The offseason has been so busy, it’s easy to forget that the games are actually played on the field. New York City FC won the MLS Cup with a victory over the Portland Timbers last season to capture their first trophy since joining the league in 2013. Can they repeat? If there’s one thing MLS is known for it’s parity and the last repeat champions were the LA Galaxy winning in 2011 and 2012, so the odds aren’t in New York’s favor. Holding on to MLS Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos will go a long way to helping but the loss of James Sands to Rangers could prove to be a big one.
In a league of change, it is usually the most consistent teams who are able to win MLS Cup so we’re taking a look at a few of the most likely teams to win it all this year. The list is not in order of likelihood and leaving New England off the list was tough but losing Matt Turner to Arsenal in the summer transfer window is a huge blow along with trying to replace the production of Tajon Buchanan in the lineup. Jozy Altidore will help but I don’t feel like it’ll be enough.
Let’s look at the teams that I am tipping with a shot at raising the cup:
1. Seattle Sounders
The rich get richer and this offseason, the Sounders showed why they’re able to contend year after year. Grabbing one of the best attacking players on the domestic market in Albert Rusnak, Brian Schmetzer has more options than his team that finished second in the West without Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro for most of the season. If Loderio’s injury struggles continue this season, adding Rusnak’s 11 goals and 11 assists to the lineup will help cover that hole.
Brad Smith moving to DC United will be a blow but a full year of Nouho Tolo at left back instead of center back in a back three makes Smith expendable. The depth the Sounders have is impressive and a line of Morris, Lodeiro, and Rusnak supporting one of the best forwards in MLS, Raul Ruidiaz means that the Sounders will compete on all fronts at a high level.
2. Nashville SC
Moving to the Western Conference may be one of the best things to happen to Nashville this season. While teams out West are in various stages of rebuilding and figuring out their best elevens, Nashville have an identity and Gary Smith may also be the best coach in the league. Adaptable and able to grind out wins, the West will have problems trying to get the ball past a Walker Zimmerman led defense even with Alistair Johnston turning out for Montreal now.
Hany Mukthar is a bona fide MVP candidate following a season in which he scored 16 goals and assisted 12 more. Nashville are such a versatile side and the addition of Sean Davis via free agency is an underrated get for the team. He’s not a flashy midfielder but he fits right in with grinders Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy while allowing Randall Leal to attack more. In a league where teams are spending more money year over year, Nashville are a throwback to the MLS of old except that they’re able to compete at a high level doing it. I don’t see them slowing down anytime soon.
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3. Philadelphia Union
Balance in midfield can go a long way for a team competing on all fronts over a long season and that’s Philly’s strength. On paper, Jim Curtin’s men got weaker in midfield by shipping Jamiero Montiero to San Jose but he didn’t have a guaranteed spot in the starting midfield after almost leaving last summer due to a mixture of visa and personal issues. If a team isn’t planning to play a designated player in every match, moving them is the best option especially when Alejandro Bedoya, Jose Martinez, Daniel Gazdag, and Leon Flach make up the rest of the midfield.
Behind them, a good mix of homegrown players can provide the supporting cast ahead of a defense that allowed less than a goal per game in 2021. Andre Blake is one of the best keepers in the league while Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes make up a formidable pair in central defense. As long as he’s committed, Kai Wagner will cause damage from left back so someone will just need to score goals. The season hinges on if new recruits Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre can do that, but if they can, look out for Philly.
4. New York City
As long as the duo of Maxi Moralez and the reigning golden boot winner Valentin Castellanos are still on the team, New York will have a shot to repeat. Castellanos was linked to a move to River Plate as their replacement for Julian Alvarez but so far they haven’t hit NYC’s valuation so Castellanos will stay. He’s an impressive forward who is always in the right place as shown by his Concacaf Champions league goal on Tuesday.
Ronny Deila has a good mix of youth and experience at his disposal with Tayvon Gray and Talles Mango likely being close to regulars this season. Adding Thiago Martins into the mix could also see some formation flexibility with the team now having strong enough depth at the back to go three deep. This would be a good way to make up for losing Sands while seeing what Keaton Parks and Gedion Zelalem can do in midfield.
5. Los Angeles FC
I wasn’t going to put LAFC into this article due to how much change the team has gone through with Bob Bradley exiting and Steve Cherundolo taking the helm. But then Ryan Hollingshead fell into their laps. One of the most consistent left backs in MLS, Hollingshead has scored 18 goals and provided 15 assists over his 193 regular season appearances. He’ll give LA a threat from set plays while also filling a large leadership void left on the backline by Walker Zimmerman when he was traded in February of 2020. Along with that, LAFC have filled a lot of holes in the team. Ille Sanchez and Kellyn Acosta can combine to strengthen the midfield while Maxime Crepeau is quite the upgrade in net.
Toss in Franco Escobar along with Isameel Tajouri-Shradi and LAFC has impressive corps to use with the returning attacking power of Carlos Vela and Cristian Arango. Arango in particular scored 14 goals and assisted two more in only 17 matches with the team so even coming close to equal that would put LAFC right in the driver’s seat out West. This is a team to watch for the biggest improvers in the league.