MLS Obituaries: What went wrong for 2022’s worst teams and how to fix them

Quick Hits
  • With only a few weeks remaining in the 2022 MLS regular season, six teams have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention
  • What went wrong for those six teams? And what needs to change for things to improve in 2023? Let’s talk about that
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It seems like just yesterday that MLS teams were frolicking in the offseason and getting ready for the start of 2022. 

But alas, all good things must come to an end for the 27 teams that won’t live in the eternal halls of MLS Cup glory. So far, six teams have already been eliminated from playoff contention. While words can’t make the sorrows of 2022 disappear for those teams, today we’re remembering the good and the bad for the league’s cellar-dwellers. Plus, we’re going to look at what each club can do to fix things for 2023.

Let’s get to it.

DC United

What went wrong?

The circumstances around the decision to fire Hernan Losada is the obvious answer to this question, but I wonder how much the Losada situation is a symptom of more significant problems within DC United. When you hire an ultra-strict micromanager who wants to play at a relentless pace on both sides of the ball and then fire him for doing exactly that… it doesn’t exactly send a great message about your front office decision-making. Big whiffs on the player recruitment front with Edison Flores and Michael Estrada don’t help matters either.

What went right?

Hiring Wayne Rooney as manager is a step in the right direction. Plus, the signing of new Designated Player Christian Benteke shows that Rooney makes DC a destination for players that it simply wasn’t before.

How to fix things?

Despite adding Benteke, along with Ravel Morrison, Victor Palsson and a host of others, DC still need a significant rebuild. With the exodus of Julian Gressel, Kevin Paredes, Paul Arriola, Moses Nyeman, and Griffin Yow, DC United have been hemorrhaging talent and depth. Things could get even more complicated this offseason as MLS investigates allegations of racism surrounding Taxi Fountas. DC can sign another DP this offseason, but spending at the top of the roster is only a piece of the puzzle. They need depth, quality, and time for players to gel.

San Jose Earthquakes

What went wrong?

The Earthquakes should have parted ways with Mathias Almeyda long before they did. Before he was fired on April 18, the Quakes were winless with the worst record in MLS, the worst goal difference (-0.86 per game), and the worst expected goal difference (-0.68 xGD per game). Teams figured out Almeyda’s man-marking press and the goals started pouring into the back of San Jose’s net. Even after Almeyda was fired, there were significant issues on the defensive side of the ball. As it stands the Quakes are still last in the league in goals against (64) and expected goals against (55.28).

What went right?

San Jose hired U.S. men’s national team assistant coach Luchi Gonzalez as their next manager. Gonzalez struggled for stretches of his time coaching FC Dallas, but he’ll take over the Quakes’ talented attacking core after the World Cup. Jeremy Ebbobise’s emergence as a star striker was also a big bright spot this season: he’s currently third in xG (14.40) and tied for fifth in MLS in actual goals (16). And don’t forget about speedster Cade Cowell and playmaking winger Cristian Espinoza.

How to fix things?

According to Transfermarkt, the Earthquakes have paid a multi-million dollar transfer fee exactly once in the club’s existence. It’s probably unrealistic to expect owner John Fisher to suddenly have a change of heart and splash some cash on the roster. As a result, utilizing other mechanisms like San Jose did in their trade for Jeremy Ebobisse in 2021, will be a critical part of their future success. Quakes fans have also been waiting for a defensive rebuild for the last decade. The San Jose Earthquakes have only had a positive goal difference once since 2013.

Houston Dynamo

What went wrong?

In July, Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin called new Houston Dynamo designated player Hector Herrera “the best player that Concacaf has had.” But instead of invigorating a Dynamo team that has languished in mediocrity for years, Houston actually played significantly worse once the Mexican star stepped on the field. Before Herrera started playing on July 9, the Dynamo averaged an xGD of -0.18 per game. That number plummeted to -0.53 xGD per game after Herrera started playing. Failing to integrate a player of Herrera’s caliber is a big reason why head coach Paulo Nagamura lost his job.

What went right?

The silver lining for Dynamo fans is that new owner Ted Segal does seem willing to spend on the roster. Houston signed Herrera to a big-money contract and paid a big transfer fee for DP striker Sebastian Ferreira. Firing Nagamura before even finishing his first season also shows that Segal won’t be content with underperformance.

How to fix things?

Finding a manager that will help Herrera get his groove back and develop a cohesive tactical identity is a major priority for the Houston Dynamo heading into 2023. Because the Dynamo are at a talent deficit relative to many teams in the Western Conference, they’ll also need to upgrade all over their squad to put better pieces around Herrera and Ferreira. Without more talent, it’s going to be difficult for Nagamura’s replacement to keep the head coaching job for long.

Toronto FC

What went wrong?

It doesn’t take much of a film study to tell that Toronto FC’s defense was the main cause of their problems in 2022. Toronto were exceptionally poor this season at defending against counter attacks and defending in the wide areas. They currently rank 27th in MLS in xG against and 26th in actual games against. Things didn’t work out with DP center back Carlos Salcedo, who agreed to a mutual contract termination that allowed him to return to Liga MX, and Toronto lacked quality in the back.

What went right?

While Toronto’s midseason moves didn’t lead to a playoff berth, they were a step in the right direction. Toronto had a huge offensive glow-up when they said goodbye to Salcedo and Alejandro Pozuelo and hello to Italian superstars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. Since Insigne and Bernardeschi debuted on July 28, Toronto is sixth in xG and eighth in actual goals in all of MLS. Adding Mark-Anthony Kaye and Richie Laryea also instantly upgraded Toronto FC’s central midfield and right back spots.

How to fix things?

Upgrading the defense is an obvious priority, but Bob Bradley and Co. have other questions to answer in the offseason. How much longer can Michael Bradley play? He turns 36 next season. Where is Jonathan Osorio going to play next year? He’ll be a free agent. And is Laryea going to stay in Toronto? His loan deal from Nottingham Forest doesn’t have a purchase option. TFC have some roster flexibility in the form of an open DP spo, but that doesn’t mean that things are going to be simple for them heading into 2023.

Chicago Fire

What went wrong?

They didn’t score enough goals. Chicago’s tally of 35 goals puts them 27th in the league. Attacking midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri didn’t have the impact that many expected and young DP winger Jairo Torres was largely anonymous this season. They needed more production from Shaqiri, Torres, and others to create consistent chances in new manager Ezra Henrickson’s 4-2-3-1, but that production never really came.

What went right?

Gaga Slonina has largely been very good for the Chicago Fire in 2022. The American goalkeeper has 12 clean sheets in 32 games so far this season, which isn’t a bad number all on its own. However, it looks even more impressive when you remember that the Chelsea-bound keeper is just 18. Getting eight figures for Slonina is a good piece of business from Chicago that will, hopefully, help them retool their squad. Teenage striker Jhon Duran has also showed some flashes of brilliance up top this season.

How to fix things?

Chicago don’t have a ton of roster flexibility, given that all three DP spots are already filled by Shaqiri, Duran, and midfielder Gaston Gimenez. Still, they’ll need to find some clever ways to add talent along the backline and potentially higher up the field as well. On the tactical side of things, Hendrickson needs to shift the Fire’s approach to get Shaqiri into more dangerous scoring positions and to get just about anything from Torres.

Sporting Kansas City

What went wrong?

Season-ending knee surgeries to DPs Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda really put a damper on Sporting Kansas City’s season right from the start of this year. Neither played a single game in 2022 and SKC never had the attacking depth to compensate for all that lost production. 

From February to the end of July, Khiry Shelton was Kansas City’s primary option at striker. Shelton didn’t score his first goal this year until the middle of September.

What went right?

It was too late to save their season, but SKC look like a totally different team after finally signing a quality replacement striker in William Agada. The Nigerian No. 9 has been hot since joining Kansas City with 7 goals and 2 assists in 10 games. Since Agada was inserted in the starting lineup on July 30, SKC have been one of the best teams in MLS, only behind LAFC and the Philadelphia Union in xGD. They’re also on a six game unbeaten streak. Sporting Kansas City might just have some real momentum heading into next year.

How to fix things?

The most urgent need for SKC is ensuring that they have enough depth to recover from a bad injury or two next season. Peter Vermes also needs to consider using the team’s offseason buyout on Pulido. The Mexican striker has never been able to stay healthy in MLS, making just 26 starts during his three seasons in MLS. At 31, is Pulido really going to be able to make a full on-field comeback in 2023? Opening up a DP spot would certainly accelerate Sporting’s roster building process.

All data courtesy of American Soccer Analysis.