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MLS 2022 predictions: young stars heading to Europe and a Sounders title charge | MLS

I’m most excited about …

Douglas Costa. “I’ll bring the flash that LA expects,” the 31-year-old winger declares in a curiously dark and menacing video announcing his transfer to the Galaxy. Carnival has never looked so sinister. Unlike that studio, MLS stadiums should be lit when one of the world’s best dribblers graces the field. A serial winner with Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayern Munich and Juventus, Costa has 31 Brazil caps and ought to supply Javier Hernández with plenty of chances. TD

Lorenzo Insigne. The Italy international could eclipse Sebastian Giovinco as the player to have reached the highest peak in MLS history. But what condition will Toronto FC’s season be in by the time he pitches up at BMO Field at the start of July? GR

MLS as a legitimate haven for global talents. While a late-prime Lorenzo Insigne and Xherdan Shaqiri will bring extra interest to the league, it’s the talents at the beginning of their careers that should garner the most intrigue. The year-old U22 Initiative has already gone a long way to loosening the stranglehold of MLS cap rules and it will continue to pay dividends for years to come. The Argentinian duo of Thiago Almada (Atlanta) and Alan Velasco (FC Dallas) should set the standard for young foreign stars in the league. TR

The offseason featured big name veteran signings Insigne and Costa. But the trend of young South American players like Thiago Almada seeking development in MLS – and homegrown talents stepping on the scene – will bolster the league in the longer term. MS

Young player European clubs will be scouting …

Gabriel Slonina is already turning heads at the age of just 17
Gabriel Slonina is already turning heads at the age of just 17. Photograph: Mike Dinovo/USA Today Sports

Gabriel Slonina, Chicago Fire. The tradition of American goalkeepers heading to Europe will continue when Matt Turner joins Arsenal this summer, and the Illinois-born Slonina may not be too far behind. The 6ft 4in 17-year-old became the youngest-ever starting MLS goalkeeper last August. A lot more sensible than his “Gaga” nickname implies, he made 11 starts last season for the Fire and was called into the US senior squad. TD

Cade Cowell, San Jose Earthquakes. The 18-year-old featured in 33 games for the Quakes in 2021, registering five goals and five assists in the process. The retirement of Chris Wondolowski will place more responsibility on Cowell, who is already a full USA international, to produce big numbers in the final third. 2022 could be the year the teenager becomes a serious attacking force for San Jose. GR

Gabriel Slonina, Chicago Fire. Enjoy him while you can because he’ll be off to Europe sooner than you think. The US goalkeeping assembly line keeps producing gems and there’s an argument that Slonina may be the most talented yet. TR

European clubs have made overtures for Valentin Castellanos, expressed interest in Jesus Ferreira, and confirmed they’re monitoring Paxten Aaronson. But for reasons of timing, contract or price tag, all remain in MLS. 2022 could be their year but I predict the next player to draw interest from across the Atlantic will be Philadelphia’s Jack McGlynn. MS

One bold prediction …

A radically-reshaped Toronto fail to gel. Under-fire head coach Bob Bradley declares he has unfinished business in Wales after his brief stint with Swansea and leaves for a gig managing ambitious American/Canadian-owned Wrexham. His son, veteran TFC midfielder Michael Bradley, replaces him as interim boss. TD

The Ronny Deila strip-show will become a tradition for MLS Cup-winning managers in much the same way Super Bowl-winning coaches receive a Gatorade bath. Press-ups, as Deila performed in front of the New York City FC support at Providence Park, are optional. Who’s ready to see Brian Schmetzer or Bruce Arena stripped down to their underwear this October? GR

Somehow FC Cincinnati won’t collect a record fourth consecutive wooden spoon. Since joining MLS in 2019 the rocky road to stability has been more of a treacherous cliff for FC Cincinnati. If you added up the club’s point totals from all three MLS seasons so far they would still finish far behind New England Revolution last year. This is the season they break the trend (this theory is based on nothing but hope, belief in the human spirit and undying faith in Brenner.) TR

Bob Bradley will turn Toronto FC around. After a lackluster year with LAFC, Bradley is off to Canada to coach a team that finished 2021 13th in the East. They won’t finish front of the pack but I think we’ll see Bradley’s team in the playoffs this autumn. MS

Your MVP will be …

Josef Martínez, Atlanta United. Last year’s Golden Boot winner, Taty Castellanos, is the obvious candidate – but with intense interest from overseas it’s doubtful he’ll see out the season at NYC FC. So, two years after his torn ACL, how about a fully fit Martínez scoring like it’s 2018 again for a resurgent Atlanta United and winning his second MVP? TD

Raul Ruidiaz, Seattle Sounders. Ruidiaz could be in line for the award on the back of a big season given the number of chances the Sounders will create for him. The Peruvian scored 17 goals in 26 games last season. It won’t be surprising if he betters that tally in 2022. GR

Hany Mukhtar is set to lead Nashville to the playoffs
Hany Mukhtar is set to lead Nashville to the playoffs. Photograph: Kevin Langley/Medialys Images/REX/Shutterstock

Albert Rusnák, Seattle Sounders. Rusnák is at the peak of his powers and will thrive in a very deep and experienced Seattle Sounders side. Over the past five seasons, Rusnák totaled 41 goals and 39 assists in 140 appearances for Real Salt Lake and with the attacking talent on display at Seattle, his contributions should go even further. TR

Hany Mukhtar, Nashville. Mukhtar will play a key role in Nashville’s transition to the Western Conference. The German international has scored 20 goals across 46 games in his two MLS seasons. My prediction? That count climbs higher as Mukhtar leads Nashville toward the top of the West in 2022. MS

Eastern Conference playoff teams

New England, NYC FC, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Columbus, Chicago, NY Red Bulls. TD

Philadelphia, New England, NYC FC, Atlanta, Toronto, Montreal, Orlando. GR

New England, Atlanta, Toronto, Philadelphia, NYC FC, Columbus, Orlando. TR

NYC FC, Philadelphia, New England, Atlanta, Columbus, Orlando, Toronto. MS

Western Conference playoff teams

Seattle, Nashville, LAFC, Portland, Colorado, LA Galaxy, Kansas City. TD

Seattle, Colorado, Nashville, Kansas City, Vancouver, LAFC, Minnesota. GR

LAFC, Seattle, Nashville, Kansas City, Portland, Colorado, LA Galaxy TR

Seattle, Nashville, Kansas City, LAFC, Minnesota, Portland, LA Galaxy. MS

Your MLS Cup champions will be …

New England Revolution. Postseason drama – the defining bug/feature of MLS – was in full-effect last year as the best team (ever!) over 34 regular-season games fizzled in their only playoff match, losing on penalties to eventual winners NYC FC. A trio of veteran arrivals – Sebastian Lletget, Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez – could help Bruce Arena’s side go all the way this time, with the 32-year-old Altidore surely motivated to upgrade his international status from “former” star to “current” in a World Cup year. TD

Seattle Sounders. The 2016 and 2019 champions have assembled one of the most complete squads in MLS history. The off-season addition of Rusnák has bolstered an attack that already included Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris with the midfield double pivot of Joao Paulo and Cristian Roldan providing a solid base. From back to front, they have a good combination of youth, experience and different skill sets. The Sounders will take some beating in 2022. GR

Nashville SC. There’s a certain solidity about Nashville that can pay dividends in the playoffs. Clean-sheet specialist Joe Willis is a daunting presence in goal and the experienced Walker Zimmerman keeps things very organized at the back. Sleeper MVP candidate Mukhtar is poised to take off in his third season with the club but their attack will have to carry a bit more of the burden overall. As long as CJ Sapong and Randall Leal are firing on all cylinders, this could be their year. TR

Seattle Sounders. The stars are aligned for the Sounders this season. An already stacked roster was given more depth in the off-season, as the team snagged players like Albert Rusnák from Real Salt Lake. Morris and Lodeiro are now healthy. Nouhou is in top form following the Africa Cup of Nations with Cameroon. Add to this standout players like Joao Paulo and Ruidiaz and we’ve got a lethal Sounders team on our hands. MS

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