MLS Eastern Conference Preview


The race for the Eastern Conference title should be tough this upcoming season. (Courtesy of Twitter)

After an unusually long offseason due to the Qatar World Cup being played in the winter, Major League Soccer (MLS) returns for its 28th season this Saturday, Feb. 25. With the aftermath of soccer excitement left over from Lionel Messi lifting the World Cup trophy, MLS is poised for an especially exciting season. Not to mention, MLS will have its largest field of teams yet as St. Louis City SC joins as the league’s 29th club. Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass will streamline matches to viewers like never before and fans will be treated to the first installment of the new Leagues Cup format, where 47 teams from MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX will face off in a world cup style tournament in July and August.

The Philadelphia Union was probably the league’s best team, let alone in the East, for most of last season, scoring the most goals (72) and conceding the fewest (26). Surprisingly, they return in 2023 with the reigning coach of the year Jim Curtin and the strongest set of players in the Eastern Conference, including MVP candidate Daniel Gazdag, reigning and the only three-time goalkeeper of the year in MLS history Andre Blake, Best XI fullback Kai Wagner and reigning defender of the year Jakob Glesnes, who was part of the strongest center back partnership in years with Jack Elliot, who also returns. Philadelphia was also active in the offseason, bringing in Damion Lowe from Inter Miami to boost their center back depth and Joaquin Torres from CF Montreal to bolster their already strong strike force of Mikael Uhre and Julian Carranza.

Expect FC Cincinnati, Orlando City and the New York Red Bulls to fight with Philadelphia for supremacy in the Eastern Conference, each of which made the playoffs in 2022 and made meaningful additions in the offseason. Cincinnati made massive strides last season, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in club history on the backs of one of the league’s most dynamic attacking trios in Brandon Vazquez, Brenner and captain Luciano Acosta. Midseason additions in elite central midfielder Obinna Nwobodo and former U.S. center back Matt Miazga rounded out quality throughout the pitch for the Orange and Blue.

Orlando likewise held on to a successful core group that includes elite MLS veterans like Mauricio Pereyra, Pedro Gallese, Antonio Carlos and Robin Jansson as well as young contributors like winger Facundo Torres and defensive midfielder Cesar Araujo. Orlando also added serious depth on the flanks ahead of 2023, bringing in Martin Ojeda from Argentina’s Godoy Cruz in addition to Ivan Angulo, whose loan from Palmeiras that began in summer of 2022 will continue into 2023.

The Red Bulls’ offseason was perhaps the most transformative of the teams toward the top of the East, as they brought in three center forwards to answer their long subsisting problems of goalscoring since the departure of Bradley Wright-Phillips in 2019. New York’s frontline will feature fresh faces in Cory Burke, who was signed from Philadelphia, Elias Manoel, whose loan from last season was made permanent and Dante Vanzeir, who was brought in from Union St. Gilloise of Belgium on a Designated Player contract. Coming into the league in his prime at 24 years old, with an international cap under his belt and consistently among the top 10 in scoring in the Belgian Pro League, Vanzeir has the potential to bring the Red Bulls from a yearly first round exit to a cup contender. The new striker additions are expected to complement team MVP Lewis Morgan and Luquinhas in the attack.

However, New York did say goodbye to attacking options Caden Clark and Patryk Klimala as well as star center back and captain Aaron Long (Long was the fifth straight captain to leave New York within two seasons of claiming the armband). Yet, the Red Bulls still have a strong and youthful foundation in central midfield through the likes of Cristian Casseres Jr., Dru Yearwood, Daniel Edelman, Frankie Amaya and promising homegrown signing from Duke University, Peter Stroud. New York’s new captain Sean Nealis is expected to anchor the defense that brings back the exciting John Tolkin and loanee/former homegrown Kyle Duncan while Andres Reyes will officially take over at center back. Reyes especially shined when healthy last season in Gerhard Struber’s preferred back three formation, but with Long out, the Red Bulls should expect to play with just Nealis and Reyes at center back. Based on what we were able to see last year, though, if Reyes can stay healthy for a full season, he has the potential to eclipse Long in his impact at the center back position for the Red Bulls.

The Red Bulls won’t be the only New York club going through changes in 2023 as New York City Football Club were forced to see arguably their greatest players in club history leave during the offseason. After sending 2021 golden boot winner Taty Castellanos to Girona in the summer of last season, NYCFC also said goodbye to 2021 MLS Cup MVP Sean Johnson, center back Alexander Callens, star playmaker Maxi Moralez and fullback Anton Tinnerholm among others. With such glaring holes in not only the lineup but the dressing room, it is expected that NYCFC may take a dip in the table after spending seven consecutive seasons in the top five of the Eastern Conference. NYCFC did manage to make positive moves in the offseason, too, bringing in Brian Cufre at left back to play alongside Tayvon Gray, Maxime Chanot and Thiago Martins in defense. They are rumored to be in talks to bring back crafty midfielder Santiago Rodriguez and are linked with former US youth international attacking midfielder Richie Ledezma, who would have big shoes to fill in place of club legend Moralez.

Despite being in something of a rebuilding era, NYCFC should still be expected to battle for playoff contention in the Eastern Conference if midfielder Keaton Parks can stay healthy as he provides so much work and stability in the center of the park for the Cityzens. Additionally, the departures of Callens and their attacking pieces, while huge blows, are not as devastating for manager Nick Cushing as they may seem with Chanot sliding in nicely next to Martins in the center of defense while Thiago Andrade, Talles Magno and Matias Pellegrino, who was picked up off waivers from Miami late last season can be expected to produce goals at a consistent rate, especially if Rodriguez should return.

With the playoff format announced to expand to nine teams in each conference, both New York clubs should have their eyes set on playoff qualification. A playoff appearance for the Red Bulls in 2023 would break an MLS record for 14 consecutive postseason appearances, while NYCFC would extend their streak of playoff appearances to an impressive nine. The Red Bulls may appear to be in better shape for a playoff run at this point, but it is likely that NYCFC are not done bringing players in and can expect reinforcements through the form of transfers sometime in the season.

Joining them in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference will be the Columbus Crew, led by Cucho Hernandez and Lucas Zelarayan, Nashville SC, whose roster boasts two-time MLS defender of the year Walker Zimmerman and reigning MVP Hany Mukhtar, World Cup champion Thiago Almada and Atlanta United, David Beckham’s Inter Miami, Toronto FC, who signed Sean Johnson and defender Matt Hedges to add experience to complement their Italian star wingers in Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, the New England Revolution, who are looking to return to their record-breaking 2021 form and Charlotte FC, who are expecting signings Nuno Santos and Ashley Westwood to bolster the second year club’s core led by Karol Swiderski. However, it can be hard to count out anytime in a league with as much parity as MLS. Clubs like Wayne Rooney’s DC United, who claimed last season’s wooden spoon award for last place with just 27 points from 34 games, can see a path where playoffs are a possibility through talisman Taxi Fountas and Christian Benteke forming an elite partnership in attack. Likewise, Xherdan Shaqiri’s Chicago Fire and the gutted CF Montreal have reasons to think they could put up a fight in this year’s incredibly competitive Eastern Conference.

With just days away from the kick-off of the 2023 MLS season, so much remains uncertain about how any team may perform, and considering the history of the league’s unpredictability, much of what is looked at before the season will be considered nonsense by the summer when more big signings are made. Not to mention, with the additional teams in Leagues Cup and confirmed expansion of the playoff field, there has never been a more match-congested season in MLS history and with that comes inevitable injuries and player rotation, paving the way for wild results. What does remain certain, though, is that MLS is gearing up for its most exciting and ambitious season to date. Let’s just hope that the soccer lives up to the bill.