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Lowery’s 10 MLS Thoughts: Top free agents, 2024 trophy contenders & more

We’re picking next year’s top teams, talking about coaches, and more.

10 min read

This week’s 10 MLS Thoughts looks at next year’s trophy favorites, gets to know Charlotte FC’s new coach, and does a whole bunch of other things, too.

1. My top contenders for 2024

It’s been all of a few days since MLS Cup, and teams are already wheeling and dealing in the offseason with their eyes set on 2024. If teams are looking ahead to 2024, then so am I. Before the calendar officially turns over, these are my top trophy contenders heading into the new year.

Columbus Crew: How could this year’s exceedingly worthy MLS Cup champs not be in this top tier? No team in this league is ever a shoe-in to succeed one year after the next, but the Crew played elite attacking soccer, have elite talent, and have an elite manager (more on that in a moment). Even if/when a European team comes in for Cucho Hernandez, the Columbus front office will have plenty of cash to sign a replacement.

How the Columbus Crew won MLS Cup with “maestro” Wilfried Nancy leading the way
The Crew played Nancy’s way against LAFC. And it paid off.

FC Cincinnati: With a healthy, not-suspended spine, the Eastern Conference Final could’ve gone very differently for Cincy. They have top MLS players in each line of the field and won this year’s Supporters’ Shield. Securing another trophy isn’t out of the question in 2024, even with whatever offseason changes are coming.

LAFC: There’s a lot we don’t know about LAFC heading into next year, even with Giorgio Chiellini’s retirement clarifying one roster spot. Will Carlos Vela be back? What about Diego Palacios and Kellyn Acosta? Or their goalkeepers? But with the flexibility to add at least one more designated player next year, I’m comfortable betting on LAFC GM John Thorrington to put the right pieces around Denis Bouanga.

2. Wilfried Nancy is in a class of his own

I’ve got a question for you: how many coaches around MLS are actual difference-makers? If you strip out the work of their club’s chief soccer officer, how many have elevated their teams in a clear, observable way?

My answer: not as many as people seem to think.

Steve Cherundolo gets tossed into conversations about the best coach in MLS, but you cannot convince me that his tactical approach elevated LAFC in 2023. Pat Noonan won this year’s Coach of the Year award on the back of helping FC Cincinnati claim the Supporters’ Shield. But how much of Cincy’s success comes from Noonan and how much of it comes from CSO Chris Albright putting together an elite squad?

You see what I’m getting at here. It’s hard to identify stand-out coaches in MLS. That is, with the exception of Wilfried Nancy.

To cut off angry fans of other teams who didn’t win MLS Cup at the pass, yes, obviously Nancy had plenty of help from the Columbus Crew’s front office. The Crew don’t lift another MLS Cup without Cucho Hernandez in the forward line. But with a logical tactical gameplan, communication skills to articulate that gameplan to players, and an ability to transform under-performing pieces, Nancy stands out.

Steven Moreira was a mediocre right back for Columbus in 2022 — he put on a show against Bouanga in MLS Cup. Yaw Yeboah was a bad winger for Columbus in 2022 — he put the game out of reach for LAFC with a goal from the left wingback spot. Alex Matan was on the scrap heap, out on loan from Columbus to Romania to end last season — he was a legit playmaker for the Crew all year long.

No coach in MLS came even close to having Nancy’s impact in 2023. He’s the best coach in the league right now, without a doubt.

3. Dean Smith to Charlotte FC

Speaking of coaches, Charlotte FC have themselves a new one!

On Tuesday, Charlotte announced their decision to hire Dean Smith as the club’s manager heading into 2024. Here’s the rundown on the 52-year-old:

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