Despite Neymar’s claims to the contrary, it wasn’t all that long since NYCFC lifted the MLS Cup trophy, and yet the 2022 season is kicking off in a couple days’ time. The new campaign begins unusually early thanks to the presence of the World Cup in the fall, with the eight-plus-month race for the title embarking at a Saturday matinee at the Philadelphia Union’s Subaru Park.
It’s shaping up to be another season of intrigue across the league, which now stands at 28 teams following the arrival of Charlotte FC. The incoming club and set of winter acquisitions has been met with a number of key departures. League stalwarts Chris Wondolowski, Diego Valeri, Federico Higuaín and Matt Besler have either retired or moved on, while a slew of young talents have departed the league for challenges abroad (and two other MLS stars have already arranged for summer moves to Arsenal).
If you’re a one-club diehard or just like to chart the progress of stars both foreign and domestic, there’s ample reason to get into the forthcoming season. But in case you’re in need of more motivation, here are 22 elements that you can look forward to across MLS in 2022, presented in no particular order:
1. The new stars
The accomplished Xherdan Shaqiri (Chicago Fire) and Douglas Costa (LA Galaxy) have arrived, while Lorenzo Insigne (Toronto FC) is coming this summer to round out the biggest brand-name acquisitions. The lesser-known Thiago Almada (Atlanta United) is reportedly the most expensive signing in league history ($16 million transfer fee), while Alan Velasco (FC Dallas) comes highly touted from South America as well. Four of those five joined clubs who missed the playoffs last season, with Almada the outlier. They’ll all carry the weight of expectation more than most as they look to transform their respective clubs’ outlooks.
2. The balanced conferences
With an even number of teams, MLS’s two conferences both have 14 clubs, following Nashville’s move from the east to the west. That means relatively balanced schedules (each team plays its conference opponents two times and eight nonconference opponents once), and avoiding a situation where some clubs have either played significantly more or fewer games than others at a given point in the year. It may seem like a small thing, but it matters on the whole.
3. The new team’s new coach
Miguel Ángel Ramírez has already given the best two-word quote we'll get all season. When asked about the state of Charlotte FC'\’s roster earlier this month—and, to be fair, the club has had some prospective moves lined up that have fallen through for various reasons—Ramírez offered an explanation followed by “estamos jodidos.” Or, in English: “We’re screwed.”
If that’s the jump-off point, then the club’s inaugural season promises to be an entertaining watch, if nothing else.
4. The Bradley bunch
Bob Bradley and Michael Bradley are reunited in Toronto, where major roster churn and the summer arrival of Insigne make it extremely difficult to peg TFC’s chances entering the season. In the days leading up to the start of the season, the elder Bradley has spoken of the work-in-progress nature of his squad, but with the star power that’s to come plus the addition of Mexican center back Carlos Salcedo, perhaps Toronto can be playoff-bound again after missing out by a wide margin in 2021.
5. No playoff interruption
The World Cup looming in November has forced MLS to rework its schedule, and it’s for the better. They playoffs in the past have been interrupted by the November FIFA window, throwing extended layoffs into the middle of what’s supposed to be the most important time of the year. MLS’s plan is to go seamlessly from Decision Day and through MLS Cup on Nov. 5, leaving over two weeks between the end of the season and the first kick in Qatar. The international break has always been a momentum buzzkill in the playoffs, so that has at least been removed from the equation.
6. The new stadium
Nashville SC is debuting its new soccer-specific stadium on May 1, and it’s the largest of its kind in the U.S., with a seating capacity of 30,000. It has all the makings of a future national team mainstay and follows fellow Concacaf World Cup qualifying home sites in Austin, Cincinnati and Columbus as part of the next wave of modern, top-class venues across the league.
7. L.A.’s response
Both the LA Galaxy and LAFC missed the playoffs last season, which is hard to fathom given their roster expenditure and stature within the league. Another such year for the Tráfico twosome won’t be tolerated, and both must go to great lengths to address massive shortcomings in defense that were exposed a season ago. Ironically, they’re both coached by players who were superb defenders in their day in Greg Vanney (Galaxy) and Steve Cherundolo (LAFC). With Canadian Maxime Crépeau acquired to man the goal, LAFC should at least be able to take a little more comfort in its situation in the back.
8. FC Dallas’s reinvestment
FCD has excelled at producing young players and selling them off to European clubs, but it has hardly done much with the financial windfall as it relates to MLS success. Save for the Supporters’ Shield–U.S. Open Cup double in 2016, the trophy case has been barren. Now that is has taken some of the $20 million received for Ricardo Pepi and spread it on wingers Velasco and Paul Arriola, it’s promising to really go for it from the sporting ambition standpoint.
9. The Sounders’ next super season
If there’s been one club that has figured out MLS at a consistent, high level, it’s Seattle, and 2022 should be another campaign of high expectation and productivity. Consider that the club nearly topped the Western Conference last season despite not having Nico Lodeiro or Jordan Morris for the vast majority of it. Then consider that not only are both back this season but Albert Rusnák, he of the three double-digit scoring seasons with Real Salt Lake, has joined the fold, and Brian Schmetzer’s balanced group should be particularly prolific.
10. The Revs’ significant summer
With goalkeeper Matt Turner leaving for Arsenal in July and striker Adam Buksa expected to generate more interest abroad for a summer move as well, there will be a real midseason adjustment period for the reigning Supporters’ Shield holder. Additions of Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez and Sebastian Lletget inject some more U.S. national team experience into Bruce Arena’s side, but figuring out how to make it all work after a record-setting 2021 (and after the winter departure of Tajon Buchanan) will be a real tall task. Keeping league MVP Carles Gil healthy would be a good place to start.
11. More Vanni Sartini
The Vancouver Whitecaps’ coach was box-office entertainment last year after taking over midseason. His postgame press conference after the ’Caps snuck into the playoffs to cap a furious late-season rally reached its pinnacle when he dropped this gem: “It’s good that we don’t play for two weeks, because tonight we’re going to get so drunk, we wouldn’t be able to play tomorrow.”
Now with the permanent gig and a full season with which to work, Sartini is primed for more of the spotlight, and that’s a win for everybody.
12. The World Cup roster push
There’s no motivator quite like a spot at the World Cup, and with the full season taking place before squads are finalized instead of a tournament taking place a few months into the season, that roster incentive will be dangling until November. Presuming qualification, which U.S. players can fortify their places on a team centered largely on young, Europe-based talent? Might Shaqiri and Insigne (should Italy qualify) need to go above and beyond to prove to their national team managers that a move to MLS has not been detrimental?
13. A fully healthy Carlos Vela and Josef Martínez
The two players set the single-season MLS goal record in consecutive years, with Martínez’s 31 in 2018 being toppled by Vela's 34 in ’19. Injuries have derailed both forwards from being at their best (or active at all) over the last two years, but they enter ’22 with clean bills of health. The question with Vela is whether he’ll stick around for the whole season. LAFC picked up a short-term contract option that runs until the summer, and the 32-year-old Mexican striker could find himself elsewhere in a few months’ time.
14. NYCFC’s attempt to run it back
No team has repeated as MLS Cup champion since the Donovan-Keane-Beckham LA Galaxy in 2011–12, so the odds are not in NYCFC's favor. But the reigning champs resisted offers for reigning MLS Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos, retaining the key piece of its attack (at least for now). Losing Jesús Medina (CSKA Moscow) and James Sands (Rangers) removes two core components of Ronny Deila’s lineup, but the arrival of Thiago Martins—the unusual defensive Designated Player—should help fortify things in front of U.S. goalkeeper and MLS Cup MVP Sean Johnson.
15. The four-peat nobody wants
For a third straight season, there’s nowhere to go but up for FC Cincinnati, but that hasn’t stopped the club from being stuck at the bottom of MLS’s standings. FCC couldn’t possibly finish with the wooden spoon for a fourth straight season ... right? Perhaps some of the Joe Burrow–Bengals magic can make its way to TQL Stadium. More realistic, though, is new coach Pat Noonan and new GM Chris Albright overseeing gradual growth that lets the club shed its laughingstock reputation bit by bit.
16. The return of Kei Kamara
Kamara’s MLS career probably doesn’t get the love it should. But with Wondolowski retiring, Kamara, who signed a one-year deal with Montreal last Friday after spending 2021 in Finland, is the league’s active all-time leading scorer (130 goals), and he could rise to as high as third on the all-time list with five goals (he has an outside shot at second, though he trails Landon Donovan by 15). Kamara endured a roller coaster of a winter. After sending Sierra Leone to its first Africa Cup of Nations in 26 years with a penalty kick in qualifying, he missed the penalty the ultimately sealed its elimination from the competition. His house required police protection from unruly fans in the aftermath. But he's a league legend and, at 37, is back for another go.
17. The pre– and post–World Cup transfer rumors
The World Cup is always a launchpad for transfer talk. Where will the breakout players go? To which leagues will the aging, nearing-retirement players migrate for their final days? The confluence of a World Cup that comes in the MLS offseason and right before the European winter transfer window means that the chatter should be lit. Get ready for an onslaught of links involving anyone who is out of contract in 2023 (and can thus sign a pre-contract with an MLS club in the winter of 2022, such as Insigne has done for this season) or any major international star who has once upon a time declared a desire to play in the U.S. The likes of Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski will lead the charge. They may even end up here! One thing is for sure: It’s going to be rumor mill overdrive.
18. David Ochoa’s villainous antics
The Real Salt Lake and U.S.-turned-Mexico goalkeeper has burnished his reputation in short order, and he has fully bought in. “I enjoy being the villain, I love when people are talking smack to me,” he said after RSL eliminated Seattle from the playoffs in a penalty shootout (after having not put a single shot on goal in regulation and extra time). The 21-year-old ultimately will want to be known more for his skill and less for his extracurriculars, but every league needs personalities, and Ochoa certainly brings that to the table.
19. Is this the year for the Concacaf Champions League breakthrough?
Probably not. The Revolution, Sounders, Rapids, NYCFC and CF Montreal were the league’s 2022 entrants, with the Revs getting a free pass to the quarterfinals after their Haitian opponent Cavaly ran into visa issues. After Thursday, Seattle, NYCFC and Montreal joined them, while Colorado bowed out following a bizarre, snowy penalty shootout to Guatemala’s Comunicaciones. But reaching the quarters or semis is beside the point. Winning it all is what remains elusive, and little has changed to suggest that Liga MX’s dominance won't continue. There are three MLS-Liga MX matchups in the quarterfinals, and history suggests that there's a predictable outcome.
“I am often asked this question: How are we going to measure ourselves against our neighboring league, Liga MX, and how are we going to manage our schedule and our investments to ensure that we can be more competitive against Liga MX in the Champions League? We’ve had our ups and downs. We’ve had some years where we’ve done really well and other years where we haven’t. It is a priority, as it is for them by the way, to be able to win that tournament and ultimately earn a spot in the [Club World Cup]," commissioner Don Garber said in his remarks before the season.
20. The return of the U.S. Open Cup
The Open Cup has fallen by the wayside in each of the last two years due to the pandemic, but it’s back at last. MLS clubs have won every edition dating back to the turn of the century, with the 1999 Rochester Rhinos the last non-first-division club to lift the trophy. Not all MLS clubs enter at the same stage. Of the 25 U.S.-based MLS clubs, 17 will play lower-tier opposition in the third round, while a further eight (the four CCL entrants and the top two finishers in each conference beyond them) will join in the round of 32. Given the regular-season schedule tightness and the usual tendency to rotate squads for the Open Cup, the array of potential outcomes for MLS clubs in the competition is vast. The return of the magic of the cup should be met with full embrace. Let the upsets and madness commence.
21. The new TV deal
How valued is MLS in the marketplace? We’ll find out soon enough. CNBC reported in December that the league is seeking a $300 million per year commitment for its new deal, which will begin in 2023 and include all national and local broadcasts and the league’s data rights. MLS is on its own after previously being bundled with U.S. Soccer’s broadcast rights, though the expanded Leagues Cup venture with Liga MX could be of interest for potential buyers.
22. The 30th team
It seems like it’s only a matter of time until Las Vegas gets blessed with the league’s 30th franchise (No. 29, St. Louis City SC, begins play next year). It’s been nearly three years since the league announced its intention to grow to that number, and there certainly have been some curveballs along the way. In poetic terms, it’s only fitting that the final wild card comes from Vegas. The expected news is surely going to be met with derision in Sacramento, but without the finances to support the bid that checked all of the other boxes with aplomb, the league wasn’t left with much choice but to seek an alternative solution. Garber hasn’t slammed the door shut on future expansion, but it could be some considerable time before other markets get the opportunity to join again.
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