Backpass: Western Conference Predictions for 2023
Matt and I want to go on record with our predictions. So that we can look like geniuses this November. Or morons.
I’ve done prediction articles, or at least prediction tweets, for most of the nine seasons that I have covered in MLS. Typically, I am comically, brutally, tragically wrong. I mean, mostly.1
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This isn’t the English Premier League. You can’t just scoop up the top six teams, randomize the order, shuffle the middle and lower teams, and call it a day. Colorado will go from 1st to 9th and back to the playoffs. San Jose will finish last, revamp their entire roster, bring in a promising coach, excite me, and then leave me disappointed, year after year. Just when Seattle or New England or Columbus look old and broke, they surprise me. And then, of course, there’s the fact that teams will make big changes in the summertime that nobody could predict.
Predictions are dumb. We’re gonna do them anyways.
I like the list format. It’s easy to organize and it is easy to be brief. And it’s also the fastest way to notice a few key players coming in or coming back rather than memorizing all 273 player moves across the league in the past 97 days.
Note that I’m not able to predict whether a team will finish in or out of the playoffs. That’s because MLS hasn’t announced its playoff format … and it’s a week before the season starts. ***That’s ridiculous.*** According to sources, there will be nine playoff spots per conference, with the final two contesting a one-match play-in game. The remaining rounds will involve teams playing a best-of-three series. Which, if my math is right, means a team could play as many as 11 playoff games and as few as seven en route to MLS Cup. Also ridiculous! With 34 league games, 2 to 5 Leagues Cup games, Concacaf Champions League matches (for some), US Open Cup, and the playoffs, MLS teams will be playing more matches in 2023 than ever before. Depth and squad rotation will matter in 2023 like never before.
Finish in 2022: 2nd
Key Returning Players: ST Sebastian Driussi, LW Diego Fagundez;
Most Exciting Addition: RW Emilio Rigoni
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 1st
Matt’s Prediction: 3rd
Austin rebounded from a disappointing 2021 with a smooth, satisfying second season (alliteration!). There’s veteran leadership in Alexander Ring and Maxi Urruti. There’s new pieces like Argentine winger Emilio Rigoni and Finnish CB Leo Väisänen, who might lead the league in dots above the letters in his name. And there’s the immensely fun-to-watch Sebastian Driussi. I mean, fun to watch if he’s not playing your team. I think this team may have the goods to go all the way.
Finish in 2022: 10th
Key Returning Players: ST Diego Rubio, CM Jack Price
Most Exciting Addition: CB Andreas Maxsø
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023:: 9th
Matt’s Prediction: 7th
Substance over flash for Colorado, who need to concede fewer goals in 2023 and be better on the road in order to improve on a disappointing 2022. They bring on a few new players to fill gaps: Alex Gersbach at LB, Kévin Cabral at RW, and Maxsø at CB. Cole Bassett returns from a loan stint in Holland that didn’t really go as planned. Other than Jack Price being the free kick wizard, this is a team full of questions - like whether players can repeat on a best-of-career year (Rubio) and whether a player that hasn’t been very good can suddenly blossom (Cabral). Feels like a lot needs to click for Colorado, and I’m skeptical. But hey, the team actually has all three DP slots for the first time ever. So that’s a moral victory at least.
Finish in 2022: 3rd
Key Returning Players: CF Jesus Ferreira, RW Paul Arriola
Most Exciting Addition: MF Sebastian Lletget?
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 6th
Matt’s Prediction: 8th
Wait. So, Dallas were 11th in 2021, and 3rd in 2022? That’s wild. Yes, Jesus Ferreira blew up. But more than that, this team was just very good when it mattered - scoring above expectation, winning close games, etc. The team produced 42.2 Expected Goals (xG) but had 48 goals, and conceded 43.6 xGA but actual let in only 37 goals. In other words, they overperformed expectation on both offense and defense. These kinds of numbers usually indicate regression to the mean - you don’t get lucky every year. Add to that the fact that the team’s longest serving player, Matt Hedges, left for Toronto in January. There weren’t many significant additions in the offseason, so Dallas will look to get it done with what they had last season and with their always deep academy. Feels maybe a little soft?
Matt writes: “ I got Dallas so low cause it’s hard to replace a top 5 center back. Hedges was a big loss for them.”
Finish in 2022: 13th
Key Returning Players: CF Sebastian Ferreira, CM Hector Herrera
Most Exciting Addition: LW Ivan Franco
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 12th
Matt’s Prediction: 12th
I don’t think the Dynamo got better in the offseason - they unloaded Tim Parker to St. Louis, dropped Fafa Picoult and Darwin Quintero, and let go of Zarek Valentin. They added Artúr and Brad Smith and Andrew Tarbell. They picked up Panamanian midfielder Adalberto Carrasquilla midseason in 2022, and he’s pretty good. But overwhelmingly, I look at this roster and think - blah. The Dynamo exist to prove that it is possible to have an owner and franchise in MLS with even less ambition than Stan Kroenke and the Colorado Rapids.
Finish in 2022: 4th
Key Returning Players: MF Riqui Puig (pronounced POO-ghe), F Chicharito
Most Exciting Addition: Nobody?
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 8th
Matt’s Prediction: 9th
The Galaxy have one of the most fun players in the league to watch in Riqui Puig. And in the offseason they augmented him for a big cup run with … declining center back Chris Mavinga and not-very-good midfielder Memo Rodriguez? I don’t see the plan here, except that I guess the team is making the assumption that Efrain Alvarez and Puig and what is probably Chicharito’s last year will be enough. On the other hand Gastón Brugman seems quite good, so maybe it is enough. Well, but actually, in my humble opinion, it is not going to be enough. Maybe they’re good enough for mid-table and the playoffs. But this club a long ways from the Landon Donovan-Robbie Keane Galaxy of the good old days. And the Chris-Klein-Out protests demostrate that the fans know it.
Matt writes: “Galaxy could get toxic with the Klein situation, which is a shame. “
Result in 2022: 1st, won MLS Cup
Key Returning Players: RW Carlos Vela, CM José Cifuentes
Most Exciting Addition(s): LW Stipe Biuk, CB Aaron Long
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 2nd
Matt’s Prediction: 1st
There’s a few old and creaky players on this team, like Vela (33), George Chiellini (38), Ryan Hollingshead (31) and Ilie Sanchez (32), but all of them could come off the bench for this deep and talented team that just won MLS Cup - and might be better in even 2023. Croatian Stipe Biuk, a 20-year-old, comes in with a lot of hype. Then there’s top-notch MLS players like Cifuentes, Kellyn Acosta, Jesus Murillo, and Aaron Long. This team lost Gareth Bale to retirement and didn’t miss a beat upgrading afterwards. Kind of terrifying. There’s no scientific reason for why I didn’t pick them to win the conference again - except that a) repeating at the top of the league after winning MLS Cup is very hard to do and b) LAFC might put all their energy into winning Concacaf Champions League.
Finish in 2022: 6th
Key Returning Players: MF/W Robin Lod, CM Hassani Dotson
Most Exciting Addition: CB Miguel Tapias
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 7th
Matt’s Prediction: 5th
Minnesota weren’t terrible in defense in 2022; they conceded a fairly average 51 goals. But the front office clearly decided to fix the backline. So they brought in Pachuca CB Miguel Tapias, MLS veteran Zarek Valentin, and young Swedish defender Mikael Marqués. They’ll likely replace Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy, who will go to the bench. At the very least these two defensive upgrades offer manager Adrian Heath some options. The big question for Minnesota is if Emanuel Reynoso is going to report to the team at all - he’s been suspended without pay for going AWOL, and there’s been issues in the past around his regarding domestic violence. Without him, there may not be enough creativity to make this team effective and dangerous in attack.
Matt writes: “Minnesota’s my wild card. They could finish third. If Reynoso’s situation doesn’t get resolved, their ceiling is low.”
Finish in 2022: 8th
Key Returning Players: RM Yimmi Chara, W Santiago Moreno
Most Exciting Addition: CF Evander
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 5th
Matt’s Prediction: 11th
Portland are betting that making one. big. move. will solve all of their problems. They signed FC Midtjylland midfielder Evander, a 24-year old Brazilian, who transfermarkt.com values at 9 million Euros - among the very highest valuations for a player in MLS. If he’s that good, and ageless wonders like Yimmi and Diego Chara can continue to produce alongside emerging MLS midfield talent Eryk Williamson, the Timbers will be just fine. Heck, I’d wager they might even be better than fine - I had to talk myself out of picking them to finish fourth, or even higher. Matt, however, is not a fan.
He writes: “Portland’s one Chara hammy away from being really bad.”
Real Salt Lake
Finish in 2022: 7th
Key Returning Players: W Jefferson Savarino, CB Justen Glad
Most Exciting Addition: W/F Carlos Andres Gomez
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 11th
Matt’s Prediction: 6th
Look, there’s no point in me spending mental energy on RSL. As the Rapids rivals, I have to admit that any efforts in the past to be objective or intellectual about this team was a farce. I don’t like ‘em. When I see ‘em, I think bad thoughts. I actively root for their failure. I’m inclined to think they didn’t do much in the offseason to get better, and they weren’t that great to begin with. It’s entirely possible that’s incorrect. But I refuse to waste any time thinking about if this team might be good or not. A pox on their house and their incredible annoying goal song.
San Jose Earthquakes
Finish in 2022: 14th
Key Returning Players: CF Jeremy Ebobisse, W Cade Cowell
Most Exciting Additions: DM Carlos Gruezo, CB Jonathan Mensah
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 10th
Matt’s Prediction: 13th
San Jose went a month and a half into 2022 with Matias Almeyda still at the helm with his man-marking system, which was hell on opponents till roughly the 70th minute. After the 70th minute, his teams were gassed and fell apart and lost. They replaced Almeyda in August with Luchi Gonzalez. Now Luchi gets to have a complete season with his team and his system to show what he can do. Jeremy Ebobisse blossomed last year into a real player, nabbing 17 goals and 2944 minutes. Cade Cowell is just 18 and showed real promise. Jackson Yuell, Jamiro Montero, and Carlos Gruezo are all in the prime of their careers. I could see this team really pulling it together and making the playoffs. Their conference-worst defense (69 goals conceded - not nice) needed an upgrade, and so they brought in MLS veterans Carlos Gruezo at d-mid and Jonathan Mensah at CB. I actually think 10th is their floor, but then again, I’ve picked this team to surprise folks before only to be wrong.
Finish in 2022: 11th
Key Returning Players: CM Christian Roldan, W Jordan Morris, CM João Paolo
Most Exciting Addition: CF Héber
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 4th
Matt’s Prediction: 2nd
Seattle put together an amazing run to win the Concacaf Champions League, becoming the first MLS team to win the competition in its modern format (the Galaxy won Concacaf Champions Cup in 2000). But in league play they scraped together just 41 points on a lousy 12-5-17 (WTL) record that included a putrid 3-2-12 record on the road. Injuries to Raul Ruidiaz and Joao Paulo really hurt the team, as the depth just wasn’t there to compensate for those big losses. This year, they have 30-year old center forward Héber as Ruidiaz’ backup, and Paulo is back from injury. Conventional wisdom is they will be better now that they don’t have to compete in the grind of CCL, and so most pundits have them getting back into the top of the conference. However Ruidiaz, Paolo, Héber, and Nico Lodeiro are all the wrong side of 30; so another year of catastrophe seems like a real possibility, too.
Sporting Kansas City
Finish in 2022: 12th
Key Returning Players: FW Alán Pulido, CM Gadi Kinda, CF Willy Agada
Most Exciting Addition: CM Nemanja Radoja
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 3rd
Matt’s Prediction: 4th
When Alan Pulido went down with a knee injury in pre-season, and Gadi Kinda did the same in April, SKC’s 2022 season was effectively over before it started. There were some flickers of life, though, when the team added Nigerian Willy Agada in August, as the former Hapoel Jerusalem man bagged 8 goals, 2 assists in just 12 matches. Now SKC has all three attackers, plus Dániel Sallói, hungry (that’s a dad-pun) for goals. Midfield addition Nemanja Radoja should help stabilize the midfield. Goalkeeper Tim Melia seems like he’s starting to lose the plot - his +6.07 G-xG rate in 2023 was a career worst, and well off his exceptional 2017 rate of -10.37 G-xG. Young backup John Pulskamp might have a shot this year at claiming the throne. I like this team, but then again, they’re carrying two players from the Israeli league (Kinda and Agada), so of course I like them.
Matt writes: “I think SKC will be healthy and back with a vengeance this season.”
St. Louis City
Finish in 2022: NA
Key Returning Players: None
Most Exciting Additions: CB Tim Parker, GK Roman Burki, ST Joao Klauss
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 14th
Matt’s Prediction: 14th
There’s some guys on this team. Defender Tim Parker is a former USMNT big man. GK Roman Burki has battled in the UEFA Champions League for Borussia Dortmund. Midfielder Eduard Löwen has 4000 Bundesliga minutes and is just 26 years old. On the other hand, this team really lacks something important for new MLS teams, and that is a lot of veteran MLS experience. There’s Joshua Yaro and Jake Nerwinski and Jared Stroud, but they are all kind of moderate MLS talents, not longtime clubhouse leaders. There’s also not a lot of goalscoring on this team. Joao Klauss only has 8 goals in the past two seasons in the Belgian league. Nicholas Gioacchini last scored a goal for Caen in 2020. He’s on his third team since then.
None of that really matters. For StLouCity, being in the league is a triumph - they have a new stadium and a new club and a beautiful crest. It’s all gravy in 2023. Winning is besides the point. Which is good, because I don’t think they’re going to win much this season.
Finish in 2022: 9th
Key Returning Players: CM Ryan Gauld, RW/RB Julian Gressel
Most Exciting Addition: CB Matias Laborda
Rabbi’s Predicted Finish for 2023: 13th
Matt’s Prediction: 10th
No team conducted an end of season bloodbath on par with Vancouver. The Whitecaps ‘outgoing’ moves list on the official MLS Transfer Tracker site has 13 players listed as ‘buh-bye’, including Tosaint Ricketts, Lucas Cavallini, Jake Nerwinski, Florian Jungwirth, and Cody Cropper. That’s a lot of MLS experience to jettison, even if none of those guys was great in 2022. Replacing those guys are… a lot of unknowns. Transfermarkt lists all of the recent additions to the roster in the ‘not valued very highly’ end of the spectrum. Observe:
That could mean these players are relative unknowns, bursting with potential. Or this may simply be the MLS Next Pro end of the bench, and there’s lots of other guys on this team that can carry the load. Whatever the truth is, I really can’t tell you much about any of the players on this team other than Gressel and Gauld, and Tristan Blackmon. Vancouver hasn’t been very good in a long while, and they turn over a ton of their roster in an effort to fix that, and then they don’t congeal, and they turn over the roster. Who’s to say if this year is the year that they actually get it right? I doubt it.
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Here’s my receipts for 2022. I said Seattle would be first - they finished 11th. Oof.
I said SKC would finish 2nd. They finished 12th. Oof.
I said Dallas would finish 3rd. They finished 3rd. Ding ding ding!
I missed pretty hard on LAFC and Austin. But I also got Vancouver, Houston, RSL and Minnesota right. So, overall, not good. But not awful either.