Preview: Many with much to prove in the Eastern Conference
Updated: Feb 5
If the Western Conference is going to be something of a bun fight for playoff places, then one suspects that the Eastern Conference will be equally competitive in 2023.
Not only will the East welcome back Nashville, after their fleeting spell in the West, but we can also expect much more from the wounded wonders which are Atlanta United, Columbus Crew, New England Revolution, and Toronto FC, while Charlotte FC will be eager to give an improved account of themselves in season two.
The standard setters should again be Philadelphia Union, who have retained the majority of their talent from last season, while also making money off the sale of Paxten Aaronson to German club Eintracht Frankfurt for a reported initial fee of $4m.
It could be interesting to see how CF Montreal fare after a best-ever season in 2022, when they finished second to the Union, amassing the most wins, most goals, and most points in 11 seasons in MLS. They will, though, begin season 12 with a new head coach after Wilfried Nancy was lured away by Columbus Crew.
At the other end, sides seeking something of a turnaround on last season include D.C. United. They propped up the rest with a pitiful 27 points from 34 games, which involved just seven wins. The first-ever MLS Cup winners, they finished eight points behind the next worst team in the league - San Jose Earthquakes - and a massive 21 points behind the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. It will be Wayne Rooney’s first full season in charge, and the former Manchester United and England striker will be expecting a marked improvement.
The same goes for Toronto FC, who reached three of four MLS Cups between 2016-19, yet has now missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, and in both seasons they finished 13th, which is next to bottom. In Sean Johnson, Matt Hedges, and the returning Victor Vazquez they have certainly added experience along the spine.
Having lifted the Supporters’ Shield in 2021, New England Revolution dropped to 10th in the East and Bruce Arena’s high standards will demand more of them this term. The same goes for Atlanta United. The 2018 champions missed out, finishing 11th, after the worst of their six seasons. A franchise which landed in MLS with a thump has lost Josef Martinez but gained Garth Lagerway.
Inter Miami and FC Cincinnati both enjoyed their best season in MLS in 2022, and both will hope to kick on further this year. For Miami, a club which has slowly realized that roster-building is about much more than merely throwing cash around, there has been significant movement in the offseason. Not only have they offloaded a few veterans, but they surprised a few with the signing of Josef Martinez, who could benefit from a new challenge.
The two teams either side of the Hudson River, New York City FC and New York Red Bulls, have both seen significant movement ahead of the new season. NYCFC, who finished third in 2022, bid farewell to the creative servant that is Maxi Moralez, who is now with Racing Club in his native Argentina. They also lost long-serving trio Heber, Alexander Callens, and Sean Johnson to Seattle.
Patryk Klimala and Aaron Long are two notable departees from the Red Bulls - fourth last season - who have brought in Corey Burke and renewed Kyle Duncan’s loan from Oostende in Belgium. Burke has spent the last five seasons at the Union.
There has been a huge amount of movement in Orlando. Oscar Pareja’s squad will have a very different look about it, having - at the time of writing - watched 11 players arrive and the same number depart.
Chicago Fire has money in the bank after two big trades, but Ezra Hendrickson may still have his work cut out if the 1998 champions is to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2017, and just a third time since 2009.
There will be 15 teams in the Eastern Conference this season, with the return of Nashville after a solitary season in the West. Gary Smith’s side spent their first two seasons in the Eastern Conference and bring with them the league’s golden boot winner and MVP from 2022, Hany Mukhtar.