The 2022 FIFA World Cup will be coming to an end, so now’s a good time to start thinking about the up-and-coming teams that might contend in 2026. Who are some of the best squads from around the world? What about those who have done poorly internationally but do well domestically? This is our guide on what you should watch for as we transition into this new era!
Major League Soccer is the ultimate “zig when they zag” soccer league, for better or ill. Instead of running from August to May, it runs from February to November. Rather than the traditional 18- to 20-team league with round-robin scheduling and relegation, it just continues adding clubs to the top level. (Welcome to the league, Charlotte FC, the league’s 28th new club.) St. Louis, I’ll see you in a year.)
Due to budget restrictions in Major League Soccer, there are few star clubs, for better or worse — there are lots of Tottenhams and Crystal Palaces, but few Manchester Cities and Norwich Cities, if you will. While it has the same chaotic, single-elimination FA Cup-style national tournament running throughout the league (the U.S. Open Cup returns triumphantly at the end of the month after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic), it also has the most American of flourishes at the end of the season: a single-elimination playoff tournament that ensures that the league’s best team does not actually win the league.
The Major League Soccer (MLS) is a loud, strange, and immensely popular sport that defies established soccer laws. We’re just halfway through the 27th season, so let’s establish some goals for 2022.
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Which teams are most likely to be kings of the land?
The Revolutionary War in New England (2.1 points per game), Colorado Rapids (1.8), The Seattle Sounders are a professional soccer team based in (1.8), Sporting Kansas City (1.7), and Portland Timbers were the top five teams in the MLS regular season last year (1.6). The MLS Cup has never been won by a team from the United States.
The top five teams in 2020 were the Philadelphia Union is a professional soccer team based in (2), Toronto FC (1.9), Sporting KC (1.9), Columbus Crew (1.8), and Orlando City (1.8). (1.8). The Crew took home the MLS Cup. Los Angeles FC is a club based in Los Angeles, (2.1), New York City FC is a professional soccer team based in New York (1.9), Atlanta United (1.7), Seattle (1.7), and Philadelphia (1.6) were the top teams the year prior, with Seattle winning the MLS Cup.
Season to season, the top of the league sees virtually complete change. Anyone may seem to go from terrible to good — or, in the case of Toronto FC, from good to awful after winning the MLS Cup in 2017 but failing to reach the playoffs the following year.
The current MLS championship chances generated from FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings support this notion. PSG started the season as a 70% favorite in Ligue 1, while Bayern Munich was a 59 percent favorite in the Bundesliga and even Manchester City was a 40% favorite in the Premier League. In MLS, though, no one has ever begun with a percentage greater than 15%. After two weeks, there are currently 12 teams ranging from 4% to 13%. That’s over a quarter of the league!
Here are the five MLS clubs that SPI believes will win the league (and then lose in the quarterfinals, most likely) this season.
New York City FC is a professional soccer team based in New York
Let’s begin with the current champions. Including the playoffs, NYCFC had the greatest anticipated goal differential in the league, but their point total was stifled by bad luck in tight games. Even with the playoffs, they only won seven of the 27 games decided by a single goal or less, averaging 1.2 points per tight game.
Over the first 60 minutes, they had the highest goal difference in the league, but they conceded a couple too many equalizers down the stretch. In the overall standings, New England averaged 2.1 points per tight game and finished 22 points ahead of NYCFC.
NYCFC ended up reserving its good luck for the playoffs, defeating Philadelphia with an 88th-minute goal and defeating New England and Portland in penalties, despite conceding late equalizers in each matches, to win the MLS Cup.
Even though it ended fourth in the Eastern Conference, the greatest club might have won the league if you squint just so. After all, they’re the only team in the top 150 in FiveThirtyEight’s worldwide SPI rankings. They’re 142nd, sandwiched between Danish heavyweight Midtjylland and relegation-threatened Norwich City in the Premier League, and they began off as a 15% MLS championship favorite.
Last season, NYCFC not only had the highest xGD, but also the top goal scorer in Taty Castellanos, who has remained with the club despite several transfer rumors. They took a lot of shots while allowing the fewest shots per possession in the league. They were maybe the greatest side in the league at set-pieces, and they were among the best at stopping transition goals in a league dominated by them.
While there are no guarantees in this league, NYCFC has the least amount of uncertainty to begin the season. They’ve started the season with a draw, a loss, and no goals, but their CONCACAF Champions League form — a 6-0 aggregate win over Santos de Guapiles of Costa Rica and a 3-1 win over Comunicaciones of Guatemala in the first leg of the quarterfinals — suggests there’s nothing to be concerned about just yet.
The Seattle Sounders are a professional soccer team based in
Seattle, like NYCFC, is a team for which it’s probably best to ignore its early results. The Sounders have lost 1-0 to Nashville SC and Real Salt Lake to start 2022, but they beat Leon 3-0 in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and they have a lot of potential. Last season, the Sounders were third in the league in points per game and sixth in xG differential, yet injured players Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro combined for zero goals, one assist, and 654 minutes.
Granted, this isn’t the first time either of them has been sidelined by injury in recent years, and now that they’re back in the lineup, we’ll see what they can bring to the table. However, if Seattle was good enough to finish second in the Western Conference last season without them — and without Albert Rusnak, who scored 11 goals with 88 chances created (fifth in the league) with Real Salt Lake before joining the team in January — one has to believe they’ll be even better with them. In five Champions League games, they have already combined for three goals and 16 opportunities created.
Seattle is the most consistent team in a league that lacks consistency. They’ve never finished worse than fourth in the Western Conference in any of their 13 seasons, and although no team is immune to a postseason upset — the Sounders were eliminated in the first round by Real Salt Lake on penalties last autumn — they usually make it far. They conceded the fewest goals per match last season, and although their offense was frequently aimless (19th in MLS in shots per possession, 11th in xG per shot) and hasn’t exactly started this season on a high note, Rusnak and semi-healthy Morris and Lodeiro should help to rectify that over time.
Los Angeles FC is a club based in Los Angeles,
Any club in this league may see its value rise or fall from year to year, and if a team is likely to move from missing the playoffs in 2021 to fighting for first place in 2022, LAFC is the greatest possibility.
Los Angeles FC finished second in the league in xG differential (+0.64 per match), but missed the playoffs by three points due to a combination of New York-style bad luck in close games and shoddy defending. They were 21st in pre-shot xG allowed per shot and a distant 27th in post-shot xG allowed for shots on target, whether by chance or not. It’s no surprise, therefore, that they came in bottom in terms of save %. If you managed to get a shot off against LAFC, it was most likely a great one.
After scoring only 23 points in their first 20 games, the squad scored 22 in their last 14 and came close to securing a postseason berth before losing 5-2 to Colorado in their last match. Despite this, they missed the playoffs and parted ways with manager Bob Bradley. Steve Cherundolo, a former US national team fullback who will take over as manager of the USL’s Las Vegas Lights (LAFC’s USL affiliate) in 2021, will succeed him.
Cherundolo has been reinforced. Kellyn Acosta, the finest defensive midfielder in the US player pool other than Tyler Adams, from Colorado, together with fullbacks Franco Escobar (Atlanta) and Ryan Hollingshead (Dallas) and another defensive midfielder in Ilie Sanchez, were brought in to remedy the team’s defensive transition issues (Sporting Kansas City). With strikers Carlos Vela and Cristian Arango remaining in the starting lineup, this team may finally have the balance it needed a year ago. It has gotten off to a strong start, creating 4.7 xG against the opposition’s 1.0 and collecting three early goals from Vela.
They have a lot of potential: before the start of the season, SPI assigned LAFC an 11 percent probability of winning the championship, which was the second-best overall odds. Two weeks in, their chances have grown to 13 percent, the same as NYCFC’s.
Philadelphia Union is a professional soccer team based in
As tough as it may be to maintain a position at the top of the table year after year, the Union has gotten as close as anybody in the last two years. They won the Supporters Shield in 2020 before falling to New England in the first round of the playoffs, and they may have beaten NYCFC in the Eastern Conference finals if their squad hadn’t been impacted especially hard by a COVID-19 epidemic in early December. Despite having a skeleton of a team, they didn’t give up until Talles Magno’s 88th-minute goal propelled New York City to the MLS Cup. They’ve had a strong start to 2022, scoring four points in two games and almost tripling opponents’ xG totals, from 3.0 to 1.6.
The roster is largely unchanged from last season, and it’s one of the most intriguing in the league, with a mix of extreme veteran ranks (six of the ten players who logged more than 2,000 minutes last season were at least 27 years old, led by 34-year-old captain Alejandro Bedoya) and a slew of flitting youngsters. In 2021, only defensive midfielder Leon Flach (21 years old) played significant minutes, although midfielder Jack McGlynn (18), offensive midfielder Paxten Aaronson (18), and striker Quinn Sullivan (17) combined for 1,942 minutes, five goals, and 31 chances created.
In StatsBomb’s On-Ball Worth metric, which attempts to quantify the impact and value of every event in a game, not only shots, opportunities generated, and so on — On a per-minute basis, McGlynn (because to his passing) and Sullivan (due to his shot creation) were already in the top five on the squad. With the addition of left-back Kai Wagner (25), you have an intriguing young core. This is especially true if new striker Mikael Uhre can ultimately match Kacper Przybylko’s (now with Chicago) efforts up front. He’s only played 22 minutes so far, but in that time he’s managed two great counter-attacking shooting attempts against Montreal.
Revolutionary War in New England
If we were to make a “Most Likely to Regress” list, New England and Sporting KC would most likely be at the top. The latter had by far the largest disparity between xG differential and actual goal differential, due in part to Alan Pulido’s goal, who has been sidelined indefinitely since undergoing knee surgery last month. And, as previously said, the former won a number of tight games.
Impending departures may put that close-game recipe to the test. Matt Turner, perhaps the finest pure shot-stopper in the United States’ player pool — and a godsend in tight games — missed the start of the season due to a foot/ankle ailment and will join Arsenal this summer. It’s possible that attacker Adam Buksa, one of the breakthrough stars of 2021 (17 goals, four assists), may accompany him abroad. Tajon Buchanan (nine goals, five assists) has also signed with Club Brugge in Belgium.
Granted, Bruce Arena’s team has started the season with four more tight games: a 2-2 tie with Portland and a 1-0 victory against FC Dallas. Even though the club did bring in experienced scorer Jozy Altidore, losing difference makers at the front and rear of the roster is terrifying for a squad that conceded almost as many shots as it took and excelled in tight circumstances.
The Revs retain the services of the league’s most creative player (Carles Gil, who had 136 chances created in 2021), as well as Arena himself. Simply because of this, they are a menace. However, it’s tough to assign the squad great odds to win the Supporters Shield for the second year in a row.
Given the competitive nature of Major League Soccer, a number of other clubs might get to the top of the standings.
Nashville SC came close to breaking through in its second season as a club, but was held back by an addiction to draws, which included 18 in the 34-game regular season and another in the second round of the playoffs, which culminated in a penalty shootout defeat. Portland is known for its skill and tenacity (if a little old). Sporting KC is in the same boat. The New York Red Bulls are dangerous if they start scoring goals, and it’s worth noting that second-year Austin FC has six points and 10 goals (!) in two games. Atlanta United SC also made some significant skill acquisitions this summer, but those are the five clubs with whom I am now most comfortable.
What teams are the most entertaining to watch?
One of the consequences of not having any really dominating teams is that dominant styles of play do not emerge. With no big talent advantages — and the typical, possession-heavy style that results — and no fear of relegation, clubs can just try new things. The New York Red Bulls push the envelope when it comes to pressing. Sporting Kansas City requires more of their defenders to carry the ball forward than anybody should. The Atlanta United SC like to move horizontally, whilst the Portland Timbers want to slice you up in transition.
Aside from the teams mentioned above, there are four additional teams in the league that are exceptionally fascinating and/or amusing thing-tryers, regardless of whether or not the stuff succeeds.
New York Red Bulls: a lot of noise, a lot of fury, and very few goals in 2021.
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• CINCINNATI vs. MIAMI • SATURDAY, MARCH 19 (1 p.m. ET) • New York City FC vs. Philadelphia Eagles (1 p.m. ET) • Atlanta vs. Montreal (Atlanta vs. Montreal) (4 p.m. ET) • Kansas City vs. Chicago (6 p.m. ET) • New England vs. Charlotte (7 p.m. ET) • San Jose vs. Minnesota (8 p.m. ET) • Colorado vs. Houston (8:30 p.m. ET) • Nashville City vs. Salt Lake City (9:30 p.m. ET)
SUNDAY, MARCH 20 • LAFC vs. Vancouver (2 p.m. ET) • Red Bulls vs. Columbus (2 p.m. ET) (10 p.m. ET)
The league’s two New York teams are both sister clubs of European heavyweights, and although NYCFC sometimes takes on the possession-heavy color of Manchester City, the New York Red Bulls are undeniably a Red Bull side, 20 miles away in the New Jersey suburbs. Gerhard Struber’s side dominated opponents in terms of pressure, surrendering just 8.2 PPDA (or passes allowed per defensive action, a measure of overall pressure). This pressure began 11.5 possessions per match in the offensive third and enabled opponents to complete just 29% of possessions there. The Red Bulls led the league in all three categories, and they also had the most possessions per game, averaging 113 per game.
This is a ferocious and aggressive club that came close to missing the playoffs because it couldn’t produce or convert quality shots, and they were sometimes torn apart by counter-attacks, as heavy-pressure teams often are. Patryk Klimala and Fabio Gomes combined for just 15 goals on 23.6 xG, and although newcomer Luquinhas from Legia Warsaw is an excellent distributor and ball-handler, he doesn’t seem to bring much in terms of shooting. (He has yet to make his acting debut.)
But, well, it only counts if you care about the outcome. Even if the Red Bulls aren’t very good, they’ll be a lot of fun to watch, and owing to three early goals from another new signing, Scottish winger Lewis Morgan, they’ve been excellent so far, thrashing San Jose and Toronto 7-2.
D.C. United: The All-Stars of Watchability
Only Hernan Losada’s D.C. United won 7-1, 4-2 (twice), 3-0 (twice), and 3-1 (three times) while losing 3-2, 3-1, 4-1, 5-2, and 6-0 late in the season.
They just missed out on a playoff berth by one point, then lost Kevin Paredes (Wolfsburg) and Paul Arriola (Wolfsburg) (FC Dallas). Incoming fullback Brad Smith and on-loan forward Michael Estrada should assist with defensive consistency, but expect this squad to go all out in either direction. Their defense has been excellent in their first two matches, victories against Charlotte FC (3-0) and Cincinnati (1-0), but we’ll see whether it continues.
Austin FC: Everyone has a chance to play!
The Fightin’ Matthew McConaugheys are eager, to say the least. Things occurred in their games last season, even though the most of them were negative.
Austin had a league-high 0.16 shots per possession and allowed a league-high 0.18 shots per possession in their debut season as an MLS team. Although many of these shots were of poor quality (no one averaged fewer actual goals per match), they persisted on taking their opportunities, no matter how distant, as do many Liga MX clubs. Maxi Urruti, who most recently played for Houston, might provide some shooting punch, but he only averaged 0.08 xG per shot last season, so we’ll see whether he can provide scoring punch.
Austin has had a great start to the season, thrashing Cincinnati (5-0) and Inter Miami (3-0). (5-1). They’re drastically outperforming their underlying xG stats, scoring nine goals (minus an own goal) on just 4.4 xG, although they’re now third in the league in xG per shot. When number and quality are combined, you have a squad worth watching.
FC Dallas is the master of player development (who never benefit from it)
Only one club (Sporting KC) scored more goals than Dallas in 2021 from what I term “transition possessions” — possessions that start in your defensive or middle third and last less than 20 seconds. Jader Obrian, Jesus Ferreira, and Paxton Pomykal, three attacking midfielders, combined to try roughly 16 ground duels every match, and when they won one (61 percent of the time), Dallas was off to the races.
Then they sold forward and leading scorer Ricardo Pepi to Bundesliga club Augsburg, just as they did last year with defender Bryan Reynolds (Roma) and midfielder Tanner Tessman (Venezia), as well as Chris Richards (Bayern Munich), fullback Reggie Cannon (Boavista), midfielder Carlos Gruezo (Augsburg), and others. Weston McKennie of Juventus is a product of the renowned FC Dallas Academy, but it’s been a while since Dallas has translated this precocious skill into genuine victories.
Dallas has missed the playoffs in two of the last five seasons and has only gone beyond the first round once since winning the MLS Supporters Shield in 2016 (and then reaching the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals the following year). Last season, even with Pepi, they finished 11th in the Western Conference due to a poor defense.
In the next years, they will definitely generate more interesting young people. Despite not being a product of the academy, 19-year-old winger Alan Velasco joins the club from Independiente this season (he will make his debut shortly), and players aged 23 and under have played 50% of the minutes thus far. But we’ll have to wait and see whether that converts into excellent depth and another playoff run.