National Writer: Charles Boehm

Contenders or pretenders? What to make of MLS's 4 remaining perfect teams

MLS Week 2 is in the books, which – to remind everyone of our very brief trifling with mathematics in episode one last week – means not even 6% or so of the 2022 regular season has been contested on the pitch. Concacaf Champions League is still going on, the Primary Transfer Window remains wide open through May 4 and nary a single weeknight league match has yet been played.

It is indeed early days, m8. Still, let’s indulge in a few casual Monday reflections on the packed weekend that just transpired. Today we’re going to focus on MLS’s most fearsome foursome, at least in raw, basic standings terms.

Just four teams of 28 have taken maximum points thus far: Austin FC, D.C. United, the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls. And there’s reasons for surprise on all four counts, as well as intriguing storylines. So who are the contenders and pretenders here – if any? Let’s take a glance.


Consistency in the Galaxy

Seems like everyone’s applying an EH (expansion handicap) to anything that happens against Charlotte FC, and there are valid reasons for that. But those who’ve watched the Galaxy often the past few years can tell you how often they’ve managed to drop points in just such a situation as Saturday’s record-setting home debut for CLT FC at Bank of America Stadium.

The Gs created plenty of chances but directed just six of their 21 shots on target. Slipshod finishing left things at 0-0 late into the second half, a deserved road result left vulnerable to a single flash of the back-line brain flatulence that’s haunted them for about half a decade now.

Greg Vanney’s group kept their nerve, though, and their second clean sheet in as many weeks allowed Efra Alvarez’s thunderbolt to stand up as the winner, just like Chicharito’s late moment of magic did the trick against NYCFC back in Carson. With such attacking talent sprinkled across the squad, even a modest restoration of consistency and organization in the back can vault the Galaxy into the realm of real contenders. Can the central partnership of Sega Coulibaly and Nick DePuy keep on keeping it steady?

Red Bulls have wings

I’m just about ready to say much the same about the Red Bulls, too. They too have faced less-rugged opposition out of the gates, yet the power of home-field advantage persists in MLS and multi-goal away wins at both San Jose and Toronto are very impressive performances, both practically and philosophically.

RBNY look purposeful and assertive in transition and youngsters like John Tolkin and Frankie Amaya have been lively in both directions. Lewis Morgan’s instinctive movement and impeccable finishing in the final third resembles, at least for now, a capstone piece for Gerhard Struber’s build as deployed behind the bustling Patryk Klimala, this week’s goals-added king with a far-and-away-league-best 1.00 rating vs. TFC via the cracks at American Soccer Analysis.

No, it’s probably not sustainable. The kids will hit lulls. That pressing tempo gets harder to sustain as temperatures climb and games stack up. The Red Bulls will eventually have to reach further down the roster and probably see a drop in overall quality. But I suspect improved depth and the overpowering strength of the system will keep their floor quite high in ‘22.


Green Machine soon to be tested

Austin, in short, are a juego de posicion project that lacked a reliable spearhead for much of 2021 in addition to the usual expansion headwinds. Thus they had to swallow a bunch of the ‘moral victories’ that often ensue in such scenarios – those many games where you stick to the system and get burned, or you’re better in the first two-thirds of the pitch but not the final one, and thus drop points, stress out your fans, under-perform your expected goals, etc, etc.

Yes, it’s only two games. Ten goals, tho?! That’s quite a course correction relative to what has happening last year. Sebastian Driussi looks settled and productive, the set pieces have wreaked havoc and momentum seems to swing harder when the crowd at Q2 Stadium gets really whipped up. Josh Wolff’s patterns of play are that little bit more fluid in season two and the tenacious counter-pressing is asking more difficult questions of opponents.

Caution is required when evaluating five-goal home wins over FC Cincinnati and Inter Miami, of course. Over the next month ATX play at Portland, home to Seattle, at San Jose and then home to Minnesota, a combination of seasoned adversaries, differing and difficult tactical challenges and plenty of air miles that will tell us a lot more about the Verde than we know today.

D.C.’s dancing through “soft” schedule

It’s essentially the same mantra in regards to D.C. The Washington Post described United’s early calendar as “soft as could be,” and they enjoyed a rather absurd degree of good fortune in the 3-0 defeat of Charlotte last week – then doubled down on it in Cincy.

Hernan Losada’s side got stretched and stressed repeatedly by FCC, forcing Bill Hamid to stand on his head (six saves) and finishing shorthanded after Moses Nyeman’s second yellow card. As they readily admitted afterward, United would have been pleased to leave Ohio with a point, only to take home all three via a deep-injury-time penalty kick rewarded after Video Review, epitomizing poor Cincy’s cursed resourcefulness when it comes to losing MLS games.

After the Charlotte win, Losada said, “it’s fantastic, but I am not blind,” and that will surely remain the mood. D.C. still have plenty to prove and they don’t even see themselves as anything close to a finished product.

ALL THAT SAID… such matters are a great deal easier to sift through when you’re undefeated and unscored upon. Further, Saturday hinted at a promising capacity for tactical shape-shifting; the crew over at Black & Red United did a good breakdown on that last part here: Three things from D.C. United sneaking out of TQL Stadium with a 1-0 win over FC Cincinnati.

Steve Birnbaum’s dance moves give the impression of a team building confidence and momentum. They can continue doing so in upcoming home dates with Chicago and Atlanta on either side of a shortish trip to Toronto.