2023 MLS Season Preview Part 2: Looking for the favourite in the Eastern Conference – tactical analysis
Major League Soccer season is back this weekend and as such, we’ll break down the favourites, contenders and a sleeper in each conference.
In this tactical analysis, we will start with the Eastern Conference. We will look at the strengths and weaknesses of the clubs’ tactics as well as at their best players in form of a scout report. The analysis of the MLS Western Conference will follow next week.
When you’re a team that missed out on the Supporters’ Shield on a tiebreaker and the MLS Cup on penalty kicks and bring virtually everyone back, yeah, you’re the clear favourite. That’s where the Union are entering the 2023 season. They’re no longer that team seeking respect, they’ve got a target on their back.
It starts with Andre Blake in goal. The Jamaican international became the first in MLS history to win the Goalkeeper of the Year award three times a year ago. The 32-year-old has shown no signs of slowing down either.
Directly in front of Blake is the reigning MLS Defender of the Year Jakob Glesnes and to his left is Kai Wagner, who was selected to the 2022 MLS Best XI — one of four Union players picked along with Blake, Glesnes and Daniel Gazdag, who had a club-record 32 goal contributions (22 goals, 10 assists), which earned him a new Designated Player contract.
While they lost midfielder Paxten Aaronson (who transferred to Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League club Eintracht Frankfurt), forward Cory Burke (free agent signing by the New York Red Bulls) and backup goalkeeper Matt Freese (trade to NYCFC), the Union traded for depth pieces in defender Damion Lowe from Inter Miami and attacking midfielder Joaquin Torres from CF Montreal.
New York City FC
This is a tricky one because NYCFC lost a ton of major contributors from a team that won the MLS Cup in 2021 and reached the Eastern Conference final a year ago. That includes goalkeeper Sean Johnson, the former MLS Cup MVP who signed as a free agent with Toronto FC. Playmaker Maxi Moralez returned to his native Argentina, and the same is true of right-back Anton Tinnerholm to his native Sweden. Forward Heber was traded to the Seattle Sounders and arguably the biggest loss was centre-back Alex Callens, who signed for Girona in Spain’s La Liga. The Peruvian reunites with Taty Castellanos, the 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner who left midway through last season.
Freese was brought in to replace Johnson. Argentine Braian Cufre signed on loan from Mallorca in the Spanish top flight and appears likely to be the starting left back, while Mitja Ilenic, who arrived from NK Domžale in Slovakia, will push for time at right back.
Reportedly, Santi Rodriguez is back after his loan from Montevideo City Torque expired and the 23-year-old Uruguayan should fill the large void left by Moralez in the No. 10 spot.
While there are still more holes to fill, NYCFC have been the most consistent team in MLS over the past five years. And, they are still a top side if it comes to ball possession and passing rates. They attack through the middle with a high passing accuracy as they try to avoid crosses at the same time. NYCFC also press high. Overall, there’s no reason to believe that that stops even if some of the names have changed.
A year after finishing fifth in the Western Conference a year ago, Nashville are back in the East, where they were third behind New England and Philadelphia a year earlier. They are known for staying compact in defence and for attacking transitions.
Nashville are anchored by center-back Walker Zimmerman, a two-time MLS Defender of the Year who became the fifth player in league history to be selected in the Best XI for a fourth consecutive season, and Hany Mukhtar, the reigning MLS MVP and the 2022 MLS Golden Boot winner. The German’s 34 goal contributions (23 goals, 11 assists) tied for the fifth most in MLS history and he contributed to 65.4% of Nashville’s goals a year ago.
That’s a really strong base, which also includes goalkeeper Joe Willis and veteran midfielders Anibal Godoy and Dax McCarty, along with Sean Davis, the former NY Red Bull captain who is beginning his second season in the Music City.
There are question marks in the attacking third, including the wings and forwards. Nashville offloaded disappointing Designated Player Ake Loba in a loan to Liga MX side Mazatlán FC, but since he’s still on Nashville’s books, his DP status isn’t freed up.
Orlando City SC
It was an ambitious offseason for Orlando City SC, which won its first major silverware by capturing the U.S. Open Cup and, by doing so, secured a coveted CONCACAF Champions League berth. On the other hand, they did not perform very well last season with a lack of quality in all categories and positions.
The Lions took care of an important bit of business by re-signing goalkeeper Pedro Gallese as well as playmaker Mauricio Pereyra on a non-DP deal which opened the door to land winger Martin Ojeda from Godoy Cruz in Argentina with that Designated Player spot.
Orlando lost starting fullbacks Joao Moutinho and Ruan, as well as homegrown midfielder Benji Michel, among an exodus of 12 players, but signed Brazilian fullback Rafael Santos (from Brazilian Série A side Cruzeiro), as well as U22 Initiative signing Ramiro Enrique, a young Argentine attacker from Argentine Primera División side Banfield and midfielder Dagur Dan Thorhallsson from Icelandic top-flight side Breidablik.
Ercan Kara is back after scoring a team-high 11 goals to go along with three assists in his first season with the club a year ago.
Can all the new pieces fit? If so the Lions could challenge Philadelphia for the top spot in the East. Even if they don’t, Orlando City should be one of the Conference’s top teams.
The Crew underperformed the last two years, missing the playoffs in each season after winning the 2020 MLS Cup, which is a big reason why Caleb Porter was shown the door. He’s been replaced by Wilfred Nancy, who was a finalist for MLS Coach of the Year last season after helping lead CF Montreal to a second-place finish, just two points behind the Union.
Last season, Columbus Crew had already shown their qualities on the ball but did not manage to convert possession into high-quality goal-scoring opportunities.
So talented players, including playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, who partnered well with forward Cucho Hernandez (nine goals, three assists), a club-record signing from Watford midway through 2022, merging with a strong tactician in Nancy should make for a vastly improved Crew.
Darlington Nagbe, who is regularly one of the best midfielders in the league year after year, is also back, but there are still some serious concerns in attack and the Crew just sold longtime starting centre-back Jonathan Mensah to the San Jose Earthquakes. Columbus Crew are far from a sure thing, but they could surprise a few.
With Philadelphia Union, the Eastern Conference has a clear favourite if they play the same way they did last season. They have a set strategy and a high-level squad. They will surely get competition from New York City FC, Nashville SC and Orlando SC as all three clubs would like to improve their performances from the last campaign.
Every fan should also take a look at Columbus Crew as they might become a positive surprise this year.
With the MLS starting back this weekend, it’s shaping up to be yet another incredible campaign.