Austin FC

Overpaid stars and transfer flops: Why each MLS team should worry in 2024

A new season brings hope — when the game is played on paper, it always seems easier to win.

It also brings doubt. What if we missed on our offseason signings? What if a European suitor snags our best player in the summer window? What if we, uh, forgot to hire a coach?

Ahead of the 2024 MLS season, which kicks off on 21 February, here’s why all 29 teams should be worried.

Atlanta United

Reason to worry: Replacing Thiago Almada in the summer could derail the season

The January transfer window was quiet in most of Europe’s big leagues. The same won’t be true in the summer, when Atlanta United will be offered a potentially record-breaking fee for attacking midfielder Thiago Almada. The 22-year-old wants to move and the club won’t hold him back, as long as the right offer arrives. But can Atlanta find someone to fill every the Argentinian’s shoes? For a team that’s a genuine trophy contender with Almada, a big summer shakeup could derail things.

Austin FC

Reason to worry: The reinforcements haven’t arrived

After finishing 12th in the West last season, most expected a busy offseason filled with new signings for Austin FC. And yet, consequential additions still haven’t arrived.

“Since I landed, we are working with the scouting department and we have identified lots and lots of players that would be very interesting for our organization and it’s frustrating that we are not able to bring them in,” sporting director Rodolfo Borrell recently told ESPN.

Without a real roster overhaul, 2024 will be a season to forget in Austin.

Charlotte FC

Reason to worry: Your attackers don’t have enough support

With Nathan Byrne, 31, and Jere Uronen, 29, likely to start on the outside of Dean Smith’s backline, Charlotte FC’s attacking group (which is in flux after two Designated Players moved to Europe in January) won’t get much support from their fullbacks. Byrne and Uronen averaged a measly 0.06 expected assisted goals (xAG) per 90 minutes combined in 2023, according to FBref. Charlotte don’t have the quality to afford the luxury of keeping their fullbacks deep all the time, but they don’t have the quality fullbacks to change games in the attack, either.

Chicago Fire

Reason to worry: Xherdan Shaqiri isn’t a star

Of course he’s a star off the field. But on it? Xherdan Shaqiri hasn’t lived up to expectations since arriving in Chicago. Last year, he tallied just nine goal contributions in 2,000 regular-season minutes. The Fire signed Shaqiri to be a star – the team’s ceiling depends on it – but he simply hasn’t produced like one. Club-record signing Hugo Cuypers could struggle for service if Shaqiri doesn’t make more of an impact this season.

FC Cincinnati

Reason to worry: The margins were too narrow last year

Cincinnati collected 14 wins in one-goal games in the regular season last year. That number wasn’t just more than every other MLS team in 2023, but it was more than all but two teams in MLS history. Even with Brandon Vazquez leaving for Monterrey, there’s plenty of talent at coach Pat Noonan’s disposal. But they’ve never been the team to flat-out dominate games. Cincy have lived on the edge for far too long. Eventually, they’re bound to tip over.

Colorado Rapids

Reason to worry: Two of your DPs don’t produce

The Rapids could end up with virtually no final product from any of their three Designated Players (DPs) in 2024. One of their DPs – Andreas Maxsø – is a center-back. The others – Kévin Cabral and Rafael Navarro – combined for three goals in 2,000 minutes in 2023. Even with one of the better offseasons around the league, winning games is really, really hard in MLS when the players in your high-value roster slots aren’t producing.

Wilfried Nancy, manager of the Columbus Crew, holds the Philip F Anschutz Trophy after winning the 2023 MLS Cup. Photograph: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Columbus Crew

Reason to worry: Everyone knows what to expect

There’s too much film on Columbus floating around now for any team to be surprised when they face the Crew’s controlled, possession-heavy, approach. Whatever advantage Columbus may have received from the element of surprise in Wilfried Nancy’s first year has evaporated heading into 2024. Now the reigning champions will get every other team’s best.

DC United

Reason to worry: Chance creation will be a struggle

DC United have a reliable goalscorer in Christian Benteke, but there’s a limit on how dangerous their attack can be without a true string-puller playing behind the target man. The front office activated their purchase option on No 10 Gabriel Pirani this winter after he finished in the fifth percentile in xAG per 90 among his positional peers in MLS last season. Pirani, 21, will almost certainly improve some this season. But some only buys you so much wriggle room in the final third.

FC Dallas

Reason to worry: Center-back is a weak spot

Nkosi Tafari had something of a breakout 2023 in the middle of Nico Estevez’s backline, but the 26-year-old can’t do things by himself. None of the other center-backs in FC Dallas’ squad are truly starting-caliber players, with Sebastien Ibeagha and an ageing Omar Gonzalez likely to earn minutes alongside Tafari in 2024. After Dallas added Benfica striker Petar Musa in a club-record deal this offseason, there will be even more strain on the backline than there was last year.

Houston Dynamo

Reason to worry: You’ve been treading water

The Houston Dynamo have made exactly one notable move so far this offseason, and it was re-signing right-back Griffin Dorsey. While many of their Western Conference foes have strengthened, the Dynamo have been treading water. That’s not a recipe that yields a home playoff game come October.

Sporting Kansas City

Reason to worry: The team is old

It will be almost impossible for SKC to sustain as many injuries this year as they did last year when striker Alan Pulido, star winger Johnny Russell, and now-former DP midfielder Gadi Kinda couldn’t start together for the first 10 games. While the injury report will be shorter, Kansas City may still lose a step in 2024. They were the second-oldest team in MLS last year, and enter this season with a host of players over 30 slated to play a ton of minutes.

Los Angeles FC

Reason to worry: There’s too much turnover

The Western Conference champions lost a number of key contributors over the offseason – the front office either has or is in the process of replacing five starters. John Thorrington’s track-record is strong in the front office, but can all of the new pieces gel quickly enough to keep LAFC at the top of their perch out West?

LA Galaxy

Reason to worry: Defending? What defending?

LA Galaxy used this offseason to restock their attack, but there are still major questions around their defense. Maya Yoshida, 35, and Jalen Neal, 20, are likely to start at center-back. Yoshida can offer experience and savvy positioning, while Neal makes up for his partner’s lack of speed… except Neal isn’t especially fleet of foot. Oh, and there’s a question mark in goal right now for the Galaxy.

Inter Miami have an all-star roster, but the spine of their team is old. Photograph: Victor Fraile/USA Today Sports

Inter Miami

Reason to worry: Lack of pace through the middle

Inter Miami have assembled a truly elite roster. On paper, that is. In reality, Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Sergio Busquets, Julian Gressel, Serhiy Kryvtsov, and Nicolás will all be at least 30 by the beginning of March. Miami’s lack of speed through the middle will cause problems defensively. That’s a given. But it will cause problems in attack, too, with a lack of players who can make vertical runs to worry the opposition.

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Minnesota United

Reason to worry: Things are taking forever

Because it’s taken so long for new chief soccer officer Khaled El-Ahmad to finish up at Barnsley and get to the United States, Minnesota United still don’t have a manager. They play their first game in less than three weeks. Things are going great.

CF Montréal

Reason to worry: Laurent Courtois’ vision will take time to implement

It took Wilfried Nancy two seasons to push CF Montréal towards the top of the East. It will take new manager Laurent Courtois, who worked with Nancy in Columbus and should bring a similar style with him to Montréal, at least that long. Without any splashy offseason moves, it looks like CF Montréal’s front office is content with slow progress.

Nashville SC

Reason to worry: Gary Smith is too one-dimensional

Nashville SC finished 21st in non-penalty xG in the regular season last year, according to FBref. Under manager Gary Smith, Nashville haven’t been consistently dangerous in the final third. Until we see clear patterns from Nashville in the final third, there’s little reason to expect positive attacking change.

New England Revolution

Reason to worry: DPs aren’t strong enough

Midfielder Carles Gil is an MVP-level talent. He’s won it before. But Giacomo Vrioni and Tomás Chancalay? They’re not the kind of DPs that turn a good team into a great one. Per FBref, Vrioni finished in 61st percentile for non-penalty xG per 90 among strikers in MLS last year. Chancalay scored six goals in 850 minutes in 2023, but he landed in only the 53rd percentile for non-penalty xG plus xAG per 90 among his positional peers.

New York City FC

Reason to worry: Things aren’t settled

Even as players continue to arrive in New York City, things aren’t quite settled for the Pigeons. After finishing 11th in the East last year, there are legitimate questions about the quality of NYC FC’s goalkeeping, their center-back depth, their left-back spot, and their attacking alignment. While Nick Cushing has talent at his disposal, he also has problems to solve.

New York Red Bulls

Reason to worry: Dante Vanzeir may be a bust

Between the injuries and the use of racist language, discussion of Dante Vanzeir’s on-field performances was rightfully buried in 2023. But what if the 25-year-old DP forward just … isn’t good? Vanzeir scored just two goals on 2.3 non-penalty xG in 750 regular-season minutes last year. To maximize their pressing system, the Red Bulls need a couple of players to add a bit of finesse in the attack. Vanzeir, who joined as a club-record signing in 2023, may not be one of them.

Orlando City outperformed their underlying metrics in 2023. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Orlando City

Reason to worry: The underlying numbers don’t like you

Thirteen teams finished with a better xG differential in the regular season than Orlando last year, according to FBref. And yet, only one team finished with more points than Orlando. While St Louis City took the heat for over-performing their underlying numbers in 2023, Orlando City may be the real team in danger of a drop. Duncan McGuire, if his transfer to Blackburn really does fall through and he’s back in Florida next year, and Facundo Torres can’t stay hot forever.

Philadelphia Union

Reason to worry: The team isn’t better than last year

The Union’s biggest moves this winter have been re-signing star left back Kai Wagner and captain Alejandro Bedoya. Those were both important deals, but they don’t clearly elevate Philadelphia into something special in the East. Another fourth-place finish seems about right in 2024.

Portland Timbers

Reason to worry: Evander isn’t a creator

While the 25-year-old Brazilian is a very useful piece in midfield, he’s not a pure creator. He’s a smooth progresser and does a good job of arriving in the box, but Evander finished in just the 46th percentile in xAG per 90 among attacking midfielders and wingers in 2023. With Portland likely looking to the wing and striker with their open DP spots, they could struggle to create chances through the middle of the pitch.

Real Salt Lake

Reason to worry: Zac MacMath won’t win you games

Manager Pablo Mastroeni’s long-ball and mid-block-heavy 4-4-2 system doesn’t differentiate RSL. With a pair of open DP spots, it’s difficult to gauge if their outfield players will differentiate them, either. That leaves Zac MacMath as RSL’s last hope as a differentiating factor. The veteran goalkeeper has been serviceable in his last two years as a starter in Utah, but he won’t win Real Salt Lake any games.

San Jose Earthquakes

Reason to worry: The wingers can’t carry the entire load

Even with at least one (low-cost) replacement likely arriving to help fill the hole left by Cade Cowell on the left wing, there are major question marks in central midfield right now for the Quakes. Namely, who is going to take Jamiro Monteiro’s starting spot in midfield? Cristian Espinoza will put in work on the right wing opposite a new signing, but with a lack of balance across the entire width of the field, San Jose could become one-dimensional.

Seattle Sounders

Reason to worry: There’s no real Nicolás Lodeiro replacement

The Sounders’ front office opted against signing a true replacement for their Uruguayan club legend, instead landing on a deal for 22-year-old winger Pedro de la Vega. De la Vega would rather dance past opposing fullbacks near the sideline than run the show through the middle. Albert Rusnák hasn’t looked like a top playmaker in Seattle even when playing as a No 10. The sheer amount of talent wearing Sounders’ colors will help mask Lodeiro’s absence, but Seattle may struggle for a provider against low blocks in 2024.

St Louis City

Reason to worry: Teams won’t be afraid any more

Opposing center-backs made a bunch of mistakes, forced and unforced, while up against St Louis early in 2023. Now that Bradley Carnell’s team has clearly claimed the title of the Western Conference’s very own New York Red Bulls with their vertical pressing approach, defenders will be more prepared. There will be fewer get-out-of-jail-free cards coming St Louis’ way in 2024.

Toronto FC

Reason to worry: The Italians don’t seem to care

For as long as Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi take up DP spots without seeming to care one lick about playing for the Reds, Toronto FC will continue to struggle. New manager John Herdman will bring fresh energy and new ideas into the locker room, but those things will only take Toronto so far with a roster that’s deeply broken.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Reason to worry: Your big offseason additions are on the wrong side of 30

The Whitecaps had a solid 2023, finishing sixth in the Western Conference and enjoying the fruits of their impressive spine. Lacking one more piece to really push them into contention at the top of the West, Vancouver’s front office landed on two over-30 players as their tickets. Damir Kreilach, 34, was excellent for RSL … when he was healthy. Fafà Picault, 32, is losing the speed that makes him dangerous. These intra-league additions won’t transform the Whitecaps.

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