We’re officially past the midway point of the season in terms of total games played in the 2022 regular season, and 27 of the 28 teams in MLS have played at least half their schedule (c’mon, D.C., please keep up), which means it's time to hand out some midseason grades across the length and breadth of MLS.
Bear in mind I'm factoring in Cup play (US Open Cup, Concacaf Champions League and/or Canadian Championship), off-the-field stuff and just baseline expectations as well. If you want to know who the best teams are, just look at the standings. If you want to know who's having the best year, I've got you covered below.
The West was Thursday; here's the East. In we go!
This is one of the hardest teams I’ve ever had to grade. Have they been overall disappointing in terms of performance and results? I’d say so. Is it because of the almost unbelievable amount of injuries they’ve had to deal with? Yes, I think it is. Have they actually done a nice job of keeping their heads… well, not quite above water, but at least within touching distance of the playoff pack despite the injuries? They sure have – in fact, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect they, or anyone else, could’ve done better given all of the above.
I straight-up do not think Atlanta will be able to fight their way back into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs picture, as they’re just missing too much. But I give them credit for not giving up (yet).
Anyway, giving them a “C” is me totally chickening out, so we’re off to a good start.
What they could’ve done better: Gone back in time to avoid giving whatever affront has compelled the soccer gods to slowly, ever so slowly, pick the roster off one by one?
Beyond that, I think the answer is a rethink of their approach to roster building, with a bit more value placed upon acquiring, developing and keeping solid depth pieces from within the league.
They’ve exceeded my expectations in pretty much every way, save for entertainment value (they’re just not much fun to watch from an aesthetic perspective). Off-field they’ve provided some of the best quotes and best drama of anyone in the league, and as for results, I pegged them for about 35-40 points. Right now they’re on track for a little bit more than that, which has them on the fringes of the playoff race.
The very best thing, though, is that Zoran Krneta got agnostic about talent acquisition real quick after seeming pretty dogmatic through the winter. Quinn McNeil’s available to sign? Great – get him. Andre Shinyashiki’s on the market for a pittance of General Allocation Money (GAM)? Spend it. Derrick Jones is available via trade? Yes, please.
These have been good, solidifying moves. Now if only the Designated Players would produce…
What they could’ve done better: I think it’s safe to say that they got the coach wrong (though I like what I’ve seen of interim manager Christian Lattanzio so far), and oof… those DPs. Not getting much from them!
I’ll give them an A+ for ambition. Xherdan Shaqiri has the profile and skillset of a guy who should be great in MLS, and Jairo Torres is an up-and-coming creative type who’d been excellent in Liga MX. Rafa Czichos has mostly been good at center back. All these signings made sense – I loved their offseason.
But it’s not translating on the field in any capacity. The players are almost uniformly underperforming, and rookie head coach Ezra Hendrickson hasn’t been able to come up with any solutions. Right now the Fire seem much more likely to win the Wooden Spoon than make it to the postseason.
What they could’ve done better: I still can’t fathom why they picked up the DP option on Gaston Gimenez’s contract, but in retrospect, the bigger issue was thinking that Shaqiri could slide inside and be a true No. 10. Building the team around that idea was a big, big mistake.
The Crew are just kinda stuck in the same place living the same year all over again, right? At least, they have been so far this season – the hope is that with the arrival of DP striker Cucho Hernandez this week, those gray days will be a thing of the past and it’ll be sunshine (and a push up the standings ahead).
Caleb Porter deserves some credit for tinkering with the team’s shape in an attempt to fix things, which has led to a nice little five-game unbeaten run (W2 D3) and some momentum heading into the season’s back nine. But it’s all just been so bleak and non-descript thus far.
What they could’ve done better: They held onto Gyasi Zardes three months too long and got less than they should’ve for him, but the bigger issue is that they still haven’t gotten it right with their wingers despite going back out into the market this past winter. Part of the reason Porter’s had to tinker with the team shape is because, just like last year, they’re getting nothing from out wide.
They’ve gotten worse since last year almost across the board. The only thing that bumps them up to a D is the fact that they paid a bit extra to bring in Taxi Fountas three months ahead of schedule.
That move didn’t exactly save their season – D.C.’s not making the playoffs, folks – but with him out there they are, at least, notionally competitive, and he’s worth the price of admission on his own.
What they could’ve done better: If they knew Hernan Losada wasn’t going to be the guy, they should’ve made the move to part ways with him in the winter rather than seven weeks into the season. And if they knew it was a possibility they’d go in a different direction, they should’ve had a permanent replacement lined up. As it is, the roster’s a mess (lots of Losada guys are still there) and the team on the field is often directionless.
This isn’t going to end up being the greatest single-season turnaround in MLS history – Cincy’s not going to go from worst to first here. But when you consider how abject this team was for three years, and how little they actually changed this offseason, and how damn good and fun they’ve been through half of 2022… it’s night and day. Even if they did a complete roster teardown and rebuild you couldn’t, in good conscience, ask for better than this.
They have a Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate in Lucho Acosta, and a Breakout Player of the Year candidate in Brandon Vazquez, and in Brenner, they have a guy who looked like a surefire bust turning into one of the more entertaining young forwards in the league. And on top of it, they went out and got, in Obinna Nwobodo, one of the best d-mids in the league.
Plus, just on an aesthetic level, Cincy’s been a must-watch team. It’s an incredible turnaround.
What they could’ve done better: Maybe get Nwobodo from the start?
I had this at a B+ before the news came down on Tuesday that Inter were trading $150k GAM to Toronto FC for DP No. 10 Alejandro Pozuelo. The trade went official Thursday morning – the Secondary Transfer Window doesn’t open until tomorrow (July 7) – but I absolutely love this for the Herons.
- There will be no adjustment period – Pozuelo’s been playing in MLS since 2019.
- Pozuelo’s in his prime. At the tail end of it, yes, but he’s got a game that should age well.
- He fits snugly into Phil Neville’s preferred 4-2-3-1 shape.
- He’s an MVP-caliber chance creator for a team that’s loaded with runners.
Pozuelo’s had a tough 18 months in Toronto playing for three different coaches that press, and that mostly didn’t play with a true No. 10. Now he’ll move south to a team that plays out of a mid-block and has guys to do the defensive work for him. You couldn’t get a snugger fit.
In a weird way, the sanctions were the best thing to happen to Miami. It stopped them from going out and just collecting high-priced glamor pieces and forced them to really think about how to build a roster on a budget. Chris Henderson’s done a great job of that, while Neville’s done a great job of coaching up the young talent on hand and just generally putting all his players into spots where they can succeed.
And now that they’re succeeding, in comes the elite No. 10 to tie the whole thing together. I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t work.
What they could’ve done better: I thought Neville was a little slow to integrate some of the younger center backs, and it took him a while to finally give Drake Callendar a shot in between the sticks (he’s been excellent).
But honestly, neither the coach nor the front office have gotten a lot wrong.
Unlike the two teams I just talked about, Montréal’s rise hasn’t been a one-season turnaround. Rather, Wilfried Nancy’s taken basically all of what they were good at last year and just made them marginally better across the board. And so that’s how you have a team that missed the playoffs on the final day of 2021 to a team that’s flirting with the top spot in the East in 2022 despite the early-season CCL handicap.
They’ve made some shrewd pick-ups along the way – bringing Kei Kamara in, for example, was smart as hell – but more than anything, Nancy is just brilliant at developing young players. From Djordje Mihailovic blossoming into an MVP contender to Ismael Kone blooming into a potential World Cup-level midfielder, just about every box has been checked.
What they could’ve done better: I dinged them a half a letter grade for getting absolutely murked by Toronto in the semifinals of the Canadian Championship.
The other thing is that it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that this team has two DP slots open. If they’d gone out this offseason and gotten themselves a Walker Zimmerman-caliber center back or an Andre Blake-caliber goalkeeper, would they have already shipped 33 goals this year?
Two months ago this grade would’ve felt impossibly high. Two months from now, it might feel impossibly low.
No matter what happens in 2022, nothing’s going to erase that monumental collapse in Mexico City against Pumas UNAM, which put an ignominious end to New England’s CCL run. It’s one of the worst collapses in league history. Period.
But in the long term, the bigger story might end up being that the Revs sold a reported $24 million worth of players (Tajon Buchanan, Matt Turner, Adam Buksa) and went 3-for-3 in finding replacements. So far that appears to be the case with winger Dylan Borrero and goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic, and if new DP No. 9 Giacomo Vrioni lives up to expectations…
The hardest thing to do is to develop, sell and replace while maintaining an elite level. Bruce Arena didn’t quite thread that needle – just look at last year’s PPG compared to this season’s – but this team, which lost three of their four best players from last year, are unbeaten in their last 10 and are about to get serious reinforcements. There is a very good chance, it seems to me, that the Revs go on the march in the second half of this year and enter the postseason as something close to favorites.
At which point, they would probably end up selling another player or two, and then reloading. And then selling again, and reloading again.
In short, this feels like it could be the year that we’ll pinpoint as the moment New England became one of the league’s preeminent developmental & selling clubs. In the long run that would make this an A+ season in Foxborough, even if it really, really really did not feel like it this spring.
It’s been up-and-down from NYCFC, who have at times played the best ball in the league, and at other times been… just kinda uninterested? It’s somewhat understandable given the miles they logged this spring in their ultimately futile CCL effort, and the musical chairs they’ve had to play with their home fields, and then seeing head coach Ronny Deila leave for greener pastures.
Add in some injuries and some low-key transfer drama and I think it’s fair to say that they’ve had a turbulent season, one that’s kept them from playing their best on a game-to-game basis.
In spite of all that, they’re still atop the East on PPG and absolutely no one who follows this league would be surprised if they were hoisting another trophy later this year.
What they could’ve done better: Someone should’ve spiked Stef Frei’s drink in the CCL semis. I can’t lay that at NYCFC’s feet, though.
What I can lay at their feet is the complete no-show against the Red Bulls in the US Open Cup quarterfinals two weeks ago, and the general malaise under interim head coach Nick Cushing. I don’t know whether to blame the players for seeming so unmotivated, or Cushing for failing to motivate the players, or the front office for picking Cushing for the job in the first place – which, to be clear, might not end up as a mistake in the long run.
But in the short run it’s been really, really poor and cost the Pigeons a shot at another trophy.
Tom Barlow is starting games at center forward and the Red Bulls are atop the East. I think if you asked RBNY fans before the season if those two statements could possibly go together, the answer you’d have received would’ve been a resounding no. And yet!
Anyway, the Red Bulls are where they are because the things they were good at in 2021 – excellent defense, excellent goalkeeping – have been as good as or better this year. Toss in some promising player development, and you’ve got yourself a stew going.
The key to all of this has been Gerhard Struber’s willingness to create actual width this year by playing out of either a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-2-1. Having the wingbacks constantly fly forward has opened up the halfspaces for guys like Luquinhas, Omir Fernandez and Lewis Morgan (when he’s not playing wingback, anyway), and those guys have provided just enough in the attack to keep this team among the East’s elite.
What they could’ve done better: Barlow, Patryk Klimala and Ashley Fletcher, the three center forwards on the team (for now – I don’t think Fletcher’s going to last much longer) have combined for all of six goals, with just one since April.
Maybe the windfall from the Tyler Adams sell-on (RBNY are due about $8 million as his $24 million transfer from RB Leipzig to Leeds gets completed) means they’ll go out shopping again and potentially find more of a sure-thing goalscorer.
They are, in a lot of ways, worse than I expected them to be. It’s not just that the new DPs, Facu Torres and Ercan Kara, aren’t really clicking. It’s that the team as a whole are neither consistent nor solid on a week-to-week basis in the ways that we’ve seen Oscar Pareja get his teams to be consistent and solid for more than a decade now. They have been underwhelming in terms of aesthetics and results, and much, much worse than that in terms of the underlying numbers.
And yet they’re above the playoff line and into the US Open Cup semifinals. I think, given the way the draw worked out (they host the Red Bulls on June 29, 7 pm ET | ESPN+), they’re probably the favorites to win the thing at this point. Win that – the club’s first piece of hardware – and the season’s a success.
But we’re not there yet. And what we’ve seen from this group so far has been surprisingly meh.
What they could’ve done better: The big thing for Orlando is they’re allowing much, much better chances than last year. In 2021 they were among the best teams in MLS at limiting open play chance quality, at just .102 xG per shot. That was third in the league.
In 2022 they’re at .124 xG per shot, which is all the way down in 22nd. Add in a subpar year from goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, and that’s the recipe for a -5 goal differential at this point in the season.
It feels like, in a lot of ways, the Union are reprising Nashville’s season from last year in that they are incredibly difficult to beat (only two losses this season) but don’t quite have the firepower to turn those draws… so, so many draws… into wins. Jim Curtin has come out and said as much.
Nonetheless, they’re right about where we all thought they would be near the top of the Eastern Conference, so it hasn’t been a bad season by any stretch. And a few guys – Jose Martinez, Nathan Harriel, Jack Elliott, Daniel Gazdag – have leveled up, which is a necessity given Philly’s approach to roster building and management.
But I thought this team was going to go over 2 ppg again and flirt with another Supporters’ Shield. They still could, of course, but they haven’t looked like that since about mid-April.
What they could’ve done better: I think they’ve gone too hard in the Energy Drink Soccer direction. They’ve played narrow, direct soccer over the past few years, but it’s gotten even more narrow and more direct and more physical and more attritional.
It’s been pretty hard on the eyes.
Their record and place in the standings belie how poor they’ve actually been. Believe it or not, folks, this TFC team has actually overperformed.
I think the powers that be know it, and I think that’s why we’re about to see a midseason teardown and rebuild that has the potential to produce one of the highest-scoring teams in league history:
There is the slight problem of Federico Bernardeschi and Mark-Anthony Kaye not actually being with Toronto yet, and “New CB” only existing in theory at this point, and that team above maaaaybe not being able to defend much even with the new additions. But, you know, the opening of a new transfer window is a time for hope.
And my god, do Toronto need some of that because the play on the field has been abysmal.
One note: Because of COVID-19, the 2020 Canadian Championship final got pushed back to… June 4, 2022. Toronto won, beating Forge FC in penalties. The 2022 final, meanwhile, is scheduled for the end of this month, with the Reds facing Vancouver. So there is a chance – a fairly decent one – that TFC could win two trophies before we even hit August.
Without that, they’d have gotten an F. But trophies are trophies, kids, and especially so when you happen to stomp your biggest rival en route to one (or en route to a final, at least).
What they could’ve done better: Listened to our friends in Mexico who shouted from the rooftops that Carlos Salcedo was not worth it for one, and for two, read the writing on the wall with regard to how Alejandro Pozuelo fit (i.e., he didn’t) Bob Bradley’s preferred scheme.