2023 MLS Season Preview Part 3: Looking for the favourite in the Western Conference – tactical analysis
The pre-season is over. The 2023 MLS regular season kicked off last Saturday. We’ve told you about the intriguing teams entering the season, possible MVP candidates and potential breakout stars. We also previewed each conference, beginning with the Eastern Conference last week.
Finally, in this tactical analysis, we dive into the west where we’ll break down the most interesting teams and their tactics to watch. This scout report and analysis is the last preview for the 2023 MLS season.
A year ago, LAFC became the first team since Toronto FC in 2017 and only the third team in 14 years to win the MLS Cup/Supporters’ Shield double, joining the 2011 LA Galaxy. Their performance in front of the opposition’s goal is outstanding. By doing so, they have lots of entries into the final third through the centre and avoid crosses. They also press high in order to recover the ball in dangerous areas. Therefore, they do not allow their opponents to play a lot of passes per defensive action.
They did so by edging the Philadelphia Union on penalty kicks to put a bow on arguably the greatest game in MLS history and by owning the most wins tie-breaker from the Union to claim the Shield. That’s meant to illustrate the razor’s edge difference it was between the teams. And while Philadelphia is largely unchanged, the same isn’t true of LAFC.
Former Real Madrid player Gareth Bale retired and Chico Arango was sold to Pachuca reportedly for $6 million, leaving two holes in the attack, although the latter is a more gaping one considering his consistency in goal contributions.
Other outbound moves that were expected to happen — transfers for fullback Diego Palacios and midfielder Jose Cifuentes after competing for Ecuador at the World Cup — never materialized.
That’s the good news for LAFC, who also hooked arguably the biggest free agent fish this offseason by signing US Men’s National Team centre-back and former MLS Defender of the Year Aaron Long.
LAFC also signed Croatian winger Stipe Biuk, considered one of the brightest young players in Europe, veteran goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic, who should step in for regular starter Maxime Crepeau, who broke his leg in the MLS Cup final, and Spanish right back Sergi Palencia.
They remain thin in midfield, even with Cifuentes still on the books, and there’s that big question up front without a like-for-like replacement for Arango. Of course, they still have former Arsenal player Carlos Vela and Denis Bouanga in the attacking third and a DP spot to play with to find the next Arango.
The reigning CONCACAF Champions League winners missed out on the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time in their history, but don’t expect that to be a trend. The Sounders are another largely unchanged team with a starting lineup rivalling the best in MLS.
Seattle is known for a possession-based playing style with lots of passes. However, they struggled to get into the final third last season. Therefore, they focused more on crosses.
There’s the attacking trio of Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan, a midfield trio of Nico Lodeiro, Albert Rusnak and Joao Paulo, whose return from an ACL injury that sidelined him early last year cannot be understated. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei in front of defenders Nouhou, Yeimar, and Alex Roldan, these are guys who have played in a bevvy of big games, usually coming out on top.
The one big inbound move that was made was landing Heber in a trade with NYCFC. The Brazilian forward has 24 goals in 70 regular season matches and will be an upgrade on the depth chart behind Ruidiaz, who has been injury-prone the last couple of seasons.
The Sounders aren’t the only Cascadia contender looking to bounce back after missing the playoffs a year ago. The Timbers, who were one point below the playoff line a year ago, identified a clear need and filled it in a record-setting way by signing Brazilian playmaker Evander for more than $10 million from FC Midtjylland.
The 24-year-old led the Europa League in assists before making the move to the Pacific Northwest. That’s a big reason why we identified him as a potential breakout star this season.
This transfer is needed for Portland as they struggled to create chances last year. They did not have many attempts but if so, they were most likely to score. The goal conversion rate of Portland is high. With a playmaker like Evander, the attacking outcome should be much better this season.
At the end of last season, it seemed all but certain midfielder Eryk Williamson would be dealt, with the New England Revolution reportedly one of the teams interested in such a move.
But the box-to-box midfielder, benched late in the regular season a year ago, is still on the roster and Williamson is a game-changer when on the field. The duo joins the seemingly ageless Diego Chara in midfield. The Colombian destroyer completed 88 percent of passes, had nine yellow cards and 59 fouls a year ago as a 36-year-old.
There are reports Portland are looking to land a starting-calibre No. 9, which is understandable considering the dearth of healthy strikers a year ago.
Austin FC had a huge Year Two bump, +25 in points to be exact, which meant going from missing the playoffs in their expansion season to finishing second in the West and a trip to the conference final a year ago.
They did that by largely leaning on Sebastian Driussi, and seriously outperforming their expected goals. The Argentine playmaker, who had 22 goals and seven assists a year ago, earning MLS Best XI honours and was a finalist for league MVP, signed a new contract extension amid rumoured interest from Leeds United in the English Premier League, among other suitors.
Austin upgraded at the No. 9 position by signing Gyasi Zardes in free agency. The 31-year-old one-time USMNT forward scored nine goals for the Colorado Rapids last season after being dealt from the Columbus Crew and has 97 career regular season goals to his name across 10 seasons.
Austin also brought in Finnish international centre-back Leo Vaisanen, a like-for-like replacement for starter Ruben Gabrielsen, who returned to Norway for personal reasons and veteran left-footed centre-back Amro Tarek for depth at the position. And they also found a starting left-back in Adam Lundqvist in a trade with the Houston Dynamo.
Sporting Kansas City
While Austin made a tremendous leap year over year, Sporting Kansas City went the other way in 2022. A year removed from a third-place finish in the West, just three points behind first-place Colorado, SKC went -18 in points, which led to a 12th-place finish and missing out on the playoffs.
SKC were ravished by injuries, losing Designated Players Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda for a majority of the season, and by Father Time with Peter Vermes’ side looking a bit long in the tooth in a disappointing campaign.
That said, Sporting closed out the season strong, going 6-2-2 in their final 10 games. They went younger and had a huge contribution out of the box by Willy Agada, the 23-year-old forward who was a summer transfer window pickup out of Israel. He had eight goals and two assists in 12 appearances.
SKC desperately lacked a No. 6, after letting Ilie Sanchez walk in free agency to LAFC last offseason, and they filled that void by signing 30-year-old Serbian Nemanja Radoja, who brings with him nearly 200 games of La Liga experience.
They also signed a left back with 29-year-old German Tim Leibold arriving after competing in the top three tiers in Germany and Robert Castellanos, who most recently played for Finnish Premier League club Kuopion Palloseura, to fill a void at centre-back after Kortne Ford suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in pre-season.
As double-winners, LAFC is the biggest favourite in the Western Conference. They have a strong team that can compensate for departures like the one of Gareth Bale.
With Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Austin, three strong squads will compete with LAFC to win the conference and they truly have a chance.
Sporting Kansas City seems to be the most undervalued team but they can surprise this season if they get back to their usual form.