Every MLS Eastern Conference team’s biggest need after one third of the season

Quick
Hits
  • After the first third of the MLS season, we have a pretty clear picture of what each team needs to improve as we get further into the season
  • Teams like Charlotte FC and the Columbus Crew need to hit on new attacking Designated Player signings
  • Others, including the New England Revolution and the Philadelphia Union, need to start succession planning
Apr 9, 2022; Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA; New England Revolution head coach Bruce Arena and Inter Miami CF head coach Phil Neville talk before the game at DRV PNK Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

We’re one third of the way through the 2022 MLS season. Identities (or lack thereof), strengths, and weaknesses are becoming increasingly clear.

With that in mind, let’s talk about some of those weaknesses, shall we? Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to dive into every MLS team’s biggest need after this first chunk of the season.

Today, we’re starting with the Eastern Conference. Next week, we’ll tackle the West.

Now, one quick note before we start: MLS’s next transfer window opens on July 7, so this won’t necessarily be a hard-and-fast who should my team sign? type of mini-series. Some teams are capped out anyway, so external help might not be coming. But we are going to look at what each club should be sorting out as we get further into the season.

Let’s get to the East.

ATLANTA UNITED

Biggest need? Hit big on U22 Initiative slot, decide GK plan

Atlanta United have been without superstar forward Josef Martinez for much of the season. They also lost star center back Miles Robinson, starting goalkeeper Brad Guzan, and defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso to season-ending injuries.

The biggest chip Atlanta can cash this summer is their open U22 Initiative slot, which hits the cap at a fixed cost and means that Atlanta won’t have to factor in a transfer fee to the signing.

They had been chasing American forward Matthew Hoppe with that U22 Initiative slot, which made a lot of sense.

But since then, on-loan forward Ronaldo Cisneros has done well in attack in Martinez’s absence and Robinson suffered his Achilles injury. So do they still have the U22 slot earmarked for attack or will it be help for the defense, either in the middle of the backline or in defensive midfield?

As for the goalkeeper spot, maybe they already decided on it being Bobby Shuttleworth’s job until further notice. But Rocco Rios Novo is in town and they had been in talks to try and sign American goalkeeper Josh Cohen, who has had a stellar stint with Maccabi Haifa (back-to-back champions, won Player of the Year for Israeli first division as a GK!). Cohen is out of contract this summer.

Will the Cohen talks gain more momentum or have they decided on Shuttleworth or Novo?

CHARLOTTE FC

Biggest need? An attacking DP

Charlotte FC have been deliberate in their roster build, being sure to hold some key roster building mechanisms for the summer (and retaining flexibility for next winter).

They currently have all three Designated Player spots filled, but only Karol Swiderski will be a DP long-term. Jordy Alcivar will be bought down when a new DP arrives while Kamil Jozwiak can be bought down in the future. The plan was always to add another DP this summer.

But in which position? 

DPs are almost always used in attack, so conventional wisdom would suggest either an attacking midfielder or winger, though Charlotte have bucked conventional wisdom plenty in their roster building process. Still, my money would be on an attacker (though not a center forward given that Swiderski and U22 Initiative signing Vinicius Mello are already at the position, along with Daniel Rios and Andre Shinyashiki).

Chicago Fire

Biggest need? Sort Slonina’s future with loan back

Speculation over Gaga Slonina’s next club has persisted since the winter. He is, perhaps, the most sought-after teenage goalkeeper in the world. Hopefully clarity can be reached with the announcement of an official deal in the summer.

The Fire have been insistent on a loan-back clause for Slonina, which I can’t imagine is a problem for any of the big clubs trying to sign him. Rarely do teenage goalkeepers get consistent top-flight games and at this stage of Slonina’s development, he’s not about to walk into a Premier League team as a starting GK.

A potential deal with Chelsea that never came to fruition would have had a two-year loan back.

FC CINCINNATI

Biggest need? More defensive building blocks

I know it’s early, and FC Cincinnati fans have been hurt many times before, but we can call it: their attack is legit.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. But with Lucho Acosta in Best XI form and Brandon Vazquez looking like a legitimate goalscorer in this league, they’re good for right now. Plus if Brenner stays, that could be a strong trio. Even if not, Dom Badji has been good. Then there’s Alvaro Barreal and Isaac Atanga, two U22 Initiative signings.

Anyway, my point is that Cincy should focus on non-attacking areas. Obi Nwobodo looks like just what they needed in defensive midfield and Junior Moreno has been solid as well. They sure could use another box-to-box central midfielder, another center back, and maybe another right back moving forward.

It’s also important for them to keep a long-term vision in mind. If Cincinnati remain in the playoff chase this year, that’s ahead of schedule based on where they’ve finished in past MLS seasons. But don’t sacrifice short-term gains for the long-term plan.

COLUMBUS CREW

Biggest need? A DP No. 9

This one is a layup: the Columbus Crew have been open in their aim for a DP attacker. With Gyasi Zardes’ trade, the Crew now have a DP spot open.

The last time Columbus were ready to make a big DP swing, they went to Liga MX and signed Lucas Zelarayan. Tim Bezbatchenko has made a network in Liga MX over the years during Concacaf Champions League play with Toronto and then Columbus. The track record for MLS teams signing DP forwards from Liga MX is pretty strong, too.

They could go for a DP winger, but assets have already been allocated in that part of the field. Plus, they’re light up top outside of Miguel Berry.

D.C. UNITED

Biggest need? Better GK play

I phrased it as “better GK play” rather than “new GK” because they already signed a goalkeeper, Venezuelan Rafael Romo. That makes it unlikely for D.C. United to add another new player in that position.

But they need better play there, be it from Bill Hamid, Romo or Jon Kempin. D.C. United are the 3rd worst shot-stopping team in MLS based on FBref’s post-shot xG minus goals allowed per 90 minutes metric. That means that D.C.’s goalkeepers are letting shots go by that most other keepers around the league are saving. Looking at individuals, Hamid is the 7th worst in that PSxG-GA metric in the league, per FBref.

Something has to give for D.C. United.

INTER MIAMI

Biggest need? Keeping long-term vision with next DP

The biggest issue with Inter Miami’s original roster build was its lack of cohesion.

They spent a lot of money on center forward Julian Carranza…just to use the No. 1 SuperDraft pick on Robbie Robinson…and then a DP spot on Gonzalo Higuain. Those are three players who can really only play center forward. Then head coach Diego Alonso wasn’t hired until just before preseason and some key decisions were made without direction.

Chris Henderson has gotten things to be a bit more cohesive this year with some complementary signings. Hopefully he’ll get to continue in that same way without chasing a short-term star. That doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t sign an older, big-name player. After all, who on earth am I to actively root against Luis Suarez or someone like him coming to MLS? 

But who can play alongside Leonardo Campana? Who can best play in front of Gregore? Who works well with DeAndre Yedlin’s best qualities?

Miami need to answer at least one of those questions with their next DP signing.

CF MONTREAL

Biggest need? Goalkeeping upgrade

CF Montreal are well-coached, well-structured, and deep all over the field. They also have top-end talent in Djordje Mihailovic, Victor Wanyama, and others. 

One area they need to improve, though, is their goalkeeping.

Sebastian Breza has conceded 3.2 more goals than expected, per American Soccer Analysis, which puts him 43rd out of 44 goalkeepers who have played MLS minutes this season. FBref has Breza conceding 2.7 more goals than expected, which is 41st out of 44 GKs and 39th out of 44 on a per 90 minute basis.

Whether the upgrade in goal comes from Breza’s improvement or an external addition, it’s where this team most needs a boost.

NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION

Biggest need? Be ready to replace Buksa (Young DP?)

Clubs have succession plans. They have ever-changing lists of targets and potential targets for both current and future needs.

The New England Revolution might need to tap into one of those lists here soon. Why? Because it wouldn’t be any sort of a surprise if a European club made a big offer for Adam Buksa this summer.

Buksa has already talked about wanting to get back to Europe at some point, so the Revs have to be ready to replace their No. 9.

One thought would be finding a Young DP forward. Bruce Arena generally leans towards veterans, but a Young DP would allow New England to sign two more U22 Initiative players, alongside the recently-acquired Dylan Borrero. That would be a huge boost to their depth and overall flexibility. 

A Young DP center forward, a U22 Initiative winger, and a U22 Initiative defensive midfielder/center back sounds like the jolt this team needs to maximize the top end talent that’s already on their roster.

NEW YORK CITY FC

Biggest need? A Taty replacement

NYCFC are in MLS’s top tier in terms of talent and team-wide cohesiveness. They have been playing wonderful soccer, particularly after being eliminated from the Concacaf Champions League.

Now, Taty Castellanos, the league’s reigning Golden Boot winner, seems destined to leave this summer. With Talles Magno, they already have a Taty replacement in terms of potential high-end talent. But they’ll have to replace Castellanos in the squad, probably with a more natural center forward.

It’s a tall task. Castellanos isn’t a DP (somehow!) and NYCFC currently have all three of their DP spots taken by Magno, Maxi Moralez, and Thiago Martins, though there could be some flexibility there.

This team might lose the league’s top scorer from last year and be okay even without an immediate, direct replacement. Still, finding a striker is probably in the cards for New York City.

NEW YORK RED BULLS

Biggest need? A new contract for Aaron Long

The New York Red Bulls have some other needs, including backup left back, center back depth, and some succession planning in central midfield if Cristian Casseres leaves in the summer.

But the big one is sorting out Aaron Long’s contract situation.

Long is out of contract at the end of the season, which means he can sign a pre-contract abroad this summer to leave in the winter. He can also wait for MLS free agency and cash in on a new market set by Walker Zimmerman’s recent DP deal.

RBNY rejected multiple huge trade offers for Long in the winter, sources told me a few months ago. He’s been at the heart of this team’s defense for years, is a USMNT regular and is a rare veteran presence for a young team. It’s a no-brainer to keep him.

ORLANDO CITY SC

Biggest need? Keep Alexandre Pato in bubble wrap

Alexandre Pato’s resurgence has been among the best feel-good stories in MLS this year. The Brazilian forward was injured during his Orlando debut in 2021 and wasn’t seen again until the last month of the year. 

This year, Pato has been awesome and (more importantly) healthy. His talent remains unquestioned: Pato easily leads the team in xG+xA per 90 minutes and has accrued eight starts so far. If he gives Orlando 25 starts at this level, his season will be a huge success.

Please, injury gods, let him have this one.

The 32-year-old hasn’t played 2,000 minutes in a league season since 2017 – and he’s only ever hit that 2,000 league minutes mark three times in his career.

One other area to keep an eye on? Central defense. Orlando City have held up okay without Antonio Carlos so far, but they may need to add some center back depth to cover for Carlos while he’s injured.

PHILADELPHIA UNION

Biggest need? Succession plan at left back

Replacing a Best XI left back is difficult. Replacing a Best XI left back midseason is even more difficult. But it looks like that’s exactly what the Union are going to have to do, as Kai Wagner will be making his long-desired return to Europe.

A number of teams wanted to sign him in January, namely Brentford and Fulham, but nothing quite came to fruition. A deal now that would move Wagner out of Philadelphia now looks likely this summer.

The Union have Matt Real, who head coach Jim Curtin said they have full confidence in still. I’d imagine they also make a signing externally, too, if or when Wagner leaves.

I’m sure they have contingency plans in place if an irresistible bid comes for No. 6 Jose Martinez too, but at this stage, it’s more likely that Wagner leaves.

TORONTO FC

Biggest need? Staying in the playoff race until Insigne arrives

It’s a tall task. With so many players out and with their biggest addition (Lorenzo Insigne) not arriving until July, Toronto FC are free falling.

The playoff system can be forgiving to slow starts, but it’s as competitive as ever to make the postseason in MLS. Plus TFC are really struggling and have been regularly bringing players in from the second team to eat up some minutes. Depth guys are being pushed to regular roles and it’s showing.

Still, Toronto are sitting just four points below the playoff line. They have six more games until Insigne arrives, which would give him just under half a season to help turn the ship around.