Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armchair Analyst: The five best MLS teams of all-time

Yes, we've been hammering this topic quite a bit lately. But that's because – in my opinion anyway – it's a topic worth hammering.

I'm a fan of the NBA, and it's a conversation I have every single year these days (the 1996 Bulls are overrated); I used to watch a lot of baseball, and it's a conversation that comes up any time someone puts together a run that can land them in the same neighborhood as the 1927 Yankees (too bad the Dodgers choked over the last two weeks); and I follow enough about the NFL to know what the Giants' win over the Patriots meant a decade ago.

So yes, "are TFC really the best MLS team of all-time?" is going to get hammered away at for the next few months. We know by this point what the numbers say, and we know by this point that they'll need to win MLS Cup in December to truly put this discussion to bed.

But here, simply, is my "eye test" ranking of the best teams in this league's 21 year history. My rubric is a combination of "consistent performance over the course of the year" to "ultimate ceiling" to "memorable moments" to "numbers" to "Ringz, Erneh!"

5. 2005 San Jose Earthquakes

Still the most recent team to average 2 ppg or better, this group of players are actually better known for what they did in 2006 and 2007 when they won back-to-back MLS Cups as the Houston Dynamo. (The current iteration of the Quakes came back as an "expansion" team in 2008.)

But they were at their deepest and best in 2005. The striker corps comprised three internationals, Brian Ching, Alejandro Moreno and Ronald Cerritos; the backline had fringe national teamers like Danny Califf, Eddie Robinson and Wade Barrett (as well as the last ride of Cowboy Troy Dayak); the midfield was stacked with guys like Brad Davis, Mark Chung and Brian Mullan; Pat Onstad was, at that point, the best 'keeper in the league.

What really separated them, though, was who did the work at the front point and the back point of the 4-4-2 diamond midfield they played. Ricardo Clark had his breakout season as a No. 6, and Dwayne De Rosario had his as a No. 10 (9g/13a):

Check the free kick at the 40-second mark, which remains the best in league history. He blasted that on the final day of the season against his club's biggest rival. They lost just once in their last 22 games, went unbeaten in their last 14, and clinched the Supporters' Shield with a dominant and demoralizing 2-0 win at runners-up New England with three weeks left in the season.

That was and remains the most dominant and clutch regular-season away performance I've seen in this league. They finished the regular season with 64 points in 32 games, a league-best +22 goal differential, the league's best defense (31 goals allowed) and third-best attack (53 goals scored). They also played some pretty soccer, mostly through De Ro, Davis and Ching – three of the best passers of the ball at their respective positions the league has ever seen. The 2005 Quakes were built, more than anything else, around that ability to pass the ball.

Of course, it all gets obscured by the fact that they got rooked by former teammate Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy the week after De Ro's free kick in the opening leg of the Western Conference semifinals. Nonetheless, I'll remember the 2005 Quakes as the best team in the league that season.

Fun Note: Some fresh-faced college kid named Chris Wondolowski was a rookie that season. He appeared twice for a grand total of five minutes, but scored eight goals in 12 reserve team games.

4. 2001 Miami Fusion

I don't know if there's anything I can add to this discussion that wasn't said in this old episode of MLS Insider: 

I'll try, though: Miami were more committed to possessing the ball and building out of the back than any team I'd seen in MLS until Patrick Vieira's 2016 NYCFC team, and they did so with what felt like a good slice of Latin American flair. Nick Rimando was in his second season as a starter; Carlos Llamosa, in the middle of the back three, was flanked by Pablo Mastroeni and Tyrone Marshall; Ian Bishop was a Haris Medunjanin-esque distributor, while Preki ran the attack behind Diego Serna and that year's MVP, Alex Pineda Chacon. They blended, and – for lack of a better descriptor – they flowed more than any team I can remember in MLS.

"I think it was the most expressive, exciting, entertaining football that certainly had been seen to that point, and arguably as entertaining as anything that's been produced since then," Ray Hudson said in the documentary above, and I won't argue too much with him. You could put the 2001 Fusion out there in today's MLS and they'd still play the same way: Death through meaningful possession, nominally out of a 3-5-2 but really out of whatever damn way they felt like going with the ball.

I loved that team. They led the league in scoring with 57 goals in a 9/11-shortened 26-game season, led the league in points per game (and thus won the Shield), and led the league with a +21 goal differential.  

Then they ran into the Earthquakes in the semifinals. Donovan, De Ro and especially Cowboy Troy drove the knife in, and the Fusion folded that offseason.

MLS hasn't been back to South Florida since then. If David Beckham's team is half as fun and entertaining as the 2001 Fusion, he'll have done well.

Fun Note: Rimando and Kyle Beckerman (who barely played in 2001 as a 19-year-old) were both on that team, and would both go on to be key pieces of one of the other more entertaining, possession-based groups in MLS history – Jason Kreis's 2009-through-2013 vintage RSL group.

And for what it's worth, I'll maintain my long-held stance that Jim Rooney is the most underrated central midfielder in league history.

3. 1998 D.C. United

This would seem a weird pick to some folks because 1998 was the only year out of the first four that D.C. didn't win MLS Cup. They also didn't win the US Open Cup – Chicago, as an expansion team, won both – and didn't win the Supporters' Shield, which went to LA. That same LA team holds just about every mark Toronto FC are chasing in terms of points, points per game, goal differential and total goals.

D.C. were the best team that year. I don't care that, by the numbers, they are the worst team on this list, nor that they didn't take home a domestic trophy. What matters is that they had Marco Etcheverry at the peak of his powers:

And Jaime Moreno at the peak of his, and Eddie Pope at the peak of his, and Carlos Llamosa at the peak of his, and Jeff Agoos at the peak of his, and Tony Sanneh at the peak of his, and Roy Lassiter banging home goals, and John Harkes and Richie Williams doing work deeper in midfield, and Ben Olsen winning Rookie of the Year. Like the 2005 Quakes they played a diamond 4-4-2, and like the Quakes they were defined by their ability to pass the ball.

They ripped teams apart that year, including the Fire and Galaxy, going 4-0 with a +9 goal differential against those teams in the regular season. Then they got to MLS Cup, and the Fire counterattack – still one of the best in league history – turned the lights out by 2-0. 

That said, 1998 D.C. will always be remembered because of what they did outside of of MLS. In mid-August they won the CONCACAF Champions Cup (the forerunner of the CCL) by stuffing Joe Public 8-0, then dominating Leon 2-0, and then out-playing Toluca in a 1-0 win in the final. Toluca were the Liga MX champions in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

Two months after that, they went out and deservedly beat Vasco da Gama, the 1997 Brazilian league and 1998 Copa Libertadores champions, 2-1 in the Copa Interamericana.

No other MLS team has ever claimed scalps like that.

Fun Note: D.C. won five Cups (1996 MLS Cup & US Open Cup; 1997 MLS Cup; 1998 CONCACAF & Interamericana) in their first three seasons. Pope had the game-winning goal in three of them, and scored in another.

2. 2017 Toronto FC

For all the reasons mentioned here.

The only two issues I have with this year's Reds are that sometimes they settle for only "pretty good" looks when they could, instead, generate tap-ins. And that I still suspect you can bully them a little bit in the box if you can actually get on the ball long enough to actually push them into the box.

But really, that's about it. And given the way they've played recently, the first of those issues has sort of faded away.

Fun Note: The very fact that I wrote this column guarantees they'll lose this weekend because this is MLS.

1. 2014 LA Galaxy

I'll admit that this is an odd choice given how much stock I put in winning the Shield, and how I generally prefer the Shield to MLS Cup as an better arbiter of a team's quality. LA didn't win the Shield in 2014 of course; that went to the Sounders (another truly great team, though lacking a bit defensively) while the Galaxy claimed MLS Cup.

That was their only title that year, but I really don't care. The Galaxy, led by Donovan and MVP Robbie Keane, ripped teams apart with the most meticulous and methodical attack in league history:

Most of the other teams on this list were conducted by a traditional, central No. 10 – De Ro, Preki, Diablo, even Victor Vazquez to an extent. LA played without that, instead relying more upon movement of the ball and movement of the entire front six, as well as two overlapping fullbacks, to dominate the shape and pace of the game. They had more goals where they just walked the ball into the net than any team I can recall.

It was exacting and took a toll, and they really weren't the same team in October that they'd been from May through September. Yet the whole endeavor culminated in an MLS Cup final that they won 2-1 (AET) gutting it out, showing a different gear that a few of the other teams on this list just didn't quite have.

Including the playoffs, LA finished that year with a +38 goal differential. If the 2001 Fusion were pretty like a painting, the 2014 Galaxy were pretty like a perfect mathematical equation that launches a rocket to the freaking sun.

Fun Fact: The Galaxy finished that regular season with a home-and-home against Seattle for the Shield, and then faced Seattle in the West final – another home-and-home series. They won just one of the four games, and only advanced to MLS Cup via an away goal.

I just figured I'd mention it first before Sounders fans filled up the comments section with their justifiably angry takes.