It took until Major League Soccer's 26th season for the largest market in the country to celebrate an MLS Cup championship.
New York City FC were those unlikely champions, eliminating Supporters' Shield winners New England in the conference semifinals on penalty kicks and then doing the same at Portland to win the club’s first championship.
The title raised NYCFC's profile. It's also raised expectations entering the season as the defending champs who returned many of the key pieces from the title run.
The Eastern Conference became easier with Nashville moving to the West and expansion Charlotte FC joining the league. But the top of the East should remain tough with NYCFC, a reloaded New England squad, steady Philadelphia and rejuvenated Atlanta United.
THE CHAMPS ARE HERE
NYCFC's title was a major moment for a club that has struggled to establish a foundation in its home city.
There's no reason to think NYCFC will backslide. They lost James Sands on loan to Rangers in Scotland. But creative midfielder Maxi Moralez remains and they still have last year's Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos and goalkeeper Sean Johnson, the hero of the MLS Cup final shootout.
NYCFC also addressed one of their biggest needs by landing Brazilian center back Thiago Martins on a designated player contract from Japanese club Yokohama F. Marinos.
"We want to win more trophies," coach Ronny Deila said. "I think the whole club, including myself, just get more hungry to win when you achieve what you did last year. It's just a fantastic feeling to achieve something together with so many good people and the fans how much that meant for them."
REV(S) IT UP
The class of MLS a season ago were the Revolution, winning the Supporters' Shield for the first time in franchise history with a record 73 points, finishing 19 points ahead of Philadelphia at the top of the Eastern Conference.
It all went for naught in the playoffs as New England was upset by NYCFC in the conference semifinals.
While the Revs couldn't finish off their historic season, they're poised for another run at hardware. All the main pieces return, including league MVP Carles Gil. They've added Sebastian Lletget and Jozy Altidore to an already loaded roster.
New England did lose Tajon Buchanan to Club Brugge in Belgium and it'll suffer a big loss this summer when goalkeeper Matt Turner makes his move to Arsenal in the Premier League. How important was Turner last season? New England had 22 total wins in 2021, 18 coming by one goal.
"I'm really excited for this first half of the season," Turner said. "It'll be great to get games in and play, and find my consistency heading into the summer when I make the jump."
After four years building LAFC, Bob Bradley moved on from Southern California and is taking on a rebuilding project with Toronto FC. The Reds were in the 2019 MLS Cup final, and finished second in the East in 2020, but stumbled last year to 13th in the East and finished with just 28 points.
That's a deep hole for Toronto to try to emerge from and Bradley has started with massive roster churn. There is talent to begin the season and one of the biggest international signings in league history joining the Reds this summer in Italian striker Lorenzo Insigne.
"We're still trying to build the best possible roster," Bradley said. "But we've been at it for a month and I've seen guys respond in really good ways. Training has been excellent. And I think in terms of some of the football that we've been able to play so far, it's going in the right direction."
The newest addition to the MLS landscape is Charlotte FC, the league's 28th franchise.
Miguel Angel Ramirez was hired as Charlotte's first coach after a handful of seasons coaching in South American. Ramirez was fired from his last job at Internacional in Brazil but was unemployed for only a few months before getting hired by Charlotte.
Charlotte has leaned heavily on internationals in its roster construction and is counting on big seasons from defensive midfielder Jordy Alcivar, forward Karol Swiderski and winger Cristian Ortiz.
Charlotte will play its home games at Bank of America Stadium and there could be more than 75,000 in attendance for the home opener against the LA Galaxy on March 5.
WHO TO WATCH
Josef Martinez looks to be healthy two years removed from a torn ACL, which is great news for Atlanta United and scary for the rest of the league. Martinez also has a new partner in Atlanta after the acquisition of young Argentinian Thiago Almada. Chicago made a major splash landing Swiss star Xherdan Shaqiri from Lyon. Shaqiri has 100 appearances for Switzerland and previously played for Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and FC Basel. U.S. national team stalwart DeAndre Yedlin is back from Europe after signing with Inter Miami. Young Uruguayan Facundo Torres should help Orlando City handle the loss of Daryl Dike and Nani.
PREDICTED PLAYOFF TEAMS
New England, Philadelphia, NYCFC, Columbus, Atlanta United, Orlando City, Chicago.
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