Voices: Joseph Lowery

MLS early-season grades: How is your team performing?


If there’s one thing everyone loves, it’s hating on the random internet guy who gives your team anything less than an A+ on their early-season report card. So in an attempt to be generous, I’m providing folks with the opportunity to do exactly that.

Today, I’m grading every MLS team’s 2023 season so far. Each letter was determined by a combination of on-field performances and results, with at least a nod to how those things compare to preseason expectations for each team.

Feel free to be angry at me on Twitter, where my handle is @MattDoyle76. Or is it @andrew_wiebe? I can’t even remember these days.

Let’s get to it, in alphabetical order.

It’s been a solid and sometimes spectacular first third of the season for Atlanta United.

They’ve mostly stabilized after missing the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs last season, and president/CEO Garth Lagerwey is starting to reshape the roster. Giorgos Giakoumakis looks like a huge offseason addition with his 99th percentile non-penalty goals and non-penalty xG per 90. Luiz Araújo is headed out for Brazil.

Still, even with Thiago Almada playing at an Landon Donovan MLS MVP-type level, Atlanta haven’t been dominant this year. They’re sitting in fourth place in the East right now. Until we see a central midfield signing, disciplined attacking play, and a succession plan for Almada, Atlanta get a B+.

I’m having a really, really hard time getting over Austin’s Concacaf Champions League exit that came at the hands of Violette.

That historic miss against an impressive, but out-of-their-depth Haitian team is just one example of Austin’s bubble bursting in 2023. Their current spot in the Western Conference standings (ninth) is another. Right now, Josh Wolff’s team is a below-average attacking team that looks more like Year 1 Austin than Year 2 Austin.

Relative to 2022 accomplishments and preseason expectations in Austin, this season hasn’t met them. It can improve, but these early chapters aren’t great.

Charlotte FC have stabilized, at least mostly.

After a brutal start to the year where they picked up just one win from their opening eight games, per FBref, Charlotte FC have found some rhythm. They have a positive xGD over their last four games. Christian Lattanzio appears to be taking fewer risks with his lineups and some of his team’s tactical rotations appear slightly less nuanced. You have to walk before you can run, and it looks like Charlotte FC are learning to walk.

So… 2023 hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Fire, which is most clearly seen through their decision to dismiss Ezra Hendrickson earlier this month and that pesky penchant for not holding onto leads.

While young players Brian Gutiérrez and Chris Brady have been bright spots in the starting lineup, Chicago haven’t shown much that makes them look like more than a fringe playoff team. To boost their grade, Chicago will need to hit on a summer signing and/or start getting consistently excellent performances out of Xherdan Shaqiri.

When you watch FC Cincinnati play, it still looks like there’s another gear for them to hit.

Brandon Vazquez, as an example, is scoring at less than half the clip he scored at last year. And yet? Cincinnati are sitting on top of the Eastern Conference and the Supporters’ Shield standings. They’re averaging 2.31 points per game through their first 13 matches of the 2023 season.

This team has room to improve – and will need to before the playoffs – but they’ve been brutal to play against this year.

If captain and midfield general Jack Price hadn’t torn his Achilles earlier this season, I’m confident that Colorado’s grade would be heavily impacted.

If the Rapids were still desperate for points while down at 12th in the West with a healthy Price, their grade would be worse. If the Rapids were putting things together this year with a healthy Price, their grade would be better. Analysis, right?

As it stands, with Colorado looking like a below-average team with a collection of solid players, they get a C.

Welcome to the new-look Crew!

Wilfried Nancy has turned Columbus into a possession-dominant 3-4-3 team that takes more risks with the ball than any other team in MLS. Having an observable identity is key not just on the tactical side, but also on the player recruitment side. The Crew can now look for specific players that fit how they want to play, starting as soon as the Secondary Transfer Window.

Results have come slowly over the last month, but the bones are there for this team to get stronger as the year continues.

After finishing third in the West last year, FC Dallas are fourth in their conference right now with 22 points through 13 games.

Nico Estévez is still trying to find the right shape for his team and he needs Dallas’ star wingers to start producing like star wingers (to complement Jesús Ferreira). On the whole, though, FC Dallas belong in the tier of teams hanging out underneath LAFC and the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference.

D.C. United are a competitive, capable team in the Eastern Conference.

Christian Benteke looks like a great signing, and Wayne Rooney’s back three with a host of central midfielders popping up in different spots all over the field has worked fairly well. D.C. aren’t flashy, but they have a game-changer up top and they’re outperforming preseason expectations after a last-place finish in 2022.

There have been some real things to like about the Houston Dynamo this year.

  • Ben Olsen’s basic stylistic blueprint is taking hold
  • Héctor Herrera looks engaged in midfield
  • Steve Clark is still an above-average goalkeeper

Unfortunately for the Dynamo, there have been some things not to like about their team through the first third of the season.

  • They’re a bottom-third team when it comes to creating chances
  • Four of their 11 goals scored have come from penalty kicks

We’re seeing progress in Houston, but there’s still a long way to go.

LAFC are in the Concacaf Champions League final and in second place in the Supporters’ Shield standings. They’ve handled the rigors of competing in several competitions all at the same time with impressive grace this year after last year’s MLS Cup-Supporters’ Shield double.

John Thorrington has built an elite squad. Steve Cherundolo has done a good job of rotating that squad to keep players fresh. And the players have done a good job of executing up to their standards on the field. It certainly feels like LAFC could be the first MLS team to win CCL without batting an eye in league play.

Let’s take stock: 13 games, nine points, last place in the West. Things are bleak for the LA Galaxy.

Now, there are two ways to look at the Galaxy’s on-field performance. The first is they’re broken and the path forward is hard to find. The second is they’ve had a crazy long string of results go the other way this year and are basically an average MLS team based on their expected goal differential (+0.02 per 90, according to FBref).

If you fall into the first camp, your personal grade for LA should be lower than a D-. But even if you fall into second camp (which I do, at least partially), the Galaxy should still expect to be a well-above-average MLS team. Either way, things need to change in Carson.

It’s pretty much impossible to give Inter Miami a fair grade at this point in the year.

The team was built to defend in a compact shape and attack on the break… right up until their two starting midfielders (Gregore, Jean Mota) went down with long-term injuries. Now they’re playing the kids in central midfield and crossing their fingers that Lionel Messi decides to hop across the Atlantic and salvage their season in the summer.

If that happens, no one in Miami is going to mind their slow start.

Look, Minnesota United have been far from dominant in MLS this year. But they’ve been one of the better teams in the West without their best player: Emanuel Reynoso.

It’s difficult to imagine many other teams in MLS playing at an above-average pace for this long without their biggest star. With a clear defensive identity and a collection of narrow victories, Minnesota have put themselves in a good position for whenever Reynoso gets back up to speed (he’s back in market finally).

This grade might feel a little high for a team that’s sitting in 13th in the East, but I’m not sure many people had high expectations for Montréal in 2023. After losing their coach and many of the core players that helped them to a second-place finish in the East last year, I didn’t picture this team making much noise.

CF Montréal’s offseason transfer business (at least incomings) would earn them a significantly lower mark than a C-. But based on their work this season? That feels about right.

Sitting in second in the East, Nashville have pulled out a couple of unexpected twists in 2023.

Off the field, there’s the decision to mutually terminate Ake Loba’s contract to free up a DP spot ahead of the summer window. On the field, there was the decision to trade starting striker C.J. Sapong to Toronto FC and Gary Smith’s move to the 4-4-2 diamond for stretches of recent games.

It’s too early to tell if all of those twists will be improvements, but adding more tactical and roster flexibility to a team with reigning MVP Hany Mukhtar on it is a good thing.

This probably feels low for a team that’s sitting in third place in the East.

However, the Revs have won just one of their four games in all competitions since winger Dylan Borrero suffered a season-ending ACL injury against FC Cincinnati last month. Without Borrero, they’ve had to dig deeper down the depth chart than Bruce Arena would probably like. New England started the year hot – and still have the star No. 10 (Carles Gil) and star goalkeeper (Djordje Petrovic) to cause major problems – but injuries and squad imbalance hurt them here.

New York City FC have been the model of inconsistency this year.

As the regular season started and NYCFC were still assembling their squad, they struggled. Then once those players started to trickle into the starting lineup, they started looking dangerous. Now with most of the team set outside of a starting No. 9, they can’t seem to buy a road win.

Even without that No. 9, NYCFC’s talent level should take them much higher than their current 10th-place position in the East. They need to find more consistency to raise their grade – and their game.

The Red Bulls struggled badly for points at the beginning of the season, but they’re climbing their way up the Eastern Conference table right now. They have three wins and one draw in their last four games across all competitions, and the underlying numbers absolutely love them. Per FBref, RBNY have the best xGD per 90 minutes (+0.48) in the East.

Figuring out how to handle re-integrating Dante Vanzeir will be extremely difficult and transitioning to the Troy Lesesne era after Gerhard Struber’s departure won’t be without challenges, either. Still, the Red Bulls are starting to show that they’re much better than how they started 2023.

For Orlando City, 2023 has been…fine? Unremarkable? A work in progress?

Any of those descriptors will do, really. Despite overhauling much of the squad in the offseason, Orlando City haven’t looked especially strong this year. DP attackers Martín Ojeda and Facundo Torres have combined for just five goals, which is far from ideal for Oscar Pareja. Orlando need more direction in the final third, the new fullbacks to step up, and for their stars to start performing like stars.

While losing to LAFC in the CCL semifinals hurts the Union’s grade, they’ve done a fairly good job of balancing things in 2023.

Jim Curtin’s team is currently fifth in the East with a game in hand on two of the four teams above them. Even with CCL matches and now the U-20 World Cup limiting player availability, Philly’s style and quality have shone through.

Talk about some tough injury luck: the Portland Timbers have already lost midfielders Eryk Williamson and David Ayala to season-ending ACL injuries.

Between those losses and some of Evander’s early-season injury problems, it’s been difficult to get a read on the Timbers. Now, with Evander healthy and some of the pieces around him starting to grow more comfortable, Portland look more like the team we’ve come to expect them to be. They’re not dominant, but they’re capable of beating the best in MLS in any given game.

Other than the occasional glimpse of what could be that comes while watching Diego Luna play for the US at the U-20 World Cup, it’s difficult to find something truly remarkable about this year’s Real Salt Lake team. Club-record signing Andrés Gómez has been fun, but we haven’t seen enough of the 20-year-old Colombian attacker to know exactly how good he is.

The other pieces in Utah mostly look like what you remember.

Fifth in the West after finishing last in their conference last year? Check. Successfully adopting the foundational principles of Luchi González’s tactical approach? Check. Strong xGD? Check. Going toe-to-toe with LAFC and giving them their first league loss of the year? Check.

The Quakes aren’t a perfect team, but they’re way, way, way better than they’ve been in a long time. They’re a legitimate threat out West.

The injury bug has bitten the Sounders pretty hard this year, with Raúl Ruidíaz, Héber, Nouhouh, and Cristian Roldan all missing significant time. While the results have dipped lately, Seattle have still mostly looked like one of the best two teams in the West, even as they deal with those absences.

Brian Schmetzer’s team has the second-best xGD per 90 in MLS this year, according to FBref.

With just 10 points through 14 games, 2023 has not been kind to Sporting Kansas City.

Their star players have either been injured, returning from injury or ineffective. Most of their role players have struggled or have looked well past their primes. There was some hope earlier this month with wins against Seattle and Minnesota and a draw against LAFC, but that momentum came tumbling down in a 4-0 loss to St. Louis on Saturday.

There’s time for them to turn things around, and there’s always a safety net with nine teams per conference qualifying for the playoffs. Peter Vermes and Co. have a hole to emerge from, though.

No team has done better relative to preseason expectations than St. Louis. Sure, they’ve had some fortunate bounces. And sure, they’ve had some rough patches (like the six-game stretch of MLS games that saw them win just once from the beginning of April to the middle of May).

But they’ve won a bunch of games, they have a clear style of play, and they’ve gotten impressive buy-in from everyone involved with the club. You couldn’t ask for a better start to life in MLS.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Toronto FC’s entire season hinges on two people: Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi.

The Italian stars are more than good enough to carry Toronto through large stretches of the season. However, that’s only true when they’re engaged and active in the attack. Through 14 games, Insigne and Bernardeschi have combined for just four goals. They don’t seem happy and energized in Toronto. If they’re not happy, then Toronto FC fans won’t be, either.

It still hasn’t quite shown itself in the table yet, but the Vancouver Whitecaps have a ton of attacking firepower.

Per FBref, they’re second in MLS behind LAFC in xG per 90 and they have the third-best xGD per 90 (+0.50) in the entire league. Julian Gressel is thriving playing as a right-sided No. 8, they’re getting strong production from their various No. 9 options, and Ryan Gauld and Pedro Vite look good playing together behind a lone striker.

With a little more consistency, Vancouver’s grade could skyrocket.