Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Ranking all 27 MLS teams by tier for 2021 – revisited

With a tip of the cap to the great Zach Lowe, here's my own version of his "Annual Tiers of the NBA" column, MLS-style. What follows are not hard-and-fast Power Rankings, per se, but rather something a little looser in terms of talent level, cohesion, chemistry and all the et ceteras that make teams tick (or not).

HERE is this year's first version, from mid-April.

Since we're now into the stretch run, it feels like now's a good time to revisit this and get down, for the record, who stands where (as well as a little bit of why).

These teams are mostly in the order I think they'll finish, with the exception of the trio of teams in Tier 4. (I bet if you think real hard about it, you’ll figure out which teams those are without having to scroll.) But what really matters is the tier designation.

The Shield Contenders

We’re getting to the point where it might be a little generous to have anybody in the same tier as the Revs, but I’m going to roll with this for now. They’ve extended their Eastern Conference lead to 10 points and are six points in front of the pack in the Supporters’ Shield race. They survived some Gold Cup absences, some injuries at the back, and a bit of mix-and-match along the front line and with regards to their formation. And yet they're a league-best 7-1-1 at home and a league-best 5-2-3 on the road.

They sure feel like strong Shield favorites to me.

My Worry: They survived the month-long absence of Matt Turner. Can they survive an extended absence from runaway MVP leader Carles Gil?

It’s not clear if they’ll have to — the Revs don’t publish injury info and Bruce Arena gets pissy if you ask. But Gil has been missing for a week with what is reportedly a sports hernia issue, which caused him to miss substantial time back in 2017, and resulted in a surgery.

If that happens again, I think the Revs will come racing back to the pack. If it doesn’t, if Gil is in fact, good to go by the last week of August, then they’ll probably claim their first-ever Shield.

In each of the past two years, Sporting’s inability to defend teams in the open field was their fatal flaw. They were turnover-prone and gappy, and once they got turned around and had to scramble, that was pretty much that. It cost them a playoff spot in 2019, and while they topped the West in 2020, it seemed like that was due to a favorable schedule. It sure looked that way in the playoffs when Sporting conceded six goals over two games and were sent packing by Minnesota.

That's now a distant memory. Nobody’s going to confuse this with one of Peter Vermes’s very best defensive sides, but they’ve conceded just 20 times in 18 games and the underlying numbers like them almost as much as the boxscore numbers do.

The biggest difference has been the play of Andreu Fontas. The 31-year-old Spaniard, in his first year back after popping his Achilles’ heel, has performed at a Defender of the Year level of play. Vermes has done well rotating a lot of the other pieces, but Fontas is the rock that this defensive turnaround has been built upon.

My Worry: Obviously Fontas is going to need to be rested at some point, and while there are other guys who can do a job in the middle of that backline, none of them have shown the ability to do the job at the level Fontas has consistently hit this year.

The other worry is Alan Pulido’s availability. He’s almost as valuable to them as Gil is to the Revs, but he’s only sporadically in the XI thanks to a propensity for slight injuries and international duty.

They spent the first two months of the season in a tier of their own despite a pretty significant chunk of roster turnover this winter, as well as significant injuries ‚ Jordan Morris, Nico Lodeiro and Stefan Frei -- to a bunch of their defining players. Then they lost even more manpower to the Gold Cup.

It proved to be too much, and Seattle have come back to the pack over the past eight games, going 2-3-3. But that is an injury and international absence-induced blip, one they survived with aplomb given the loss of manpower.

The truth is that, despite their record-setting 13-game unbeaten streak to start the year, we haven’t seen the best version of the Sounders yet this year. But they’re getting healthy now, and we know how this team historically goes to work in the second half of the year under Brian Schmetzer.

My Worry: Part of what worked so well over the first third of the season was the balance afforded by the 3-5-2, but now with Lodeiro back healthy and Cristian Roldan back from the Gold Cup, it’s more likely to be a 3-4-2-1.

I think it’ll be fine -- the pieces make sense together, and Roldan’s superpower is that he’s smart enough to figure out how to add value no matter the formation and no matter his role. But if this is the formation and the role, then there’s only one true goalscorer out there: Raul Ruidiaz. Someone else is going to have to put the ball in the net on the regular from open play, and no one in the projected XI has really shown the ability to do that.

Tier II
Talented Enough to Push

I debated bumping them up to Tier 1 because they have quite simply played the best soccer in the league this season. They're second in the league in xG and lead the league in xG differential by a mile. They got Maxi Moralez back and he’s been healthy basically all year, and Jesus Medina finally looks like a DP. They lost last year’s team MVP, Anton Tinnerholm, for a good stretch, and still played relentlessly compelling soccer. And then they added more than $20 million worth of livewire young attacking talent from South America.

But look at their spot on this graphic:

“Unlucky” basically means “flubbed their chances.” And that pretty much comes down to one guy.

My Worry: How high you think NYCFC can climb depends upon what you think of starting center forward Taty Castellanos. I think you can credibly argue that the 22-year-old Argentine, who has 6g/6a in 1477 minutes, is the most well-rounded No. 9 in the league. He is central to almost everything the Pigeons do in attack, and consistently elevates the players around him.

But those six goals have come on a league-leading 13.28 xG, which is just a shocking underperformance. Usually players in a similar situation will progress* to the mean, but this is the third time in four years we’re using that particular, “yes, but…” as our mantra about Taty. Sooner or later, you are what your missed sitters say you are.

(*) Yes yes, I know it’s still “regress to the mean” even in this situation.

Anyway, his all-around play is winning NYCFC points, but his finishing woes are costing them points. There are zero other healthy center forwards on the roster, and so here is the lay of the land: If you believe that Castellanos can become an adequate finisher, then you should believe that NYCFC are about to charge up the standings. If you don’t believe he can become an adequate finisher … Tier 2 it is.

Consider this a wager on Oscar Pareja and that defense, which has stood relatively firm all year as the manager’s had to constantly adjust the deep-lying midfield, the backline and the goalkeeper. This team hasn’t been playing beautiful soccer by any stretch -- it’s been much more “grim and determined” than jogo bonito throughout 2021 -- but they’re second in the East in both points and PPG, and it’s not by accident.

A deep and versatile roster, one which has weathered the almost complete absence of Daryl Dike, is a good chunk of why that’s so. The other big chunk comes from Nani who, at age 34, is putting together what's pretty easily his best MLS season with 9g/6a in a shade under 1200 minutes.

A solid defense, a deep roster and a star match-winner is a good combo to lean on while Pareja keeps his fingers crossed that something close to his first-choice XI will, at some point, be available to him.

My Worry: There’s just no guarantee that his first-choice XI will, at any point, be available to him. Orlando City’s identity last year when they made it to the MLS is Back Tournament final was that of a heavy-possession, attacking side, but as they’ve lost piece after piece from that group to injury after injury, they have had to largely give that up. They’re an opportunistic counterattacking side, and have been for about a year at that point.

The other worry is Nani. He’s been superb, but he’s 34 and we’ve now got two years of data showing he drops off hard over the final third of the year. The schedule’s even more compressed now and the miles are going to be harder than they were in 2020. Given how narrow the margins have been for this team, they can’t afford for him to be any less than he has been in the first half of the season.

I am genuinely shocked that the Galaxy are all the way up here, but, well, here they are. And they've earned it.

LA aren’t airtight at the back and they’re not scoring a ton of goals (especially since Chicharito went down injured), but they’re playing really good and really pretty soccer. They control the tempo of the game and where on the field it’s played, and they have just packed the roster with midfielders who are comfortable on the ball.

Does that sound like a Greg Vanney team? Yes, that sounds like a Greg Vanney team. The former Galaxy great has come home and rejuvenated the franchise almost overnight.

My Worry: Vanney’s fixed a lot of things but that defense is still a worry, especially with the games starting to pile up. They got away with it over the first half of the season with new goalkeeper Jonathan Bond playing out of his mind, but as Bond has come back to earth a bit — he is two more howlers away from officially earning the label “error-prone” — the Galaxy have hit a few bumps in the road.

And the next month’s worth of games is unkind. LA are about to jump right into the woodchipper with home games vs. the Rapids and Quakes sandwiched between a trip to Minnesota, and then trips to LAFC and Colorado.

We’ll know a lot about how complete this overnight rebuild has been, and how serious a threat the Galaxy actually are when this five-game stretch is done.

Minnesota’s start was so damn bad that everyone seems to have written them off and not noticed that they’ve lost just once in their past 13. They look much more like the team we thought they’d be entering the season — a title-dangerous one that can hang with the very best the league has to offer, and occasionally beat them.

So what changed from that four-game disaster of a start? Not a ton beyond getting a few key guys healthy -- Emanuel Reynoso being the most obvious one — and the defense moving past their Keystone Cops routine. Go back, watch those early games and pull apart the goals the Loons were conceding, and you’ll see that most of the wounds Minnesota suffered were self-inflicted. They have simply managed to be sharper, even with Michael Boxall hobbled.

While that’s been happening at the back, Bebelo has turned into the Bebelo of last year in the midfield, which means everybody is dangerous in the attack. He's arguably the best floor-raiser in the league.

My Worry: He wasn’t a one-man show in 2020 though, right? Reynoso is clearly the best player on the team, and masterful at putting his teammates into position to eliminate defenders and score goals. But down the stretch and into the playoffs, it was winger Kevin Molino benefitting most from that. He had the skill to take the cracks Reynoso would put into the opposing defense and turn them into chasms.

This roster doesn’t have that type of guy. Maybe Franco Fragapane can be that when he gets back into the lineup, but that’s only a “maybe.” There are no guarantees.

I’ve already written it a hundred times this year, so let’s make this 101: Philly have adapted better to losing $15 million worth of Best XI homegrowns and their all-time appearances leader than anyone could’ve expected. While that isn’t necessarily reflected in their place in the standings -- they’re 6th in the East in PPG -- they have nonetheless done a pretty masterful job of plugging those holes, competing in MLS and the Concacaf Champions League, developing the kids and generally playing fun, winning soccer.

They're doing it by being a lot of what they were last year: A very energetic, very vertical team that never waits for a disorganized defense to get its bearings. The Union don’t care at all about controlling the game, they just want to win those moments. They're well-drilled in doing so, which is why they won the Shield last year and have a puncher’s chance at winning the CCL this year.

My Worry: They’re in the CCL semifinals because Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos were wonderful in this tournament back in the spring. Those two guys have been a measure less wonderful during MLS play, which is a big chunk of why Philly have only 25 goals in 19 games. That’s not a goalscoring rate you’d expect to see from a team with title aspirations.

On top of this, it looks like Jamiro Monteiro is headed out the door. There is no good time to lose your No. 10, but “mid-season, right before the continental semifinals” has to be the very worst.

On my first draft, I had them in Tier 3. But Philly have earned the benefit of the doubt — for now.

Tier III
Solid Teams Missing Something

Remember when Robin Fraser was considered the best assistant coach in MLS for years and years, but could never get a head coaching job? Man, did a lot of teams screw up. This guy’s good.

The Rapids went from being fun and attacking and very possession heavy, if a little soft in the middle, to tough and pragmatic and formationally flexible basically overnight. Fraser, due to injuries and sundry other absences, wasn’t able to keep riding with what worked well enough to get this team to the playoffs last year, so he’s improvised. And it’s worked.

Colorado’s making money because of it, as they just sold Sam Vines, and more are coming (if not necessarily this window). This is a good team, and that’s good business.

My Worry: And yet this feels like it’s probably the ceiling for this bunch. There’s no actual goalscorer* for Fraser to plug into the lineup and while Mark-Anthony Kaye will help the midfield a bunch, he’s not exactly Reynoso.

So the margins are slim with the Rapids. They’ll have to keep playing hard, keep avoiding mistakes and keep poaching goals where they can. Teams like that can make it to the playoffs, but they don’t tend to go very far once they get there.

(*) I just want to point out that while the transfer/trade window is closed, rosters are not yet locked. That means Colorado -- or anyone, but we’re focused on the Rapids here -- are free to add an out-of-contract goalscorer if they want one. Given how clean their cap is and that they have only one DP, it seems like it’d be pretty worthwhile to roll the dice with a short-term contract on, say, Facundo Ferreyra. Or, if you want a blast from recent MLS past, Zdenek Ondrasek!

Of course, Nashville were a team like that last year and they made it all the way to the Eastern Conference semifinals. “Don’t give up cheap goals. Punish teams on the break and on set pieces” is the way to go if you’re a tactically and creatively limited team, and so that was indeed the way Nashville went last year. It was a good choice from Gary Smith.

The vast majority of those pieces are back in 2021, along with a few new ones as well as a new formation -- Nashville are a 3-5-2 team now. Those faces mean more talent at Smith’s disposal, and while it’s not accurate to say it’s all clicking, he’s got his side fourth in the East on PPG and the underlying numbers like them even more than the standings do.

There have been long stretches this year during which Nashville have played really good soccer.

My Worry: And yet I feel like a lot of that is smoke and mirrors. Nashville were going down 2-0 just about every week to start the year, and when you’re playing from behind like that you tend to rack up a lot of possession, a lot of chances and a lot of shots. That can paint a more flattering picture than what's actually deserved.

Also, the looming apocalypse for this team is the schedule. They played 11 of their first 17 at home and went just 6-0-5. Good job coming back from those 2-0 deficits, but bad job dropping so many home points!

They opened their second-half slate by reversing roles, as they went down to Fort Lauderdale, got themselves a 1-0 lead and then promptly blew it, eventually losing 2-1.

That does not bode well.

One of the happiest surprises of the season has to be the play of D.C. United. It’s not just that they’re playing good, winning soccer. It’s that they’re doing so while having a clear identity (they’re one of the most vertical, high-pressing teams), and while getting a bunch of high-upside homegrowns regular high-leverage minutes, and while getting the most out of a bunch of veterans who almost all had miserable seasons in 2020.

It’s fun to see Julian Gressel pushing up from right wingback with a purpose again. It is a damn treat to see Andy Najar, back home and totally rejuvenated, getting the ball on his foot and looking for fools to dribble past. And I feel genuinely great for Ola Kamara, who’s had so many bad breaks in his MLS career thus far but who’s well in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race now that he’s finally getting to be the full-time No. 9 for someone.

Hernan Losada has done a pretty great job, even if the number of soft tissue injuries his guys have suffered suggests he should maybe dial it back a bit in training.

My Worry: Those injuries can come in a hurry, as the first wave of them did back in April.

More than that, though, is the fact that Kamara’s goalscoring just isn’t sustainable at this rate. He’s got 10 goals in 624 minutes. I’m willing to bet he scores less than that over his next 10 games.

If (when) he cools off, I just don’t think D.C. have the final third talent to punish the best teams.

Something’s Wrong With These Guys. They Should Be Better.

Everybody had fun at their expense last year, but then they got Carlos Vela back late in the season, got him up to speed for the CCL and damn near won the thing. I still think they’d have taken the continental title if they’d either 1) signed Bradley Wright-Phillips, or 2) figured out how to prevent Eduard Atuesta from getting a red card in the semis.

Anyway, I thought that team was going to show up in 2021. And in some ways they have -- LAFC are among the league leaders in chances created, shots, xG and everything else on the attacking half of the field. On the defensive half, they do a good job of limiting chance quality and quantity.

It’s not as good as it was in 2019, of course. But if you put a piece of tape over the scorebug and just watch the aesthetics of the game, LAFC will look like a very good team.

My Worry: I’ll let Bob Bradley take it:

"There’s no doubt that we are frustrated as a group," he told reporters after this past weekend’s loss at San Jose. "Too many results where we do not find a way to not come out on top.

"On our terms, we have to be better. Early in the game, that is where they had the advantages and as we pushed back into the game, I saw improvement but we did not do enough to get to the second goal."

Remember how I talked about the Union’s ability to win moments even if games they don’t control? LAFC are the opposite of that -- they control most games, but find a way to lose the biggest moments. I keep waiting for it to change, but it hasn’t.

The other obvious worry is that the backline, without Eddie Segura (who has an ACL tear), might just be bad.

When I wrote the preseason version of this piece, I had LAFC and the Crew in a tier of their own -- it was titled “2021 is a disappointment if they don’t win a trophy.” Seems like misery loves company.

Anyway, the Crew are, like LAFC, floating around down near the playoff line. Unlike LAFC, they're not doing this in spite of good underlying numbers. The Crew’s numbers are, in fact, pretty bad, especially on the attacking side of the ball. They’re not creating much, and so they’re not scoring much.

It’s kind of a dirty little secret that the underlying numbers weren’t so great for the Crew last year, either. They just defended resolutely, had a few match-winners and got hot at the right time.

The caveat this year is that the Crew have been rocked by injuries and international absences, and haven’t been whole all season long. They have had a large, if not quite Sounders-sized injury list, and the depth that looked so impressive on paper before the season kicked off has been less impressive on grass.

My Worry: This is just how it is.

Artur doesn’t seem to be coming back any time soon, Milton Valenzuela hasn't been the same since doing his ACL two years ago, Harrison Afful has gotten old, the depth has been less effective than hoped for and the weight of the whole thing has finally worn the backline down.

They’ve shipped 11 goals in their past three games and while I’m sure they’re not going to be that bad the rest of the year, their lack of offense means they have to be really, really good every single game. It’s a lot.

I damn near had the Timbers in that same “2021 is a disappointment without a trophy” tier. I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it, though, since Portland were just a little bit thinner and more vulnerable in a couple of key spots, and thus it was hard to make the argument.

Turns out I was right about one thing: they’re all just about in the same place right now, down by the playoff line, fighting for their lives.

The Timbers have a ton of talent to bring to that fight, though. Felipe Mora has been scoring for fun lately, Dairon Asprilla has finally, at age 29, turned into a legit weapon, and Sebastian Blanco is back and looking feisty. So has Yimmi Chara, and while both Diego Chara and Diego Valeri are finally showing their age a bit this year, both are still assets and the team’s less dependent upon them than they used to be.

Plus there’s some U-22 attacking help (Santiago Moreno) on the way.

My Worry: Any defensive help, though? Sure could use that!

Portland are the inverse of the Crew. They have, as per the advanced numbers, one of the league’s best attacks, but one of its worst defenses. (Per Opta’s xG numbers, it’s the very worst.) That's not quite born out in the box score numbers, but that -6 goal differential is a red flag, as is the fact that they damn near squandered a two-goal home lead this past weekend against a pretty punchless RSL side.

It feels like the Timbers have too much talent to miss the playoffs. I feel the same way about Columbus and LAFC, even with all the injuries and inconsistencies all three teams have endured. I wouldn’t be at all shocked if any/all of these teams wound up around 60 points and cruised into the postseason, nestled among the favorites.

But we’ve got a half-season’s worth of results and data saying that, actually, these teams aren’t that good, and might actually be headed toward life below the line.

We’ll see.

Maybe They Figured It Out

If LAFC or Portland are going to drop, Dallas are probably the best bet to jump past them and into the postseason. They’ve won three of four, which means that, yes, they are quite hot at the moment. But beyond that is the obvious stuff I covered in my most recent weekend column: A bunch of crucial players are finally healthy and playing well, and Luchi Gonzalez has finally bowed to the inevitable and made young Ricardo Pepi the full-time #9 ahead of Franco Jara.

Dallas are 5-2-3 with a +6 goal differential when he starts at center forward, which is very much the PPG pace (1.8 ppg, which would be fourth in MLS) of a playoff team. They are 0-5-3 with a -8 goal differential when he doesn't at center forward, which… uh, I don’t need to explain to you that a team that wins zero of its games would not be on track to make the playoffs, right?

Anyway, I actually think that Dallas have played a lot of good soccer this year, even when they’ve had the wrong players on the field. Now they’re getting more of the right players on the field more often -- that includes veteran CB Matt Hedges, who’s finally back after being sidelined with injury for two months -- and so they’re on the cusp of the playoffs.

My Worry: Really seems like they’re an injury away from going back into the toilet. Pepi’s been that crucial for them even when he’s not scoring goals.

The league’s longest unbeaten streak currently belongs to the Quakes, who are now seven without a loss since switching to a 3-4-3 (with a little bit of 3-5-2 sprinkled in, and probably much more to come with the addition of Jeremy Ebobisse).

That’s the boring part. The more exciting part, which is also the less exciting part since it’s made San Jose a less chaotic, and thus less exciting team to watch, is that Matias Almeyda’s finally scrapped the man-marking scheme. They are a very straightforward zonal team up top and through midfield with a few man-marking bells and whistles leftover at the back. It is… normal.

It is also very solid! They’re not getting pulled around and gashed in transition anymore, and in Nathan, their big new center back, they’ve got a one-man answer to a lot of the questions that have been asked of them on set pieces over the past two years. He has been superb.

And so the Quakes, like Dallas, are climbing.

My Worry: With the offloading of Florian Jungwirth, they have zero depth. Thus, they're one injury at the back (Nathan, Oswaldo Alanis or Tanner Beason) or midfield (Judson) from a crisis.

We're getting into the ranks of teams, now, that can’t -- or haven’t -- survive the types of injury issues that have hit Portland, Columbus, Dallas, Seattle, etc. San Jose found new life with the new formation and tactical approach, but it’ll be a quick death if the wrong guy pulls a hamstring.

Rookie head coach Wilfried Nancy absolutely deserves to have his name mentioned in any Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year discussions. I don’t think he’s going to win it, but he’s checked a bunch of boxes in terms of getting the most from veterans (Victor Wanyama’s been worth that DP tag this year), giving his side a tactical identity (they play a low-block 3-5-2 and will harm you badly on the counter), and, most importantly, giving proof of concept to the front office’s talent acquisition approach.

Sporting director Olivier Renard bet big that talent within the league was undervalued, so he spent big amounts of allocation cash to acquire Djordje Mihailovic, Mason Toye and Kamal Miller. Mihailovic is among the league’s leading chance creators, Toye is among the league’s leading goalscorers, and Miller has been one of the league’s best young defenders. All three are thriving in part because they’re getting chances in Montréal they weren’t afforded elsewhere (that sentence takes on two meanings for Toye, who is much better at finding high-value chances in Montréal than he’d been in Minnesota), but also because Nancy is putting them into position to succeed.

All of the above has Montréal hanging around down by the playoff line. They might not be good enough to get above the line this year, but for the first time in the decade they’ve been in MLS, it feels like this team has an honest-to-goodness identity.

My Worry: I’m choosing not to worry about this team at all this year — I’m just enjoying the ride, because this is house money they’re playing with.

Long-term, though, my worry is that ownership loses patience with this approach if it doesn’t pay immediate dividends. The leash in Montréal has always been short. I hope that’s not the case with Renard, Nancy et al, because I’m really encouraged by what I’ve seen.

Not Playing Good Soccer, But They Have the Talent

They’re dead last. A team with this much talent, no matter how many injuries they’ve endured, should not be dead last.

Know how we know that? Because we saw what this team did in the CCL. Yes, they eventually got murked by a superior Cruz Azul side. But that two-legged win over Club Leon wasn’t a fluke, and a lot of the guys who contributed in that series haven’t been getting on the field for some reason during the regular season.

Change appears to have finally come. A 2-2 home draw isn’t, in a vacuum, an amazing result. But TFC took it to NYCFC in that second half in a way nobody’s done all year, and Javier Perez getting handed the job for the rest of the season sure seems like a show of confidence from the front office. Let Alejandro Pozuelo and Yeferson Soteldo cook, play the kids, and win some games.

My Worry: Gonna have to win a lot of those games 4-3, I think. While there's young talent pushing into the lineup in midfield and attack, central defense remains a pretty big mess. The Reds can’t stop anyone.

Getting a little more range and ball-winning ability in front of that soft middle will help a bunch, but it might not be enough.

You, a sophisticated consumer of content, are scoffing at this. You are wrong to do so.

There are certainly holes in this roster, but there’s also a former Best XI center back in his prime along with two worthwhile new additions to help him; there is a very good hard-man d-mid, now wearing the captain’s armband; there are two DP midfielders, who finally played like it this past weekend; there are two good young attackers, one a refugee from one of the Old Firm giants and the other a former No. 1 overall draft pick.

And there is Gonzalo Higuain. You’re scoffing once again, but once again you shouldn’t be: 8g/2a in 1100 minutes isn’t an MVP-level return, but he’s clearly been one of the handful of best center forwards in the league this year. And he’s clearly upped his effort level in recent weeks.

Miami are unbeaten in four. They’re still not playing particularly good soccer and the odds are firmly against them making any kind of run, but if they can just stop playing bad soccer and making elementary errors, they have the firepower to cause real problems.

My Worry: Too many holes to fill, not enough depth, too many points already dropped at home and a road-heavy schedule the rest of the way? That’s not a great recipe.

I don’t think Miami will be fighting to avoid the Wooden Spoon, but I’d be surprised if they end up truly fighting for a playoff spot.

I had to be talked into putting them in this tier in large part because I don’t actually think they’re that talented. The only guys in the XI who are a level higher than “above average” at their respective spots are Josef Martinez (he’s looking more and more like pre-ACL Josef by the week), Miles Robinson and Brooks Lennon. A bunch of other guys -- George Bello, Santiago Sosa, and maybe Ezequiel Barco, Marcelino Moreno and Alan Franco -- should, in theory, be among the very best in the league at their spots. None of them have been.

So I’m not sure that this group has the ability to just brute force a bunch of wins. They’ll have to play actual good soccer in order to climb.

For what it’s worth: Last weekend they played some good soccer!

My Worry: They played some good soccer and still conceded a pair to one of the worst attacking teams in the league. It’s hard to overstate how much of Franco’s on-field quality is just “in theory” at this point. The truth is he’s been one of the most flammable defenders in the league, no matter his partner or the formation.

The midfield lacks balance and the attack lacks a pure creator. Lots of head-down dribblers out there. I think Atlanta’s record is a fair reflection of who they are.

Yes, I have the Whitecaps here! They've done this exciting new thing over the past three windows called “acquiring good players” which, when combined with a reliably productive academy, has given them a pretty deep side with the potential to be a deep and good side.

A lot of this is predicated on new DP No. 10 Ryan Gauld living up to the hype. You might be saying “What hype?” but I assure you that as soon as that signing went through, every scout and analytics nerd in Europe hit my DMs letting me know that Vancouver got a good one. And Gauld did nothing in his debut this past weekend to prove them wrong.

It's probably unfair to put them in the same tier as these other three teams, especially now that Lucas Cavallini is hurt. But it would’ve been more unfair to drop them down a tier, so here they are.

My Worry: The defense probably isn’t good enough to make a sustained push, and the attack just took a big hit with the loss of Lucas Cavallini for the next six weeks. Brian White has performed admirably and has been the best center forward on a playoff team before, but he’d have to hit a hell of a hot streak for Vancouver to really start climbing.

The other issue is that, after nearly three years, there’s still very little consistency from head coach Marc Dos Santos in his team selection, the formation, or even the principles of play. That’s how you end up with games where White’s starting at right wing, or Caio Alexandre is exiled, or a team that can’t defend in its own box ends up trying to bunker for 40 straight minutes, leading to the inevitable.

But seriously, though, the ‘Caps roster is pretty good!

Some Stuff To Figure Out

This is maybe a touch harsh, but where else is there to put the Red Bulls? They don’t belong in the “They Have the Talent” tier despite a relatively large offseason outlay on new faces, and they definitely don’t belong in the “Maybe They Figured it Out” tier. RBNY have won once in their past nine, the bench has gotten shorter as Gerhard Struber has found fewer and fewer guys he trusts, and the press has gotten less effective as legs have gotten very, very tired.

Anyway, they looked pretty good and promising for the first two months of the year, but have been one of the worst teams in the league since mid-June.

My Worry: It’s a team of transients. A number of players have one foot out the door with contracts ending and eyes on Europe, and a huge number are in Harrison on loan. Hard to knit that locker room together, presuming that “knitting the locker room together” is something head coach Gerhard Struber even cares about.

They also spent $5 million on a DP center forward who doesn’t score (Patryk Klimala), and big sums on young players who don’t really play much (Frankie Amaya, Dru Yearwood and Andres Reyes).

The Red Bulls haven’t missed the playoffs since 2009.

Since that very nice 2-0-0 start, RSL are just 3-6-6. I’m going with the larger, more recent sample size as the more illustrative one.

What it illustrates is that RSL just don’t have many ideas going forward, and aren’t exactly airtight at the back. They’re not awful on either side of the ball, but being bottom third of the league in both, and lacking any other mitigating factor -- set-piece dominance, a vicious press, a goalscoring savant -- means you’re just going to spend the year steadily sinking down the table.

My Worry: I’m worried that Freddy Juarez is going to grind his guys into dust. He subs later and less often than almost any other coach in the league, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you’re talking about a roster where the gulf between the high-end guys and the low-end guys is, with few exceptions, pretty small.

Throw some stuff at the wall. Show that there’s a path to the first team with RSL in the same way there is with Philly and Dallas. That’s the long-term identity this team’s got to cultivate.

Only two losses in their last nine games, and a 3-2-4 record over that span? That’s a clear improvement, and one that’s in line with some of their underlying numbers and at least a little bit with the eye test.

But we’ve said exactly this about the Fire for much of the past half-decade. They’ve collected talented players, put together some nice sequences and always found a way to squander it somehow. Usually the “somehow” is with inexplicable defensive miscues.

My Worry: That’s just who they are. The bad luck is that as they’ve cut down on the calamitous defending, they’ve suddenly figured out how to be among the most profligate teams in the league in front of goal. Poor Robert Beric, who was excellent last year, appears to be cursed.

Sure seems like an offseason rebuild is coming.

Can’t fault the Cincy owners for a lack of commitment. They opened the hell out of the checkbooks over the past two years and allowed now-former GM Gerard Nijkamp to go buck wild.

They're 13th in the East on .94 points per game with a -12 goal differential.

Ah! Well. Nevertheless.

My Worry: There is no stability, infrastructure or institutional knowledge in place to develop the talented young players they’ve accumulated. I don’t think Brenner, for example, is worth anything near what they paid, but he has the talent to be a league-average or better MLS forward. I think Alvaro Barreal and Isaac Atanga can be better than league-average wingers, and Gustavo Vallecilla obviously has some talent at the back.

How do they get better with this team that’s always in flux?

So far the answer is “they don’t.” And if that’s the case, then Cincy are trapped in an endless cycle of underachievement and rebuild. Got to fix that.

Tab Ramos wasn’t handed a lot to work with, but this is not great:

Points after their first 41 games as Dynamo coach:

  • Tab Ramos: 39
  • Wilmer Cabrera: 58
  • Owen Coyle: 47
  • Dom Kinnear: 56

The Dynamo played hard and pressed hard to start the season and got some results out of it. But there’s always one team like that -- one team that comes out of the gates with higher energy and a smart gameplan of capitalizing on early-season slop. That team thrives for a month, then inevitably comes back to the pack.

Houston started the year going 3-2-2. They’re 0-4-7 since then. Their current 11-game winless skid is the longest in franchise history.

My Worry: There’s just not enough talent in that locker room. This season seems certain to end in a teardown and rebuild. And with new ownership in town, it’s pretty clearly more than just the players with jobs at stake.

They got so much of this initial roster build right, balancing a bunch of proven MLS veterans with some high-upside imports and a hidden gem of a goalkeeper. They’ve also spent a lot of time playing attractive possession soccer, and have clear ideas of how they want to use the ball to open opposing teams up.

I like this foundation and think it has the pieces to be successful over the course of the next few years.

My Worry: The one thing they got unequivocally wrong with their roster build was their approach to filling the center forward role, trusting the job to journeymen Danny Hoesen and Aaron Schoenfeld. Both guys have spent the vast majority of the year hurt, and before Hoesen was hurt, he was as ineffective for Austin as he’d been for the Quakes over the past few years.

They've tried to address this glaring error in the summer by signing young Senegalese striker Moussa Djitte. That’s good, but he’s really unproven! And then they signed veteran Argentine Sebastian Driussi, and I thought he was actually going to be the main forward, but… no. Turns out the plan is to use him in midfield.

I actually think signs are pointing toward more of a 3-5-2. I really don’t know, though — it’s kind of a mess.