MLS IS BACK! After one of the shortest off-season's in league history, Major League Soccer's 27th season kicks off this Saturday. I'm writing this about 5 minutes away from the training facility of the 2021 MLS Cup Champion New York City FC, who look like one of the top teams again heading into 2022. But there will no doubt be competition for that elusive crown, as well as for the Supporters Shield, won by New England Revolution last year. As some of you know I also work for the New York Red Bulls, so we will be following them a little closer than most this season. Today though, we wanted to present the top storylines to follow this season. Let's kick it.
Here are my predictions for the 7 teams that will make the playoffs in each conference...
New England Revolution
New York City FC
New York Red Bulls
Los Angeles FC
Sporting Kansas City
Los Angeles Galaxy
The New England Revolution are the reigning Supporters’ Shield winners. However, Matt Turner, the 2021 MLS goalkeeper of the year, will be heading to Arsenal of the Premier League this summer. An intriguing addition for Bruce Arena’s Revs is Jozy Altidore, who is looking to work his way back into the USMNT picture with a strong and healthy start to the season.
Reigning champs NYCFC will also be a betting favorite to be one of the top teams, especially with all the depth they have on their squad.
Atlanta United and the Philadelphia Union figure to be among the challengers alongside New England and NYCFC in the Eastern Conference.
Out West, the Seattle Sounders own a league-record 13 season streak of playoff appearances, which dates back to the club’s inaugural season of 2009. That streak ranks second among major U.S. pro sports leagues behind the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. (15)
“Taty” Castellanos of NYCFC enters the season as the reigning Golden Boot winner. However, MLS has never had a player win back-to-back Golden Boot honors. It's honestly shocking Taty is still in MLS as he received a ton of interest from clubs abroad, but NYC stood pat and kept their Argentine talisman.
Two former Golden Boot winners, Carlos Vela of LAFC and Josef Martinez of Atlanta United, are still major goal-scoring threats. Vela’s LAFC teammate Cristian Arango became a star after a midseason transfer to the club, scoring 14 goals in 17 games. Continuing that level of production in 2022 would do wonders for Arango’s Golden Boot chances, as well as LAFC’s playoff hopes.
DC United’s Ola Kamara matched Castellanos’ goal total in 2021 but missed out on Golden Boot honors due to having fewer assists. The LA Galaxy’s “Chicharito” Hernández and Seattle Sounders’ Raúl Ruidíaz each had injuries derail their Golden Boot hopes in 2021 and figure to be in the running this season.
The Columbus Crew and USMNT forward Gyasi Zardes also is among the projected contenders, along with Hany Mukhtar of Nashville SC, Damir Kreilach of Real Salt Lake, Dániel Sallói of Sporting Kansas City, Gonzalo Higuaín of Inter Miami CF and Adam Buksa of the New England Revolution.
Some big-name, world-class players are coming to MLS in 2022.
The biggest star among them is Lorenzo Insigne, who will join Toronto FC in a deal that begins on July 1. At 30 years old and still in the prime of his career, Insigne could play for nearly any European club and represents a major coup for TFC and new coach Bob Bradley. Insigne who currently plays for Napoli in Serie A was captain of the Italy team that won UEFA Euro 2020 last summer. In all, he’s earned 53 caps for Italy and scored 10 goals. In Toronto, Insigne will team up with 2020 MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo for a dynamic attack that will make TFC a must-watch for soccer fans.
Swiss international Xherdan Shaqiri joins a Chicago Fire FC team that is looking to end a long playoff drought. Shaqiri has excelled at the highest levels of world football and will be expected to be an instant star in MLS. He’s represented Switzerland at three World Cups, making a total of 100 appearances and scoring 26 goals for his national team. Shaqiri was a member of two UEFA Champions League winners (Bayern Munich in 2013, Liverpool in 2019) and part of the 2019-20 Liverpool team that won its first Premier League title in 30 years. With a fourth World Cup appearance likely this year, that could mean a motivated Shaqiri and big things for a team aiming to make the MLS playoffs for the first time since 2017.
Douglas Costa, who represented Brazil at the 2018 World Cup and has made 31 total appearances for his national team, is the latest splash signing by the Los Angeles Galaxy. Costa was a vital member of title-winning Bayern Munich and Juventus teams and now will be counted on to help return one of the league’s flagship franchises back to prominence.
The last year saw a few young, up-and-coming USMNT players who were developed in MLS move on to European clubs to further their games. The most notable was Ricardo Pepi, who made the move from FC Dallas to FC Augsburg of the German Bundesliga over the winter. Three other players made the move to Bundesliga clubs: George Bello (from Atlanta United to Arminia Bielefeld), Kevin Paredes (from DC United to VfL Wolfsburg) and Justin Che (from FC Dallas to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim). Last summer, Gianluca Busio made a move from Sporting Kansas City to Venezia of Serie A in Italy.
There are a number of USMNT-eligible players who are 20 years old or younger who could not only make their way into the USMNT picture but also be sought after by clubs in Europe’s top leagues.
Gabriel Slonina (17) of the Chicago Fire is as promising a U.S. goalkeeping prospect that has come along in quite some time, and USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter already has called Slonina into a World Cup qualifying camp.
Philadelphia Union midfielder Paxten Aaronson (18) is the younger brother of the USMNT’s Brenden Aaronson, who also started his pro career with the Union before moving on to Red Bull Salzburg. Paxten appears to be on a similar career path.
New York Red Bulls midfielder Caden Clark (18), who has a knack for scoring highlight-reel goals, was sold to RB Leipzig of the Bundesliga but loaned back to RBNY. He did have some struggles last season after suffering from appendicitis after a hot start to 2021. Surely he is motivated to prove he is worthy of a star role in MLS before eventually heading over to the Germany in the next year.
New York City FC defender Tayvon Gray (19) was the second-youngest starter in MLS Cup history. The Columbus Crew’s Aidan Morris (now 20) – who missed the entire 2021 season with a torn ACL – was the youngest.
San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Cade Cowell (18) had five goals and five assists while starting 14 games and earning an All-Star nod in 2021.
Last season, Seattle Sounders midfielder Josh Atencio (20) made 18 starts for a team that is consistently among the league’s best.
Real Salt Lake forward Axel Kei (14), who was born in the Ivory Coast and raised in Brazil and then San Diego, is the youngest signing in MLS history, breaking a record held by Freddy Adu for 18 years.
For the sixth consecutive season, MLS will welcome a new club, as Charlotte FC gives the league 28 teams. In 2023, St. Louis City SC will push that total to 29, and – maybe (hopefully) – Las Vegas will secure team No. 30 in the near future.
So, what can be expected from Charlotte FC in 2022? Will this team hit the ground running and contend like Atlanta United (2017) and Los Angeles FC (2018) did in their inaugural seasons? Or will it struggle like FC Cincinnati (2019) and Austin FC (2021)?
If you ask Charlotte’s first-ever coach, Miguel Ángel Ramírez, there doesn’t seem to be a whole heck of a lot of optimism for the team to be a force to be reckoned with from the jump.
“We need to reinforce the squad. We need to have something else to be more competitive,” Ramirez said, as translated from Spanish to English. “Right now, we’re screwed.” You have to appreciate that honesty, except if you're a Charlotte FC fan.
Among the key acquisitions for Charlotte FC are forward Karol Swiderski, who’s scored six goals in 14 appearances for Poland’s national team; play-making midfielder Cristian “Titi” Ortiz; and defender Christian Fuchs, who was a key member of the Leicester City team that overcame long odds to win the 2015-16 Premier League title.
After playing its inaugural match at DC United on Feb. 26, Charlotte FC will host the LA Galaxy for its first home game at Bank of America Stadium on March 5th in hopes of setting a league attendance record. Atlanta United holds the regular-season single-game record at 72,548, set on Aug. 3, 2019. Bank of America Stadium – which is also the home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers – has a seating capacity of 74,867.
For just the second time in the last 11 seasons, MLS Cup will be played in November, and not December. The league’s championship final will be played on Nov. 5, which is just over two weeks before the 2022 World Cup kicks off at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, on Nov. 21.
Even without the USMNT at the 2018 World Cup, MLS had 19 players representing six countries at that year’s tournament. With Canada on the brink of qualifying for the first time since 1986 and the USMNT in good position to reach Qatar, expect the number of MLS players at this year’s World Cup to dramatically exceed the 2018 total. The final round of World Cup qualifiers will be held March 24-30.
Let's have some fun and support our domestic soccer league!