Orlando City goalkeeper Pedro Gallese (1) gestures after a collision near the goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Inter Miami, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

MLS Eastern Conference Preview

Major League Soccer returns this weekend with a full slate kicking off between Saturday and Monday.

With 37 more match weeks to follow, the 2023 MLS season figures to excite. Consistency is rare in America’s premier soccer league, with no guaranteed seeding or favorites. The Eastern Conference is wide open, with a plethora of contenders looking to take home the Anschutz Cup.

Atlanta United

Look on the bright side Atlanta United fans, you couldn’t possibly do worse than last season. You could, but it’s pretty unlikely.

Atlanta definitely missed out on their usual excellence in Major League Soccer last season, finishing 11th in the East. Atlanta lacked their normal scoring pedigree, averaging just 1.26 goals per game. Furthermore, a defense missing star Miles Robinson let in 54 goals, the fifth most in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta finished with a -6 goal differential, bringing the club back down to Earth.

In response, Atlanta made major roster improvements. When fan favorite Josef Martinez departed for South Beach, United replaced him with young striker Giorgos Giakoumakis. Giakoumakis comes from the Scottish Premiership club Celtic, and looked promising in limited minutes with the club. He could be a key contributor for an Atlanta United side in need of verticality.

Speaking of stretching the field, Atlanta also signed former Columbus Crew standout Derrick Etienne Jr. The winger should provide pace for United stars Thiago Almada and Luiz Araujo to play the ball into. A front four of Giakoumakis, Etienne Jr., Almada and Araujo could be one of the scarier attacking combinations in Major League Soccer this season.

The defense should be Atlanta’s biggest concern this season. While Robinson is finally returning from a ruptured Achilles, the squad still takes a hit through Alan Franco’s departure. A centerback from La Liga side Granada, Luis Abram, was brought in to replace Franco. Abram has 33 appearances for the Peruvian national team and should aid Atlanta this season.

Expect a serious playoff push from Atlanta United.

CF Montreal

Montreal should expect somewhat of a drop-off this season. Sure eight of their eleven starters from last season’s 65-point, second-place squad returned, but the three starters they did lose were arguably their three best players. Djordje Mihailovic, Ismael Kone and Alistair Johnston all moved to Europe. The Canadian side did little to replace them, with MLS veteran Aaron Herrera being the only impactful player brought in.

Furthermore, a coaching change could oversee a major identity shift in Montreal. Head coach Wilfried Nancy left Montreal for Columbus Crew, and newcomer Hernan Losada plays a completely different style of soccer. Nancy played for possession and pitch control, while Losada prefers a more run-and-gun counterattacking approach. We’ll have to wait and see how the Canadian squad adapts to a new coaching philosophy.

Montreal should be a playoff team, but repeating last season’s success is doubtful.

Charlotte FC

Charlotte fired head coach Miguel Angel Hernandez midseason after a terrible start. Replacement head coach Christian Lattanzio impressed, leading the club to an 8-10-2 record. A major factor in this improvement stems from Lattanzio shifting Charlotte to a Guardiola-inspired possession style of soccer. The squad looked significantly better on the pitch once this style was implemented.

Charlotte’s biggest problem last season was goalscoring. The club managed just 44 goals last season, the third-fewest in the Eastern Conference. Newcomer Enzo Copetti should help in this department. The Argentinian striker notched 21 goals in 47 appearances last season for Racing Club. Copetti should provide the spark that Charlotte have been missing thus far in their MLS tenure.

Charlotte should still miss the playoffs. They could at least be competitive this season.

Chicago Fire

Speaking of poor goalscoring: Chicago Fire. Fire notched just 39 goals last season, the second-fewest in the East.

The Windy City should have a grim outlook on their season. Young stars Jhon Duran and Gaga Slonina departed for the Premier League in record transfers for Chicago. You would think that Fire would have reinvested the money, but instead, the club chose to stand pat.

The future doesn’t look bright with both goalscoring and goalkeeping set to decline this season. The club did sign Kei Kamara, MLS’s third all-time leading goalscorer. Kamara is 38 and coming off a down year, so it is unlikely that he makes a huge impact in the Windy City. This could be one of the worst teams in Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew

This stands as a boom-or-bust season for Columbus Crew. The freshly-hired Wilfried Nancy was brought in to do exactly what he did in Montreal: develop a squad’s young and untapped talent while simultaneously deploying match-controlling game plans. Nancy’s model ensures both short-term and long-term success, perfect for a Columbus squad looking to become contenders.

Columbus’s biggest problem is its lack of depth. Sure the starting XI features serious talent, with players like Armenian international Lucas Zelarayan highlighting a stacked starting lineup. But it could be lights out if any of the starters go down.

In a serious offseason roster overhaul, Columbus got rid of four veteran starters, including club captain Johnathan Mensah. Columbus lacks serious depth without these starters. The bench looks lackluster, lacking impact or promise.

Columbus Crew just missed the playoffs last season, finishing just two points behind seventh-place Orlando City. Expect a similar output this year, with Columbus looking like a fringe playoff squad.

DC United

Chicago Fire said “we’re the worst team in the Eastern Conference” and DC United handed them their drink.

DC United were the only Eastern Conference team to average less than a point gained per match. Wayne Rooney’s squad finished dead last, a full seven points behind Toronto. Things look bleak for the capital city squad.

At least the roster improved. DC made some serious moves this offseason, signing Polish standout Mateusz Klich and trading for former Orlando City star Ruan. A full season of Christian Benteke should help too.

It would be hard for DC United to be as bad as they did last season, but don’t expect this squad to do much better.

FC Cincinnati

Cincinnati were one of the most surprising teams in Major League Soccer last season. After finishing dead last in their first three MLS seasons, Cincinnati shot up to fifth place during their 2022 campaign.

A major part of this success was the striker duo Brandon Vazquez and Brenner. The pair combined for 41 goals last season, making Cincinnati one of the most prominent attacking threats in the league. Furthermore, the team experienced virtually no turnover, so this is a squad primed to run it back.

Cincinnati should be a favorite to secure a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference this year.

Inter Miami

Inter Miami finally took a leap forward in 2022, finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference. The South Beach squad should continue their success this season.

MLS legend Josef Martinez joined the squad. Martinez and Leonardo Campana should make a powerful striker duo this season. With a lack of wide threats, expect a narrow lineup featuring four true midfielders.

Miami’s biggest weakness is defense. The club let in 56 goals last season, tied for third behind only DC United and Toronto. The defense didn’t exactly improve this season, with a major hole at left back emanating.

Expect this squad to finish about the same as they did last season. This is a fringe playoff squad. Miami should score a lot of goals, but they may also let in just as many.

New York City FC

NYCFC are a serious contender in the East, even if they did lose a few major pieces.

Star player and club staple Maxi Moralez departed in the offseason, moving home to his boyhood Racing Club in Argentina. The Cityzens will need to replace his production. Moralez notched 26 goals and 69 assists in 162 MLS appearances.

Moralez wasn’t the only departure. Veteran goalkeeper Sean Johnson also departed this offseason, signing with Toronto. Premium defender Alex Callens also left, joining Spanish side Girona FC.

The rest of this ultra-talented squad should make up for the trio’s departure. The most major question mark remaining is Talles Magno as a true striker. Magno is a massive talent, but he’s young and unproven. His play could dictate the Cityzen’s success this season.

NYCFC are still a high-end playoff team. Expect them to finish high in the Eastern Conference table.

New England Revolution

New England is a team that wants to compete. Or at least head coach Bruce Arena is willing them to.

The Rev’s biggest weakness last season was their defense. Arena is reportedly shifting the squad into a 5-2-1-2 formation to play to his best player’s biggest strengths. The team was poor defensively, letting 50 goals in 38 matches. Adding a third centerback into the starting lineup makes sense. Trading for, and then giving a big contract to, standout MLS veteran David Romney from Nashville SC makes even more sense.

The club also signed Latif Blessing from LAFC. Blessing should give New England a sense of stability in midfield, which the club has sorely lacked. New England also feature one of the best keepers in MLS, Dorde Petrovic, who really just needs a solid backline ahead of him to be spectacular.

Arena wants to compete. This squad wants to compete. Expect a scrappy, fringe playoff squad.

New York Red Bulls

New York finished fourth in MLS last season. Expect something similar this year.

New York’s strength is its defense. The Red Bulls only let in 41 goals last season, which would have been first place had it not been for Union’s juggernaut season. The backline is led by the young fullbacks John Tolkin (whose name you will see in future USMNT squads) and Kyle Duncan.

The Red Bulls also added two stars to their attack. Former Union supersub and Jamaica international Cory Burke signed with the club this offseason. Burke contributed 7 goals and 5 assists off Philadelphia’s bench last season.

New York also added versatile Belgian forward Dante Vanzeir from Union SG. Vanzeir had 48 goals and 21 assists in 91 appearances with the Belgian club. He figures to start up top for the Red Bulls. This should be another top-end playoff team.

Orlando City

This is a squad with a lot of depth and talent. On paper, Orlando City should be a phenomenal team. And generally, they are. The reigning US Open Cup winners feature a plethora of strong attackers, even if a few did depart.

Junior Urso and Joao Moutinho both left the club this offseason. While Orlando didn’t do a ton to replace either attacker, they did sign talented winger Martin Ojeda. Ojeda, from Argentinian club Godoy Cruz, has long been on Orlando’s radar. The central Florida side sent scouts to every one of his games last season. The wing tallied 13 goals and 14 assists last season. He figures to form a powerful wide duo with young star Facundo Torres.

Orlando City’s biggest weakness is its backline. Outside of the Halliday/Santos left back platoon, each of Orlando’s defensive starters are in their 30s. This already isn’t an inspiring defense, especially after Ruan’s departure.

Orlando should be a playoff team this season, but it wouldn’t shock me if the backline lets star goalkeeper Pedro Gallese down.

Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union look like the favorites to repeat as Eastern Conference champions. Last season, Union pulled off the rare combination of leading the league in goals scored while also allowing the fewest goals scored on them. They’re a juggernaut.

This is genuinely a team without weaknesses. Their stellar defense somehow got deeper, as the squad picked up MLS veteran Damion Lowe from Inter Miami. The attack is just as good, featuring golden boot runner-up Daniel Gazdag up top.

Union is the clear-cut top seed. Think of the Golden State Warriors in 2017.

Toronto FC

Like Atlanta United, Toronto is a team that should expect ascension. How much they will ascend remains to be seen.

Toronto feature Italian duo Lorenzo Insigne and Frederico Bernadeschi. Both players have MLS MVP potential and could be the best player in the league on any given day. If they have even an above-average season Toronto should be dangerous.

Toronto also added intelligently this offseason, plugging their holes. The Canadian side’s goalkeeping was bad last season, so they added MLS veteran Sean Johnson. Their backline was terrible, so Toronto signed Matt Hedges from FC Dallas and Norwegian international Sigurd Rosted.

Toronto can only really go up, and you should fully expect them to.

Final Standings Prediction

Only the top 7 teams make the playoffs. Everyone else is left in no-mans land.

  1. Philadelphia Union
  2. New York Red Bulls
  3. FC Cincinnati
  4. New York City FC
  5. Atlanta United
  6. New England Revolution
  7. Orlando City
  8. Toronto FC
  9. Columbus Crew
  10. CF Montreal
  11. Inter Miami
  12. Charlotte FC
  13. DC United
  14. Chicago Fire

About Connor O'Bryan

Connor O'Bryan is a world soccer reporter for ESPN Gainesville. He also sometimes covers baseball and other sports. He has previously written for WUFT Gainesville and for Atrium Magazine. Connor also cohosts the "Off The Bar Podcast", a student driven podcast that focuses on the global soccer landscape.

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