Another year is nearly in the books, and like any good accountant, we've been scouring the ledgers to get an idea of where the balance sheet stands for each club following an eventful 2021 season.
Instead of concerning ourselves with money, we're running the numbers on points and victories, goals scored and conceded, moves in and out, progress and slippage. And when these subjective computations were done, we came up with a grade for every team's year.
Naturally, each team (and its fan base) will have a different criteria/scale for judging their own seasons, and that is reflected here. What feels like an improvement in one place may be a shattering disappointment in another. Generally, though, most clubs that made the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs got at least a passing grade and most who did not landed somewhere below that "C" line.
For a team that could barely buy a win over the first half of the season, the Five Stripes were among the best teams in the league from August on. Atlanta United regained some of their identity during a 12-4-3 closing kick. Even though they bowed out in the first round of the playoffs (to the eventual champs, mind you), any club that improves more than a half-point per game over the previous season should be very pleased.
From a club energy standpoint, the new kids on the block get an A. Unfortunately, the expansion side's results did not match that energy, largely because of roster construction issues. The problems in attack were remedied in midseason through Sebastian Driussi and Moussa Djitte, allowing Austin FC to be a bit more competitive down the stretch. Now they have an offseason to work on the defense.
Honestly, the Fire weren't that bad from July until October. Of course, they remained maddening as ever, with blown chances compounding the misery of timely defensive breakdowns to cost them points right and left. Now, a new era beckons with head coach Ezra Hendrickson as talented youngsters emerge and new Designated Players (hopefully) arrive.
In July and August, the Queen City side were playing good teams tough and almost looked like they could finally turn the corner. Then, the wheels fell off again (12 straight defeats by a combined 36-14 count!) and they comfortably clinched a third straight wooden spoon with games to spare. A tall task awaits new general manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan, who worked side-by-side during their Philadelphia Union days.
Never mind the early playoff exit, they aren't called growing pains for nothing. Instead, focus on a regular-season Western Conference crown gained through consistent team effort. With no Designated Players to speak of (Younes Namli injury and eventual departure), Robin Fraser has put together a tough side that should only get better in Colorado.
Hmm. This is a tough one. The 2020 MLS Cup champs failed to book a playoff return, but you do have to feel for a club whose expected starting lineup misses almost 130 combined games. In the end, a midseason six-game losing skid was too much a hole for Columbus to dig out of, and that sort of thing won't earn anybody a passing grade. The biggest bright spot was their Campeones Cup win over Cruz Azul.
Being the best team in Texas didn't count for much in 2021, even with a new team around to vie for bragging rights. Apart from bright spot Ricardo Pepi, it was a Frisco gang that couldn't shoot straight and the defense tied for the leakiest in the West (and leakiest in club history since 2003). New head coach Nico Estevez has his work cut out for him.
The capital crew sat out the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 2011. That has to sting, but they actually made solid progress under new head coach Hernan Losada. Despite going without a few key players for long stretches, D.C. United still improved by 0.47 points per game over their 2020 rate and gave a lot of seasoning to some promising youngsters in the process. A symbolic (or is it systemic?) victory is still a victory.
As much as FC Dallas struggled, the Dynamo were just a bit worse off. Their grade reflects a lot less was expected of them, but that sort of dynamic is wearing thin in Houston. While they did find a couple nice buys for the attack on the clearance rack, several other players regressed, and the defense conceded multiple goals in 18 of 34 games. Sorry for sounding like a broken record, but new general manager Pat Onstad has his work cut out for him.
There's no doubt injuries often took significant chunks out of the lineup, but LAFC were just as plagued by wastefulness in the final third and maddening gaps in defense at the wrong times. Bob Bradley's solutions didn't take this time, and now he's jetted off to Toronto. Seasons that compel remakes are never fun, but they did find a proper goal-getter to lead the line in Cristian Arango.
It really was a tale of two seasons in one for the Galaxy. There was before Chicharito got hurt (seven wins in 10 games) and there was what came after (six wins from 24). Even when he returned to continue scoring, they couldn't stop foes when they needed to, and the postseason slipped away. The saving grace is that, under Greg Vanney, they at least learned how to make great use of their star man.
Some folks (myself included) expected a little more from Inter Miami in 2021. And hey, apart from those two six-game losing slides they were pretty decent. In the end, the second swoon (which came directly after a 5-0-1 run, mind you) cost them a playoff berth. That comes after a 0.17 points-per-game improvement, and now they'll hope for an upward trend under manager Phil Neville.
A lot was expected of the Loons this year, but they lacked the consistency and crunch time wherewithal that made them contenders on paper. They were unable to sort out the striker situation, and a small regular-season regression was compounded by a tepid playoff exit in Portland. I like Minnesota United, but they have holes to fill if they want to remain a playoff side.
Under new boss Wilfried Nancy, the Stade Saputo crew became a lot more difficult to deal with in 2021. A rough fall schedule saw CF Montréal fall shy of the postseason this time, but with a renewed team attitude they may be one or two shrewd signings from being a genuinely disruptive force in the beastly East.
The Music City outfit followed up a respectable debut season by evolving into a genuine contender. Two years in, Nashville are comfortable in their own identity and have the players to translate that into success. Add one more reliable attacker ace to the mix and they'll be a good bet to get past the conference semifinal hurdle next year.
So the Supporters' Shield curse claimed another victim. That can't take away from the record-setting, 34-round excellence exhibited by New England, even when important players were on the shelf or away, and the first MLS trophy that it earned. The Revs never lost two in a row and had three win streaks that were at least four games long, all while stealthily giving nearly 9,000 minutes to players 23 or under.
For most of the season, NYCFC found ways to spurn their top-shelf analytics and drop points. Just before Halloween, they started making their results match their play and it took them all the way to a first MLS Cup title. The Cityzens finally shed the underachievers tag, winning gut-check shootouts against New England and MLS Cup opponent Portland to do it. As an NYC native once wrote, who could ask for anything more?
Midway through September it was looking like a lost season at Red Bull Arena, and one that would surely end the club's 11-year run of making the playoffs. Then suddenly, Gerhard Struber's ways started to take hold, young players stepped up and the defense became nigh impregnable. The Red Bulls leaked just five goals during a 7-1-4 closing run that got them to the postseason. That positive trajectory boosts their grade a little.
After a breakthrough 2020, the Lions were never quite the same this year. Injuries and absences routinely left them shorthanded, and production from their wing aces dried up when autumn arrived. And yet, Orlando City were still a top 10 side in MLS and almost always played with heart. Considering everything they endured, a small regression from last season actually doesn't seem so bad.
The Union weren't quite as consistent during the regular season as they were throughout last year's Supporters' Shield run, but their grade nudges into the top tier because this club finally showed real playoff mettle. Philadelphia led the Eastern Conference Final 1-0 with 27 minutes to play despite missing nearly their entire starting backline and star netminder Andre Blake, and that sort of growth is to be commended.
The Timbers were another team hampered by key injuries, and Diego Valeri finally showing signs of age didn't help, but Giovanni Savarese's boys never stopped plugging away. The offense opened up once Sebastian Blanco gained match fitness and they'd eventually win 13 of their last 18 games to come within a more favorable shootout of winning MLS Cup.
A good playoff run can cure a lot of regular-season ills. The Royals were their usual roller coaster selves for seven months, and their defense got worse as the year progressed. They looked like playoff outsiders until the 95th minute of their Decision Day match at Sporting KC, but of course, Real Salt Lake then did the quirky thing by magically turning into a postseason giant slayer (until Portland put the kibosh on all that). They also found a new coach in Pablo Mastroeni, so all in all, not bad.
The Quakes sure are fun to watch, but that propensity for excitement and action often worked in the other team's favor. San Jose actually played some steady soccer in the summertime, but that came sandwiched by their old Jekyll and Hyde routine. Too many problems that came with them into the season remained problems, which is why there's now a new GM in Chris Leitch.
Like Columbus, the Emerald City gang were very much a side hassled by injuries and other assorted key absences pretty much all year long. The difference is, the Sounders didn't let it derail them until they ran out of gas in October. They were also able to season some promising youngsters. On a grading curve that comes with getting just four starts from Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris combined, it was a fine year with a lame ending.
The end of the season was bad, but to be fair that was because their first slump of the year came at the worst possible time. For most of 2021, it was vintage Sporting KC soccer, with the midfield distracting you until someone in the front line gets loose. A very un-Sporting KC-like playoff ouster drops the grade a little, but they're still near the head of the class.
The changes were always going to come hard and fast at the BMO after a season like this one, and that rebuild is already in full swing. If you can think of a problem, any problem, the Reds had it in 2021. The good news is they quickly course-corrected when Chris Armas proved not to be a fit. A lot of young talent saw a lot of pitch time (1200+ minutes to teenagers, over 4,400 to players 21 and under), and the team actually played fairly well down the stretch.
After a few seasons of disappointment, this club somehow managed to lean into their true callings despite a summer coaching change. The new Whitecaps have verve, they have wheels and they know their strengths. Apparently, they also now add just the right pieces (playmaker Ryan Gauld and striker Brian White) to take the group to the next level. This was a year that has raised expectations at BC Place.