Some of the most enjoyable aspects of any Major League Soccer campaign are watching the clubs that outperform expectations and compete for the title of season darlings.
It's always fun to see a team band together to break out of the box that people tried to place them in, even if most of these underestimated sides usually don't ultimately raise an MLS Cup when all is said and done. They do cause loads of trouble for others along the way, and hopefully will accomplish enough to raise their profile cachet and reset team goals moving forward. This season has seen several teams grab a larger spotlight than they had back in spring and continue shining above their presupposed level as we roll into fall.
As these fabulous five are not all in the same place, it makes no sense to set a common goal for each of them. Instead of making a guess at how they'll fare the rest of the way in 2021, we'll set a custom line to shoot for if they want to label the year a success.
- Standings: 6th in Eastern Conference
On a list of teams that didn't get enough props before the season started, let's start with the one that still can't seem to get much due. CF Montréal have held a playoff place practically all year long, and are currently unbeaten in their last four matches.
This may come as a surprise to many, but Wilfried Nancy's team aren't just some scrappy bunch that grits out results against the run of play. They have a positive expected goal differential (unlike Philadelphia, Portland, the LA Galaxy and defending champs Columbus). In fact, they've been running circles around foes on a fairly regular basis since the start of July.
Mason Toye and Djordje Mihailovic lead the offense-by-committee, Victor Wanyama has become the midfield marshal and new addition Kamal Miller has boosted a backline now threatening to be the first in the club's MLS history to post a goals-against average under 1.20 (their previous best was 1.29 back in 2015).
The success line
This team still has a few too many off days to ask too much of them this year. I wouldn't put it past them to spring a postseason upset, but nobody should expect it from them. Making the postseason and performing admirably in an opening-round defeat should be adequate to build club momentum in Montréal.
- Standings: 2nd in Western Conference
This is not a "gradually gained steam along the way" story, like some of the other entries. The Rapids won five of their first seven this season and, well, they've also won five of their last seven at this point. They're listed here because many folks (yours truly included) simply didn't learn from 2020's Robin Fraser effect.
The head coach didn't start this club's turnaround (that credit goes to interim boss Conor Casey back in 2019), but he has kicked it into overdrive. This team now has one of the league's stingiest defenses (only one opponent has hit for more than one goal since June), as well as a consistent attack.
Colorado have beaten up on the teams they should have and held their own rather well against the West's best, going 3-1-3 against teams currently in the conference top five. That's a healthy sign, because they have six games against that group (plus a trip to New England!) left on the schedule.
The success line
Let's not be coy. The Rapids are good enough that they should be aiming to reach MLS Cup for the first time since 2010. And if you're going to get to the title game, it would be silly not to aim for winning it (as they did against the odds 11 years back). So is this a "win it all or bust" situation? No, it's not ... but I won't snicker if they think it is. For me, winning at least one playoff round should be enough for this youngish side to create a baseline for future success. Anything less would be a major letdown.
- Standings: 10th in Eastern Conference
Nobody's suggesting the Herons will make a valiant title charge. Heck, most probably don't even have them making the playoffs at the moment. But one way or another, they are going to have as much to say about how the playoff picture develops as any team.
Inter Miami CF, who are four points back of the last playoff spot in the East, will play four of the conference's top five teams. They also have home-and-away sets against fellow chasers Atlanta United and Columbus. They even visit Portland next month to mess with that whole other scene a little. Oh, and did I mention that Phil Neville has them on a 5-1-3 run and holding at least a game in hand on all their playoff hunt rivals?
A recent switch to the 3-4-3 seems to have solved Inter Miami problems at both ends of the pitch. The defense has back-to-back shutouts for the first time in a year, and they've only leaked multiple goals twice in their last nine outings. Rodolfo Pizarro and Robbie Robinson are helping Gonzalo Higuain with scoring duties, and this has raised the team's margin for error.
The success line
Many observers would pick this club to miss the playoffs. I get it, but forget that. This is Miami, son. Miami aren't here to make up numbers. Miami are here to party. If the Herons can make the postseason, win a round and then bravely be ousted, it would be a huge boon for the club. It won't be easy, but it wouldn't be worth as much if it was.
- Standings: 10th in Western Conference
It's honesty time: I almost never know what to think about the Earthquakes on a week-by-week basis. I never know what to expect from them, and it's been that way for years now. I had little faith in them when they posted an early three-game win streak, which they of course followed up with a two-and-a-half-month win drought.
Sometime this summer, San Jose boss Matias Almeyda seemed to become more flexible with his approach, and the team has responded well. Saturday's last-minute loss to Colorado was their first since June, and believe it or not, the Quakes haven't allowed more than a single goal in 10 games now.
The arrival of Jeremy Ebobisse gave the team something it lacked – a striker worth counting on to fill up nets. The 24-year-old instantly became the Earthquakes' key man, which means it's on Cristian Espinoza, Chofis Lopez and company to make sure Ebobisse doesn't go hungry up top.
The success line
The Quakes need to win a playoff game, something they haven't accomplished since 2010. You may think making up five points and hopping three clubs just to reach the playoffs is hard enough (and, well, it is), but there's no use showing up if you're not going to dance. And this club hasn't danced in a long time.
- Standings: 8th in Western Conference
In a very real way, the Whitecaps have been sneaking up on everybody all season long. Even during an early five-game run of defeats, they were playing some good teams tough.
The Vancouver attack galvanized as summer heated up, and they kicked off their current 10-game unbeaten streak. Ryan Gauld joined up in the summer transfer window, quickly amplifying their counter-attack and restart games, which were already great team strengths.
Soon after, the defense solidified, and Vancouver started a run of four straight wins (wrapped around the dismissal of head coach Marc dos Santos, no less). That streak brings us up to the present day, which has Vancouver banging on the door to the West's top seven.
The success line
The last month of Vancouver's regular-season schedule is quite harsh (Sporting KC, at Portland, at San Jose, Minnesota United, at LAFC, Seattle), so sustaining this sort of momentum into the playoffs seems a tall ask. The players and staff probably won't think so, but breaking their string of three straight years missing the postseason would be enough to turn the club outlook for the future around.