The curtain has come down on the 2022 MLS regular season, with 14 teams now preparing to contest the MLS Cup playoffs and another 14 waiting to watch them from home. There will be sides in both of those camps that likely are surprised to find themselves in the positions they occupy, for better or worse; such has been the unpredictable-as-ever nature of this campaign.
Few could’ve predicted Austin FC would be near the top of the Western Conference after a ho-hum inaugural season, while the New England Revolution following up a record-setting 2021 by missing the playoffs would’ve been met with similarly long odds eight months ago. That LAFC and the Philadelphia Union fought over the Supporters’ Shield all season, that was perhaps less surprising.
To definitively explain how these teams performed in 2022, ESPN asked Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagura, Bill Connelly, Cesar Hernandez and Austin Lindberg to think back to the start of the year, consider each team’s expectations and deliver a final letter grade for all 28 sides.
Standing: 40 points, 11th in the East
Based on points, Atlanta wasn’t the worst team in MLS, but considering the fact that its payroll of $21 million was the highest in MLS, combined with the fact that it finished 23rd out of 28 teams in the full league table, a failing grade is appropriate.
Sure, the numbers provided by the MLSPA don’t paint a complete picture. Season-ending injuries to the likes of defender Miles Robinson, midfielder Ozzie Alonso and goalkeeper Brad Guzan didn’t help. Neither did the continued drama surrounding striker Josef Martinez, but there was still enough talent on this team to at least get into the playoffs, and the Five Stripes didn’t get it done. The 2023 campaign is shaping up to be a put up or shut up year for manager Gonzalo Pineda. — Carlisle
Standing: 56 points, 2nd in West
FiveThirtyEight gave them a 31% chance of making the playoffs before the season and listed them as one of six teams with a less than 1% chance of winning the MLS Cup. But their early play was so strong that they had all but locked up a playoff spot by July, and now only LAFC, Philadelphia and Montreal have demonstrably better title odds.
They wobbled over the final month, losing five of their last 10, and we’ll see what legs they have left for the playoffs, especially in defense. But they’re here. Sebastian Driussi finished with 22 goals and seven assists in a possible MVP season, Diego Fagundez had six goals and 15 assists, and all in all, Austin FC enjoyed a miraculous second season. — Connelly
Standing: 42 points, 9th in East
They were top-3 in attendance, and thanks to a late hot streak they weren’t eliminated from the playoff race until the final week of their debut season. (And they pulled that off with an interim coach, Christian Lattanzio leading the way for more than half the season.) That is a success story in and of itself.
In the end, they just didn’t have enough firepower. They were 21st in goals scored — only Karol Swiderski hit double digits for the season — and opponents attempted far more shots than they did. But you can see the makings of a proper possession club here, and it will be interesting to see how they attempt to build on that this coming offseason. — Connelly
Standing: 39 points, 12th in East
There was a significant amount to feel positive about in the Windy City in 2022. Xherdan Shaqiri accumulated 18 direct goal contributions in his first season in the league, 18-year-old Gabriel Slonina emerged as one of the brightest goalkeeping prospects in recent memory (and subsequently sealed a transfer to Chelsea in the process), and 18-year-old forward Jhon Duran‘s debut campaign was so impressive (eight goals and three assists in just 1,274 minutes) that he earned a senior call-up with Colombia.
And yet, despite all that momentum, the Fire still finished 12th in the Eastern Conference and were eliminated from playoff contention with two matchdays left in the regular season. If Chicago’s reward for their promise in 2022 is the transfer fee generated by Slonina’s exit (and potentially Duran’s, too, with Chelsea and Liverpool credited with interest), then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the club is facing another season of rebuilding in 2023. — Lindberg
Standing: 49 points, 5th in East
Qualifying for the playoffs for the very first time after spending the previous three seasons with the worst record in MLS? Not bad from FCC. It took until Decision Day and a result over bottom-of-the-table D.C. United, but Cincinnati made a statement with a 5-2 victory in the final weekend of the regular season.
The rebuild project under general manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan has undoubtedly been a success in 2022. They may not last long in the playoffs with their fragile defense, but they’ll be fun to watch if attack-minded players such as Brandon Vazquez, Luciano Acosta and Brenner continue to step up. — Hernandez
Standing: 43 points, 10th in West
A year after topping the Western Conference with 61 points, the Rapids swiftly fell back into obscurity. Only one team in the conference (San Jose) allowed more than the 57 goals conceded by Colorado, which gave up just 35 a year ago.
At the most basic level, the regression is easy to understand. Over the last year-plus, the Rapids have lost midfielders Kellyn Acosta and Cole Bassett and defenders Sam Vines and Auston Trusty without coming close to replacing them with players at the same level. The most high-profile acquisition was striker Gyasi Zardes, who in 26 matches scored nine goals. However, the Rapids won just twice in his first 11 appearances, which derailed the season by the middle of the summer. — Bonagura
Standing: 46 points, 8th in East
Is this a good time to bring up the fact that head coach Caleb Porter said, “I’d bet my house” on Columbus making the playoffs?
Needing at least a tie on Decision Day to earn a playoff spot after failing to qualify last year, the Crew tripped over themselves once again through a 2-1 loss to Orlando. The defeat, which featured a second half game winner for Orlando from Facundo Torres, felt indicative of a Columbus squad that has become accustomed to closing out games all season.
Questions will need to be answered by Porter, who often found himself stuck in draws and narrow results. Over the past year, it’s difficult to say that much progress has been made by the players or the coach. — Hernandez
Standing: 27 points, 14th in East
The District was a case study in Murphy’s Law in 2022. Paul Arriola was transferred to Dallas, where he enjoyed a career year; Julian Gressel was shipped to Vancouver, where his rate of a direct goal contribution every 346 minutes was slashed to one every 220; manager Hernan Losada was fired; new coach Wayne Rooney finished the year with a 2W-3D-8L record; and star forward Taxi Fountas is being investigated for using a racial slur in a loss to Miami last month.
This was a season when D.C. were meant to establish themselves as postseason contenders. Little more than seven months after the campaign began, it’s hard to name a club further away from contention. — Lindberg
Standing: 53 points, 3rd in West
In his first season with the club, manager Nico Estevez has been decisive in the efforts that have helped Dallas return to the playoffs after missing out in 2021. With only 37 goals allowed all season and important saves from Maarten Paes, Dallas’ defensive prowess was influential in their top-third finish in the Western Conference table.
Which isn’t to say that their frontline should be ignored. Twenty-one-year-old USMNT striker Jesus Ferreira was one of the best in the league with his 18 goals and six assists. In support, others such as Paul Arriola, Alan Velasco and Sebastian Lletget also stepped up in crucial moments. — Hernandez
Standing: 36 points, 13th in West
The growing pains of a new era? Even with majority owner Ted Segal taking charge since 2021 through front-office hirings (including a first-ever role for a technical director) and the marquee signing of Mexican international Hector Herrera, nobody was able to halt a dismal run of form that led to a failure to qualify for the playoffs and the firing of head coach Paulo Nagamura.
Nagamura’s replacement will be tasked with not only finding the right combination to work with Herrera, but also reviving a team that hasn’t earned a playoff invitation since 2017.
Standing: 48 points, 6th in East
Inter woke up! After finishing 10th and 11th in the East, respectively, in their first two seasons of existence, Phil Neville’s squad looked well on the way to making it three straight playoff-free years before turning on the jets. After August 1, they generated more points than any MLS team besides Montreal, nearly succumbing to a late-August funk but rallying — thanks in part to one last hot streak from retiring striker Gonzalo Higuain — to snare the No. 6 seed in the Eastern playoffs.
This is neither a young nor particularly creative team, but making the postseason was the goal and they did so. — Connelly
Standing: 67 points, 1st in West
After compiling an 18-4-3 record, LAFC’s procession to the Supporters’ Shield took a minor detour at one point. But a 1-4-1 stretch run raised all kinds of questions, such as if adding the likes of Gareth Bale, Denis Bouanga and Giorgio Chiellini might have unsettled the squad with the playoffs approaching. Philadelphia, all of a sudden, was in with a shout of catching the Black-and-Gold, but timely wins against Houston and Portland allowed LAFC to finish with a kick and claim the Shield.
Considering that this side missed the playoffs last year and underwent a considerable overhaul in terms of personnel, it’s an impressive accomplishment for the club and first-year manager Steve Cherundolo. Now the MLS Cup beckons. — Carlisle
Standing: 50 points, 4th in West
What a second half of the year for the Galaxy. At the All-Star break point, they were floundering in ninth place in the Western Conference, with the postseason not worth discussing. Since then, the conversation has changed. Los Angeles rose all the way to fourth in the conference to earn a home playoff game (Nashville, Oct. 15) and are very much among the contenders to win the whole thing.
A lot of that turnaround has be credited to the acquisition of Riqui Puig. In his 10 appearances (9 starts), the Galaxy is 4-5-1 and he contributed eight goal contributions (3 goals, 5 assists). In the 22 games prior to Puig’s arrival this season, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez had 11 goal contributions (10 goals, 1 assist) and averaged 0.5 goals per 90 minutes. In the 10 games after Puig arrived, Chicharito’s production took off. He averaged 0.91 goals per 90 minutes and had nearly as many goal contributions (8 goals, 1 assist) in fewer than half as many games. — Bonagura
Standing: 48 points, 6th in West
There was no more up-and-down team in MLS in 2022 than the Loons. From May to the end of June, Minnesota lost seven of 10 games — including a U.S. Open Cup round-of-16 defeat to third-tier Union Omaha — before following that up with a stretch of nine wins in their next 12, only to finish the campaign by losing five of their last seven. In the end, this was a team that did just enough to sneak into the playoffs.
Injuries undoubtedly played a role: Hassani Dotson played 630 minutes before he was lost for the season to a torn ACL, Romain Metanire featured for just 22 minutes as he rehabbed a series of hamstring injuries, and Bakaye Dibassy missed the final seven matches of the season (and won’t be available for the playoffs) after suffering a ruptured quadriceps tendon. However, the Loons had the fourth-oldest squad in MLS in 2022, and their young players have done little to suggest they’re ready to take this team to the next level. — Lindberg
Standing: 65 points, 2nd in East
Behold, the power of continuity. Montreal came into 2022 having missed the (full-season) playoffs every year since 2016 and only made a couple of real offseason moves (and kept manager Wilfried Nancy), but they enter the playoffs with the East’s No. 2 seed and the third-best title odds thanks to a couple of prolific veterans (Romell Quioto and Kei Kamara combined for 24 goals and 13 assists) and a breakout season for 2021 addition Djordje Mihailovic (nine goals and six assists from 57 chances created).
In short, their front office was patient, and the patience paid off. — Connelly
Standing: 50 points, 5th in West
After finishing third in the West in 2021, Nashville flirted seriously with the idea of missing the playoffs, but what they lacked in general watchability – it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that every Nashville match this year was a 1-1 draw — they made up for in resilience. A six-match unbeaten streak in August and September assured them of a fifth playoff bid in five tries. Still, the defense grew leakier and the team got older, and they will head into the offseason with more questions than they had a year ago.
Unless there’s a deep playoff run coming, this season was a step backward. — Connelly
Standing: 42 points, 10th in East
We’ll let head coach Bruce Arena summarize the 2022 season for the Revs: “I’m not going to miss it.”
One year after setting MLS’ single-season points record and lifting their first-ever Supporters’ Shield, New England faltered in 2022 with a spot outside of the playoffs and a dramatic collapse in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Although the expectation wasn’t to hit the same heights of 2021 (especially with the exits of Tajon Buchanan, Matt Turner and Adam Buksa to Europe), qualifying for the playoffs was the minimum goal.
Things didn’t go as planned either through injuries and the additions of veterans such as Sebastian Lletget, Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez. Over the summer, Lletget was transferred to FC Dallas, while Altidore went on loan to Liga MX’s Puebla. As for Gonzalez, he was never able to establish a starting role. — Hernandez
Standing: 55 points, 3rd in East
As June beckoned, the reigning MLS Cup champions seemed to be making a solid push toward a repeat. On June 1, NYCFC was actually a point ahead of Philly, but then manager Ronny Deila left for Standard Liege, reigning Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos was loaned to Girona, and things began to go wobbly They’ve gone just 7-7-5 since. Not awful, but not great either, and NYCCFC seemed to lose the high-pressing ethos that Deila instituted.
A three-game winning streak to end the season hints that things are improving under Nick Cushing, but the playoffs will be the ultimate judge of NYCFC’s season. — Carlisle
Standing: 53 points, 4th in East
The Red Bulls needed goals in 2022 if they were to have any chance of returning to their status as consistent Eastern Conference contenders. Striker Patryk Klimala registered just five this year, falling short of the impact expected of the Young DP signing from Celtic, but Lewis Morgan has been a revelation in New York, scoring 14 times in league play from the wing since his big-money arrival from Inter Miami in the offseason. As such, the Red Bulls saw their goals-for record improve from just 39 in 2021 (only three teams in the conference were worse) to 48 this season (sixth best).
This is a much improved team over last year, as evidenced by earning a Round One playoff contest at home, and Morgan’s emergence has a lot to do with that. Just imagine how dangerous Gerhard Struber’s side would be with some genuine productivity from the No. 9 position. — Lindberg
Standing: 48 points, 7th in East
The Lions remain one of the league’s enigmas. They broke through to win the U.S. Open Cup and also snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the season. Given that success and failure is largely playoff qualification-based, the tendency will be to look at the season as a positive. But looked at another way, Orlando finished seventh in a 14-team conference, basically midtable.
Given the money spent on the likes of Facundo Torres and Ivan Angulo, more was expected of an attack that ranked tied for 21st in the league with 44 goals scored. The minus-9 goal differential speaks to a lack of consistency on the defensive side of the ball as well. With a playoff spot secure, Oscar Pareja looks set to continue as manager, but plenty of questions need to be asked in terms of addressing the team’s weaknesses during the offseason. — Carlisle
Standing: 67 points, 1st in East
The Union finished the year level on points with LAFC and only lost out on winning the Supporters’ Shield by virtue of having two fewer wins. From another vantage point, it’s easy to make the case the Union were the most dominant team in the league this year and had one of the best regular seasons in league history.
Their plus-46 goal differential was 18 better than LAFC this year and stands as the second-best mark in MLS history, behind only LAFC in 2019 (48). They led the league in goals scored (72), had the fewest goals conceded (26) and were the only team in the league to go unbeaten at home. Daniel Gazdag (22 goals) finished one shy of the Golden Boot and combined with Julian Carranza (14 goals) to finish as the top goal-scoring duo (tied with FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez and Brenner).
For all the Union accomplished, though, the only way to ensure a lasting place in history is to add an MLS Cup-size exclamation point. — Bonagura
Standing: 46 points, 8th in West
The Portland Timbers’ prominent role in Sally Yates’ report into systemic abuse in women’s soccer has deservedly overshadowed anything the team has done on the field in recent weeks. Not that there was much on the field to write home about: All Portland needed on Decision Day was a point against Real Salt Lake to ensure a place in the postseason. Instead, they came out disinterested and were outplayed in a 3-1 loss that saw the host jump out to a 3-0 lead before a late consolation goal.
It sets up an offseason in which the most important questions will be asked about Merritt Paulson’s future as owner, rather than how the Timbers will rebuild following a rare playoff miss. — Bonagura
Standing: 47 points, 7th in West
Let’s make sense of this: RSL lost longtime designated player Albert Rusnak in the offseason to Seattle and star midfielder Damir Kreilach appeared in just five games due to injury. Yet, the club still finished in seventh place, the same spot it did the prior season when it made a run to the Western Conference finals.
RSL beat Portland 3-1 on Decision Day to earn the final playoff spot and while that’s not exactly a conventional formula for postseason success, last year’s run should inspire some confidence that lightning can be captured in a bottle once again. No other playoff team scored fewer goals than Salt Lake, which outscored only four teams during the regular season. RSL also managed only 16 goals on the road, which doesn’t bode well for its trip to Austin, an offensive juggernaut. — Bonagura
Standing: 35 points, 14th in West
The decision to keep Matias Almeyda as manager to start the season still looms large, though the 1.32 points per game the team has earned under Alex Covelo since then reveals that this side was always a borderline playoff team at best. A defense that conceded a whopping 67 goals, worst in the league, made it was even more of an uphill climb. Now this is new manager Luchi Gonzalez’s problem.
A trio of defenders — Carlos Akapo, Rodrigues and Miguel Trauco — have been brought in to start the defensive rebuild, but there’s frankly not enough data yet to determine if it will work. A space-covering holding midfielder is still needed. The attack looks in good shape with Jeremy Ebobisse, Cristian Espinoza and Jamiro Monteiro. Cade Cowell has promise, as does 17-year-old Niko Tsakiris, but 2023 has the makings of another “trying to sneak into playoffs vibe.” — Carlisle
Herculez Gomez debates which team has had the worst MLS season out of Atlanta and Seattle.
Standing: 41 points, 11th in West
This grade very much takes into consideration that the Sounders claimed the CONCACAF Champions League. It was the first time in two decades that an MLS side reached the continental promised land, and the first since a home-and-away was used in the knockout rounds, but Seattle paid for it in the long run.
Joao Paulo went down in the CCL final with a torn ACL. His replacement, Obed Vargas, later suffered a long-term back injury as well. Emotional leader Cristian Roldan underwent surgery, and influential forward Raul Ruidiaz logged just 1,306 league minutes. And so it went. The Sounders could never quite get going and failed to make the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons.
Now the question looms large: Can Seattle rebound? The roster seems locked up for next year too, with its complement of DPs already in place. It will amount to a tricky job for president of soccer Garth Lagerwey and manager Brian Schmetzer. That said, if everyone can just heal up, the talent is definitely there. — Carlisle
Standing: 40 points, 12th in West
Despite having a promising end to the season with just two losses in their last 10 games, very few will be content with how 2022 went for SKC. Hit by major setbacks through two lengthy injuries for DPs Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda, head coach Peter Vermes and his roster never found much-needed rhythm until August and were subsequently left out of this season’s playoffs.
They have the potential to bounce back in 2023 — keep an eye on goal scorer William Agada next year — but some serious roster questions will need to be asked during the winter offseason. — Hernandez
Standing: 34 points, 13th in East
Giving your rivals a five-month head start is rarely a recipe for success, yet that’s essentially what Toronto did in 2022. From the starting XI that opened the season in Dallas, just four names remained in the XI that hosted Miami little more than a week ago. The Reds averaged a point a game before the secondary transfer window opened, when the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Mark-Anthony Kaye and four others arrived, leaving the team in a position to need a points-per-game pace of 2.27 after the window closed if they were to make it into the playoffs. For context, Supporters’ Shield-winning LAFC averaged 2.03 PPG all season.
Maybe the 2022 season was an acclimation period for new coach Bob Bradley and his stable of star signings, and Toronto will put it all together for an almighty run in 2023. If not, this year’s D grade will look a lot worse. — Lindberg
Standing: 43 points, 9th in West
The Caps were six points worse off in 2022 than they were in 2021, when they made a surprise run to the MLS Cup playoffs. They also scored five fewer goals — the third-worst goals-for metric in the league — despite having another season to work together while adding coveted wide creator Julian Gressel.
There is an argument to be made that Vancouver even being in the playoff conversation on Decision Day was a mirage. Only Wooden Spoon winners D.C. United boasted a worse goal differential than the Whitecaps’ minus-17. It’s another offseason of “back to the drawing board” in British Columbia. — Lindberg