2023 MLS season preview: What you need to know ahead of jam-packed year

(Graphic by Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)
(Graphic by Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)

Welcome to a new era for Major League Soccer. One of the most anticipated seasons in league history is finally upon us as MLS embarks on a 10-year partnership deal with Apple. The campaign kicks off Saturday with Nashville and reigning MVP Hany Mukhtar hosting New York City FC (4:30 ET, Apple TV/Fox).

MLS Cup champs LAFC were set to begin their title defense against crosstown rival LA Galaxy at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, but the severe storm hitting California forced the teams to postpone and reschedule the match for July 4.

One important addition to the schedule is the summer Leagues Cup break which will pause the season for a month following the July 15 games for a World Cup-like tournament that will feature all 47 MLS and Liga MX cubs.

Let’s take a look at what’s ahead in a jam-packed 2023.

LAFC trophy hunt

Year 5 was dreamlike for LAFC as they finally hoisted that coveted MLS Cup while also adding another Supporters’ Shield to their trophy cabinet. A mixture of MLS veterans and the signings of Giorgio Chiellini and Gareth Bale somehow all ended up working perfectly for first-year head coach Steve Cherundolo. But he knows this season will be different and undoubtedly more challenging.

The departure of Cristian "Chicho" Arango is a big loss for the Black and Gold, but there’s no shortage of attacking power on the roster. Denis Bouanga might be in line for a MVP-caliber year, Carlos Vela is still one of the most talented players in the league and the youngsters Kwadwo "Mahala" Opoku and Stipe Biuk have tremendous potential.

INDIO, CA - FEBRUARY 11: Denis Bouanga  of LAFC during the MLS Pre-Season 2023 Coachella Valley Invitational match between Toronto FC v LAFC at Empire Polo Club on February 11, 2023 in Indio, California. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
Will LAFC's Denis Bouanga emerge as an MVP contender in 2023? (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

LAFC is rightfully a Cup favorite, but winning it back-to-back doesn’t happen much in this league. Aside from that, they hope to make a run and challenge for the CONCACAF Champions League, and teams that do that typically suffer in league play (see: Seattle Sounders). Later in the year Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup competition gets added to the mix. There’s a chance at a lot of hardware in 2023, and after feeling that sense of accomplishment in 2022, LAFC wants to win them all.

St. Louis has arrived

St. Louis has an extensive soccer history in the United States, and now the city has its own MLS team. The newest expansion club has already made strides in growing a passionate fan base and boasting a beautiful new facility downtown. But as always, expansion brings a lot of uncertainty for these new teams. Crafting a roster, creating an identity and learning the league doesn’t come easy.

Joāo Klauss, one of St. Louis City's designated players, has played in five different countries over his career but applauds the team for the amazing work it has been able to do in preparation for the season.

Not many names on the roster will jump out at you, so how head coach Bradley Carnell manages that will be interesting to see. Then again, expectations for a brand new team can’t be too high. It’s about building something special in and around the club, and it seems like the support in the city is prevalent and will continue to grow in similar ways that Austin and Charlotte did while struggling through their inaugural seasons.

Since I’ve been in this league, they’ve always talked about St. Louis as a dream,” said Apple TV's Taylor Twellman. “The fact that dream is realized … that’s insane.”

Something brewing in Toronto?

Last year is in the past for Bob Bradley and company, thankfully. The investments Toronto made in Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi were always going to be more about this season anyway. But now that they have some familiarity with the league and a full preseason together, can the Reds be a legit contender?

The roster certainly is talented enough despite depth being a glaring question. Last time we said that about a Bradley-led team was in 2019 when LAFC ended up putting together a historic MLS season en route to winning the Supporters’ Shield. Mark-Anthony Kaye was part of that team and is now a crucial piece of this TFC midfield. Bradley was able to convince striker Adama Diomande, who was also on that LAFC squad, to return to MLS. Then they made one of the biggest signings of the offseason by landing goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who Bradley gave his first USMNT cap.

“It’s exciting to link back up with Bob and Michael [Bradley] as well — I’ve known them for a while,” Johnson said. “The pieces are in place. The ambition of the group is exactly where you want it to be.”

Adding Matt Hedges to a defense desperately in need was another important move. Don’t be surprised to see this team toward the top of the standings. But just making the playoffs won’t be enough.

“I really think sky is the limit,” Kaye said. “You can ask anyone from TFC and the goal is to win MLS Cup.”

Many teams will say that, Toronto actually believes it.

Nancy takes talents to Columbus

Wilfried Nancy was one of the best coaches in the league last season and made Montreal a formidable opponent over the past two years. Now he’s inheriting a project in Columbus with some exciting star power such as Juan Camilo "Cucho" Hernández, Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe.

Nancy’s ability to get his teams to control games should translate over well if the Crew are able to adapt to his ideas quickly. The move is also predicated on him helping develop younger talent through the academy, and don’t forget Crew 2 just won the MLS Next Pro championship.

It might take a little time for him to enact his identity for a brand new franchise, but if his trajectory from Montreal continues, Columbus will definitely benefit sooner or later.

Nashville aims to take next step

Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman have been mainstays in Nashville’s success, so it’s no surprise to see the team run up the goals and defend so well. However, the regular season has been one story and the playoffs tell a completely different one. The issue is who will help Mukhtar in that attack and can they be dominant enough on the ball, not just relying on transitional play to spark the offense?

“With the year that Hany had last year, we can’t expect that every single year, although he’s an amazing player — that’s a lot of goal production,” Zimmerman said. “We’re gonna need to find ways to get goals and assists from other areas and I know that we have the pieces to do that.”

Nov 1, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, USA;
Nashville SC's Hany Mukhtar holds his Landon Donovan MLS MVP and his MLS Golden Boot awards as he poses for a portrait at Geodis Park.  Mandatory Credit: George Walker IV - USA TODAY Sports

Adding Fafa Picault should help tremendously because he could score and contribute with assists, but head coach Gary Smith is going to need production from many others, specifically C.J. Sapong and Randall Leal. The talent is there. Now they just have to put it all together. Because essentially wasting consecutive MVP-level campaigns from Mukhtar isn’t a good look. He has no doubt he can keep playing at that quality and we shouldn’t either, but what’s next?

“We want to win silverware. We cannot be dependent on 1, 2 or 3 single players,” Mukhtar said. “We need to have a lot of players which are capable to hurt the opponent.”

5 can’t-miss MLS games this season

St. Louis City SC vs. Charlotte FC, March 4

The hype is real. One thing I’ve noticed about the last two expansion teams (Austin and Charlotte) is that the rabid fan bases have created some of the best game-day experiences in their respective home stadiums. St. Louis is going to be no different. The soccer details will unfold throughout the season, but this one is going to be about celebrating a historic moment for the league and a city with an already rich presence in the sport.

“From a St. Louisan, I’ll have to pinch myself," Twellman told Yahoo Sports. "I’ll get choked up."

LA Galaxy vs. LAFC, July 4

Maybe the storm that forced this game to be rescheduled was a good thing. Starting the season with El Trafico was an exciting thought, but having it at the iconic Rose Bowl on a holiday in the summer sounds like a lot more fun. The hope is that this anticipated rivalry match will break the league's attendance record (74,479). The Galaxy returning to the stadium they called home for their first 6 years in MLS taps into a different type of nostalgia for former players and longtime fans. Defending champs LAFC will try to play spoiler, but make no mistake that it’ll be a party in Pasadena with plenty fireworks.

Atlanta United vs. Inter Miami CF, Sept. 16

If you think of Atlanta United, you think of Josef Martinez. The Venezuelan striker is synonymous with the club, and fans certainly have a great admiration for him. His departure from the Five Stripes wasn’t the best (more on that later) but this game will be a homecoming for Martinez at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And because of how late in the season it is, it might have playoff implications, too. Either way, the Atlanta faithful will be welcoming back their king and that marks a special occasion.

Philadelphia Union vs. LAFC, Sept. 23

An MLS Cup rematch is definitely in order. It’ll be hard to top the instant classic they played last season, but these are two clubs with massive expectations and both hope to be making another run all the way. It’s not far-fetched to think this game could have an effect on the Supporters’ Shield race. You know Jim Curtain and Co. will be thinking of revenge.

Nashville SC vs. New York Red Bulls, Oct. 21

There’s something special about the drama that Decision Day brings. After months of a grueling schedule, things like seeding and playoff berths seemingly come down to this final calendar date of the regular season. Nashville moving back to the East this year adds another talented team to a pretty competitive conference. Both of these squads are typically middle to top of the pack, and when looking at the Decision Day slate this matchup jumps out over the rest. A team that will press and try to run you off the field against one that historically has been stout defensively. The potential for chaos is all there.

Inter Miami CF forward Josef Martinez (17) will get the chance to face his former team in Atlanta this season. (Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports)
Inter Miami CF forward Josef Martinez (17) will get the chance to face his former team in Atlanta this season. (Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports)

Familiar faces, new places

Josef Martinez (Inter Miami from Atlanta United)

I didn’t think we would see the day that Martinez left Atlanta for another MLS team, but here we are. After constantly pledging his allegiance to the franchise, things started souring quickly over the past few seasons and it was clear that what once was the most perfect marriage in the league was heading for a split.

For a player of that personality, landing in South Florida was too fitting. Heck, restaurants in the area were even serving limited edition pink arepas as an ode to the Venezuelan striker. We know that Miami head coach Phil Neville is a big fan of Martinez and advocated for the acquisition. What we don’t know is the version of Martinez we will see. Injuries have been a factor in the past, and along with that outgoing personality comes a big ego. Players have repeatedly said a reason for Miami’s success last season was the chemistry created in the locker room. Adding someone like Martinez can for sure boost that, but you must also think about the reverse effect.

The possibility of a vintage Josef Martinez alongside a hungry Leo Campana creates a nice potential for many goals, just enough to make fans optimistic … for now.

Aaron Long (LAFC from New York Red Bulls)

LAFC had been targeting Aaron Long via trades multiple times to no avail, but the Black and Gold was finally able to land the SoCal-born center back through free agency this offseason. For Long it was a simple decision to go back home despite a great tenure in New York. The USMNT center back already had a relationship with Cherundolo as he served as an assistant in prior national team camps. Watching the team from afar, he admired the ambition the club has shown in building rosters.

“I think LAFC is really good at maximizing their chances to win every year and turning that over,” he told Yahoo Sports.

Long joins a group of center backs eager to make their marks, like Jesus Murillo and Denil Maldonado, but he figures to be a staple in the starting lineup. And I suppose learning from someone like Chiellini might be beneficial as well.

Gyasi Zardes (Austin FC from Colorado Rapids)

One thing Zardes is in MLS is a proven scorer, and he’s just three goals shy of the 100 mark. Like Long, Zardes already had a relationship with his new head coach, Josh Wolff, from prior USMNT camps and also his time in Columbus. With Moussa Djitte being loaned out, Zardes slots in as a nice complement alongside Sebastian Driussi and Diego Fagundez. The two-time MLS Cup champion also brings a ton of experience to a team that’s just entering its third season. While Driussi running it up in a MVP-caliber way last year was great, Wolff is certainly hoping for more contribution from that striker spot to help balance out the attack.

Dave Romney (New England Revolution from Nashville SC)

New England head coach Bruce Arena and the Revs lacked defensive stability too often last season and it reflected as they missed the playoffs. Signing Romney, who is coming from one of the best defensive teams in the league, was a great move. Not only has he established himself as a reliable center back, he can also shift and play out left if needed. Options are good for Arena as he tinkers with what formations provide this talented roster the best chances moving forward. He’s familiar with Romney from their time with the Galaxy, and his durability stands out. Adding him to the mix with Andrew Farrell and Henry Kessler will spark a nice competition for minutes within the group.

“We have a lot of attacking fire power so if we do our job at the back, I think we have a chance to be really good this year,” Romney said upon arriving in New England earlier this offseason.

Latif Blessing (New England Revolution from LAFC)

Speaking of the Revs, acquiring Blessing was another big part of their offseason. The midfielder saw his minutes diminish at LAFC and was looking for a move to help him get more consistent playing time. His energy on the field is unparalleled and he could factor in as a nice complement to Carles Gil, but Blessing’s impact is also massive in the locker room. The joyful personality is distinct and he has mentioned being happier in New England as the club is working to help bring his family from Ghana to the U.S. Blessing was a fan favorite in L.A., especially after being an integral piece of that historic 2019 team, and he might quickly win over Revs fans, too.

Bill Tuiloma (Charlotte FC from Portland Timbers)

The tragic passing of defender Anton Walkes in January left a huge void in Charlotte. But Christian Lattanzio’s squad landed a veteran piece to plug in nicely to that backline. Tuiloma's five years of experience in Portland will be significant for a team preparing for its second season. He should be a standout on this roster and also can serve as an essential mentor for 20-year-old Hamady Diop, the first overall pick in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft.

Apple TV will stream every Major League Soccer match around the world for the next 10 years, beginning in 2023. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
Apple TV will stream every Major League Soccer match around the world for the next 10 years, beginning in 2023. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

Player’s favorite stadiums to play in as a visitor

Hany Mukhtar (Nashville SC)

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta: "It’s an amazing stadium. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is something else, they just have to switch out the turf."

Carlos Vela (LAFC)

Dignity Health Sports Park, Galaxy: "It’s always a special game. The fan base is very good and it motivates me as a player to perform when people like that are against you. The energy that it generates is great."

Mark-Anthony Kaye (Toronto FC)

Red Bull Arena, Red Bulls: "It just reminded me so much of a European stadium. I used to play a lot of games there when I was in the USL. Haven’t played there in a while, but now I’m back in the Eastern Conference so I’ll get at least one game there."

Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez (LA Galaxy)

BMO Stadium, LAFC: "Without a doubt. A new stadium and obviously because of the rivalry the energy is so different. There are many stadiums that I enjoy, but if I had to pick one it would be that."

Cucho Hernandez (Columbus Crew)

Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte: "Despite the turf, it’s amazing. I’m very impressed with the fan base, energy and everything there."

Lucas Zelarayan (Columbus Crew)

Exploria Stadium, Orlando: "I like the field and the atmosphere they create there."

Alan Pulido (Sporting Kansas City)

BMO Stadium, LAFC: "A fun place to play. Great fans with a lot of noise and nice ambience."

Aaron Long (LAFC)

Exploria Stadium, Orlando: "They have a good fan base with a nice turnout. It's always a good game, and I score there often. I've had a lot of good results in that stadium whether it's with the national team or my club."