Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier

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 make them awful).

These teams are mostly in the order I think they'll finish, but what really matters is the tier designation.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - TOR

Toronto FC

Last year I picked TFC first, talked about how Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were the league's best forward pair, and how Victor Vazquez would provide the third heat in attack to make them damn near unbeatable. I worried a bit about the defense if Drew Moor got hurt, but they survived – even thrived – when he missed a chunk of time early in the season. They managed when Altidore and Michael Bradley were on international duty, and they managed with Giovinco never really playing at more than 75 percent of what he'd been in 2015 and most of 2016.

Everything went right. Alex Bono established himself as a top MLS 'keeper, and Chris Mavinga was arguably the league's best center back for the second half of the season. They found depth at both fullback positions, and bring almost all of it back (including what appears to be an on-paper upgrade at right fullback/wingback).

They're also going to be a touch more flexible with their formation this year. I think it's safe to say they won the Canadian Championship and Supporters' Shield playing a 3-5-2, but then clowned Seattle in MLS Cup playing a 4-4-2 diamond. Greg Vanney has proved to be one of the very best coaches in the league at making tactical adjustments based upon both his own personnel and on-field match-ups.

My only worry is if Justin Morrow – who's 30, and is closing in on 20,000 minutes – gets hurt/goes missing. Last year they had Raheem Edwards, who put up 1g/8a in 1300 minutes across all competitions, which is an insane level of productivity for a left back/wingback (and he did it in big moments, too). But "oh man we no longer have a game-changing reserve left back" is such a first world problem, even in the TAM era, that it's not worth getting hung up on.

TFC are the favorites by a mile.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: This might get a little squirrelly given their midweek CCL duties. Also, don't be shocked if they break out the 3-5-2 just to mess with Columbus.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - SEA

Seattle Sounders

Was Nicolas Lodeiro the same player in 2017 that he'd been in 2016? Was Osvaldo Alonso? Was Jordan Morris?

The answer across the board was "no," but Seattle were pretty clearly the best team in the Western Conference anyway. I know they didn't prove it in the regular season, but come on – there wasn't much doubt. And then they absolutely waltzed through the playoffs before getting clowned by the Reds.

The fact that they survived those individual drop-offs but still did what they did is indicative of the level of depth this team was able to cobble together. With Ozzie out, Gustav Svensson stepped up. With Morris hurt (and he'll be hurt again, unfortunately), Will Bruin found the range. Clint Dempsey came back healthy and had a good-if-not-great season, Cristian Roldan continued his evolution into a very complete No. 8, and the fullbacks were constantly productive.

First and foremost, though, this team was about the center back pairing of Chad Marshall and Roman Torres, and I expect that to be the case again. Here's the problem, though: By mid-season, those guys will be a combined 66 years old, and there still isn't a high-upside replacement behind either of them. If one or the other goes missing, the Sounders struggle – which they've showed in CCL action already. Garth Lagerwey needs to address that in the next few weeks.

EDIT: He addressed that literally as I was writing this column. The Sounders officially signed South Korean international CB Kim Kee-Hee on Tuesday evening. He will, I'm guessing, eventually be a starter.

This team will play mostly a 4-2-3-1 again (though we might see some diamond), and will be mostly very good again. I don't think they're too old to challenge at the very top of the league, but it feels very much like the last dance for a group of guys that's won every domestic title available to the over the previous three seasons.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: As with TFC, this might go a little sideways given the midweek CCL game. Also, bear in mind that I've got Magnus Wolff Eikrem out of position here, but this remains my best guess.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - NYC

New York City FC

At this point you know they'll build from the back at all costs, you know they'll play that 4-3-3 almost every time out, and you know that they're going to press higher and harder than they did when Patrick Vieira first took over in 2016. NYCFC have transformed from an old and slow group to one of the youngest and most athletic teams in the league, but obviously one that prioritizes skill over everything else.

They've also gone out and prioritized depth this offseason, which makes sense given how their goalscoring dried up down the stretch as the likes of Jack Harrison and Rodney Wallace faded (I still think Vieira made a mistake by not getting more minutes for Jonathan Lewis). They're two deep at every spot on the field, and if TFC slip in the regular season – which often happens to defending champs, especially ones determined to make lengthy CCL runs – NYCFC are my pick to pip them in the Shield race.

The one big concern? There is simply no replacing David Villa from what I've seen or can imagine. When Giovinco goes down the Reds either slot in Tosaint Ricketts to be a field-stretching striker or bottle up into a 5-4-1, and they've won their share of games both ways. When Villa goes down, the Cityzens... lose. They just lose.

Maybe Norwegian international Jo Inge Berget, signed this offseason, can change that. But A) he's already hurt, and B) isn't that much of a goalscorer. Villa has to fight off Father Time for one more season.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Expect Rodney Wallace and new Young DP Jesus Medina to swap sides quite a bit.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - ATL

Atlanta United

In 2017 Atlanta United had the third-best expansion season in league history, behind only the 1998 Chicago Fire and 2009 Seattle Sounders (both of whom won trophies, which is an open-and-shut argument for their superiority). They did so with relentless pressure from front-to-back, dynamic wing play, a much-better-than-I-expected-it-to-be defense, and superhuman finishing from Josef Martinez.

Pretty much all of that is back and has arguably been upgraded. I'll admit some doubt about Ezequiel Barco being better than Yamil Asad was (ED NOTE: Barco will be out 4-6 weeks after suffering an injury in training Wednesday), but am buying plenty of Franco Escobar stock at right back. I also expect big steps forward from second-year youngsters Andrew Carleton, who was sublime in preseason and at the U-17 World Cup, and Miles Robinson, who could end up giving the backline the dose of athleticism it lacked at times in Year 1.

There is depth and creativity and chemistry and knowhow and, look, I've gotta say it: There's a big old hole in central midfield where Carlos Carmona was. The Chilean vet is gone and in his stead is Darlington Nagbe, who is a much different player. Nagbe will at times make the attack prettier, and along with Barco will be an off-the-dribble weapon the team lacked last season. He brings stuff to the table.

I worry about what he takes off the table, though. Carmona was masterful at making it miserable to receive a pass in midfield, and his distribution was both clean and early. Nagbe is not that kind of defensive presence, and while his distribution is the cleanest in the league it is almost never early. He plays at a different pace, and it showed in preseason. Add in 34-year-old Jeff Larentowicz inching close toward the light, and I'm officially a little bit worried about central midfield for the Five Stripes. They'll still be good if those guys struggle, but that could/will be the difference between "good" and "great."

Also, don't expect Martinez to finish at superhuman rates again. He's still a good bet for the Golden Boot, but if he slows down to even that lofty level we'll see Atlanta playing from even or behind more often, and that could give this year a whole different kind of feel.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: I'm not sure that this backline is what I think it is. Tata Martino has been using Larentowicz in Parkhurst's place, which is... weird.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - DAL

FC Dallas

I've spilled so much ink on this team over the last eight months, so I'll just say it one more time: What happened last year – the mid-season collapse – was unprecedented in MLS history. Never has such a good team become such a bad team so fast.

Instead of blowing it all up they decided to move out a couple of players, move in a few others, and move up a few more beyond that. Reggie Cannon's the starter at right back now, and Paxton Pomykal should get meaningful minutes at a couple of midfield spots. Jacori Hayes will as well, and rookie Homegrown Jordan Cano could end up getting some real run. FCD are re-embracing their #PlayYourKids ethos.

At the same time, they went out and spent this winter like they never have before, both on the backline (Reto Ziegler and Anton Nedyalkov) and in attack (DP forward/winger Santiago Mosquera). Add in a healthy-and-balling Mauro Diaz, and a hopefully locked-in Maxi Urruti, and there is, hopefully, enough to pull this talented group back up toward the top of the standings.

But let's face it: Last year's collapse wasn't about talent. It was about chemistry. Something broke inside the Dallas clubhouse, and beyond anything else, fixing that has to be Oscar Pareja's concern.

My guess is he manages it.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: This is not their first XI, and there's a chance I'm being too optimistic about Pomykal and Cano in particular. But I just can't see Pareja going with the starters on short rest in Week 1. Let Diaz ease into the season, keep him healthy, and give the kids a big of run.

Portland Timbers

For the first time in five years the Timbers enter an MLS season with a new head coach, and given Gio Savarese's credentials it's probably justifiable for Portlanders to be hyped. The man hasn't done it in the top flight yet, but he's won and managed big egos and handled locker room strife and speaks three languages and has played in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying meat grinder and and and and...

Savarese's got impeccable credentials. I think he was a great hire, and the fact that he's inheriting a team that won the (regular season) Western Conference – then added a bunch of quality-on-paper pieces to that group – suggests Portland should compete at the top of the conference again even if Diego Valeri becomes something less than the MVP. Samuel Armenteros has been especially prolific in preseason, and there's also young depth (which Savarese will actually be willing to develop and use, if his track record is any indication) pretty much everywhere.

That all makes me high on the Timbers. But not so high that I can overlook two things.

  1. The preferred CB combo is old, slow and injury prone.
  2. What's the right formation for these guys?

Liam Ridgewell and Larrys Mabiala played well together last season, but how many "together" minutes will they manage in 2018? And while I'll happily hit "buy" at every other position's depth chart, I'm giving center back the old side eye until I see what Julio Cascante can really do. And by the by, there's no longer "Prime Diego Chara" in front of this group to chew up the field protecting them (his age, foot injury and lack of playing time in the preseason worries me).

So they've looked vulnerable, for the most part, throughout February. The times they haven't looked vulnerable have been when swapping out of the tried-and-true 4-2-3-1 that Portland have played for 95 percent of the time since 2013 and into either a 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-1-4-1.

I'm not sure results matter that much in the preseason, but the eye test matters. Especially when you have new players, a new coach and the same old high expectations.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Kiiiinda just making this up to be honest. Only thing I know for sure is there'll be four at the back.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - CLB

Columbus Crew SC

Speaking of preseason results maybe not mattering... Columbus are going to desperately hope they in fact do matter, because they looked like a juggernaut over the past six weeks. Federico Higuain was at his "float around the field and control the entire shape of the game" best, the wingers were livewire and occasionally productive, 19-year-old left back Milton Valenzuela is the best young DP in this league that you've never heard of, Wil Trapp + Artur = HELL YES, and Gyasi Zardes is out there slotting home tap-ins like it's 2014.

It is entirely possible that I'm overreacting to their late-season form and playoff run, as well as what they did in preseason. The defense still has the look of a group entirely capable of catastrophe, there's probably not as much depth at fullback anymore, Higuain's entering his mid-30s, and Justin Meram is gone. Beyond that it's just hard to talk yourself into Zardes being as consistently productive as Ola Kamara (also gone) was.

Except... maybe? Kamara's success was a product of his instincts and skill, but also of the system. Columbus are a big chance-generating juggernaut and have been for four years under Gregg Berhalter, and Zardes has shown an ability in the past to convert those into goals. So much of Crew SC's potential relies upon him rediscovering that, but I'm a big "system first" guy and thus I'm gonna choose to believe in this Columbus group.

They're not favorites. They don't have a good enough defense or enough proven attackers to be that. But they've shown repeatedly that they know how to win, and they'll obviously be playing with some extra motivation in 2018.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: The wings will swap a ton.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - SKC

Sporting KC

Speaking of "system first," let's go back to the banks of the Missouri River. If Columbus are the pre-eminent example of an attacking system in MLS, then SKC are the pre-eminent example of a defensive system in MLS. No matter who they trot out there, no matter how many years in a row, they lead the league in fewest expected goals allowed, fewest chances generated from Zone 14, most turnovers forced in their own attacking third and most misery inflicted upon their opponents.

Sporting play hard and fast and will continue to do so for as long as Peter Vermes draws breath.

The problem is twofold. First is that playing hard and fast every single game out has taken the starch out of this group come August in each of the last four seasons. Vermes has to either A) become more comfortable rotating the squad to keep his most important pieces fresh, or B) figure out a different way to play from time-to-time (not gonna bet on that happening).

Second is that nobody scores, man. In 2017 they underperformed their expected goals for the fourth straight season, and for the second straight year they did so massively. And instead of bringing in a high-profile center forward, Vermes & Co. decided to roll the dice on Diego Rubio again.

Rubio's a nice player and the underlying numbers like him, but that's the point: The underlying numbers have loved SKC the last four years, but they keep coming up short. Add in a high-risk swap of playmakers from Benny Feilhaber to the underwhelming-in-preseason Yohan Croizet, and you've got potential for major problems.

The defense should still be good enough, but even that is a risk – will Ike Opara play another full, healthy season? Will age and miles catch up to Matt Besler and Graham Zusi? Cristian Lobato at left back? Really? Gonna do that with a team who had five one-goal wins and 13 draws while getting a blinder of a season from Tim Melia last year?

If not for The System™, I'd have this team two tiers lower than I do. But I've got to trust it because it's worked so well for so long.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Pretty pretty sure that's gonna be it.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - ORL

Orlando City SC

Every year there's at least one team that crawls up from below the playoff line into something approaching "contender" status. Sometimes you see it coming, as with Toronto in 2016. Other times it's pretty well concocted out of the blue, as with Houston last year.

If it happens for Orlando City, it'll be more toward the "TFC, 2016" side of the ledger. The Purple Lions have spent up and down the roster, using TAM and GAM, DP slots and the SuperDraft, Homegrowns and NASL and USL and a commitment to kicking over every rock and digging up any/every piece of talent possible, and then (hopefully) making them fit. Even if it doesn't work out for them I love what they did this offseason because they committed in equal measure to getting guys in their prime, and getting youngsters on the come-up.

So they are now both more experienced and younger than ever before. The kids will have to fight to get on the field, and the veterans will have to fight to keep their spots. It's pretty much exactly how I would build a team if somebody offered me a GM job.

Could all the bad things happen and Orlando City miss the playoffs? Yes, of course. There's no guarantee there will be any chemistry with this many new arrivals, there's no guarantee the kids will be good (though I'm betting heavy on all four of Chris Mueller, Josue Colman, Cam Lindley and Pierre da Silva), injuries have traditionally ravaged this club, I'm slightly worried about their finishing, and they need another CB.

But this was a magnificent job by the Orlando City front office. Jason Kreis, the ball's now in your court.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: The Lions haven't been publishing their lineups this preseason, so some of these are guesses. Bear in mind that Sacha Kljestan's suspended, Dom Dwyer's hurt and Uri Rosell just stepped off a plane. Once those guys are back they're the presumptive starters – though given this team's depth, they'll have to earn it.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - NY

New York Red Bulls

I'm maybe being a little bit naive here in that I'm not super concerned about the RBNY defense. Yes, Aurelien Collin is closer to the end than the beginning, but 1) I don't think he'll be asked to play every single minute, and 2) I believe in Jesse Marsch's ability to coach young players up. We've seen him do it with young midfielders a bunch, and with young defenders to the on-field and financial benefit of the whole franchise. Can Tommy Redding be the next Aaron Long or even Matt Miazga? Could Fidel Escobar or Michael Amir Murillo or Hassan Ndam? At least one of them will push through, and RBNY will be fine on the backline, fine in goal, and fine (or better, depending upon how Tyler Adams develops) at d-mid.

The question, really, is in attack. RBNY shipped out Sacha Kljestan and for as long as Marsch has been the boss in Harrison his team has been helpless when Kljestan's been off the field. I get it, though – they replaced Kljestan with Alejandro Romero "Kaku" Gamarra, a 22-year-old, high-priced import from the Argentine Primera. Kaku was legitimately one of the most productive chance creators in that league, and unlike Kljestan he is a goal threat himself. The Red Bulls got younger and, they're guessing, better. They'll also likely be more comfortable toggling between the 3-3-3-1 they used to such good effect last year, to the 4-2-3-1 they used in 2015 and 2016, to the 4-2-2-2 they've toyed with at times in the past.

If all of the above is the case, if they're indeed both better and more flexible, they will be one of the best teams in the league. That is a massive "if," however.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Another bald-faced guess. But I figure they've started out the last couple of years in the 4-2-2-2, so why not make it three in a row?

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - RSL

Real Salt Lake

Is it still appropriate to call this team a dark horse? RSL were pretty obviously one of the two best teams in the Western Conference over the last four months, with only a historically bad start to the season keeping them out of the playoffs. They then followed that up with a productive offseason, adding pieces at spots (right back, central midfield and especially center forward) that were occasionally problematic last season, and the trajectory of their kids over the past 18 months suggests that the best is yet to come.

Bear in mind: This can go wrong. We've already seen Danny Acosta lose out on the starting LB job to 34-year-old veteran Demar Phillips, which isn't a great sign, and we saw what happened to the defense last year when Justen Glad wasn't around. Can he play 2800 minutes or so? He probably needs to.

Phillips, by the way, would only be the third-oldest starter, behind Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando. They're not going to stay young forever. And while a lot of smart folks like new striker Alfredo Ortuño, he's never really put it together for a full season, has he?

So yeah, it can go wrong. I don't think it will, though. The RSL team we saw in the second half of 2017 is the one I expect we'll see in 2018, and if that's the case they'll make their way to the top of the West.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: This one looks pretty well locked in at this point. Your move, Danny Acosta.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - VAN

Vancouver Whitecaps

I didn't have the 'Caps up near the playoffs ahead of last year. I'm not going to make that same mistake twice, but at the same time I'm not expecting them to spend most of the season in the top three of the West once again. There's just too much turnover year-to-year, not enough top-end talent and probably not enough diversity in attack. Vancouver were pure bunker-and-counter in 2017 and while that took them to the Western Conference Semifinals, it also led to them putting in one of the most feeble attacking performances over two legs in league history.

Have they gotten better in the offseason? Well, Kei Kamara's probably not an upgrade over Fredy Montero in terms of raw talent, but he's a better fit at center forward as long as age doesn't catch up to him. The other big addition was veteran Mexican international Efrain Juarez, who's probably spent 85 percent of his career at a defender but will be slotted into central midfield instead (Carl Robinson loves switching up his central midfielders all the time, and I'll admit I don't get it).

My big worry? Tim Parker seems to want out and given how many moves Vancouver's made for young-ish center backs this offseason, it looks like he'll get it. Parker and Kendall Waston were one of the most solid CB combos in the league over the past two years.

My big hope? Alphonso Davies just starts roasting fools. The 17-year-old was magnificent at last year's Gold Cup and magnificent in this year's preseason. If he's not a Day 1 starter I will riot.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: There was talk about a 3-5-2 in preseason, but it looks like back to the 4-2-3-1 that might be more of a 4-4-1-1. Not sure Aly Ghazal will be available from the start.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - SJ

San Jose Earthquakes

If not for their California neighbors the Quakes would easily win the "Largest Gap Between Your Ceiling and Your Floor" award, which is pretty much exactly what you'd expect of a team that A) made the playoffs, with B) the 19th-best goal differential (-21) in MLS last year. When they were good they were really pretty good – pinging the ball around, combining nicely through midfield, generating quality chances – and when they were bad they got pounded all to hell and lost 5-0. It was uncanny.

I don't think this team will have such wild swings in 2018. New head coach Mikael Stahre has a reputation as a solid defensive coach, and he has actual defenders he can use this year (while pushing Florian Jungwirth up to his natural d-mid slot). How those defenders will do is something of a mystery as there will be three new starters on the backline, but it looks like it should work.

The attack should work as well even as Chris Wondolowski heads into his final chapter. Stahre has a couple of goalscoring wingers to call on, Danny Hoesen is an under-the-radar pick for a big year at center forward, and this will finally be Tommy Thompson's break-out year, I swear it!

I really do think the Quakes will be solid or better. I'm just not super eager to bet my life on it.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: I'll be surprised if I don't get this one spot on.

ED. NOTE (BAER): Doyle's wrong, Shea Salinas is going to start at left back.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - HOU

Houston Dynamo

If tell me you thought, in 2017, that a backline prominently featuring Leonardo and 400-year-old DaMarcus Beasley would produce a playoff-caliber defense, I'm calling you a liar. Houston snuck on pretty much everybody last year pretty much all over the field. Yes, their attackers got most of the glory – they were fun and fast and attackers always get the glory – and yes, that midfield was way better than you think when they had everybody healthy.

But look at how that defense performed, both by the numbers and the eye test. The Dynamo were very good at the back, never gave up cheap goals, and played deep into November because of it. "First do no harm" was the mantra they lived by and it worked.

Teams across the league have tape of that now, and that worries me at least a little bit. Remember how Colorado overperformed in 2016 then came crashing down to reality in 2017? I don't it's going to happen quite so dramatically for the Dynamo, but I'm not emotionally capable of ruling it out.

Houston are, relatively speaking, both old and shallow, and adding "scouted" on top of that has me skeptical of their ability to recapture 2017's magic in 2018. If they manage it, it'll be because they'll have added a new wrinkle – maybe they press high, or Tomas Martinez proves to be an elite chance creator from possession, or maybe something totally from out of left field.

I just don't know what to expect here.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Martinez is suspended for the opener.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - CHI

Chicago Fire

Chicago finally climbed their way into the playoffs – and all the way up to third place in the Supporters' Shield standings – after years of dormancy. It was a very nice and long-awaited bounce-back for a franchise that's mostly had a miserable decade.

They've followed that up with a strangely quiet offseason. The biggest news was the egress of David Accam, who was traded to Philly for a sack of GAM and TAM. It makes sense, then, that the biggest acquisition of the offseason was a winger, Serb Aleksandar Katai. He's not Accam's direct replacement (Accam is an inverted left winger, while Katai is an inverted right winger), but he'll theoretically serve the same purpose once the ball is kicked: lots of goals and a little bit of playmaking.

As it stands now, though, it looks like the Fire are betting large on a cadre of youngsters. Homegrown rookie Grant Lillard maybe has the inside track on the starting job at left center back, and draft pick Jon Bakero, the 2017 Hermann Award winner, is maybe probably perhaps gonna be the playmaker this team's fans have wanted for nearly a decade? Both guys are excellent. I love Bakero and if you like pretty soccer, you should too. But it's a weird gamble for a team whose most important players (Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic and Dax McCarty) are all over 30.

If Lillard and Bakero and Daniel Johnson are as good as I think they can be, Chicago will have improved. If they're not – and bear in mind I've been wrong maybe twice before in my entire life, so it's possible here – they're in trouble.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Maybe Christian Dean instead of Lillard since Lillard's nursing a slight knock? Also, the Fire don't play their first game until Week 2, so things can change a little bit.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - DC

D.C. United

The big question heading into 2017 for D.C. was "Was that real?" with "that" being the 3-month buzzsaw of an attack they generated at the tail end of the 2016 season. United scored more than two-and-a-half goals per game, pushed their way up to third place in the standings, and looked for all the world like a young(ish) team on the come up.

Then Patrick Mullins got hurt, Patrick Nyarko got hurt, and Marcelo Sarvas and Lloyd Sam got old. D.C. got shutout 17 times in 34 games. In the final three months (13 games) of 2016, they scored 33 goals. In all of 2017, they scored 31.

Mullins is back, battling with Darren Mattocks for the starting No. 9 job, but the rest of those guys are gone as the United braintrust have looked for younger and hopefully more durable players. Head coach Ben Olsen has a surfeit of attacking midfielders and wingers to pick from, and most of them are proven internationally, proven in MLS, or both. Add in an 18-year-old potential stud of a d-mid in Chris Durkin, and there's reason to think this team can become something close to what they were 18 months ago.

There is worry at the back, though. Last year's defense was as bad as the attack, and their one saving grace – Bill Hamid – is gone. David Ousted is an above-average MLS 'keeper, but he's no Hamid. The guys in front of him (most notably Steve Birnbaum) need to be better than they were last year, and they have to become so while playing 14 of their first 16 on the road.

It feels like this team should be bad. But it felt that way in the middle of 2016 as well, and we know what happened then.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Lucho Acosta is suspended for the opener. When he's back, expect Ben Olsen to toy around with a 4-1-4-1 if either Canouse or Moreno show they can handle the job of being a lone d-mid.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - LA

LA Galaxy

It feels like this team should be good. But it felt that way – at least a little bit – at the start of 2017, and we know what happened then. LA had the worst year in franchise history, people lost their jobs, the locker room atmosphere was reportedly poisonous and suddenly there was a crisis in Carson.

The offseason has been mostly wonderful, though. Sigi Schmid took care of most of the family business, jettisoning (most of the) bad contracts and bringing in what appear to be quality players at a number of important spots. Ola Kamara gets goals, right? Perry Kitchen protects the backline, ok? David Bingham can recapture the form that had him on the periphery of the USMNT, maybe? All of this makes sense, and even if these guys are poor, that's still a major step up from what the Galaxy had at those three positions last season.

But woof, I will admit some worry as to this team's ability to defend based upon what I saw this preseason. Jonathan dos Santos looked like he was running in mud when trying to track Tommy Thompson, and just look at how poor Michael Ciani's reaction is here. Those two guys have struggled a ton in preseason, and new presumptive starting right back Rolf Feltscher hasn't inspired confidence, either.

Schmid might have to do some early-season damage control before this team, which is talented as hell, gets pointed in the right direction. And as we saw last year, sometimes damage control isn't enough.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Why yes, I too would attack the right side of that defense.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - MTL

Montreal Impact

The Impact finally decided to get younger, which is something the fans have been waiting on for a while. They could end up with as many as seven starters aged 25 or younger, and two of them – box-to-box midfielder Saphir Taïder and attacking midfielder Jeisson Vargas – are supposed to be legitimate stars. There's also a distinctly Canadian flair to this group, with Raheem Edwards, Samuel Piette, Michael Petrasso and Anthony Jackson-Hamel all expected to play big roles.

So that makes this a season unlike almost any other in Impact history. This team's been addicted to, let's call it "experience" since Day 1, and now they've turned that page. And that, of course, makes them hard to predict.

There are also the elephant in the room: Ignacio Piatti's age. The league's best winger for three years running just turned 33, and while that's not the very end he's clearly operating on a different timeline than the bulk of this roster. If this were any other league in almost any other sport, there'd be serious talk about flipping him to a top-tier contender in exchange for a collection of other assets (money, younger players, Homegrown rights, etc.).

Business-wise, MLS hasn't really grown into that sort of league just yet. But new manager Remi Garde was happy enough to trade Laurent Ciman (and then land a few verbal jabs on him) this offseason, so it's not out of the question that the same could happen with Piatti. What if, say, the Fire offer up all their Accam cash and a good young player sometime in the next month? Garde doesn't slam the phone down, right?

It's something to think about here.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: I don't think Vargas is going to start in Week 1, but what do I know, really?

ED. NOTE (BAER): Expect to see Raitala at center back and Daniel Lovitz at left back with Zakaria Diallo out.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - NE

New England Revolution

Based upon preseason, here's one thing that appears to have definitely changed for the Revs: They will not be taking plays off. This very gifted group of technical players have had a habit, over the years, or tuning out for big chunks of matches. Sometimes that came in the beginning of games, and sometimes in the middle. Last year, however, it more and more took place at the end, and thus New England were probably the league's most disappointing second half team in 2017.

I don't think that will be the case this year. New head coach Brad Friedel has them getting "stuck in," for lack of a better term, from minutes 1-through-90. It's bordered on vicious at times, which is something the Revs really haven't been for most of this decade.

Now, "hard tackling" is not an adequate substitute for "well coached" or "tactically astute" or even "prepared." I don't know if the Revs will be any of those things, and the Lee Nguyen saga virtually guarantees they will be a less dangerous team moving forward than they've been for the last five seasons unless – say it with me, now – this is the year that Juan Agudelofinally breaks through. There are a million-and-one questions, which is rare for a team that's brought so many pieces back.

So I don't know what to tell you here. New England's a big old mystery.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Kind of throwing a dart for my pick at right wing. The rest of it I'm pretty sure of.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - COL

Colorado Rapids

I've spilled a lot of ink on this already, but I'll say it one more time here: In this league, pretty much everyone has started to look to Latin America and to within, via academies, for their roster needs. We saw it all offseason as everyone from Orlando to Vancouver, from LA to Montreal and pretty much every stop in between raided leagues south of the border – and mostly south of the Panama Canal – with suitcases of TAM and GAM and DP slot.

They zigged. The Rapids zagged.

Everyone else is getting more Hispanic while Colorado have decided to get more northern European. They brought in Englishman Anthony Hudson as head coach, signed players out of the Championship and Scottish Premier League and Sweden and Germany, and are pretty obviously building a "stout at the back, kill 'em on the counter" group.

It's not what I'd do, but at least it's a plan. At least it's a system and an ethos, with the idea that "Part A will function in this way because we want Parts B and C to function in these other ways." I'm not sure that Colorado have really had that since 2013.

Who will be their best player? Ask again later. Who's going to be their leading scorer? Honestly, you've got me there. Can they make the altitude work to their advantage? Let to tell you, I'm stumped. Will any of the young guys improve? No idea. Does Tim Howard have anything left in the tank? Um... I don't want to answer that one.

I don't expect much from the Rapids except no-frills, solid defense. As they showed in 2016, sometimes that's enough. (But usually it's not).


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Maybe the only predominantly 5-3-2 team in the league this year?

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - PHI

Philadelphia Union

The Philadelphia Union have been promising two things over the past several years: A true No. 10 and a youth movement. They've more or less failed to deliver on both promises, but – my goodness, my goodness – it looks like 2018 is the year that they're going to deliver.

The Union signed Borek Dockal on Wednesday morning, the 29-year-old Czech international playmaker who seems destined to wear the No. 10 shirt. Dockal doesn't have the world's most impressive resume, but he's been a very good player in the Czech league and in the Europa league for a long time, and he's banged home meaningful goals against the likes of Turkey, the Netherlands and Iceland in international competition. Without having seen him play I'm going to lay money on him clearing the "Better than Roland Alberg" bar.

Him, and Accam and C.J. Sapong and a healthy Fabian Herbers/Fafa Picault platoon is not going to be the best attack in the league. But they will not have to work as hard just to create middling chances as they did the past few years. There is balance, experience, speed and creativity there.

My worry this year is on the other side of the field, at least in part because of the youth movement. Auston Trusty looks locked in as a starter at center back, and there just aren't a ton of 19-year-old center backs who've ever played well in MLS. Matthew Real, another Homegrown, could end up playing lots of minutes at left back. He's 18. If Haris Medunjanin continues to be as poor as he was in preseason, 20-year-old Derrick Jones could be the d-mid. Jack Elliott, all of 22-year-old and in his second year as a pro, is the grizzled vet in front of Andre Blake.

I'll go ahead and admit that I love this. Let Philly be the Ajax of MLS as far as I'm concerned. I think the fans will live with a couple years of non-Ajax-like results as long as they see the ethos they were promised.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: I think Homegrown 18-year-old Anthony Fontana will get the start in Week 1 before Dockal takes over for good. I've also got Keegan Rosenberry pipping Raymon Gaddis at right back.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - MIN

Minnesota United FC

I'm struggling with how to be gentle here, so I've decided to just go ahead and rip the bandaid off instead of easing into it. So here goes: I think there's a decent chance Minnesota United will be worse in Year 2 than they were in Year 1.

Above and beyond everything else, there were three things that really worked for the Loons last year:

  1. Sam Cronin solidified that central midfield, making them tough to break down
  2. The Brent Kallman+Francisco Calvo CB combo worked pretty well
  3. Christian Ramirez banged in goals at a DP-level

Well, Cronin's been sidelined for unknown reasons (he missed a chunk of last year due to concussions), it looks like Michael Boxall – who wasn't great – is preferred to Kallman or rookie Wyatt Omsberg (who will likely sign before the opener), and there's a sneaking suspicion around the Twin Cities that Ramirez will be benched in favor of Abu Danladi.

So I'm just not sure that the things that worked in 2017 will be improved upon in 2018, and so in a lot of ways that makes this feel like a second straight expansion year. Obviously the scattershot way the front office has gone about collecting talent hasn't helped even a little, but I think it's fair to worry some about Adrian Heath's decisions on the sideline as well.

The good news? Everybody in this league needs wingers, and MNUFC have a million of 'em. So if they need to swing another springtime trade like the one that netted them Cronin last year, they have the pieces to do so.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Bear in mind that I may be waaaaay off on this.

Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier - LAFC


In terms of top-end talent, I think it's fair to put LAFC in the same neighborhood as where Atlanta United last season. Carlos Vela was a roughly Giovinco-level player in Europe, and Diego Rossi is one of the biggest young (19) stars in Uruguay's always bright attacking pipeline. Add in Portuguese playmaker Andre Horta (if they get him, and I think they will) and Colombian d-mid Eduard Atuesta – at age 20 one of the better d-mids in his native league – and it feels Five Stripes-ish, right?

In terms of filling out the rest of the roster, I think it's fair to put LAFC in the same neighborhood as MNUFC last season. It's taken them forever to even get up to 20 roster slots, the midfield is a mess (from the outside looking in, mind you), and I'll admit a whole lot of "you know, I just don't think that's quite gonna work" about the backline.

More to the point, though, is that they simply don't have the depth they need if things go wrong. What if Walker Zimmerman or Laurent Ciman continue with last year's form, or if Benny Feilhaber hits the wall? Vela just pulled up lame; what now?

Atlanta had answers to these questions. LAFC don't, that I can see.

Beyond that, it seems pretty clear they intend to play out of everything, and to use Feilhaber as a regista, a deep-lying playmaker who orchestrates more than creates. I love the idea behind it, but also let's all just admit that the degree of difficulty for this gambit is damn near off the charts.

Of course, the rewards would be as well. It's LA, so you've gotta go big or go home. Either way it should be entertaining as hell.


Armchair Analyst: Frontrunners, the Pack & all 23 MLS teams by tier -

NOTE: Some injuries, some uncertainty. What the hell, man, let's just roll the ball out and see what happens!