By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 24, 2023) US Soccer Players – There are two steps to becoming part of the top echelon of Major League Soccer clubs, also known as the perennial contenders. Step one: Make your move into the ranks of the top teams in the league, qualify for the playoffs, and win a playoff game. Step two: Stay there.
Step one isn’t exactly easy, but with the league’s commitment to parity, it’s within reach for nearly every team in a given season. It’s step two that’s the real difference.
Three clubs who achieved step one last season will kick off their quest to complete step two on Saturday when MLS begins the 2023 season. CF Montreal, FC Cincinnati, and Austin FC jumped from afterthoughts to MLS Cup aspirants last season thanks to smart coaching, top attacks, and a penchant for rising to the occasion.
Two of those clubs start the new year looking stronger for 2023. Though they can no longer surprise teams after their excellent 2022 campaigns, there’s every reason to believe they can challenge for the league’s top prize. For one of three, the new year arrives with several questions.
CF Montreal finished the 2022 regular season in 2nd-place in the Eastern Conference, just two points behind 1st-place Philadelphia. Featuring an approach that maximized the talents of accomplished defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama, Montreal played some of the most consistent soccer over 34 games as any other team in the league.
The numbers tell that story. Montreal’s attack was in the top five in MLS in goals and assists, in the top 10 in expected goals, and came in just behind eventual champion LAFC for expected goals against. The difference between a Supporters’ Shield and second place in the East was just a few goals Montreal probably shouldn’t have conceded. If nothing else, that suggests Montreal has the structure in place to be even better in 20123.
Executing step two in Montreal is made a lot more complicated by the amount of change that came to Quebec over the winter. The man who led the team from the sideline, Wilfried Nancy, departed for Columbus and a new project. Midfield creator Djordje Mihailovic completed his move to AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch Eredivisie. The club also sold talented youngsters Alistair Johnston and Ismael Kone.
Hernan Losada is now in charge at Montreal, a coach known for a high-pressing style of soccer that values massive effort and quick transitions. Working in Montreal’s favor when it comes to taking the second step and establishing a consistent place among the East’s contenders is plenty of experience and some continuity at the back. The one big chance in that area is the addition of Aaron Herrera, one of the league’s most underrated right-backs over the last five years.
FC Cincinnati finished three places behind Montreal in the Eastern Conference standings, but the club’s expectations are much bigger for 2023. That’s in large part because so many of its critical players from last year’s breakthrough campaign should help it rise.
In year one of his tenure in Cincinnati, first-year head coach Pat Noonan turned FCC into one of the league’s top attacks. Led by playmaker Luciano Acosta and two prolific strikers in Brandon Vazquez and Brenner, Cincinnati scored 64 goals in 34 games, good enough for fourth in MLS.
Playing out of a 3-5-2 that put Acosta underneath the strike tandem, surrounded by midfield support that encouraged his creativity, FCC was a blockbuster attacking act.
Cincinnati’s defense was a different story, with the club struggling to slow down opponents through the first part of the season. The acquisitions of defensive midfielder Obinna Ndwobo and center back Matt Miazga helped FCC improve enough to make its run to a playoff spot. Before Miazga entered the lineup in late August, Cincinnati conceded 1.8 goals per game. After his arrival, that number dropped to 1.2.
FCC held onto Vazquez, Brenner, and Acosta despite intense interest from abroad. Combining the improved defense with a league-elite attack bodes well for FCC’s chances at achieving step two.
Austin FC nearly pulled off the same trick that FCC managed by keeping most of its most important players from a successful 2022. MVP runner-up Sebastian Driussi is back and on a new contract. It’s the same for winger Diego Fagundez. The starting duo of Alex Ring and Daniel Pereira returns. Goalkeeper Brad Stuver is primed for an encore to his breakout season in goal.
Austin did lose center back Ruben Gabrielsen and has signed Finnish defender Leo Vaisanen to replace him. If Vaisanen can approximate Gabrielsen’s 2022 performance, Austin should be fine in that area of the field.
The big news out of Austin in the offseason was the arrival of American international Gyasi Zardes as a free agent, adding an accomplished goalscoring center forward to an already potent attack. It’s worth remembering that despite a midseason change of clubs in 2022, Zardes scored double-digit goals in a season for the fifth time in his career.
The pieces are in place for Austin. Josh Wolff’s team plays winning soccer and there’s no reason to think last season was a fluke. The quest for continental glory in the Concacaf Champions League might complicate the picture and test the team’s depth, but only a massive regression should stop Austin from using 2023 to climb into the league’s elite group of perennial contenders.
Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
More From Jason Davis:
- The expectations for Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez, Atlanta’s Thiago Almada, and Dallas’s Jesus Ferreira in 2023
- The USMNT players on clubs in contention for promotion from the Championship
- Toronto FC as a contender in 2023
- The San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo make changes in 2023
Photo by Scott Coleman – ZUMA Press Wire – ISIPhotos.com