 2022. Romell Quioto, Toye, and others will need to score.
But this team lacks DP talent. Midfielder Victor Wanyama is the lone DP and that makes it really hard to compete.
The team seems to be betting on winning with defense. The team added Alistair Johnston, Gabriele Corbo (on loan from Bologna), Robert Orri Thorkelsson (from Iceland’s U-21 team via the league’s U-22 initiative).
A strong defense should keep them relevant, and Nancy should help get the team playing together as a unit. The fact that they haven’t lost anyone significant should only help but making the postseason would be impressive.
Key departures: No major departures.
Key arrivals: Alistair Johnston, Gabriele Corbo, Robert Orri Thorkelsson
Orlando City SC
Predicted finish: 9th in the Eastern Conference
Oscar Pareja has done a great job with Orlando. The Colombian coach has helped make the team relevant, fun to watch, and one that qualifies for the postseason for the first time ever.
This season is going to put Pareja to the test as the team parted ways with three of its top attacking players in the offseason. The loss of Nani, Daryl Dike, and Chris Mueller leaves a lot of goals to be replaced.
Several proposed big moves for players in South America seemed to fall through in the offseason, but two DP attackers Facundo Torres from Penerol and Ercan Kara from Austria Vienna. Torres, 21, was coming off a season where he helped lead Penerol to the Uruguayan title. Kara scored 27 goals in 58 appearances for Rapid Vienna. Defensively, César Araújo is a young defensive midfielder brought in from Montevideo Wanderers in Uruguay.
With the loss of so much attacking talent, Pareja and Orlando need to hit homeruns with the imports.
It might take a period of adjustment for these players to adapt to Orlando and MLS. But getting points while these players adjust could be tricky.
Key departures: Chris Mueller, Nani, Daryl Dike
Key arrivals: Facundo Torres, Ercan Kara, Cesar Araujo
Predicted finish: 10th in the Eastern Conference
Head coach Hernan Losada is heading into his second season at DC United and he will have a very different look in 2022. Last season’s United team narrowly missed out on the playoffs and this year things will really need to break his way to make the postseason.
DC United plays a high-pressing style that is similar to the Red Bulls. It is important that a team be built around this style to make it all work. It remains to be seen if all the moves the club made will work out. Paul Arriola and Kevin Pardes left and those two were a big part of the team’s width.
The team should have more money to spend and make additions to the team, so it would hardly be surprising if the roster right now isn’t upgraded at some point.
But there is also other question marks. Ola Kamara was one of the best forwards in the league in 2021 (albeit nine of his goals were from penalties) and it remains to be seen what is role is with the team right now as he is yet to appear in a preseason game and trade rumors are circulating. Junior Moreno was once linked with Vancouver and South American clubs but as of now he is a DC United player. But for how long?
DC United is going to need a lot of players to step up. U.S. U-20 midfielder Moses Nyeman is one such player with a lot of potential and this could be his breakout year. The addition of Brad Smith from Seattle should also help the team play well in Losada’s style.
It seems like a lot has to break right for DC United to make the playoffs. That is the case for a lot of clubs but some of these teams have proven managers in this league (Bob Bradley, Caleb Porter, etc). Losada doesn’t fit that mold.
Key departures: Paul Arriola, Kevin Paredes, Yamil Asad, Yordy Reyna, Felipe Martins, Erki Sorga
Key arrivals: Brad Smith, Ramon Abila, Michael Estrada, Hayden Sargis
Predicted finish: 11th in the Eastern Conference
The Chicago Fire are entering yet another period of rebuilding after a bunch of players departed and head coach Rapha Wicky was let go towards the end of last season. Ezra Hendrickson was hired in the offseason, and this will be his first head coaching job. Hendrickson has been an assistant at Seattle, the Galaxy, and most recently Columbus and has shown a lot of promise in that role. He also was the head coach of Seattle’s reserve team where he oversaw the development of many very good players. But he has a lot of work to do in Chicago.
Chicago is moving forward with Gaga Slonina in goal, and he is one of the more promising young American goalkeepers to come along in over half a decade. They also added Xherdan Shaqiri as a massive DP signing along with forward Kacper Przybylko from Philadelphia and central defender Rafael Czichos from FC Koln. After signing last year, the very promising Colombian youth national team attacker Jhon Durán will finally arrive in the Windy City.
A lot of players departed as well, and Hendrickson will have to rebuild his team’s core. Based on Hendrickson’s history, this team is going to attack - a lot. On good days they will be fun to watch. But consistency will be a problem and the team could be very weak defensively.
Key departures: Robert Beric, Alvaro Medran, Luka Stojanovic, Francisco Calvo, Bobby Shuttleworth, Elliot Collier
Key arrivals: Xherdan Shaqirim, Kacper Przybylko, Rafael Czichos, Jhon Duran
Predicted finish: 12th in the Eastern Conference
In was really refreshing to heard the words that were coming from Inter Miami’s staff in the offseason. They pretty much confirmed what everyone knew – that this team had a terrible approach when coming into the league. Many of the signings were non-sensical and a core consisting of average European players wasn’t going to cut it in MLS anymore. The league had become younger over the past five years while Inter Miami adopted a strategy you might find in 2001.
Miami head coach Phil Neville summed it up brilliantly in a strong piece by Charles Boehm.
“We are now not just signing players because a friend of a friend knows someone that is good or an agent that is close to someone,” Neville said. “We are signing players because they have been watched 20, 30, 40 times by five, six people and we know all about their family history, and everything they have done in their career. We are not signing players now off a whim. We are signing players because they fit into what we believe is our team. I’ve had input. There are no excuses now.”
Inter Miami is late to party, but at least they’re on their way. Unfortunately, the poor foundation they build still needs to be overhauled and that will take time. Plus, they were caught misreporting their salaries last year and the subsequent punishments have limited means for several seasons to fix their issues.
They have made a lot of changes heading into 2022. That is at least a healthy start because what they had in 2021 wasn’t worth hanging onto.
We still don’t know if Neville will be an effective coach, but he has a tough hand. Gregore and Gonzalo Higuain are back while U.S. national team right back DeAndre Yedlin has joined from Galatasaray. That should consist of the veteran core who won’t need much time to adjust.
The team also cut a lot of expensive players, which was tough but necessary.
We like that the team acknowledged the need to take a wrecking ball to their team and approach while acknowledging that they didn’t make good decisions at a time when they wanted to make a big splash in the league. But it is still going to take time to get on track.
Key departures: Nicolas Figal, Lewis Morgan, Indiana Vassilev, Kelvin Leerdam, Jay Chapman, Federico Higuain, Rodolfo Pizzaro, Julian Carranza, Ryan Shawcross, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, John McCarthy
Key arrivals: DeAndre Yedlin, Emerson Rodriguez, Jean Mota, Christopher McVey, Ariel Lassiter, Bryce Duke, Damion Lowe, Mo Adams, Robert Taylor, Clement Diop, Leonardo Campana
Predicted finish: 13th in the Eastern Conference
FC Cincinnati has been the worst team in MLS in each of the past three seasons. It is too bad because the they have a fanbase that desperately wants to see a winning product and a wonderful stadium. Patience is probably thin.
New head coach Pat Noonan and technical director Chris Albright will oversee getting things back on track. Both came from the Philadelphia Union organization and Cincinnati should be trying to build off the blueprint that worked with the Union. Shifting to a diamond formation is one thing, but having the right players and chemistry will take time.
As you would expect, the team cut, released, sold, and traded a bunch of players to try to bolster the roster.
Gustavo Vallecilla, Dominique BAdji, John Nelson, Alvas Powell were nice adds but the big problem remains defense. Alec Kann was the backup to Brad Guzan in Atlanta and he should bring stability to that position.
Geoff Cameron arrived midseason last year and he made the team tougher defensively up the middle But he’s now 36 years old. Will he be able to be presence in central defense or defensive midfield that the team need? The team still lacks quality in both those areas.
The team should be okay in the attack. Luciano Acosta and Brenner are quality.
Cincinnati still looks like they will struggle until they add more defensively and have more depth across the board. The best thing you can say about Cincinnati is that the arrival of Charlotte should see them finish above the basement. They should be able to pass the “wooden spoon” off to the new expansion team. If Cincinnati is still last overall in 2022, it will be remarkably sad.
Key departures: Maikel van der Werff, Florian Valot, Caleb Stanko, Joe Gyau, Edgar Castillo, Chris Duvall
Key arrivals: Dominique Badji, John Nelson, Alvas Powell
Predicted finish: 14th in the Eastern Conference
It’s always tough for expansion teams but despite the dauting task, there is usually optimism among the new fan base. But Charlotte FC has put a damper on hope.
“Right now, we're screwed,” head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez earlier this month.
The roster that the team currently has consists of some good players – but there are a ton of holes. The addition of DP winger Darwin Machis fell through because of legal issues. DP forward Karol Swiderski needs to produce.
What was a positive sign is that the team has placed an emphasis on defending. That proved to be a strong starting point for Nashville when it was an expansion team. The fact that Anton Walkes from Atlanta fell to them in the expansion draft was a stroke of luck. Guzmán Corujo joined the team from Nacional in Uruguay and he will have to adjust to MLS quickly.
Charlotte FC is going to struggle but there are two types of struggles for an expansion team. Are they going to struggle like Inter Miami and Cincinnati where everything is going to have to be ripped apart in a few years? Or, will it be like Minnesota United where a tough first season at least lays the foundation for something better in a few years?
Unfortunately, it’s just too early to tell because the team has been too slow getting its roster built up.