Voices: Joseph Lowery

MLS Panic Meter: Dishing out readings after Matchday 2


That preseason hope evaporates pretty quickly, doesn’t it? 

We’re only two matchdays into the 2023 MLS season and a handful of teams have already experienced something resembling a rude awakening. Some are playing well, but results just aren’t coming. Others aren’t playing well and, uh, the results aren’t coming.

Either way, we’re deciding if a handful of clubs who haven’t had a dreamy start should be panicking. It’s too early in the year for anyone to be in full-on panic mode, but we still think it’s wise to whip out the Very Official MLS Panic Meter™ to make a ruling that cannot be argued with.

Let’s get to it.

Panic Meter: 5/10

Two starting forwards are already out injured in Lorenzo Insigne and Adama Diomande. They’ve only picked up one point in their first two games. Things aren’t exactly running smoothly in Toronto right now.

On Matchday 1 at D.C. United, Toronto did a good job of climbing back into the lead after Mateusz Klich’s opening goal gave the hosts an early advantage. Despite showing flashes of positive possession play in Bob Bradley’s 4-3-3, Toronto couldn’t hold on, allowed two goals in the 90th minute or later, and left D.C. empty-handed. Then, on Matchday 2 at Atlanta United, Toronto opened the scoring thanks to Federico Bernardeschi’s great strike in the 52nd minute, before letting Atlanta equalize eight minutes later.

The talent is so obviously there for this team. But any sort of cohesiveness and depth? That’s missing. When they lose the ball – which is happening more than anyone in Toronto would like right now – they’re vulnerable in transition due to a lack of speed in every line of the field. And with key attacking pieces spending time on the physio’s table early in the season, it’s only going to take Toronto FC longer to gel.

Thankfully, none of their early-season injuries look all that serious. Plus, they’re still more talented than almost every other team in MLS. They belong in this panic discussion, which is a concern, but they’re not higher than a 5/10 at this point in the year.

Panic Meter: 8/10

This number might seem high, but I truly think it’s right on the money.

Charlotte FC have lost their first two games: a 1-0 setback at home to the New England Revolution and a 3-1 defeat at St. Louis CITY SC. Still, early-season losses aren’t the main reason the Panic Meter is so concerned about Charlotte. No, the Panic Meter is so concerned about the second-year club because they still have glaring holes in the attack.

DP winger Kamil Jozwiak still doesn’t have a goal for Charlotte FC and he doesn’t look noticeably more likely to score this year than he did in 2022. Manager Christian Lattanzio is so dissatisfied with his other winger options that he used Karol Świderski on the right wing against St. Louis on Saturday. Świderski has been productive as a central attacker throughout his career. Because they lack proven difference-makers on the wings, Charlotte FC become an easy team to game plan against. If you shut down the middle of the field, you shut down Charlotte.

Until the Crown pose a bigger threat in wide areas, it’s hard to imagine the Panic Meter backing off this team much in 2023.

Panic Meter: 2/10

The Red Bulls were almost always going to have a slower start to 2023, not least because new DP forward Dante Vanzeir was going to need time to get settled with his new team.

Vanzeir debuted off the bench for New York in their 0-0 draw with Nashville SC on Saturday after missing the first game of the year, a 1-0 loss to Orlando City on Matchday 1. With Vanzeir, the hope is he makes the Red Bulls a more dynamic attacking team. If the Belgian international can help RBNY generate some additional chances in games where they have, oh I don’t know, 58% of the ball but create just 0.50 xG (like they did against Nashville on Saturday), playing the Red Bulls becomes a much scarier proposition. Their defense also remains lockdown, even after losing Aaron Long to LAFC in free agency.

So, at the moment, the Panic Meter isn’t all that concerned about manager Gerhard Struber’s group. If we see 500 minutes or so from Vanzier and the Red Bulls still look like the same middling attacking team that we’ve seen take the field in 2023, then you can bet your bottom dollar the Panic Meter is going to have something to say about it.

Panic Meter: 2/10

Similar to the Red Bulls, it was always going to be this way, wasn’t it?

NYCFC have developed something of a reputation for signing key players late in the Primary Transfer Window – or at least after the regular season starts. With midfielders James Sands and Santi Rodríguez officially back in the squad, New York City FC look much, much stronger heading into the rest of the year than they did at the start. Sands started against Chicago in New York City’s 1-1 draw on Saturday, while Rodríguez came off the bench in the second half. Both players were positive and clearly raised this team’s ceiling to a level approaching where it was last year.

The biggest thing that’s holding NYCFC back right now, though, is the No. 9 position. Talles Magno looked better up top against Chicago than he did in the team’s 2-0 loss to Nashville SC on Matchday 1. But there’s a good chance that comes down more to the Fire’s defensive issues than it does to a sudden improvement from Magno. The Brazilian forward is a good enough soccer player that he can give Nick Cushing something up top, but even if he’s the starting No. 9 for this team throughout all of 2023, where is the depth? That spot is still an area of concern for NYCFC.

I’m guessing it’s one they’ll address before the end of this transfer window on April 24. Because it’s NYCFC and because NYCFC usually get their signings right, the Panic Meter isn’t worried about this one.

Panic Meter: 4/10

The Vancouver Whitecaps have played mostly well so far in 2023! Or, at least they’ve played much better in 2023 than they did at pretty much any point in 2022. But they’re not getting results and they’re also not managing games particularly well. Vanni Sartini’s choice to go more defensive in the second half against the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday came back to bite the 'Caps. They failed to protect their lead and ended up losing 2-1 on the road. On Matchday 1 against Real Salt Lake, they also couldn’t hold onto a lead and lost 2-1 at home.

While some things have gone wrong for Vancouver, their 4-3-3 variation seems to be mostly working. They’ve been very good in both first halves they’ve played this season. Even though the results don’t show it, and they need to hold onto leads, this team has clearly taken a step forward in 2023. They’re probably still a year away from making real noise in the Western Conference, but the Panic Meter doesn’t see a ton of reasons to worry about the Whitecaps right now.

Expectations were fairly low coming into 2023. Even with Concacaf Champions League games entering the equation, there’s still time for Vancouver to exceed those expectations.

Panic Meter: 6/10

I’ll be honest: Houston’s performance on Matchday 1 against FC Cincinnati is doing a lot of heavy lifting on this one.

It’s keeping the Panic Meter from overheating and raising that score above a 6/10. But for now, with the limited information that it has, this score looks right. Houston outplayed FC Cincinnati for stretches of their season opener... before being roundly outplayed against the New England Revolution in a 3-0 loss on Saturday.

Right now, it appears much of the Dynamo’s ability to fight for an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs spot in the West is tied to Héctor Herrera’s performance level. When he looks energized and fit, the Dynamo look competitive. When the Mexican international looks older, the Dynamo are easy to play through and have trouble gaining momentum. At 32, you could possibly expect to see more of the latter than the former from Herrera and Houston this season.

Another factor that limits the Dynamo is their lack of quality wingers. Much like Charlotte FC, there are big questions surrounding that position group for Houston. If one of their new signings (Amine Bassi and Iván Franco) doesn’t start heating up soon, 2023 could be another up-and-down year for Houston.