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Burgundy Wave Staff Predicts the 2023 MLS Season

Matt Pollard, John Babiak, and Joseph Samelson give their thoughts on how the Colorado Rapids will fare this year

SOCCER: AUG 28 MLS - Colorado Rapids at Sporting Kansas City Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The MLS Regular Season will kick off this weekend, bringing with it a new TV deal, a new playoff format, and a healthy batch of new Colorado Rapids players.

To celebrate the Rapids’ season opener against the Seattle Sounders on Sunday, February 26, Burgundy Wave’s editorial staff has put together their predictions for the coming year. How will Colorado fare? Who will hoist MLS Cup? Read on:

Where will the Rapids finish in the Western Conference?

After an impressive 2021 campaign saw Colorado top the Western Conference, the club fell back hard to 10th in 2022 and missed the postseason entirely. The team made significant reinforcements during the off-season, but the league’s talking heads have uniformly dismissed the club’s chances of returning to their 2021 standard this year.

While Colorado’s home form was actually better in 2022 than in 2021, the team couldn’t put together a consistent string of results on the road. Injuries and individual regression also played a significant role in the club’s results last season, but the club seems to have built enough depth to cope with those issues in 2023.

Matt Pollard: As I said in my conference prediction, I think the Rapids finish 7th. They’re healthy. They’ve upgraded at every position that was a point of weakness last year. Robin Fraser has revenge energy about last year’s “anomaly” of a season. They’re still at a talent and financial deficit compared to at least a third of the league. But they were four points off the playoffs last year. With the top nine making it in the Conference, Nashville going east (replaced by cannon fodder expansion side St. Louis CITY), they have to make it back to the playoffs.

I think the midfield will be miles ahead of last year. That will take a load off the defense and help them get create more chances than they allow. If Diego Rubio doesn’t drop off and Kévin Cabral is marginally better than he was in Los Angeles, they’ll be competitive. If they get clicking and three new defensive starters gel, they can still give any team in MLS a hard time on their best day.

John Babiak: Assuming the Rapids 2022 season was a downright bad dream, and will never to be replayed in anyone’s mind, I predict that they will place in 7th in the West. They have more depth and that should allow Robin Fraser et al. to devise line-ups that should challenge his opponents, and if at home, run them into outright exhaustion, when he inserts fresh legs late in the match.

Should Rubio pick up where he left off last year on attack, and Cole Bassett can come out with full bravado and prove he is worthy of playing in Europe, plus Michael Barrios finding the back of the net more often that not, the Rapids will be a small market scoring machine.

Since photographing and writing a bit about this team since 2007, one factor that I have come to appreciate is when new players arrive, especially from outside the MLS, it takes them two to three years to find their mojo, and truly contribute. That said, I believe that the new hires that Padraig Smith brought in during this offseason will not factor in too much this year.

Joseph Samelson: Despite missing the playoffs, the underlying numbers were very kind to the Rapids last year. The homer in me desperately wants to say that the Rapids can nick a spot in the top four, but the team’s aging core and turnover from the last few seasons has raised questions about chemistry and consistency. I’m seeing Colorado at a solid 6th in the West this season, but I won’t be surprised if Fraser and Company rediscover some of that 2021 mojo by the summer break.

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

Will the Rapids win a knockout game?

Colorado hasn’t progressed in a knockout competition since the team battled from two down to defeat OKC Energy FC in the Fourth Round of the 2017 Lamar Hund U.S. Open Cup (Rapids Rabbi recapped that match for Burgundy Wave). Elimination fixtures have been a point of frustration among fans since the club’s 2016 MLS Playoff exit, and only three MLS clubs boast greater postseason win droughts than the Rapids.

MLS officially announced its new playoff format on Tuesday, and Colorado’s schedule also includes multiple competitions in addition to their regular MLS docket. The Rapids will take the field in the Third Round of the U.S. Open Cup in mid-April as one of the unseeded MLS clubs in the tournament.

Colorado will also take part in the newly reformatted Leagues Cup competition, which will pit the club in two matches against Nashville SC and Toluca in the Central 4 region. The Rapids will advance to the elimination rounds of the tournament as long as they don’t finish last in their three-team group.

MP: Yes. I think the Rapids finally win an Open Cup game and don’t get cupset/rail hawked. They’ll get a USL team, probably another Colorado team or New Mexico United and win it. The Rapids depth is so much better this year so even a reserve team should be competitive. Fraser put out a good lineup for that rain-delayed game at Minnesota last year. He’ll take it seriously. I’m TBD on Leagues Cup till we get a look at Nashville. They’re basically running it back with a defensive aging corps. It’s hard to see reigning MVP Hany Mukhtar keeping his production up. One Mukhtar hamstring injury and the Rapids are a home result against Toluca away from winning the group. I don’t think Colorado are likely to win a playoff series against a higher seeded team with a star game changer. If they get to the three-game series round, they can win one of those games.

JB: Colorado will win an Open Cup game, but won’t advance in the playoffs or Leagues Cup.

JS: I’m not expecting the Rapids advancing from their Leagues Cup group, but their entry into the Third Round of the Open Cup likely means an easier matchup than the MLS opposition that the club faced last year. Colorado hasn’t historically been great against lower division clubs, but I like the club’s depth to deal with a USL Championship team this season. The MLS Cup playoffs are another story: I’m betting that the Rapids can hold their own and advance from a three-game series in Round 1, but I’m hesitant to say they would advance from the league’s new single-elimination Wild Card game.

John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

Who will be the Rapids’ top goalscorer?

Diego Rubio defied all expectations in 2023 by delivering the single best individual attacking season by a Rapids player in club history. Gyasi Zardes, who had the second-most goals for the team last year with nine, left to join Austin FC as a free agent. Rubio will be joined by Kévin Cabral in the final third, who will be looking to improve his finishing after struggling with the LA Galaxy last season.

MP: Rubio. Doesn’t matter if he starts the year up top and eventually gets moved to the midfield. He’s the one player who can get his even when the rest of the team around him is struggling.

JB: Rubio. He is exuding self-confidence and tasted success last year. Assuming that his mates can deliver him the ball, Rubio should walk away as the team’s leader in goals scored.

JS: Rubio’s probably due to score fewer goals this year than in 2022, but he’s still my odds-on favorite to finish as the team’s top scorer. My gut says that the Rapids will revert back to scoring by committee this season, and I think it’s unlikely that multiple players record double-digit goals.

SOCCER: AUG 02 MLS - Colorado Rapids at New York Red Bulls Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who will be the Rapids’ Young Player of the Year?

Colorado named left back Lucas Esteves the team’s Young Player of the Year last season, but the club ultimately chose not to exercise the buy clause in his loan from Palmeiras. All first team players under 24 years old at the end of the season will be eligible to win the award.

MP: Cole Bassett’s been great in preseason. He looks fit, sharp in front of goal, and so happy to be done with his time in the Netherlands. He’s got a point to prove this year and he’s walking into a midfield that was a mess last year without him and Kellyn Acosta. I’d expect him to start 30+ games and get 10+ goal contributions. Goal Bassett cometh.

JB: Barring any setbacks, that should be Squire Darren Yapi.

JS: Bassett is likely to earn more minutes than any other U-24 player this season, but there should be plenty of time for Yapi to make his case for the honor. If the Denver native can nab six or seven goals, he’d be the favorite.

Colorado Rapids v Minnesota United FC Photo by Jeremy Olson/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Who will win the Rocky Mountain Cup?

The annual Rocky Mountain Cup has been a sore spot for supporters for years. While Fraser and the Rapids lifted the trophy in 2020, the team hasn’t matched up well against former club legend Pablo Mastroeni and RSL in the last few seasons. That’s been an unfortunate reality of the rivalry series as a whole—Colorado hasn’t won the Rocky Mountain Cup outright without tiebreakers since 2013. No Rapids manager has won two Cups since Fernando Clavijo accomplished the feat in 2006.

Colorado should have a great chance of breaking their streak this year—the Rocky Mountain Cup will span three matches, two of which will take place at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. The final match between the two sides will kick off on Decision Day, and could have massive playoff implications for both teams.

MP: RSL. I want to believe Colorado’s better on paper this year than Salt Lake, even with Damir Kreilach back and healthy. That team from down the mountain has owned this rivalry. I’ll believe otherwise when I see it. Diego, I know you’re reading this. Prove me wrong.

JB: RSL. I feel since new ownership came in last year, their FO has been going all out to improve their roster. Ample evidence already exists. That coupled with Pablo’s mindset, and ability to rile-up his players to go out and play 90+ minutes of true grit football, RSL will be hard to beat both away and at home, in always peppy Sandy, Utah.

JS: This is the year that Fraser breaks the Cup curse and becomes the second Rapids manager to lift a second Rocky Mountain Cup. I’m betting on the Rapids winning both of their home matches against RSL, but I won’t expect anything out of their trip across the Continental Divide.

Washington Freedom v Fort Collins Force Photo by Bart Young/MLS via Getty Images

Who will win the U.S. Open Cup?

After a multi-year layoff due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Open Cup made its triumphant return to play in 2022. USL Championship club Sacramento Republic FC made waves by defeating multiple MLS clubs en route to the final, but Orlando City SC and former Rapids manager Oscar Pareja ultimately lifted the trophy.

MP: Sporting KC. They’re one of the good teams in MLS that always takes the competition seriously. I like the offseason moves they’ve made. I don’t think they’ll be anywhere close to the Supporters’ Shield nor outside the playoffs for most of the year, so they’ll be able to dedicate resources to the Cup. Plus their geographic pool will put them in with expansion side St. Louis, Chicago, and a Minnesota team who might be without Reynoso. Easy path to a quarterfinal.

JB: Philadelphia Union.

JS: I believe FC Cincinnati has the depth to go on a cup run and lift their first trophy this year. The Acosta, Brenner, and Vazquez trio is one of the most terrifying attacking groups in North America—if Cincy can get past their opening round hurdles, they’ll be heavy favorites down the stretch.

Sacramento Republic FC v Orlando City SC - 2022 U.S. Open Cup Final Photo by Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Who will win the Concacaf Champions League?

The Seattle Sounders became the first MLS club to win the modern incarnation of the Concacaf Champions League last season, breaking a 13-year stranglehold on the competition by Liga MX clubs. This year’s edition of the tournament will involve Los Angeles FC, the Philadelphia Union, Orlando City SC, Austin FC, and the Vancouver Whitecaps from MLS. Atlas FC, Club León, CF Pachuca, and Tigres UANL will represent Liga MX. Seven additional clubs qualified through the Caribbean Club Championship and the Concacaf League, including three from Honduras.

MP: Tigres UANL or Pachuca. They’re on great form in the Clausura. Both have experience in this competition. Whichever one of those teams wins their likely quarterfinal goes on to win it. I do think the final will again be MLS vs. Liga MX. Give me LAFC vs. Tigres.

JB: Tigres UANL.

JS: It would be a story for the ages to see Pachuca forward Cristian Arango face off against his old LAFC team in the final, but I think Austin FC is better equipped to go all the way. The CCL seems like a perfect place for Sebastián Driussi and company to shine.

CONCACAF Champions League - Final - Leg 2: Pumas UNAM v Seattle Sounders FC Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Who will win the Supporter’s Shield?

LAFC lifted their second Supporter’s Shield en route to the double last season. They got a bit weaker this year following the retirement of Gareth Bale and the departure of Cristian Arango, but the Southern California side should still be in the thick of the race this season.

MP: LAFC. This team’s still stacked. I think the East is more top heavy this year with the two Ohio teams on the up and Toronto reloaded. The Union will have a tougher time this year. Assuming CCL doesn’t derail them, LAFC will again be the hunted.


JS: I am all-in on the work that Chris Albright is doing at FC Cincinnati this season, and the former bottom-feeders definitely have the talent to compete with the best in MLS. I’m not sure that they’ll be able to ride that high through to MLS Cup, but I’m picking them to top the East and bring home the Shield.

Inter Miami CF v New England Revolution Photo by Tim Bouwer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Who will win MLS Cup?

We’ve saved the most important question for last. These are the teams that we think will take home MLS cup this season.

MP: I want it to be Philadelphia so bad. They were so close last year. Them winning MLS Cup would be proof of concept for the smaller markets and less wealthy teams that they can still win a championship. They’ll be vengeful and better this year given that they lost and how they lost both trophies to LAFC last year. Jim Curtin and company set their sites on it from the start. They keep the corps together and go all in with other moves they make. Curtin wins a championship then rides off into the sunset (USMNT or Europe).

JB: LAFC. LA has an explosive offense, depth and players who are very familiar with each other. Their ownership group is first-rate. All they are missing is a solid nine. Their high energy fan base and home attendance is beyond admirable. They are an all-around winning organization in my book, plus Olly their Female Red Naped Shaheen Falcon is a magical Godsend!

JS: The Philadelphia Union will be thirsting for revenge following their 2022 MLS Cup loss, and Jim Curtin still manages the best defensive line in the league. They’re going to need to keep pace against an impressive FC Cincinnati in the East, but assuming the Union’s key players avoid the injury bug in 2023, Curtin’s squad should continue impressing.

Photo credits: John A. Babiak @Photog_JohnB
Photo credits: John A. Babiak @Photog_JohnB
Photo credits: John A. Babiak @Photog_JohnB

The Rapids’ season will officially kick off this Sunday, February 26 against the Seattle Sounders at Lumen Field. Apple TV will broadcast the match for free, and cable subscribers will also be able to simulcast the action on Fox Sports 1.