Voices: Joseph Lowery

MLS grades heading into Leagues Cup: Can your team win it all?


It’s all happened in a flash, but we’re roughly two trimesters of the way through the 2023 MLS regular season. With the All-Star and Leagues Cup break conveniently handing us a chance to take stock of where things stand across the league, we’re back with updated grades for every team in MLS.

Like the last set of grades that I handed out in May, letters for this batch were determined by a combination of on-field performances and results, with at least a nod to how those things compare to general expectations for each team.

Oh, and with Leagues Cup starting up later this week, I’m also adding a quick note on each team’s chances to make a run against our friends from Liga MX.

Let’s get to it.

Atlanta United aren’t a bad team, but they haven’t taken advantage of the limited time Thiago Almada is going to be in this league. They’re seventh in the East and 11th in both the Supporters’ Shield standings and in expected goal differential per 90 minutes, per FBref.

There’s plenty to be optimistic about during the last stretch of the season, especially if the front office nails their transfer moves. But there’s unused potential in Atlanta.

Leagues Cup hopes: Good? Maybe?

In a group with Inter Miami and Cruz Azul, things could get wild for Atlanta in Leagues Cup. Cruz Azul are last in Liga MX and it will likely take this new-look Miami team a little time to gel, so there may be a nice window of opportunity for Gonzalo Pineda’s team.

After a brutal stretch of results in March and April and CCL embarrassment, Austin have stabilized. They’re still a ways off their 2022 finish as runners-up in the West, but Josh Wolff and Co. have a positive xGD over the last two months.

Leagues Cup hopes: Knockout rounds are possible.

Austin are in a group with Mazatlán (15th in Liga MX) and Juárez (3rd in Liga MX). They could end up in a top-two spot, but there’s no guarantee of success.

Unfortunately for Charlotte, things have only gotten worse since my last set of grades (when they earned a “C”). They haven’t won a league game since May 31 and have struggled to create and deny chances. It’s hard to paint this season as anything other than a disappointment right now.

Leagues Cup hopes: Knockout rounds are possible.

One of the best parts of Leagues Cup is it gives hope to struggling teams. In a group with FC Dallas and Necaxa (14th in Liga MX), Charlotte could finish in the top two spots and move into the knockouts.

Sitting in eighth in the East, Chicago haven’t blown the doors off anything this year. Still, they head into this break in good form after winning five of their last six games. Expectations were low for the Fire in 2023, and so far they’re mostly exceeding them.

Leagues Cup hopes: A real chance to advance.

In a group with Puebla (17th in Liga MX) and Minnesota United, Chicago have a real chance to break out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds, where anything is possible.

It’s impossible to give Cincinnati anything less than an A+ at this point in the year. They’re running away with the Supporters’ Shield with an average of 2.22 points per game (the next closest team, New England, are sitting at 1.87 PPG) and they’re poised to get even stronger once Aaron Boupendza is fully integrated into the team.

Watch out, world. FC Cincinnati are here.

Leagues Cup hopes: Good, but stay vigilant.

Pat Noonan’s team is in a group with Chivas (top of Liga MX) and Sporting Kansas City. The top two teams advance from every group, so Cincinnati’s odds are good. Still, now isn’t the time to let off the gas.

Sitting at the bottom of the West and in 27th place in the Shield race, it’s hard to find real positives for the Rapids in 2023. In many ways, they’re still playing catch-up when it comes to identifying and integrating high-level players into Robin Fraser’s starting lineup. Maybe new DP striker Rafael Navarro will help?

Leagues Cup hopes: It’s a hard road.

Colorado will face Toluca (9th in Liga MX) and Nashville in their group – they’ll have a hard time advancing to the knockout rounds.

The Columbus Crew have improved a ton under Wilfried Nancy this year. Even without the obvious quality depth of a number of teams around MLS, the Crew have withstood international absences and Aidan Morris’ time away from the team with grace. They’re currently third in the East in xGD, according to FBref, and Nancy looks capable of putting almost anybody in any position and making things work. There’s still plenty to improve, but they’re ninth in the Shield race.

Leagues Cup hopes: Gulp.

Columbus deserve a ton of respect and at this point, they’re threats in every competition. However, they’re stuck in a group with St. Louis and Club América. As Matt Turner would say, it’s gonna be a dogfight out there.

Losing Jesús Ferreira for the Gold Cup, in conjunction with injuries to some other key players, really limited FC Dallas over the last month or so: they’ve won just one of their last six games (1W-4L-1D). Even when the full group is together and healthy, it’s hard to see them as a legitimate contender in the Western Conference. After averaging 1.56 PPG last year, this year’s pace of 1.3 is a disappointment.

Leagues Cup hopes: A real chance to advance.

Dallas will meet Charlotte and Necaxa in Leagues Cup, which could serve as a reset of sorts for them ahead of the final stretch of the MLS regular season.

I said this same thing a couple of months ago, but D.C. United are a competitive, capable team in the Eastern Conference. What’s more is they actually have the best xGD per 90 in MLS over the last two months, according to American Soccer Analysis. This summer transfer window has already brought some changes to Wayne Rooney’s squad, and they need to turn more strong performances into results. Still, D.C. United are stable.

Leagues Cup hopes: Knockout time?

In a group with Montréal and Pumas (fourth in Liga MX), D.C. should be favored to get out of the group as one of the top-two finishers. At that point, Christian Benteke could help them go on a run.

The Dynamo are one of the most fun teams in all of MLS at this point in the year. They love to keep the ball, taking risks in their own defensive third before finding Héctor Herrera or Coco Carrasquilla in midfield. Houston are in the top third of MLS teams in sequence time and passes per sequence, according to Opta. However, they struggle to fully close the door on teams and they’re a bit too mistake-prone at both ends of the field to earn anything more than a C+ at the edge of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs picture.

Leagues Cup hopes: Alive.

Houston will face Santos Laguna (10th in Liga MX) and Orlando in the group stage. Even with their inconsistencies, the Dynamo have the ability to fight their way through to the knockouts.

The post-CCL blues hit LAFC hard this year: they’ve won just three of 11 games since their loss to León in the final. Still, they’re mostly controlling games and have started to pick up points over the last three games, with two draws and a win. LAFC have positioned themselves to add a couple of pieces this summer and make a run at both Leagues Cup and MLS Cup.

Leagues Cup hopes: One of the favorites?

Some of the shine has worn off since that CCL loss, but LAFC have a bye straight into the Round of 32. After that, they’ll be one of the most feared teams in the entire competition, regardless of their dip earlier this year.

This season has been incredibly bleak for the Galaxy. Heading into the break, they’re second-to-last in the West and have been severely limited by injuries and poor roster construction. Per ASA, they’ve allowed the second-most xG in MLS over the last two months (1.72) while being a below-average attacking team based on xG per game (1.21).

Given their transfer restrictions and incompetent squad, it’s hard to imagine things getting dramatically better this year.

Leagues Cup hopes: Lighting in a bottle?

In a group with León (11th in Liga MX, but the reigning regional champions) and the Vancouver Whitecaps, there’s a reality where the Galaxy don’t make it out of the group. That said, Riqui Puig might be the most talented player on this side of the Atlantic. If he’s hot and engaged, almost anything is possible.

How do you combine an “F” for Miami’s on-field performance and an “A+++++” for their transfer business? Well, you consult a very technical textbook on “Averaging, But With Letters” and end up with a “C+”.

Unequivocally, Inter Miami’s on-field performances have been a disaster in 2023: they’re last in the Shield race and they have the worst xGD per 90 in all of MLS, per FBref. And yet, that might not matter now that Lionel Messi has joined. Still, Miami aren’t getting anything higher than a C+ on the season until they creep back into the playoff picture in the East (which truly may not be possible) to ensure we get as many Messi games as possible.

Leagues Cup hopes: Why not, right?

Look, anybody that says they know what to expect from this new era in Miami is lying to you. Inter Miami could blow the doors off of Cruz Azul and Atlanta in Leagues Cup or they could struggle while players still get used to gestures at everything. Absolutely anything is possible here.

The Loons haven’t really over- or under-performed expectations so far this year. They’re ninth in the West based on points per game (1.27) after playing a big chunk of the year without Emanuel Reynoso. Now that he’s back and partnered with Teemu Pukki in the attack, Minnesota could start creeping up the Western Conference table. They have a great xGD over the last two months (+0.53, per ASA, which is the third-best in all of MLS), so that could signal an incoming hot streak.

Leagues Cup hopes: A real chance to advance.

Just like Chicago (who Minnesota will face in this group along with Puebla), Minnesota have a chance to break out of the group and into the knockouts. With Pukki on board, they have enough game-changers to get over the line.

Things were always going to be tough for CF Montréal in 2023 after a major talent exodus during the offseason. Still, even as they try to reshape their roster on the fly with intra-league moves, they’re still ninth in the East based on points per game (1.26). Hernán Losada is in the process of trying to communicate some of the finer points of his tactical approach to this Montréal team, but there hasn’t been a ton of progress yet.

Leagues Cup hopes: It’s a hard road.

Compared to Pumas and D.C., Montréal are the weakest team in their Leagues Cup group. They’ll be facing plenty of adversity as they try to find their way to the Round of 32.

They’re still in a fairly good position near the top of the East, but Nashville have struggled a bit recently: they’ve lost five of their last six games. With Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar patrolling the attacking half (with reported reinforcements coming soon), Nashville should bounce back soon.

Leagues Cup hopes: Expected to advance.

In a group with Colorado and Toluca, Nashville should advance to the knockout rounds. At that point, Gary Smith’s defense-first style mixed with Mukhtar’s elite skill could be a hard combination for opponents to beat.

Currently second in the Shield race, the Revs have had a ton of success this year. They’re getting elite production out of Djordje Petrovic, and with Carles Gil roaming in the final third, they’re never out of a game. Bruce Arena’s flexible, player-driven approach seems to be working to near-perfection in New England right now.

Leagues Cup hopes: Favored to advance.

In a group with San Luis (sixth in Liga MX) and the New York Red Bulls, the Revs have every chance to march through to the knockout rounds. A match-winning goalkeeper and an elite No. 10 can get you a long way in this region.

Right now, NYCFC are only above two teams in the East based on points per game: Miami and Toronto. Without a proven No. 9 and still struggling to move on in the post-Maxi Moralez era, New York City have struggled this season. There’s hope for them yet with a couple of transfers coming through the doors (including a striker!), but based on their first 24 games, it’s been grim.

Leagues Cup hopes: Favored to advance.

Even with their poor MLS play, NYCFC will have a chance to get back on track against Atlas (seventh in Liga MX) and Toronto. New signings should improve the team – even without them, they’d still be favored to advance over Toronto.

Another New York team, another bad grade.

After finishing fourth in the East last year, RBNY are down in 11th this year based on points per game (1.13) and their actual place in the standings. Their underlying numbers still rule (fourth-best xGD per game in MLS over the last two months), but those strong statistics just aren’t turning into wins. 

League Cup hopes: Maybe?

With the Revs and San Luis in their group, the Red Bulls won’t be favorites to advance. But maybe this is when the actual results start to line up with the underlying numbers?

The Lions are still plugging away in the East! Currently fourth in their conference in points per game with 1.61, Orlando are on track to make the playoffs and even to push for a home playoff game. There’s still room for individual improvement from DPs Martín Ojeda and Facundo Torres, but Orlando have the quality to beat any team in MLS.

League Cup hopes: Alive.

Up against Santos Laguna (10th in Liga MX) and Houston in the group stage, Orlando will have a real chance to advance.

We’ve gotten used to seeing Jim Curtin and Co. near the top of the Eastern Conference standings… and that’s exactly where they are now. Currently third in the East based on points per game (1.74), Philadelphia are clearly one of the better teams in MLS. Julián Carranza is looking more and more like a top-tier No. 9 – between him and Andre Blake in goal, this team can cause anyone problems.

Leagues Cup hopes: Strong.

In a group with Tijuana (eighth in Liga MX) and Querétaro (13th in Liga MX), the Union are one of only two MLS teams up against two Liga MX foes in their group. Still, Philly’s experience in CCL should give them comfort in Leagues Cup.

Injuries have taken their toll, but the Portland Timbers have clearly underperformed expectations after splashing the cash to sign Evander as a DP from Denmark. They’re currently 12th in the West in points per game (1.00) and last in the West in xGD per 90 minutes (-0.29), according to FBref.

Leagues Cup hopes: Slim, but not none.

The Timbers are up against Tigres (fifth in Liga MX and a perennial powerhouse) and San Jose in their group. It’s hard to imagine Tigres dropping out early, which puts San Jose and Portland at odds for the last spot. The Quakes have been better in 2023, but Portland will have a chance.

Don’t look now, but RSL are on a nine-game MLS unbeaten streak with six wins and three draws in that stretch. With Chicho Arango starting up top and Diego Luna dominating in the left halfspace, this team is as hot as anybody in MLS right now. With smart signings and high-quality attacking players, Real Salt Lake have transformed into one of the league’s best (and most entertaining teams).

Leagues Cup hopes: Tough.

… that being said, landing Monterrey (second in Liga MX, also a perennial powerhouse) and Seattle in their group is brutal. Never say never with this version of RSL, but making it past those two giants won’t be easy.

Compared to last year, things are miles better in San Jose. They’re seventh in the West in points per game (1.39) compared to their 1.03 points per game finish from last year. There’s still lots of work to be done in Northern California (they need more depth and more top-end talent), but goalkeeper Daniel has been a revelation and the team is marching towards a steady playoff berth.

Leagues Cup hopes: Favored to advance.

Tigres will be a tough out, but San Jose can best the Portland Timbers to finish inside the top two in their group. At that point, the Quakes may go as far as Daniel takes them.

June was a tough month for Seattle, but they’ve returned to form – at least somewhat – in July with two wins, a draw, and a loss. Keep in mind, that was while balancing the extended absence of Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan during the Gold Cup. Sitting fourth in the West in points per game ahead of the home stretch of the season is a comfortable place for the Sounders.

Leagues Cup hopes: Tough.

If RSL had waited just a few more months to turn things up a notch, this group with Pablo Mastroeni’s team and Monterrey would’ve been a whole lot easier. As it stands, Seattle have a slight edge on RSL, but it’s anybody’s game.

They’ve rebounded from an incredibly poor start to the season, but SKC still have a bit of ground to cover before they’re back in the playoff picture. The attack hasn’t hit its stride yet, which is exposing some of the age and deficiencies in Peter Vermes’ defense all the more.

Leagues Cup hopes: It’s a hard road.

In a group with Chivas and Cincinnati, SKC are most likely to end up on the threshing floor. With their top-end talent, though, anything is possible.

To steal a line from myself back in May, no team has done better relative to preseason expectations than St. Louis. Sure, they struggle against compact defenses, but their up-tempo, aggressive, in-your-face style has barely faded between Matchday 1 and this break. St. Louis are leading the West in points per game (1.78) and are in position to ride home-field advantage all the way to MLS Cup, should they make it that far.

Leagues Cup hopes: Tough going.

In a group with Club América and the Crew, St. Louis don’t have an easy path towards the knockout rounds. Still, they should cause problems for both of their group-stage foes with their compact defending and direct attacking.

Everything that could go wrong for Toronto, has gone wrong for Toronto. The Italian stars don’t look like game-winners. Bob Bradley seemingly lost control of the locker room and lost his job as a result. The rest of the roster appears either too old and injury-prone to change games for the better or too young and inexperienced to do so.

It’s bleak, folks. They’re last in the Shield race.

Leagues Cup hopes: Don’t get too excited.

Playing NYCFC and Atlas, advancing isn’t impossible for Toronto. Still, it’s hard to view them as anything close to a favorite to advance to the Round of 32.

They’re noticeably better than last year and are in a strong spot in the table with an average of 1.41 points per game (good for fifth in the West). Have things been perfect for the Caps? Absolutely not. But are things better than expected? Absolutely. If Vancouver can ensure most of the goals in their high-octane games are headed towards the back of their opponents’ nets, they’ll be a tough out from this point forward.

Leagues Cup hopes: A real chance to advance.

In a group with the Galaxy and León, the Whitecaps have a real chance to advance. They just took down the Galaxy, 4-2, on Saturday, illustrating their superiority over a Leagues Cup foe.