As is now tradition, I'm starting the year with a tip of the cap to the great Zach Lowe for the inspiration, courtesy of his Annual Tiers of the NBA opus, to write this piece. What follows are not hard-and-fast Power Rankings, per se, but rather something a little more loose in terms of talent level, cohesion, chemistry and all the et ceteras that make teams tick (or not).
These teams are mostly in the order I think they'll finish, but what really matters is the tier designation.
Columbus Crew SC
I have never created a tier like this, one where the season, no matter how good, goes down as a failure if the teams residing here doesn’t take home some kind of silverware. In retrospect, I should’ve thought to do it for the great 2017 Toronto FC side that took home the treble and, probably, no one else in the TAM era (2015 onwards).
That’s the neighborhood the Crew are living in right now. They’re the defending MLS Cup champs and their best players are, for the most part, in their respective primes. They have depth at every spot and have already shown as much before the regular season has even kicked off.
They put up a record-breaking performance in winning MLS Cup and got better this offseason.
Expectations are absurdly high, and they should be. This team needs to add something to the trophy cabinet in 2021.
The biggest one is that they’ll lose too many guys — Gyasi Zardes, Eloy Room, Luis Diaz, Derrick Etinne, Jr. and maybe even Aidan Morris — to the Gold Cup, which could deplete their depth enough to cost them the Supporters’ Shield. And then they get to the postseason crapshoot and roll snake eyes for one reason (an untimely injury or cold streak in front of net) or another (Atlanta United, New England Revolution or Orlando City coalesce into something irresistible).
Great teams have had great seasons and come up entirely empty before. It will be a massive disappointment if this Columbus side are next on that ignominious list.
4-2-3-1: Room; Valenzuela, Williams, Mensah, Afful; Nagbe, Artur; Diaz, Zelarayan, Santos; Zardes
Yup, they’re here too. LAFC learned a valuable lesson last year about messing with a backline that works and building depth that can keep a first-choice XI intact, so when they finally got their Walker Zimmerman replacement — Jesus Murillo, who came in late in the season on loan — they did the very obvious thing and re-signed him.
They also upgraded other spots on the backline and have somehow kept the entire midfield together despite some very real overseas interest in Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing. Diego Rossi’s still there, and Carlos Vela is, too. Plus they’ve kept a DP slot open. It seems like the powers that be in LA made a conscious decision to go hard with this group and let them ride one last time because they are capable of doing great, great things.
They’ve already done so, of course. This is pretty much the same group that set the single-season points and goal differential records en route to winning the Shield in 2019 and knocked out three Liga MX giants en route to an appearance in the 2020 Concacaf Champions League final, where they fell just short against Tigres.
LAFC belong here. But they have to back that up by winning another trophy — preferably MLS Cup, if we’re being entirely honest — or all that smack LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders fans talk about them on Twitter will start to sound pretty, pretty true.
Everybody’s got a price and if someone hits the right number on Atuesta, LAFC will have to take it. That’s the business, and replacing him has been damn near impossible.
The other worries are center forward and goalkeeper. My assumption is that Bob Bradley’s going to give Corey Baird, Danny Musovski and Cal Jennings a chance to prove he doesn’t need to spend that DP on a No. 9, so that position is a lesser concern.
But they’re not bringing in a DP ‘keeper, and right now that depth chart is ... iffy. If there’s one clear difference between the Crew and LAFC, it’s that Columbus have a match-winner in net.
4-3-3: Sisniega; Palacios, Segura, Murillo, Kim; Blessing, Atuesta, Kaye; Rossi, Baird, Vela
New England Revolution
When Bruce Arena took over early in the 2019 season, the Revs were in a death spiral. He pulled them out of that with an early run of good form, a prolonged run of good luck and some off-the-chart heroics from Matt Turner in net. The general takeaway from that team was that they’d showed some mettle in avoiding a complete belly flop, but that they’d have to play good soccer to make progress in 2020.
They did and they didn’t. Turner was outstanding again and the Revs actually did play a lot of good soccer — the underlying numbers liked them much more in 2020 than in 2019 — but the damn near season-long absence of Carles Gil as well as the hot-and-cold (or cold-and-cold if you want to be mean about it) in-the-box nature of his fellow DPs, Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa, meant that for all the good things New England showed defensively and in build-up play they often lacked the type of cutting edge top-tier teams have.
And then Gil got healthy for the playoffs. The Revs outplayed and survived CF Montréal in the play-in round, then absolutely annihilated the Shield-winning Philadelphia Union. A game after that they thoroughly outplayed and eventually eliminated an Orlando City side that had nearly won the MLS is Back Tournament and that had been a fairly trendy pick to hoist MLS Cup.
New England was a different and much more dangerous animal with Gil in there. He’s healthy now, and the Revs did some shopping this offseason to bolster both the starting XI and overall squad depth. Left winger Arnor Traustason, who should take some of the playmaking responsibilities off of Gil’s shoulders, is one to keep a particular eye on.
Anyway, New England’s progress in form under Arena has been steady and measurable even if the results haven’t necessarily been. But my guess is that this year, the results will follow.
Simply put: they need Buksa and Bou to be better this year. I’m willing to give Buksa a mulligan since he was coming into a new team in a new league in a new country in the middle of a global pandemic, and that’s a lot. He was mostly in the right spots doing the right things you want out of a No. 9, though, and I trust a guy who does that and is surrounded by quality will eventually come good.
I’m lukewarm on Bou, though. He’s obviously got the ability to produce special moments— just ask Montréal — but his “shoot on sight” mentality can turn otherwise promising sequences of play into low-percentage looks that just die on his foot.
The other worry is that this team was very, very poor defending set pieces last year. They won’t win anything if that’s the case again in 2021.
4-2-2-2: Turner; Mafla, Kessler, Farrell, Bye; Kaptoum, Polster; Traustason, Gil; Buksa, Bou
We saw it for a month last summer, right? The Timbers were mostly excellent at the MLS is Back Tournament, and when they weren’t excellent they were opportunistic. They had the tournament MVP in Sebastian Blanco, they had one of the breakout young players of the tournament in Eryk Williamson, they still had the Diegos, they had depth up top and on the wings and they had veterans in key spots to get them through the toughest moments.
They were also devastating on set pieces. Each of their final four goals last summer — a 2-1 win over the Union in the semis and then a 2-1 win over Orlando in the final — came off of restarts. When you can do that off of set pieces, reliably build through possession and counter like hell, you are going to win lots of games.
That team is mostly back. They’re still waiting for Blanco to get healthy again (he’s close, while Jaroslaw Niezgoda is a bit further away) and there might be a few issues integrating two brand new, attack-minded fullbacks, but the pieces to get Portland a trophy last summer are all pretty much there this spring.
Tough to argue with that as a foundation.
Portland went up a goal twice last week against Marathon, and twice they surrendered that lead within 10 minutes. This isn’t great:
This is also not the same exact thing as last year’s Achilles’ heel, which was their inability to protect a late lead. But it is, at the very least, related to that sort of thing, and it’s disappointing that the opening game of 2021 brought all those bad memories rushing back to a degree.
And here’s the thing: The Timbers are a veteran team. Gakking up late goals or switching off immediately after scoring are the type of thing that young teams do and veteran teams are supposed to be immune to.
4-2-3-1: Clark; Bravo, Zuparic, Mabiala, Van Rankin; D. Chara, Williamson; Blanco, Valeri, Y. Chara; Mora
(*) This is what it’ll look like when Blanco’s good to go again. We’ll see other alignments in the meantime.
The Loons leveled up late last year, going unbeaten in their final eight regular-season games before putting on a damn show in the playoffs. They welcomed Colorado to St. Paul and then just about sent them to meet St. Peter, just gliding through a 3-0 win that was as commanding as it was complete.
Then they went to Kansas City and did the exact same thing to a Sporting KC side that had topped the Western Conference in the regular season. Doing that — a leave-no-doubt-about-it 3-0 road win in the conference semifinals — is a good way to let everyone know you’re for real. And it is, in my opinion, one of the great playoff performances in recent memory.
It sure looked like they were going to replicate it in the conference final at Seattle when they went up 1-0 at the half-hour mark, and then 2-0 just past the hour. Let’s just skip the final 15 minutes of that one, shall we?
However you want to slice it, here’s the truth: Minnesota went out and spent big on a genius playmaker, and as a result they won big during the most crucial part of the year. They also survived a season-ending injury to Ike Opara (I never, in a million years, would’ve guessed they’d manage that), wear-and-tear related injuries elsewhere in the regular rotation and some international absences. And they did all of that without a clear-cut first-choice No. 9.
Then, last week, they went out and got themselves a clear-cut first-choice No. 9 in erstwhile Boca Juniors starter Wanchope Abila (who absolutely ripped it up for Boca this winter after missing a big chunk of time due to injury).
All that and they’ve still got a DP slot to use.
Minnesota, like the other teams in this tier, brought most of their group back. The reason I almost bumped them down to the next tier, though, is that the one big loss from last year’s side — Kevin Molino — was legitimately one of the best players in the entire league down the stretch and into the playoffs, a guy who won some games almost single-handedly.
The great thing about Bebelo is he amplifies the skills of his teammates, and nobody took greater advantage of that than Hot Boi. A lot of that, though, was Hot Boi being amazing. There are players on this roster who can replace him in the lineup, but I don’t see anybody who can replicate his production no matter how many dimes Bebelo drops.
4-2-3-1: St. Clair; Gasper, Dibassy, Boxall, Metanire; Gregus, Alonso; Lod, Bebelo, Finlay; Abila
We already got a taste of this from the Union, who opened their CCL campaign with an impressive 1-0 win at Saprissa despite missing multiple starters due to injury/illness and were coming off an extended offseason — one that saw them replace three starters, two of whom were Best XI guys.
Any point in Costa Rica is a statement. A win under those circumstances, though? One in which they played well? That tells me a lot about this club.
So did this sequence:
The off-ball movement there is special, particularly from Ale Bedoya. He sees that Saprissa’s backline has lost its shape so he just follows his arrow to give Jose Martinez an outlet over the top, and when you’re scrambling against Philly in that situation, you’re in trouble because these guys hit their marks. They know exactly what the next step is.
So even though they lost some talent, they 1) still have a bunch on hand, and 2) still have a team that knows how to replicate the stuff they did last year when they won the Shield.
I mean, they did lose a lot of talent. I expect Philly, like everyone else in this tier, to take a little bit of a step backwards this year as they kind of figure out exactly how the pieces fit, and exactly how to get back to the place they want to be.
Maybe by the end of the year that means they’ll be better. But I’m betting against that because, quite obviously, talent matters.
4-4-2 diamond: Blake; Wagner, Elliott, Glesnes, Mbaizo; Martinez; Monteiro, Fontana, Bedoya; Santos, Przybylko
It is probably too early to say, based upon two CCL performances in which they had less than a full squad and we only got to see Josef for about 90 minutes, that Atlanta are the same group they were back in the Tata Martino days. The first win over an Alajuelense side that is dominating Central America — they hadn’t lost in 25 games — was so encouraging and hinted at that, but the second was much less so.Let’s focus on that first game real quick and understand it wasn’t just the result. It was also the fact there were clear patterns of play that consistently produced danger:
Gabriel Heinze had his team on the front foot and with a clear plan of action from the whistle in a game where a 3-1 loss would’ve been a pretty okay outcome.
Obviously there were bumps along the way, including a red card and a very fortuitous penalty in that game. And obviously things didn’t go as planned in the second game. But I saw, in Atlanta, a team that looked bought in and committed, and a system that looks built to emphasize some of this roster’s very plausible strengths.
So I hope you all had your fun at Atlanta’s expense last year. I don’t think they’re completely back, but they do seem to be on their way.
My Worry: I mean, there’s a non-zero chance I could be wrong about the above since we’re talking about a small sample size. Ezequiel Barco could continue to be a non-factor, Miles Robinson and Alan Franco could have negative chemistry and Brad Guzan could continue to, uh, look his age. Having him back there while playing a high line should be pretty entertaining.
And of course there are lots of new faces to reintegrate and a culture to rebuild. Heinze’s got a lot on his plate, and it’s not like he’s going to get \everything \right. And so there’s a chance that one thing going wrong (like, say, Josef getting injured again) could lead to a cascade of failures that destroys the whole season (like, say, when Josef got injured last year).
A more obvious issue, and one that I’m kind of suspecting a healthy Josef’s movement will minimize or outright rectify: None of Barco, Jurgen Damm, Emerson Hyndman or Marcelino Moreno reliably provide the the final ball, and none of them ever have in their entire careers. Ever.
I could make a supercut from the second game of those guys playing square, or choosing the wrong options in transition, or straight booting the ball into the stands when they were in position to get Atlanta into their kill patterns and end the tie. None of them managed it.
They got away with it in the CCL Round of 16. It needs to be better from them if they’re going to get back to the top of MLS and start winning trophies again.
4-3-3: Guzan; Bello, Franco, Robinson, Lennon; Barco, Sosa, Ibarra; Marcelino, Josef, Damm
Orlando City SC
Nine of 11 starters return. One of the two who’s “gone” is expected to be back, eventually, from an injury. The other of the two who’s gone might be back from his loan at some point (though I am betting against that), but even if he’s not, it looks like he’s set to be replaced by a Brazilian legend at the tail end of his prime and with a bit left to prove. Daryl Dike or no Daryl Dike, this team will not be thin up top.
This was already a really, really good team. They were runners-up in last year’s MLS is Back Tournament and easily qualified for the playoffs, then won their first-ever playoff game. They got outplayed by the Revs in the next round, but were still tough and solid enough to keep it close and give themselves a chance despite the fairly one-sided nature of the match.
They have depth in a ton of spots, experience in most and youth basically everywhere. They are entering Year 2 under Oscar Pareja, and historically, Pareja’s teams have thrived in Year 2: His 2013 Rapids jumped six spots in the standings and were 14 points better than the 2012 version, while his 2015 FC Dallas side finished six points and five spots in the table better than the 2014 side.
The year after that, of course, Dallas won the Shield/US Open Cup double. This is Oscar Pareja we’re talking about. The man knows how to win, and while he’d clearly rather win by using the ball and playing pretty, possession soccer, he’s also completely fine with his team sitting deep and hitting on the counter.
And yet, I do think linear progress is unlikely from this team. Joao Moutinho’s injury has been so prolonged that at this point I’m not really expecting to see much of him in 2021 — or at least not expecting to see much of him at his 2020 level. He was the best left back in the league before he got hurt, and a foundational piece of Pareja’s possession-based attacking scheme. There is no clear replacement.
There is no clear replacement for Dike, who was a foundational piece of their counterattacking scheme once Moutinho was hurt, and a reliable goalscorer in his own right. Pato might end up being very good, but he’s not going to play the position like Dike did. There will be a learning curve.
The Lions still feel like a playoff team to me, but one that, as the Tier designation says, can only compete at the top of the table if things go really, really right.
4-2-3-1: Gallese; Smith, Carlos, Jansson, Ruan; Urso, Rosell; Nani, Pereyra, Mueller; Pato
Seattle still have Nico Lodeiro, and as long as you have Nico Lodeiro your floor is pretty damn high. Nobody in MLS history has been asked to/willing to take on as much of a burden when it comes to determining how his team plays as the Uruguayan maestro has, and the numbers reflect it:
Shouts to Mike Vermeland for the graphic, which truly is a picture that’s worth a thousand words.
He’s not just one of the best in league history at playing the final pass; he’s one of the best in league history at the pass before the pass. Seattle decided long ago to let him determine which risks are worth taking, and have built themselves around that. It’s gotten them to four of the last five MLS Cups, and given them two stars on their chests.
There are obviously other high-level players on this team — Raul Ruidiaz, Stefan Frei, etc. — who can and have elevated the collective. But the reality is that it’s Lodeiro’s show, and that has been a very good way to be a very good team for half-a-decade now, and there’s no real reason to think it’s going to change all of a sudden.
The collective is worse than it was last year, though. Gustav Svensson, Joevin Jones and Kelvin Leerdam are all gone, and thus far there are no obvious replacements for them. More worrying is what looks like the season-long absence of Jordan Morris after his ACL tear while on loan with Swansea.
Here’s another one of Mike’s graphics:
He was one of the very best attackers in the league in 2020. If the Sounders go out and add a midseason DP — which I expect them to —they will likely approximate at least some of what was lost with Morris’s injury. But if you look at that graphic again, you’ll notice lots and lots of DPs well below Morris’s final third contributions.
3-5-2: Frei; Arriaga, Gomez Andrade, O’Neill; Smith, C. Roldan, Lodeiro, Joao Paulo, A. Roldan; Montero, Ruidiaz
It’s always nice when you can start the list of things to build from with the reigning league MVP. That’s the case for Toronto who, in Alejandro Pozuelo, have a guy who is quite obviously among the handful of best players in MLS and has played like it since his arrival two years ago. The Spaniard’s usage rate was even higher than Lodeiro’s last season, and he was the driving force behind a TFC side that damn near won the Shield despite playing basically the whole year on the road.
You know the pieces around him well, of course. Toronto are, along with Seattle, one of the defining teams of the past half-decade, and most of the guys who’ve been a part of that run — Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Osorio, Marky Delgado, Chris Mavinga, Justin Morrow — are still around.
This year’s team is padded out with some young talent courtesy of the TFC academy. Remember when Ayo Akinola broke through last year? It’s looking like that might’ve just been the tip of the iceberg, as the likes of Noble Okello, Ralph Priso, Jayden Nelson and Liam Fraser look set to step into bigger roles.
In theory that should give new head coach Chris Armas the flexibility to mix-and-match lineups in order to keep legs fresh and avoid the cascade of injuries that seems to hit TFC every. Single. Year.
The injury plague has already hit, for one. For two, a lot of the guys they’re counting on to play big minutes — Bradley, Altidore, Omar Gonzalez — are older and way, way less mobile than they used to be. That mattered a ton down the stretch last year, and it mattered in their playoff loss to Nashville.
Toronto aren’t going to be bad. I think the people picking them to miss the playoffs are kind of nuts. But they’ll need Pozuelo to be as good as he was for most of last year, and for multiple kids to have Ayo-like jumps in order to be one of the best teams in the league again. Feels like a stretch.
4-2-2-2: Westberg; Auro, Mavinga, Gonzalez, Laryea; Bradley, Delgado; Osorio, Pozuelo; Altidore, Akinola
Sporting topped the West last season, and it wasn’t an accident. They were legitimately good by the boxscore stats and across most of the most meaningful advanced stats. That means they were in the top 10, as per Opta, in expected goals (which means they generated good chances) and expected assists (which means they did so out of possession), as well as expected goals allowed (they didn’t allow many good chances) and expected goals on target conceded (they did a good job of scrambling to force shooters off target).
These are the hallmarks of a good team, and Peter Vermes headed into the transfer market this winter to try to make them better. He came back with French center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and French central midfielder Remi Walter.
The idea will be to plug those guys into Vermes’s always-and-forever 4-3-3 and hope they can fill the gaps that really did end up popping up too often against good competition in 2020.
The other big hopes are that Alan Pulido gives them a full, healthy season as their No. 9-and-playmaker, and Gianluca Busio is finally ready to break out as a No. 10 in much the same way that Brenden Aaronson did last year.
All the pieces seem to be there.
And yet I’m left kind of cold by this team. They weren’t super effective at getting pressure to the ball as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and were only middle of the pack at forcing turnovers via pressure. When those two coalesced in the wrong way, it led to Sporting repeatedly getting gashed in transition.
I’m going to be kind to Sporting fans and am won't embed highlights from last year’s playoffs. Suffice it to say conceding six goals at home over the course of 210 minutes is not… great.
And that’s the underlying thing here: Sporting’s schedule last year was soft as hell. So as nice as the underlying numbers look, the story they’re telling might not be giving the full picture.
4-3-3: Melia; Martins, Isimat-Mirin, Puncec, Zusi; Kinda, Walter, Espinoza; Shelton, Pulido, Russell
I initially had the Pigeons one tier down, and if you took a peek at our season preview you’ll see that I actually picked them to miss the playoffs. That would be a precipitous fall for a group that’s collected the most regular season points in MLS over the past five years, and one that has done so by playing good, attractive soccer under three coaches.
Most of the key pieces from the last couple of iterations of this team are still in town, and a good chunk of them are in or entering their primes. Will we get to see another level from Taty Castellanos, James Sands and Keaton Parks? Could we get a full, healthy season from Ismael Tajouri-Shradi? Is Jesus Medina going to bottle those moments when he looks like an actual DP and bring them to the pitch week after week? Will Cacha Acevedo be unleashed? How about new wingers Andres Jasson and Thiago Andrade?
All worthy questions. Even if the answers are ambiguous or just straight-up “no,” though, NYCFC have a good enough defense to make life tough and one of the very best goalkeepers in the league. They’ve also established a winning culture over the long haul and that’s the type of thing that, barring injury, tends not to disappear.
Part of that winning culture is, in fact, gone: Alex Ring and Ronald Matarrita are top-five players in the league at their respective slots. While there are very obvious heirs ready to step in — Sands had actually displaced Ring in the XI at times last season, though there are some caveats to read into that — it’s tough to punt two guys who are that good and just keep humming.
More to the point, though: Tajouri-Shradi is always hurt, and Maxi Moralez spent half of last year sidelined. The defense was actually better on paper than on the field, and even when given a map Castellanos has not been able to find a path to goal in two of his three seasons. There is zero depth behind him at center forward with Heber still hurt. And sooner or later all the playoff losing — there has been so, so much of it — has to take a toll.
Maybe I’m reading too much into things and NYCFC will, once again, be up around 1.7 or 1.8 ppg. But given the age and injury-prone-ness of so many key pieces, and the lack of offseason reinforcements… I don’t know. Last year felt like the end of that group competing at the highest levels in MLS, and the start of a long (or perhaps quick) downward slide.
4-2-3-1: Johnson; Amundsen, Callens, Chanot, Tinnerholm; Sands, Parks; Medina, Moralez, Tajouri-Shradi; Castellanos
This is one of two Tier IV teams I got talked into dropping down a tier. I wanted to put Nashville up in the third group because you don’t put up one of the league’s best by-the-numbers defenses and win a couple of postseason games by accident, and Gary Smith has clearly put together a group that buys in. That’s such a wonderful foundation for any side, and seems like the type of thing that could propel this group forward in Year 2 of their MLS experience.
Nashville are still going to be really good defensively, I think. That includes on set pieces, and it turns out being good defensively on set pieces means you’re probably going to be pretty good on attacking set pieces, and, yup, that was the case for Nashville as well.
I suspect they’ll be better in transition as well — they certainly were in the playoffs. And they’re going to be deeper, having done well to shop within the league for potential young contributors, and having signed Uruguayan attacker Rodrigo Pineiro and with second-year center back Jack Maher presumably ready to take some minutes from stalwarts Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney.
You can probably tell from my tone I’ve got a bit of Nashville stock.
And yet, the attack.
This is not to say Nashville’s attack is bad. They were for the first two-thirds of last year, mind you, but they turned it on down the stretch and into the playoffs. They have the ability to do some stuff against some pretty good teams, and showed as much.
I do not think, however, that they have the baseline talent level necessary to consistently do some stuff against some pretty good teams. It is hard to imagine a group that’s at a significant talent disadvantage going out there and coming home with a trophy.
Improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 will have to be enough.
4-2-3-1: Willis; Lovitz, Romney, Zimmerman, Johnston; Godoy, McCarty; Leal, Mukhtar, Pineiro; Cadiz
Based upon preseason form I might have Dallas two tiers too low. They have been rampant this past month, with Andres Ricaurte pulling the strings from the middle of a 3-4-3 with new wingers Jader Obrian and Freddy Vargas rampaging underneath DP center forward Franco Jara.
My ‘em say uhhh:
Dallas are a really well-built club and the never-ending cycle of Homegrowns means they have depth — much of it potentially difference-making depth — at a ton of spots. And that gives them the ability to sell on players like Reggie Cannon, Bryan Reynolds and Thiago Santos in order to restock the coffers and go after the next tranche of Ricaurtes, Obrians and Jaras.
It’s been a good recipe for consistently pretty good regular seasons that get them into the playoffs every year.
Other than the Magical Mauro Diaz’s 2016 season, they’ve never pushed beyond “consistently good.” It hasn’t been because of an overreliance on the kids, either: It’s been because Dallas’s top-end players have not been as good as the truly elite teams’ top-end players.
Maybe that changes this year, but we’ve seen Dallas rampage through preseason before and it’s meant bupkis. I’m not convinced that what we saw at La Copita is going to translate over the next six months. I’m not even convinced they’re really going to play that 3-4-3!
Dallas should be fine. They could end up maybe a little north of that, or maybe a little south of that.
4-3-3: Maurer; Nelson, Martinez, Hedges, Hollingshead; Tessmann, Acosta, Ricaurte; Vargas, Jara, Obrian
The Rapids play some of the most fluid, ball-oriented soccer in the league. It’s not positional play like we’ll see at times from the Crew, or playing against the ball like the great pressing teams. It’s pure possession where the whole goal is to use the ball to suck the opponents in, then spring the pressure trap and play across the game channel to an overlapping fullback or a ghosting attacking midfielder on the other side of the pitch.
It is beautiful to watch and I love it. If you can make the ball do the work of disorganizing the opposition, and you have some guys with individual flair to add to that mix, and a couple of other guys who are super clever about getting into the box for one-time finishes… that’s my jam. That’s the type of soccer I love to watch.
The Rapids are fun.
Here’s what I wrote in last year’s version of this column:
Underlying all of this is that they're probably not as good a defensive team as the boxscore numbers said they were down the stretch. Simply put: their central midfield is kind of easy to play against. They're not great at getting pressure to the ball, and that forces the backline to scramble perfectly or concede.
Against a league that's suddenly pretty full of $10 million attackers, that's a pretty big ask.
Y’all saw what Bebelo did to them in the playoffs, right? And let me just say that while I understand why Fraser’s trying Younes Namli in central midfield in preseason…
It’s worth understanding that Namli is a sieve. Play him in the middle and an already fragile defensive scheme might break down entirely.
4-2-3-1: Yarbrough; Vines, Wilson, Abubakar, Rosenberry; Price, Acosta; Barrios, Bassett, Namli; Rubio
San Jose Earthquakes
This is the other team I wanted to bump up into the third tier. Laugh as much as you want at all those 5-0s and 6-1s from last summer — I did because they were hilarious — but the Quakes were legit good once Matias Almeyda finally surrendered to the obvious and inserted J.T. Marcinkowski and Florian Jungwirth into the lineup.
When those two guys played the Quakes were 6-2-2 (2 ppg, which is a Shield-worthy pace) and conceded just 1.1 goals per game. When either of them wasn’t in the lineup, they were 2-7-4 and surrendered over three goals per game.
And it wasn’t a mirage. Jungwirth was excellent in 2019 as well, and I’m still mystified as to why he wasn’t written into the XI in pen from the jump in 2020. Marcinkowski, meanwhile, was just a plainly obvious upgrade over Daniel Vega.
All of the above — a team that collects points at a good rate and is mostly filled with guys in the primes of their respective careers — is the foundation that the Quakes added to this offseason when they went out and got themselves the No. 10 Almeyda had coveted in Javier “La Chofis” Lopez. La Chofis is the type of 10 that needs runners, and here’s the good news: As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, San Jose’s 173 attacking runs per game was first in the Western Conference and second in the league overall.
I think the Quakes are going to be really good. There. I said it.
There’s no “surprise!” factor with San Jose’s man marking scheme anymore. Teams aren’t going to be discombobulated by it, and in fact for some pretty prolonged stretches we saw the commitment with which the Quakes defend actually used against them via some very basic combination play and off-ball movement.
The Timbers, Sounders and ESPECIALLY Minnesota United have been good at that, and when the best teams in your conference have your number to that degree, it’s hard to take you seriously as a contender no matter how much fun it is to watch you week after week.
Oh, and they’re still going to be bad defending set pieces.
4-1-4-1: Marcinkowski; Lopez, Alanis, Jungwirth, Thompson; Yueill; Fierro, Lopez, Judson, Espinoza; Wondolowski
New York Red Bulls
I came really close to dropping them a tier, but kept them here due to Gerhard Struber’s rep and the fact that this team has been in the playoffs for 11 straight seasons. There has been a ton of turnover in the front office, on the sidelines and within the roster over the past couple of seasons, but that streak has continued. Don’t take it lightly.
And RBNY have the potential to be really interesting. I like the Frankie Amaya get* for them — he’s a ball-winner and a real SOB to play against — and there is a world where Struber gets the best out of him as well as other youngsters like Cristian Casseres, Dru Yearwood, Caden Clark and Cameron Harper.
(*) If they get him, of course. As of this writing the deal with FC Cincinnati is still on the table but has yet to be completed.
If that happens, then what looks like a rag-tag collection of guys who mostly haven’t been starting-caliber players wherever they’ve been — and Aaron Long — suddenly looks pretty dangerous.
Long and Daniel Royer are the only two proven starters on this team, and sources around the league have told me all offseason that the Red Bulls were shopping Royer. Clark, Yearwood et al might pan out, but they’re young players, so also, they might not.
And on the face of it, it looks very much like RBNY will be starting two guys, in Amaya and left back Andrew Gutman, who were salvaged from the two-time defending Wooden Spoon winning FC Cincinnati side.
It all feels like a hell of a flex. “We see talent where you don’t, and we’re going to beat you with it.”
I love it, but I won't’ be at all surprised if it doesn’t work.
4-4-2 diamond: Coronel; Gutman, Long, Reyes, Duncan; Amaya, Yearwood, Casseres; Clark; Fabio, White
Inter Miami CF
On paper this is one of the most valuable teams in the league, and certainly among the most experienced. They’ve got a reigning World Cup winner, a record goalscorer with a decade worth of European glory in his not-too-distant past, a full Mexican international in his prime, a former Best XI MLS center back in his prime, experienced veterans at both fullback slots and one of the breakout young attackers in the league last year at right wing.
They’ve also managed to build up some theoretical depth, provided new head coach Phil Neville is willing to use and develop it in a way that the since departed Diego Alonso was not. That’s one of the bizarre things about last year’s team: literally every truly young player (Lewis Morgan was 23 and that does not count as “young”) on the roster fell short of expectations. Some by miles.
That tells me a cultural reboot was needed. That was Neville’s calling card with the England women’s national team, and if he can pull off the trick again here, Inter will be in business.
Well, what if he can’t pull off the trick here? The body language on last year’s team was abysmal, and once you’ve established that kind of losing relationship with each other, well, it’s not great.
Also: It wasn’t just the young players who underdelivered. Gonzalo Higuain scored just once. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was a shadow of his Best XI self. Blaise Matuidi… the less said, the better I think.
There’s a ton to fix. It might take more than one window to fix it.
4-4-2: McCarthy; Jones, Gonzalez Pirez, Shawcross, Leerdam; Pizarro, Matuidi, Gregore, Morgan; Robinson, Higuain
Boy I dunno. I looked at that Galaxy front six last year and talked myself into it, and man was it a mistake to do so. There were some good moments, of course -- the El Trafico win being the biggest -- but in general the Galaxy were just bad in 2020. Again.
But now they have a new head coach with club ties going back 25 years and a winning pedigree going back seven. Greg Vanney is the biggest addition to the Galaxy this offseason as he left Toronto after seven trophy-strewn seasons to come back to Carson, where he began his professional career, and set things right with the league’s most decorated team.
A lot of those guys that I talked myself into last year are still around, including Chicharito. He can’t possibly be any worse in 2021, right?
There’s also two new wingers, and Vanney’s old pal Victor Vazquez, and Sebastian Lletget playing the best soccer of his life and Jonathan Dos Santos hopefully getting back to his 2019 form.
Reasons for optimism exist, and they’re on the roster. But the biggest one remains Vanney, and the hopes that he can do for the Galaxy at their nadir what he did -- with some serious investment, mind you -- for Toronto.
How much of it was Vanney and how much of it was Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore et al? That Toronto team stood out even among the elite of the league’s elite as a roster stuffed with top-end talent, allowing them to brute force a bunch of results even when they weren’t playing that well. This Galaxy side does not have that luxury.
And that’s before we get to the defense and goalkeeper. Of the five guys back there, four of them are new starters. Given how bad the Galaxy defense has been for half a decade now, that’s probably a good thing. But it’s a known unknown, and those don’t always turn out the way people would like.
Too many variables, too many unproven pieces, not enough depth. I think they’ll be better, but they have so far to climb.
4-2-3-1: Bond; Villafana, Williams, Steres, Araujo; Lletget, Dos Santos; Cabral, Vazquez, Grandsir; Chicharito
Big and bold and ambitious. Cincy’s got all three of those boxes checked, and that makes them one of the most fun teams to follow in the offseason each of the past two years.
In fact I’d say they were far and away the most fun to follow this past offseason after they splashed cash to bring in Brazilian center forward Brenner, former D.C. United No. 10 Lucho Acosta and Ghanaian winger Isaac Atanga from elsewhere, while shipping a ton of allocation cash to NYCFC for left back Ronald Matarrita. They also got into a staring contest with their best player over the past two years, midfielder Frankie Amaya and seem set to ship him to the Red Bulls for a bunch of cash, and let a bunch of veterans -- Kendall Waston, Mathieu Deplagne, Siem De Jong -- walk with nary a peep.
Somehow, through all of this, they held onto last year’s big-name signing, attacker Jurgen Locadia. It remains to be seen how long the big Dutchman will stay in town, and his 2020 was one of the most impressive flops in MLS history.
But there’s no doubt he’s talented. And there’s no doubt that the roster as a whole is much more talented than at any time in this club’s existence.
Talent isn’t enough. That talent has to fit and work together, and there’s not much to suggest that any of the pieces on hand are really built to do that. Amaya was their one reliable glue guy, and it looks like he’s gone. There’s a surfeit of wingers, none of them proven and all of them competing for playing time while being fed by a No. 10 who produced just 3g/2a in 33 games with Atlas.
The biggest worry of all, though, is that defense. Matarrita is really good when he’s adding value to a team that’s dominating the ball, as is NYCFC’s wont. When he has to defend a bunch, though? Not his strong suit. New center back Gustavo Vallecilla seems like a smart pick-up, but it’s a lot to ask a 21-year-old who’s never played outside his home country to fix one of the worst defenses in the league.
FC Cincinnati have taken the Wooden Spoon twice on the trot and are a ghastly -68 in their 57-game MLS existence. They won’t be that bad again, but I’ll be pretty surprised if this offseason surgery was enough to push them over the red line and into the playoffs.
4-2-3-1: Tyton; Matarrita, Pettersson, van der Werff, Gyau; Medunjanin, Mokotjo; Locadia, Acosta, Atanga; Brenner
The ‘Caps have not been quite as big and bold and ambitious as Cincy, but they’re not far off! Vancouver spent a ton last year on Lucas Cavallini and a few assorted (mostly sub-starting quality) players in midfield and defense, and then opened the pocket books yet again to sign central midfielder Caio Alexandre, livewire young winger Deiber Caicedo and on-loan right back Bruno Gaspar.
There’s not another Alphonso Davies coming out of that academy, but there is still value coming out of it in the form of guys like Michael Baldisimo, Theo Bair and Pat Metcalfe.
In short they have not stood pat. They have gone out on the market, targeted guys in their primes and really tried to get better. It’s given them what is, on paper, one of the best rosters I think they’ve ever had even if there remains a glaring hole where a DP No. 10 could (should) be.
The advanced numbers have said, for the past two years, that the ‘Caps were just as bad as Cincy. Like Cincy, I think they’ll be better this year.
Like Cincy, I think there’s a lot of daylight between “better” and “so much better they make the playoffs,” and unless they go out and get their own Bebelo or Pozuelo or Zelarayan or Lodeiro, it’ll just be too much to make up. The ‘Caps pretty desperately need that guy.
They need consistency just as desperately, though. I’ve written this before but I’ll reiterate here: Over the past two years Marc Dos Santos has gone back and forth so much on formation, tactics and personnel that it’s been almost impossible to see this team building game-over-game cohesion and progress. Every time they’d do a good thing for two weeks, it’d disappear for two months.
Dos Santos needs to have exercised that tendency or it doesn’t matter how much new talent the ‘Caps have brought in, or will bring in.
4-3-3: Crepeau; Gutierrez, Godoy, Veselinovic, Gaspar; Alexandre, Baldisimo, Bikel; Caicedo, Cavallini, Dajome
I am really excited to see this team play. In large part that’s because they brought in one experienced, international caliber DP winger (Cecilio Dominguez) who’s been on the radars of various MLS clubs for a good, long while and one much younger, but higher-upside winger (Rodney Redes) who has, by all accounts, been electric in preseason. In larger part that’s because their central midfield, with the perpetually underrated Alex Ring, the Argentine DP playmaker Tomas Pochettino (my choice for newcomer of the year) and the No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick, Danny Pereira, is fascinating.
New personnel in new spots is fun and I’m into it.
But the truth is that head coach Josh Wolff is the biggest reason I want to watch this team. My assumption all offseason was that Wolff’s Austin side would play a style and formation similar to Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT -- Wolff was an assistant under Berhalter for a half-decade, remember -- and I really, really like the ideas behind Berhalter’s team. And so far from what I’ve seen and read in preseason, it does in fact look like Austin FC are going to do a lot of the same things we’re seeing from the US.
This is great. We need more teams with clear identities and even clearer ideas.
Doesn’t matter how clear your ideas are if your center backs can’t run!
Fafa Picault calls himself “The Gazelle” and is one of the fastest players in the league, but Julio Cascante made him look like Usain Bolt. I doubt Matt Besler would’ve done much better in that particular footrace.
Wolff’s going to have one of those two guys starting and taking serious risks with their build-from-the-back approach, and my god are they not equipped to put out fires. Expansion teams have to play a ton of emergency defense and emergency defense is definitely not going to be this team’s strong suit.
I am, I think, less worried about their center forward depth chart than central defense. But that’s not an area of strength, either.
4-3-3: Tarbell; Sweat, Besler, Romana, Lima; Pochettino, Ring, Pereira; Dominguez, Hoesen, Redes
Chicago Fire FC
The Fire really did play a lot of really good soccer last year, coming into their own in early September and putting together some playoff-caliber performances. There is a very real reason to think that if they’d just kept the group together, a healthy dose of cohesion and chemistry could goose the result enough to push them up the standings a bit and into the playoffs for just the third time in the past 12 years.
And so I like the fact that they mostly held the group together, and will in theory build upon the possession-heavy style Raphael Wicky put into place last year. There was no reason to tear the whole thing down, and accepting a godfather offer for Djordje Mihailovic -- who was a reliable provider of the final ball in 2020, it must be said -- is not the type of thing to fret over.
And yet, chemistry can take you only so far. At some point the mistakes players have repeatedly made are just who those players are.
Fire fans have seen their team give up this exact goal, or something damn close to it, repeatedly over the past couple of years.
I think they’ll play a lot of good soccer and do some really pretty things in midfield. Robert Beric is a gem up top who can create chemistry with anyone, and who provides an easy outlet for when they’re being pressed. But I see no reason to suspect that the defense is going to eliminate the types of catastrophic errors that’s ended each of their last couple of seasons.
They’re also going to miss Mihailovic more than most realize. His final ball is really, really good, and that’s not something you can really say about the remaining wingers in this side.
4-3-3: Kronholm; Bornstein, Calvo, Pineda, Espinoza; Medran, Gimenez, Stojanovic; Aliseda, Beric, Frankowski
When Hernan Losada left Beerschot in Belgium to take the D.C. job, the local media was upset because his teams had been so much fun to cover. They played with a commitment and enthusiasm that was uncommon, and tended to find themselves in high-scoring affairs.
I’d take that with this year’s D.C. team. And while “high-scoring” is not a term we’ve used to describe D.C. in recent years, remember that this side has Edison Flores, Yamil Asad, Ola Kamara, Julian Gressel and Paul Arriola. Those have all been very good or better players in MLS or Liga MX in the not-too-distant past, and are all in their respective primes (though I guess it’s fair to say Ola might be approaching the very end of his).
The defensive midfield rotation looks sound -- or potentially much more than that if Moses Nyeman breaks through this year -- as well, and once Bill Hamid comes back it’s not crazy to expect him to be among the half-dozen or so best goalkeepers in the league.
Hamid’s hurt, Arriola’s hurt and Steve Birnbaum’s hurt. Gressel and Asad were poor last year, and Flores and Kamara were poor when they weren’t hurt. The defense, which had been what snuck them into the playoffs in 2019, fell apart in 2020. The only reliable starters anywhere on the pitch were left back Joseph Mora and d-mid Junior Moreno, and it’d be hard to argue with a straight face that either guy is in the top 50% of MLS starters at their respective positions.
It is a reboot to have Losada on the sidelines after a decade of Ben Olsen. But the roster hasn’t been rebooted, and the roster last year was far, far short of good enough.
3-4-2-1: Seitz; Hines-Ike, Pines, Brillant; Mora, Canouse, Moreno, Gressel; Asad, Flores; Kamara
(*) Hamid, Birnbaum and Arriola will all slot back into the XI once they’re healthy. Though it’ll be interesting to see where Arriola fits given that Gressel is born to play wingback.
Houston Dynamo FC
Year 2 of the Tab Ramos era. Year 1 was pretty far from a success as they finished dead last in the West, and ahead of only Cincy in the Shield race. They won just once in their final 14 games and were pretty hopeless on the attacking side of things once Alberth Elis was sold. Defensively, they were pretty hopeless throughout, regularly getting carved up in transition off of pretty basic midfield turnovers.
So the Dynamo went out and made some additions. Tim Parker’s been an elite center back in this league before, and is the type of athlete the Dynamo didn’t have back there in 2020. Ethan Bartlow was the highest-rated center back in the draft. Joe Corona is a steady, veteran No. 8 who works hard to clean up messes, and Fafa Picault isn’t just a gazelle in attack: he’s one of the league’s best defensive wingers. Maxi Urruti, meanwhile, is one of the league’s best defensive forwards.
And the wild card is Derrick Jones, a super-talented 24-year-old former Philly Homegrown who gave Nashville good minutes last year, but has yet to live up to his potential in half-a-decade as a pro. The pinnacle of his career to this point has to be the 2017 U-20 World Cup, where he regularly partnered Tyler Adams — and was actually better than Adams on the day in the quarterfinals vs. Venezuela.
Jones’ coach with that team? Tab Ramos.
Yeah, it’s all still almost certainly not enough. Picautl and Urruti aren’t regular starters for a reason: they don’t put the ball in the net. Corona’s mostly been a placeholder in MLS, and Parker, while still in his prime, has trended steadily downhill since 2018.
On top of all that it looks very much like Darwin Quintero is being eased into a super-sub role. I get it — Quintero’s a massive defensive liability and he’s never been as good as his numbers have suggested — but that’s still really, really good, and there’s no hint of creativity in the attack without him.
4-3-3: Maric; Lundqvist, Figueroa, Parker, Valentin; Rodriguez, Vera, Corona; Picault, Urruti, Bajamich
Real Salt Lake
I wrote this in a previous column, but it’s such a telling stat that it’s worth reiterating here:
Since 2016 with Justen Glad in the lineup, RSL are 51-42-32 with 185 goals allowed. That’s good for 1.48 ppg with a goals against average of 1.23.
Since 2016 with Glad not in the lineup, they’re 9-21-9 with 91 goals allowed. That’s good for .92 ppg with a goals against average of 2.33.
That’s the difference between a playoff team and roadkill, but for whatever reason, first Mike Petke and then Freddy Juarez, have somewhat consistently made the choice to sit Glad, often in big games. The RSL front office has mostly taken that decision out of Juarez’s hands this year by… not signing another center back. It’s just Glad, Erik Holt and Marcelo Silva, which means Glad should be an every game starter.
Damir Kreilach should be an every-game starter at his preferred No. 8 position (finally), and they signed a few forwards and wingers. Sean Johnson bounced back from his gaffe in 2012 Olympic qualifying to become one of the league’s best ‘keepers, and there’s every reason to think David Ochoa can do the same.
None of it looks like enough. The forwards they signed were Rubio Rubin, who’s never scored consistently outside the USL, and Bobby Wood, who hasn’t scored consistently for four years. New winger Anderson Julio has been interesting in preseason, but last year’s more heralded new winger, Jeizon Ramirez, barely played.
In fact that was the theme last year in Juarez’s first full season as head coach. He was weirdly reluctant to trust young players, often benching the kids in favor of veterans who weren’t exactly, um, lighting the world on fire with their play. RSL had been a #PlayYourKids bastion for years in large part because of Juarez’s work at the academy level, and had reaped the rewards with consistently good first-team seasons, but that just went away in 2020.
So what we’ve got is a team that finished 21st overall and had one of the worst attacks in the league last season trying to make its way, with minimal additions, in a conference where just about everybody else got better.
I don’t think this path leads up the mountain.
4-2-3-1: Putna; Toia, Glad, Silva, Herrera; Ruiz, Kreilach; Meram, Rusnak, Julio; Rubin
All the stuff that was cool about how Montréal were going about building their roster when Thierry Henry was the head coach are still cool now that Wilfried Nancy is the head coach: They bet big on young, intraleague acquisitions like Djordje Mihailovic, Kamal Miller and Mason Toye, which tells me they see distressed assets and believe in their ability to rehabilitate them. Before you scoff, understand that this is exactly what the Rapids started doing a couple of years ago, and it’s resulted in a fun and highly functional playoff-caliber team with multiple players on the radars of European clubs that are going shopping.
It doesn’t stop with the intraleague acquisitions, though. Montréal have brought in a handful of youngsters from overseas and have begun liberally promoting kids from their academy. All of this is happening with Victor Wanyama, a ball-playing d-mid who’s been through the wars at the highest levels of the game, as the foundation.
Nancy’s got a chance to be to Montréal what Oscar Pareja was for Dallas and launch this team — new branding and all — into a new era, one in which they operate a conveyor belt of young talent and win at a high level.
Not a great chance to be Pareja, though. The kids coming through the Montréal academy haven’t achieved at anything like the level of the FC Dallas kids, and while Wanyama’s a nice piece, he wasn’t exactly a dominant force last year.
The defense was the fourth-worst in the entire league last year. It’s been upgraded, but the upgrades are Miller, who was not a starter in 2020, and Aljaz Struna, who was not a starter for the sixth-worst defense in the league in 2020. A lot of the other new pieces, including all those kids, don’t really seem to fit together in any intuitive way.
I think this is going to be a year to grow and learn for Montréal.
3-4-2-1: Diop; Miller, Binks, Struna; Mustafa, Piette, Wanyama, Brault-Guillard; Quioto, Mihailovic; Johnsen