With a tip of the cap to the great Zach Lowe, here's my own version of his "Annual Tiers of the NBA" column, MLS-style. 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).
HERE is this year's first version, from the end of February.
Since we're now into the stretch run, it feels like now's a good time to revisit this and get down, for the record, who stands where (as well as a little bit of why).
These teams are mostly in the order I think they'll finish, but what really matters is the tier designation.
TIER I: Secretariat at the Belmont
They're not going to go down as the greatest team of all-time. They didn't win the U.S. Open Cup, which means the best they can do is the double, and therefore the 2017 version of Toronto FC – who won every trophy they competed for, then took Chivas to penalties in the 2018 CCL final before losing and promptly falling into the abyss – are better. I don't do the "RINGZZZ ERNEH" argument when it comes to players, but I absolutely do when it comes to teams. If you want to be the best ever, you have to win the domestic treble.
That said, this is the best MLS team I've ever seen.
I have zero problem holding those two contradictory thoughts in my head at the same time. LAFC are likely to set the all-time record in points, points per game and goal differential, and are better than a coin flip to set it in total goals as well. They have the MVP, the guy who'll likely get my vote for Defender of the Year, the best d-mid in the league, and the likely 22 Under 22 winner (our version of "Young Player of the Year") – and then just added that guy's younger, better Uruguayan youth national team comrade as one of the biggest-money DP signings in league history.
And you know what? Most of the guys in this lineup could've been had by damn near anybody. Bob Bradley deserves a ton of credit for the pretty, unselfish, winning soccer his team plays:
GOAL: Latif Blessing finishes off the pretty team move
But he maybe deserves even more for getting guys other teams had tossed on the scrap heap and getting more out of them than anyone else thought they had to give.
My Worry: All that is well and good, but it's tough to be the overwhelming favorites in knockout games, and LAFC's recent history with that isn't pretty. There is a non-zero chance that, come playoff time, they will be wound so tight that they're unable to function at the level they've hit so consistently so far in 2019.
Also bear in mind that Atlanta United punted two years of rock-solid, winning identity last November once they accepted they'd never beat the Red Bulls playing fast-paced, open soccer. They went pragmatic and countered their way to the title. I sincerely doubt Bob would want to do that.
Also bear in mind that Zlatan appears to be their majority owner.
TIER II: They've Got the Talent
In the past six months they've lost the greatest d-mid in MLS history and the greatest center back in MLS history, have dealt with injuries from center forward to fullback and almost every stop in between, have lost a significant chunk of the lineup for a significant chunk of the summer to international competition, and are still playing without damn near half their starting lineup – they were down five starters this past weekend due to various injuries.
And yet they are tied for fourth in the league on PPG. The Sounders are Nico Lodeiro's team, and Nico Lodeiro teams apparently have a very high floor. Add in a cadre of other international caliber players, and the ceiling gets pretty high as well.
The real question now is how quickly the new arrivals, Emanuel Cecchini and Luis Silva, integrate, and how much (if at all) they can close the gap on LAFC. The Sounders actually have a better record than the Black-and-Gold if you go all the way back to the middle of last summer – they've been playing really well for a long while now – and obviously have more playoff know-how.
My Worry: In spite of that playoff know-how and talent and winning tradition, the Sounders are still achingly slow and mechanical waaaaay too often in transition moments. And when games between good teams get tight, it tends to be in the transition moments that a winner is decided. I would almost never bet on the Sounders in that situation (see: their recent loss to Portland).
Also, remember when Lodeiro came to MLS and led the league in through-balls per 90? And then they won MLS Cup? He's used in an almost totally different way now. It's weird.
New York City FC
Man, I really did not like what Dome did to this team down the stretch last season (and neither did David Villa, for what it's worth). But he's mostly done a very good job since about mid-April of this season by giving the his team a thing – they get those wingbacks to fly downfield early and mostly stay wide – and then relying upon it. And in Maxi Moralez, they have a midfield brain who's the closest thing in the league to what Lodeiro is for the Sounders:
GOAL: Heber powers in close range volley
That's Moralez being a pure No. 10, but notice it's also NYCFC breaking down and pulling apart a solid, bunkered-in defense. This team is definitely at its best when it can sit deeper and find a little bit of space to run into, but if you're going to give them the ball 60% of the time they have no problem knocking it around and finding the gaps. It may not be as consistently pretty as what they did under Patrick Vieira, but in 2019 it is absolutely working.
Beyond that: Defense wins championships (I hate myself for typing that, but it's true – look at Atlanta's MLS Cup run last year), and this team has shown the ability to defend at a high level at home and on the road, against star-centric teams and against more egalitarian sides. Plus they have a bit of formational flexibility to go along with their tactical flexibility.
My Worry: Defense wins championships but how often do 19-year-old defenders win championships? James Sands hasn't put a foot wrong in 2019 – he's honestly been almost perfect back there – but how well is he going to hold up against, say, Jozy Altidore, Wayne Rooney and Josef Martinez in back-to-back-to-back games?
That'd be a huge question for any center back in the league, of any age. Sands has to be ready by the time the playoffs get here.
It's hard to defend a title. It's especially hard to defend a title if your best player leaves for a record fee, your coach leaves for greener pastures, your big new arrival doesn't click (at all), and your new coach is constantly tinkering with new formations and lineups... things haven't been great in Atlanta. They really haven't.
But there they are, second in the East on points, third in points per game, first on goal differential, and playing for another title (they'll host the U.S. Open Cup final) in three weeks. Your doubt amuses Josef:
I'm still not entirely certain what kind of style they're trying to play, and what their best formation is, and how to get Ezequiel Barco, Tito Villalba and Pity Martinez onto the field together, and I'm not entirely certain that the locker room isn't going through some sort of players' revolt.
But I'm certain that this team is tough as hell, and one of the most talented in the league. That gets you some leeway.
My Worry: Talent's not enough. You need cohesion, buy-in, and the ability to execute at high levels in pressure situations. The fact that they've done as much in the Open Cup (and we'll get to see them in the Campeones Cup as well) suggests that, come playoff time, they'll be just fine.
So, so many other things suggest otherwise.
The name of the tier is "They've got the talent," and by that measure, how are you going to pick against the Galaxy? They've got international veterans, exciting academy kids, and an incoming Argentine international who's just entering his prime. They have additions on the backline and in midfield and on the wing, and they have Zlatan. Boil it down to raw talent and the Galaxy – especially with the addition of Cristian Pavon – match up with anybody. It's not even debatable.
Despite their problems (which we'll get to in a minute), their obvious lack of chemistry and what I would consider to be a "regressive" style of play (so many crosses I want to staple my eyes shut), they're on 1.61 PPG and are basically one post/crossbar/poorly defended corner/PK away from being on the same points and PPG as the Sounders. If they win their next game, they'll actually be ahead of Atlanta's pace. So it's tough to put them in any other group than this one.
My Worry: They have overwhelming talent. I am, meanwhile, just waiting to be whelmed. You don't have to overwhelm me – just a good, solid whelming.
Not happening as of yet.They have a negative goal differential overall and are 5-9-0 since the start of May, and almost never pass the eye test unless the test is "does this team look like it hates playing together." If that's the test then they're getting straight As.
I thought the Galaxy would be more than this by now. To be fair they are improved over last year and, again, there's that talent thing. But I don't know... putting them in this tier makes me feel bad. Let's just move on.
Ok here's the good news: Both Diego Chara and Diego Valeri have continued to fight off Father Time, and while Sebastian Blanco, 2019 isn't quite as dynamic as Sebastian Blanco, 2018 Stretch Run & Playoffs, those guys are all foundational pieces of a great team. And then they added Brian Fernandez, who looks the part of a $10 million goal-scorer, and – even better – they've finally developed some young depth that varies from "serviceable" to "match-winning."
Remember, it wasn't any of those four big names who beat LAFC in the U.S. Open Cup quarters: That was Jeremy Ebobisse. And it was Cristhian Paredes who annihilated the Galaxy a couple of weeks back, and it's been a host of other players alongside the veteran core who have, at times, made the Timbers appear to be irresistible.
And look, recent miserable 180 minutes in Minnesota aside, they're 9-4-3 over the past four months in league action. I might've jumped the gun when I said they're the second-best team in the league last month... but also, I might not have.
My Worry: In St. Paul in the USOC semifinal Gio Savarese started Ebobisse, a center forward, at left wing. He started Fernandez, a right winger, at center forward. He started Blanco, a left winger (or a right winger – he can do either!) at central attacking midfield. And thus it shouldn't be shocking that the Timbers were disjointed and out of ideas from open play, and struggled to create anything when they were on the ball.
Worse still, when Fernandez drifts wide (his natural propensity) and Ebobisse stays wide (his role), things get crowded and turnovers happen:
That is an unbalanced team. And they've done it to themselves.
The other big worry is that nobody's going to let them play in transition anymore – the book is out, and it's been read. Portland's going to face 10 (or maybe 11, depending upon what Sporting look like by the end of the season) straight bunkers. They haven't shown much in the way of breaking those down as of yet.
TIER III: They Maybe Don't?
Atop the East on points and PPG! A stubborn resistance to losing back-to-back games! Meaningful depth at almost every spot on the field! The second-most potent attack in the league! The fourth-best expected goals differential in the league! A probably 90% "they pass the eye test" rate! Lots of Germans!
The Union are, by every metric, really, really good overall. They can press the hell out of teams, then flip a switch and start knocking the ball around like they did in 2018. They can hang on for dear life for 65 minutes, then bring in Ilsinho off the bench and light you on freaking fire. They can crush you on set pieces, and they can kill you on the break. They are, in so many ways, the most complete team in the league outside of downtown L.A.
Even when they slumped recently, going 4-4-4 over 12 regular season games... that's hardly a "slump" by MLS standards, and in the midst of it they got wins at Minnesota and home vs. the Red Bulls, and draws against Seattle and at Bruce Arena's New England.
() That's very different than getting a result against Brad Friedel's New England.
The Union are good and fun and flexible both tactically and formationally. If it wasn't for Bradley and Matias Almeyda, we'd be talking about Jim Curtin as the coach of the year.
My Worry: Maybe I'm an idiot for this but... they're not where they are on talent. They're not the dregs by any means – this team is packed with above-average-to-excellent players, but I don't think there's a single Best XI caliber guy on the side other than maybe Andre Blake, and maaaaaaaybe Jamiro Monteiro (and neither's getting the nod this year).
I firmly believe that, come playoff time, you need an alpha who, when he says "screw this, we're not losing" not only inspires confidence in your team, but puts the fear of God into your opponents. Josef did it in 2018 and Jozy did it in 2017 and Lodeiro did it in 2016 and Valeri did it in 2015 and so on and so on and so on and so on.
I don't think the Union have that guy.
I kind of think Minnesota United don't have that guy either, but Adrian Heath's getting a lotta mileage out of my doubt!
Coaches find motivation in the wackiest places.
Anyway, Minnesota are as good a story as Philly this year, and more unexpected because of where they came from. Ike Opara, Jan Gregus, Ozzie Alonso and Vito Mannone have shored up the spine, while their monster haul from the past two drafts – Mason Toye, Hassani Dotson and Chase Gasper – have given this team a dose of youth and physicality. They're able to sit deep and absorb pressure now, and they're about a thousand times better at denying opponents entry into Zone 14, and they're just not trying all that much fancy stuff anymore.
And that's fine! They're 90 minutes from their first trophy and probably about 8 points from their first playoff appearance. Keep doing what you're doing, Loons!
My Worry: Yeah, Darwin Quintero's supposed to be "that guy" but he hasn't been, and Angelo Rodriguez certainly isn't, either. It's too much to ask of their newest DP, 18-year-old Thomas Chacon, to be that guy. So I guess it's some combination of the 20-year-old Toye, who has less than 1,000 MLS minutes, and Kevin Molino? I mean, if it worked vs. the Timbers in the USOC semis...
Beyond that, though, the Loons have simplified to the point where they only really have one way to play. Maybe that'll be enough. Maybe it won't.
San Jose Earthquakes
Here's the entire list of teams that have been better than San Jose, in terms of PPG, since the start of April:
That's it, that's the list.
Here's an example of why they've been so good:
They're precise with the ball, dynamic off of it, and totally clear of their roles and expectations on both sides of it. Other than LAFC and maybe Philly, they play the prettiest soccer in the league by the eye test, and they're top four in xG differential since Almeyda figured out his XI in Week 6.
San Jose's legit.
My Worry: As legit as they are: Unless one of the new guys is significantly better than advertised or Vako's got yet another attacking gear to hit or Wondo winds back the clock to 2012 or Magnus Eriksson grows a mullet and turns into Marco Etcheverry, I think this is it. The Quakes have a sort of mid-2010s, FC Dallas-style "58 points and one playoff win" vibe to them.
New York Red Bulls
We should just call this The New York Red Bulls Tier. "Really good, deep and well-drilled team that just doesn't have quite enough ooomph" is their brand.
This year I almost dropped them a tier because I'm not sure they're actually that good since their underlying numbers are poor and they frequently fail the eye test. Replacing Tyler Adams has been hard, but getting the same kind of week-to-week buy-in from the guys still on the roster has, at times, proven harder. Add in Bradley Wright-Phillips hitting the wall – I'm a big Brian White guy, but he ain't prime BWP – and this group feels more likely to go backwards than forwards.
But 1) I'm a sucker for nostalgia, and 2) they have put together some statement results (Toronto last weekend, NYCFC a few weeks before that, Atlanta a few weeks before that). They've still got juice when they flip the switch, so in this tier they'll stay.
My Worry: We've seen this movie before and we know how it ends.
TIER IV: The Knife's Edge
I felt pretty good about picking TFC as a team to make a second-half run. They've got the firepower with Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo, and they have veteran internationals at both defensive midfield and center back, and fullbacks who can win you a game, and a goalkeeper who's been pretty good since his arrival, and two new attacking wingers who should juice up the attack more than just a little bit, right?
If you look at this team on paper, they should be excellent. And if you look at them on grass, sometimes they do stuff like this:
That's ridiculous. Jozy's been exceptional.
My Worry: Nobody else has! And so even this recent good run of results has felt more like "well, Jozy's keeping them afloat" than it has like TFC's coming together and starting to play good soccer. I thought it was going to be pretty easy as soon as he, Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez all got back from the Gold Cup, but... nope. They remain below the playoff line.
They remain poor defensively, can be soft through midfield and we're still waiting on one of the wingers to be a meaningful addition. Anything less than a win this weekend and it feels like the season's going to get away from them.
D.C. might've hit that point two months ago but still, we've seen this group (maybe not quite this exact group, but most of them) play at better than 2 ppg for half a season just last year. Granted those were mostly home games, but it's not like United stunk on the road in 2018, and it's not like all those guys suddenly forgot how to soccer. The talent is still there, and maybe now that it's clear the the key players won't be – not past November at the very latest, anyway – maybe a weight will have been lifted. Maybe they will finally play with some chemistry, verve and freedom. Maybe it won't take 70-yard bombs from Rooney to get the job done.
We've seen legitimately great soccer from this D.C. bunch. I know it's in there.
My Worry: Haven't seen it much, if at all, in 2019 though! My working assumption is that Rooney's announcement that he's headed back to Dear Old Blighty, and the pretty obvious fact that Lucho Acosta will be gone at the end of the season as well means the thing I said above – that D.C. will play with the same sort of winning swag and freedom they showed down the stretch last season.
But that's just an assumption and assumptions are often quite dumb. There's a good (probably better) chance United are the team they've been the past couple months: 2-4-7, -5 goal differential and on their way out of the playoff race. We'll see which bunch shows up on Sunday vs. the Galaxy.
Regardless, I feel the same way about D.C. that I do about Toronto: They're too talented to be in this precarious spot. Both teams should be in the "they've got the talent!" tier.
TIER V: Struggling In (Or Out)
OK, so here's where I'm at: The Impact played the final 21 games of last season at a 60-point pace. Then they started this year on a long road trip, but were giving teams the business anyway – 6-4-2 in their first 12 games isn't great, but it's pretty good when only three of those games were at home!
And then they lost Ignacio Piatti, and then they were scuffling along anyway in spite of the absence of their best player, and then they went straight into the toilet on both sides of the ball. Since the end of June they're 1-5-0 and have shipped 15 goals in those six games. That's not great for a team that defined themselves during the final two-thirds of last year, and the first third of this year by their ability to absorb and counter.
But the man is back:
He's also got some help in the form of Lassi Lappalainen and Bojan Krkic (maybe – I have my doubts about Bojan).
They should be able to score again and they have plenty of home games left, which should be enough...
My Worry: ...in spite of their defense. No team in a playoff position has conceded more than Montreal's 44 goals, and only two (Colorado and Cincinnati) have conceded more overall. That "60-point pace" team is a distant memory, and I worry that Piatti's final year in Montreal will be yet another story of a team that fades out and falls just short of the playoffs.
Real Salt Lake
Like Montreal, RSL have a lot of home games left and they're above the playoff line. Both of those are far preferable to the alternatives, and are pretty much the best starting spots for having this "will they make it or won't they?" discussion. And as RSL showed last year... just get to that finish line, man. This is MLS and wild stuff (Mike Petke literally said they needed "a miracle") can happen.
Unlike Montreal, RSL don't have a clear-cut best player, but I'd argue their roster is deeper and better balanced than the Impact's. They have above average-to-very good players at almost every spot, and meaningful depth scattered throughout as well. If the idea is "you win with the full roster, not just a handful of guys," then you can't quibble too much with the Claret-and-Cobalt.
My Worry: Why are they spending yet another yet scuffling along in 6th/7th/8th place for the entire season? Why are they still so helpless on the road? Why is Jefferson Savarino not yet their best player? Who do they give the ball to when they run out of ideas? Why do they run out of ideas so quickly? Why does it feel like every single player on the roster should be 5-10% better than they are, as should the whole thing en toto?
I'm probably nit-picking, since RSL are 4-1-2 in their past seven and have walloped some good teams (3-1 over NYCFC, 4-0 over Philly). Something's missing, though.
New England Revolution
I did not see this coming, and I kind of think you're a liar if you said you did. Yes, the Revs got waxed this weekend – LAFC are just so, so much better than them – but "oh man we got drilled by the best MLS team of all-time" is not a bad way to end your team-record unbeaten run. To go from what the Revs were (roadkill) to what they've become (legit playoff threat) just by clearing out the coach and front office... "unexpected" doesn't begin to do it justice.
But it happened. Arena got them on the same page, playing happy and united (and often fun!) soccer, and in Gustavo Bou they have an in-the-18 match-winner:
GOAL: Gustavo Bou marks his debut with a stunning volley
I still reserve the right to feel surprise at what happened, but I'm no longer going to keep feeling surprised if it keeps happening. Bruce knows a thing or two about coaching winning soccer, and the Revs have some talent.
My Worry: Maybe not enough of that talent is on the backline? I absolutely think New England's midfield and attacking talent is good enough to be a playoff team, but that defense scares me (even though I have been a fan of Andrew Farrell's switch to center back).
Beyond that, as excellent as that 11-game run was, it didn't exactly come against murderer's row, and starting with that LAFC game, the schedule just got tougher.
FC Dallas at their best!
SHOT: Santiago Mosquera strike is wide of the target
My Worry: FC Dallas at their worst!
SHOT: Santiago Mosquera strike is wide of the target
They have the second-best defense in the West. They have the third-worst offense in the West. None of the guys paid to put the ball in the net have managed to do so with any regularity, and it feels like that's gonna be the story of that in 2019.
TIER VI: I Don't Think This is Gonna Happen, But...
The Lions have taken a massive step forward this year in achieving respectability thanks largely to their newfound, non-flammable defensive status: They're on track to concede about 25 fewer goals than last year, which is quite a chunk. Add in a couple of nice signings and a credible run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, and it feels like there's been a bunch to build on for this club in 2019.
It's not a Quakes-like turnaround, mind you. I think if I'd posed this question 10 months ago – who's closer to being a contender, San Jose or Orlando? – most folks would've taken Orlando City especially if they knew the Lions were getting a legit DP and the Quakes, in terms of a roster overhaul, were mostly getting bupkis.
But it's mid-August, they're only four points out, they only have a -1 goal differential, and they've got a shot at the playoffs.
What Went Wrong: I'm not going to lay this entirely at the feet of one guy, but if Dom Dwyer had finished at his usual rate all season long I'm guessing this team would be at something like 35 or 36 points, and they'd have taken a 1-0 lead in that USOC semi against Atlanta instead of crashing out by 2-0.
Live by the mercurial striker, die by the mercurial striker. The season's probably done, but if Dom suddenly gets hot (he's entirely capable of scoring 10 goals in their last 10 games), then we could still see this team in the postseason.
I mean, this was ground-breaking. Volume up:
Watching an MLS team get Olés from an appreciative Liga MX crowd in Mexico... ain't never seen that before! That performance seemed to validate every single one of the risks Peter Vermes took with this roster and this tactical approach.
What Went Wrong:The Toluca series was a mirage. Sporting are old, slow and frail, and their lack of production from the No. 9 spot just murdered them for long stretches of the season. Add in some hard goalscoring regression from their wingers, and that's how you get this misery.
But... four of their next five are at home, and Erik Hurtado's looked good since getting back from injury. If they take nine points from those games, they at least give themselves a puncher's chance at the playoffs heading into the final month of the season.
Guess who's got the second-best expected goals differential in MLS? Yup, it's the Chicago Fire.
I still haven't quite figured out exactly what this means, especially since Chicago also so frequently passed the eye test through the first half of the season. They played legitimately thrilling soccer at times – though those times were almost always when trailing, and almost never for 90 minutes, and rarely from any sort of consistent approach. It was all talent.
What Went Wrong: No consistent approach, all talent. Also, no defenders. And also, Nemanja Nikolic's been more profligate than Dwyer in front of the net.
Fire fans know all this, of course. They also know that being six points out of the playoffs with nine games left doesn't mean the season's over, but they've got to build off last weekend's win. Anything less than the full three points on Saturday against Montreal, and stick a fork in 'em.
I mostly have them here because it doesn't feel right to put Houston in the "Next Year's Promise" category given that their future is very questionable. I do like that Christian Ramirez trade, though!
GOAL: Christian Ramirez finishes after a line-breaking one-two
Ramirez, like Dwyer and Nikolic, has struggled in front of net this year. $250 xAM is not too much to figure out if a change of scenery is what he needs, given his underlying numbers have stayed strong even as his boxscore numbers have suffered.
What Went Wrong: All the important pieces regressed and other than Rodriguez, their depth hasn't been enough to make up for that regression. Houston are 2-9-1 in the last two-and-a-half months.
They are still just three points under the playoff line with a game in hand. It's mathematically very possible for them to make the playoffs.
But – and shouts to r/Dynamo for this one – they actually have a worse record over their last 46 games than they did during the 46 games of Owen Coyle's tenure. From May 30, 2018 to now they have averaged 1.07 ppg.
That hot start to the season was a home-heavy blip.
TIER VII: Next Year's Promise
They're maybe, what, two wins from being two tiers higher? If those first two games – games in which they were the better team – had gone differently under Conor Casey, we'd be talking about the Mile High Miracle or something like that, and it would overshadow what Arena's accomplished in Foxborough.
But they didn't win those games, and the start of the season was just too putrid, and the coaching change came a little too late. So they're not going to make the playoffs in 2019 unless they win eight of their final 11. Technically possible, which is not the best kind of "possible."
Nevertheless there's so much to like here for 2020 and beyond if you're a Rapids fan. They are equally murderous on set pieces and on the break, they are mostly very young, and Casey has gotten improved performances from literally everyone. I have him sixth on my personal Coach of the Year ballot.
This team has been a lot of fun to watch. A lot.
What Went Wrong: Fair to say Anthony Hudson was waaaay out of his depth, which was the primary cause.
Next year's team has to keep the "we're free and happy!" energy they've played with over the past three months, and build on their success this season. No matter who the coach is.
There are four teams currently unbeaten in four or more regular-season games:
- Minnesota United (7 games)
- San Jose (5 games)
- RSL (4 games)
- Columbus Crew (4 games)
Pretty good company! Columbus haven't completely turned this thing around – they're not playing scintillating soccer by any means – but they're out there getting good results (the last three have been particularly credible, and after getting a 1-1 draw in San Jose last week Quakes defender Florian Jungwirth called them "the best team we've played other than LAFC.")
Now they've got a pair of Hell is Real derbies coming in the next three weeks, in which they can assert local primacy, and they've got a ton of games against Eastern Conference playoff teams left, so they can at the very least ruin somebody else's season while looking toward 2020.
What Went Wrong: A combo of age + injuries, more than anything else, did the deed. They've already done a fair bit of roster overhaul, and I would expect that to continue when the window re-opens in January.
Ooof. I really thought they had an outside shot to stay in the playoff race right to the end – I've seen Marc Dos Santos work magic with seemingly doomed clubs before. But whatever magic he had in the past didn't translate into 2019 and this group, who have just two wins in three months and just five wins on the season.
What Went Wrong: Literally none of the midfield or attacking signings they made this past winter worked out. You can't go 0-for-7 (including two DPs) and expect to compete, especially if you're on a budget. Their player recruitment was a nightmare.
They started to fix some of it in this window. They'll have to do more of that in the coming window, and they'll have to be better about getting contributors either via the waiver wire, free agency or the draft. Dos Santos, if he's back (and he should be) is really going to have to earn his money next year.
The success of LAFC and Atlanta United over the past two years made everyone forget a pretty simple truth: Expansion life is harrrrrdddddd. And nobody's had it harder in a long, long time than FC Cincinnati. There's an outside chance they finish with one of the five worst records in league history, they're almost a mortal lock to set a new record for negative goal differential (the current record of -37 is jointly held by the 2013 versions of both Chivas USA and D.C. United), and they're a very good bet to set a new record for goals conceded.
They have a real coach now and have started making some low-risk, fairly promising moves – the kind of moves they should've made this time last year.
What Went Wrong: From the start, the club's roster-building team had a clear lack of top-level soccer expertise. All kinds of red flags with that, and maybe even more around former head coach Alan Koch (just nose around a little bit and you'll hear some stories). They addressed both of these issues, hiring a new GM (Gerard Nijkamp) and head coach (Ron Jans).
For what it's worth I still maintain that the "Bring 10 players from the USL" thing was overblown. The real problem was paying all your xAM for guys like Fanendo Adi, Nick Hagglund, Alvas Powell, Greg Garza and Kendall Waston. Only one of those guys is a reliable starter, and calling Waston "reliable" these days is kind of a stretch. They paid millions for replacement-level players (Hey Nashville, if you're reading this: DON'T DO THAT!!!).
And so the rest of this season is a rebuild. And most, if not all of next season will be a rebuild. Que sera sera.