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).

Read this year's first version, from way back in February.

Since we're now into the stretch run it’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, which is an exceptionally stupid thing to put on the record this season given how tight the standings are. What really matters, though, is the tier designation.

TIER I: They’re going to win the Shield

Credit to Philly and Austin for trying to hang in there, but LAFC have finally started to open up a little bit of a gap – six points and a game in hand on both. Given that, their five-game winning streak and the underlying numbers, there is frankly very little reason to think that they’ll be coming back to the pack given their remaining schedule is one of the easiest in the league.

The other reason to think they won’t be coming back to the pack is that they’re better now than they were a month ago when the transfer window opened. Just ask poor Justen Glad, who’s going to have recurring nightmares about Gareth Bale for a while.

The only regular-season question is whether or not they break the single-season points record New England set last year. I think they will.

MY WORRY: Maxime Crepeau hasn’t been great, and I could imagine Ilie Sanchez running out of steam down the stretch as he was prone to do in Kansas City. But these are like “oh, they ended up on 70 points instead of 75” issues.

Longer term it’s fair to worry if the locker room will hold together since they’ve got the first world problem of too much talent. I doubt that comes into play this year, though.

TIER II: Contenders

They’re the league’s best defensive team even after that 3-1 pantsing they took in Cincy over the weekend, and their goal differential (+23) is just one off of LAFC’s pace. They have the best ‘keeper in the league, arguably the best center backs in the league, and arguably the best d-mid in the league. They also have depth, a defined style and a trio of DPs who are reliably scoring goals.

Plus with Jack McGlynn’s push into more regular minutes they’ve started being a bit more productive with the ball over the past month, which is being reflected on the scoreboard.

MY WORRY: They scored 13 combined goals in wins vs. D.C. and Houston over the past month. That’s about a third of their goal total this year. They haven’t scored more than twice in any other game all season.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here when I say that the main difference between LAFC and Philly is the former’s top-end attacking talent.

This season’s performance is an object lesson in the importance of tactical continuity in that they’re doing everything Josh Wolff had them doing last year, except better. It’s also an object lesson in the importance of making what I’ve called clear-eyed assessments of the talent on hand, which Claudio Reyna and the front office did both on the backline (Ruben Gabrielsen has been a massive upgrade) and in central midfield (adios, Tomas Pochettino!). We’ll see if Emiliano Rigoni can mark the same improvement on the wing.

They are balanced and completely bought-in on their overall identity, which means they blitz bad, disorganized teams and are mostly able to go toe-to-toe with the best sides.

MY WORRY: They can still get run through a bit, right? For all their attacking talent, LAFC can just close you down when they decide that’s what they want, and with Philly that’s their whole damn identity.

Against Austin, the game always stays pretty open, and as a result Brad Stuver has had to stand on his head at times. He’s been mostly great but has started coming back down to earth a little bit recently, which is exactly what happened in the second half of last year.

I’m not going to go into the strength of schedule bit – Verde fans have heard that enough, and this team’s in this tier on merit. But they wouldn’t be the first side that’s come this far, experienced “we’re good for the first time!” vibes, and then taken a step backwards down the stretch.

By most of the advanced metrics NYCFC are either even with or ahead of LAFC, and while advanced metrics aren’t the scoreboard, they tend to be pretty instructive with regard to overall quality.

If you’re more of a “scoreboard!” guy then just look at what the Pigeons have done since their CCL run ended: 11-2-5 in MLS play with a +20 goal differential, which puts them just under the Black-and-Gold’s 2.22 ppg pace, and is actually ahead of LAFC’s pace for goal differential if you prorate it over the course of a full season.

No reason to think this team isn’t very good.

MY WORRY: There’s a few reasons to think they’re not great, though. One is that could've-been-MLS Cup MVP and would’ve-been-regular-season-MVP-if-he’d-stayed-all-year-this-year Taty Castellanos was loaned to Girona and no replacement was brought in, and a second is the midfield has been significantly less effective on both sides of the ball since Keaton Parks was sidelined with a lower leg blood clot.

On top of that, the structure under Nick Cushing is just different. They're pressing less often and less successfully upfield, but biggest difference, as per Second Spectrum, is that they are MILES worse at getting pressure to the ball in their own defensive third, and no, Parks’ absence alone doesn’t account for something so structurally uniform. Parks’ absence and Maxi Moralez’s age-related decline, though…

Still, I think it’s more than personnel. In a way this reminds me of NYCFC’s 2018 season, in which they played at a Shield-contending pace for the first half under Patrick Vieira, then regressed pretty hard in the second half as Dome Torrent implemented his modified approach.

One other note here: the Pigeons have only one regular-season game left at Yankee Stadium. All their other home games are either in Queens or across the Hudson in Harrison.

Yeah I’m putting them here. They’re not really contending for the Shield – as I’ve already said, LAFC’s got that sewn up. But they’ve been playing damn good soccer since Day 1, and like NYCFC they’ve been one of the very best teams in the league since their CCL run wrapped up.

Like Austin, that’s because they’ve bought in on the identity instilled by their second-year head coach. Wilfried Nancy has evolved his team into one that defends compactly as a unit, but is at their best when they’re using the ball both to attack and to control the pace and shape of the game.

They’ve had some really, really excellent moments, and even managed to stay afloat when they lost Djordje Mihailovic for a couple of months.

MY WORRY: Djordje hasn’t been the same since his return from injury, and they really need Mason Toye to have his “Brian White 2021”, if not his “Brandon Vazquez 2022” breakout down the stretch here. Nancy’s got them playing in a 3-5-2 and you’re not going to win in a 3-5-2 if only one of your forwards is scoring.

But the most obvious concern for this team, and for any team in this tier, is in goal. There’s a 14-goal gap between their goals allowed and expected goal allowed, which is a catastrophe. Only about half of that comes down to post-shot xG, but still, there’s a reason Sebastian Breza lost the starting job. He was costing this team points on an almost weekly basis.

James Pantemis was very good in his first few starts replacing Breza, but then he cost Montreal two points this weekend himself. I’m not sure either guy is a No. 1 ‘keeper in this league.

Now compare that to the goalkeeper situation for every other team in this tier, and the one above. Pretty big difference!

TIER III: I think they’re good

It took ‘em a minute, and wooo boy do they owe Dayne St. Clair a fruit basket or something for keeping them afloat – barely – up until the June international date. If he hadn’t put in a stunning half-season then I’m pretty sure the Loons would’ve been down in Wooden Spoon territory.

But they used that international break well by fixing some things in attack (they are making more off-ball runs as per Second Spectrum, and yes that’s related to Bongi Hlongwane’s insertion into the starting XI), which has kept humming even with Emanuel Reynoso temporarily sidelined. And then they used the summer transfer window well, picking up potential starters at two spots.

They’re now 5-1-2 with 21 goals scored in their past eight games. They won’t keep up at that rate, but in terms of balance and overall talent this looks like one of the best attacks in the league to me.

MY WORRY: Defensively, though? It’s not great, and with St. Clair regressing hard since the start of June – including this past weekend’s waking nightmare in Commerce City – that fragile backline can’t count on him to put out all the fires.

If the Loons stumble here it’ll be because they can’t stop anyone.

Another team that used the summer window really well, and did so by going big and targeted at the same time: Cucho Hernandez has been a one-man jolt of energy, single-handedly injecting both penetration and dynamism into a Crew attack that had spent much of the year being turgid and predictable.

The knock-on effect is that Lucas Zelarayan has been unleashed, with 4g/6a in Cucho’s six appearances (four of those assists are on Cucho goals). He is playing his best all-around soccer since the 2020 MLS Cup run.

Add that to the fact that the Crew are just damn hard to beat – they’ve lost just once in their past 11 – and it seems pretty clear their recent ascent up the standings is not an accident.

MY WORRY: Even with Cucho in the XI we’ve already seen that this attack can bog down, as it did against the Revs and Montreal over the past couple of weeks. They put so much emphasis on pitch control and swinging possession from touchline to touchline that sometimes it’s like they forget to play forward.

They’re also a disaster in the final 10 minutes of games, having conceded eight goals, which is tied for second-worst in the league. They need to actually close games out and not just settle for defending in Eloy Room’s lap.

Sebastian Blanco and Eryk Williamson have started just five games together all season. In those five games the Timbers are 3-1-1 with a +7 goal differential. In the other 20 they’re 4-5-11 with a -3 goal differential.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When Williamson has been healthy this year he’s looked like the league’s best No. 8, full stop. And when he’s been on the field with Blanco, Blanco has looked a hell of a lot like one of the very best No. 10s in the league.

The last time these guys were both healthy at the same time for an extended stretch, the Timbers won the MLS is Back Tournament.

Guess what? They’re both healthy again.

MY WORRY: How long will they stay healthy? That’s a big one, but others are whether the defense can hold up (it hasn’t been great), whether Aljaz Ivacic can hold up (he has been great, but it’s hard to imagine he keeps playing at this level), and whether they’ll get enough from center forward to be A-Tier contenders.

Remember, that MLS is Back-winning team started Jeremy Ebobisse at center forward, and last year’s MLS Cup finalists started Felipe Mora. Ebobisse’s gone and Mora’s out for the year with injury, so that puts a lot onto the shoulders for Jaroslaw Niezgoda. I’m not sure how much he’s equipped to deliver.

Yeah the underlying numbers still don’t like them, they’re down to their third-choice d-mid, and the attack has been kind of crap without Raul Ruidiaz.

But that third-choice d-mid is Cristian Roldan, who’s started at that spot in four MLS Cups, and… I mean, they’re still the Sounders. I will believe this team is going to miss the playoffs when it actually happens, and not a moment before.

MY WORRY: The underlying numbers still don’t like them, they’re down to their third-choice d-mid and the attack has been kind of crap without Raul Ruidiaz.

CCL wear-and-tear, injuries, age (Stef Frei and Fredy Montero in particular are showing theirs) and a lack of development from young attackers like Leo Chu and any of the academy signings has made this team thinner and more vulnerable than any Sounders side of the Brian Schmetzer era.

If they’re going to miss the playoffs, it’s going to be this year. And of course, the Sounders becoming the first MLS team to win the new version of the CCL and then missing the playoffs for the first time in their history would be the most MLS thing ever.

Yeah, I can’t believe how quickly this has happened, either. Here’s a line from what I wrote about them back in February:

The wager, it appears, is that new head coach Pat Noonan will be able to coax improvement from within. Much of the roster is very young, so that is at least plausible.

Good wager! Lucho Acosta has gone from All-Star caliber to MVP caliber. Brenner has gone from bust to legitimately one of the best young strikers in the league. Alvaro Barreal has gone from positionless, toolsy kid to an adequate fill-in No. 10 and an electric left wingback. And Brandon Vazquez has gone from “hey, he might have something…” to arguably the best and most complete No. 9 in the league. Plus they crushed the draft in adding goalkeeper Roman Celentano and center back Ian Murphy, both of whom have been average MLS starters this year. Which, to be clear, represents a massive upgrade over what Cincy had back there last year, or the year before that, or the year before that.

Chris Albright has done a great job of layering in crucial new pieces as the year’s gone on, starting with d-mid Junior Moreno (an acquisition I raised an eyebrow at, but who has been worth the money they paid), and then continuing to DP d-mid Obinna Nwobodo and now to center back Matt Miazga.

I suspect the attack is going to keep humming, and that the defense is going to improve a decent bit down the stretch. It felt like this past weekend’s win over Philly was a warning shot to the rest of the East: the Garys aren’t here by accident.

MY WORRY: Just because it felt that way doesn’t mean it is that way. Young goalkeepers can start to struggle out of the blue for one, and for two, Miazga hasn’t really played in months. There’s no guarantee that he’ll be an immediate upgrade to that backline even if it looks like he should be an automatic upgrade to that backline.

I almost bumped them down a tier based upon their overall lack of attacking talent, roster thinness and recent form, but decided I had to keep them here. The simple fact is that in this sport of ours, if you have an ideology – even a mediocre one – and execute it with maximum effort, you will probably do pretty well. And no one can accuse the Red Bulls of lacking either effort or ideology, both of which show up in all the advanced numbers (which tend to really like how the team’s playing this year, even if they’ve dimmed a good bit over the past month).

Plus we were here last year, right? From early July to mid-September of 2021 RBNY won just once in 11 games. Then when the weather cooled they went 7-1-4 in their final 12 to make the playoffs with a point to spare.

That team didn’t have any padding, and had to come back from below the line. This team’s seven points clear of the line, so it’d take a pretty serious collapse down the stretch here to end up below it.

Also, the more I think about it the more I really like the Kyle Duncan reacquisition. He was arguably their best playmaker last year, and slotting him in at right wingback should open up the chance to move Tom Edwards back to right center back full time. So one very under-the-radar acquisition stands to seriously improve RBNY on both sides of the ball.

MY WORRY: Almost everybody chasing them in the East improved over the summer window, and almost everyone chasing them in the East is in better form right now. Beyond that, more of the 2021 schedule was played during the late summer and autumn, when it was a little bit cooler and easier to press.

To that point: Last year’s finishing kick started with a 4-0 win on September 17. This year if they wait until September 17, they’ll have only three games left.

So it feels like things have aligned against them here. But they really have spent most of the season playing effective soccer and imposing their approach onto almost everyone they’ve lined up across from.

They’ve lost only twice in their past 15 games as they shook off their post-CCL hangover. They’ve completed a summer window retooling that sees them deeper in crucial spots, better balanced and better able to play out of the 4-2-3-1 that Bruce Arena turned to after flailing about in the 4-4-2 wide diamond all spring.

They’ve also got, in Djordje Petrovic, a match-winner in goal, and in Carles Gil a match-winner in central midfield, and in Gustavo Bou a match-winner in attack.

It’s been a weird and hard year for the Revs, who’ve spent most of it injured, fatigued and in the midst of an on-the-fly makeover after selling three of their four best players from last year’s Shield-winners. As a result they’ve dropped a league-worst 24 points from winning positions.

I suspect they’re done doing that, and that we’re going to start seeing more performances like this weekend’s 3-0 pumping of Orlando City.

MY WORRY: At no point have Andrew Farrell and Henry Kessler been as good this year as they were last, which has been compounded by Matt Polster’s injury issues at d-mid. And then the drop down from those three guys to the back-ups has proved to be precipitous. Petkovic has been beyond heroic in keeping the ball out of the net, but almost every ‘keeper tends to come back down to earth a little bit at some point.

Then there’s the shape issue. Bruce Arena’s almost always preferred a two-forward set-up, including during last year’s remarkable Shield run. With Giacomo Vrioni in town and Bou edging back towards health, will he scrap the stability of the 4-2-3-1 for the perceived greater punch of the diamond?

I can understand why he would, but think it would end up destabilizing the already rickety defense too much, especially against good teams.

TIER IV: A whole lot of teams that could go either way

Dallas have done a lot of good things this year, much of which starts with Nico Estevez’s positional play scheme. Estevez puts a ton of emphasis on controlling the pace of the game and where it’s played by using the ball, and with Sebastian Lletget in town they should be even better at that. They should also get an attacking boost as Lletget is very good at the kind of box-arriving runs Dallas’s midfield hasn’t really produced this season.

So I might end up eating s&*% on this one as by both the standings and the underlying numbers, there’s good reason to bump Dallas up into Tier 3. They did just go on the road to a Tier 3 team and come away with a point despite missing their best midfielder, right? They are literally third place in the West, right? So why wouldn’t I push them up?

MY WORRY: Because they’re 3-6-5 since May 18 and while Lletget should help, I don’t think he turns that around all by himself. As the year’s gone on they have been less able to control midfield, and thus less able to keep opponents from finding a rhythm and taking the tempo of the game out of their hands.

Worse, though, is their inability to turn periods of sustained dominance into insurmountable leads. Dallas have let so many 1-0s become 1-1s throughout the year, and the soccer gods have a way of punishing that in the end.

Chicago’s 6-3-1 in their past 10, stretching back to the end of the international date, and are 4-0-1 in their past five. They’ve been able to win by shutting a team out one week and then blowing a different team out the next.

Xherdan Shaqiri has figured out his role and (to an extent) the league, while the Chris Mueller/Jairo Torres/Brian Gutierrez winger trio has been both fun and good. With strikers Kacper Przybylko and Jhon Duran starting to wake up… hey man, the Fire have been balling! This is the most interesting they’ve been since 2017.

MY WORRY: They weren’t exactly facing murderer’s row over this nice 10-game run. Up next: the Union, NYCFC, Montreal, New England and Columbus.

It’s their toughest five-game stretch of the year. I just can’t bring myself to buy that they’ll be as good against that group as they’ve looked recently.

DAWG! xDAWG! Zac MacMath having a career year! Pablo Ruiz evolving into one of the better registas in the league! Tons of interchangeable attackers! Human spirit!

RSL have defied the odds and their underlying numbers to be where they are, which is fourth place in the West as of this writing. If you’d told me before the year that they’d be here despite missing Damir Kreilach for basically the whole season, and having had to trade David Ochoa for what amounted to off-field issues, and having made no truly big DP signings (Jefferson Savarino’s a very good player but he’s not a franchise-changer), I’d have called you a liar.

But this team’s scrapped like hell. That’s a solid foundation for any soccer team.

MY WORRY: Need more than just the foundation, though. RSL have struggled to add layers to their game, and so what they look like now are a team that has to switch the ball on a dime, push both fullbacks forward and take insane risks if they’re going to generate any kind of consistent attack. That is their tactical identity.

It asks a lot of MacMath and the defenders, and since June they’ve been able to come up with answers less and less as they’ve won just two of their past 10. They’re just two points above the line and are staring at a pretty brutal five-game stretch.

The bottom could drop out real quick. I suspect that it will.

On paper Nashville have a playoff team. Walker Zimmerman’s the best center back in the league, Hany Mukhtar’s among the handful of best players in the league, and they’ve got four credible, MLS-caliber d-mids, along with, in Daniel Lovitz and Shaq Moore, guys who are among the very best in the league at right and left wingback.

They take very few risks in terms of pushing numbers forward so they don’t leave themselves open to high-percentage looks in transition, and are very good on attacking set pieces. They have the same coach and most of the same key players of the past two seasons, both of which produced credible playoff runs.

MY WORRY: And yet! I don’t think I’m breaking new ground when I say it all seems to have gone pretty stale for Nashville, who are generating little beyond Mukhtar in attack and – much more worryingly – have stopped being able to defend at a high level either in a shell or on set pieces.

I wrote a bit about their defensive issues in my weekend column and those numbers, via Second Spectrum, were revealing:

  • In 2020 Nashville got pressure to the ball 3.5 times per opponent possession.
  • In 2021 Nashville got pressure to the ball 3.3 times per opponent possession.
  • In 2022 they’ve dropped to 3.2 times per opponent possession.

In their own defensive third pressure is not only coming less frequently, but it’s been less effective

  • In 2020 their pressure led to a turnover within five seconds 47% of the time
  • In 2021 their pressure led to a turnover within five seconds 48% of the time.
  • In 2022 their pressure’s led to a turnover within five seconds just 43% of the time.

So they are easier to go at when they’re sitting in their usual bunker, an issue which is exacerbated by Joe Willis having, by his standards, a pretty poor year.

They could survive all that if they were as good on defensive restarts as they should be, but they’re still not. In fact, they’re a borderline dumpster fire as only D.C. United (13) have conceded more total goals off set pieces than Nashville’s 10.

The Galaxy go out there every week and really try to put something together. Greg Vanney demands proactive, front-foot soccer in which his side uses the ball, gets runners forward and puts together intricate final third kill patterns. They do that basically no matter who they’re facing, and most weeks, those kill patterns lead to very good chances.

Like this:

That’s all really great soccer up until the final touch!

MY WORRY: That final touch sure does matter quite a bit, right? Kevin Cabral’s taking most of the stick – most of it justified – but teamwide, the Galaxy have just 32 goals on about 41 xG. Everyone except Dejan Joveljic has underperformed in front of goal.

I maintain that the easiest solution is to play a 3-5-2 with Joveljic and Chicharito up top. That gives the Galaxy a pair of goalscorers, numbers in midfield to control the pitch, and numbers along the backline to shore up what can be a gaffe-prone defense.

But Vanney’s refused to even try it for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s either the 4-4-2, which cedes too much central midfield control, or the 4-2-3-1, which usually puts Joveljic on the bench and asks Cabral to be a finisher.

So here they are, three points below the line and with three wins in the past three months.

That is not the whole story – as mentioned, the defense has become more error-prone as the season’s worn on, and Jonathan Bond has not been in good form – but if they were just potting a reasonable amount of the chances they do so well to so regularly carve out, they’d be on 40 points and coasting to a home playoff game.

Ten points from their last five games, and three wins in their past four? A healthy Gyasi Zardes, and Jack Price finally back in the XI? Danny Wilson spraying dimes with that left foot of his, and Diego Rubio quietly having his best MLS season?

All of that paints a very pretty picture for the Rapids, as does the switch from the 3-4-2-1 that Robin Fraser had favored for most of this year back to a 4-2-3-1 or, this past weekend with Price finally in the XI, a 4-3-3.

They have started to look much more like the team they were last year, and the team so many of us thought they’d be this year. They’re tied with the Galaxy on 30 points and with multiple games in hand on the teams they’re chasing.

MY WORRY: They got three gifts this past weekend and still had to clench real hard to eek out a one-goal home win over a team missing its attacking engine and best player. The week before that they shipped four goals in another nail-biter of a win.

Are the Rapids really equipped to win so many shootouts? I’d say no, but they’ve only won one 1-0 game all year long, so maybe the real question has become “Are the Rapids really equipped to win if it’s not a shootout?”

The Five Stripes have been cursed with the injury bug all year, and for the past few months have been playing without their starting goalkeeper, three of their four starting defenders and their starting d-mid. Only one of those guys is officially back – hello, Andrew Gutman! – and only one other is going to be back this year, but they’ve scraped together some loans, pushed some kids into bigger minutes than maybe they were ready for, and hung on for dear life.

They are still doing exactly that, but have managed to stay just two points below the line with a game in hand, and looked more solid recently during a 2-1-2 stretch over the past five games. There is at least a little spark of optimism in the fanbase, and decent reason for it.

MY WORRY: Their remaining schedule, even with the game in hand, is not kind, and even this past weekend Atlanta couldn’t summon the kind of desperation they needed until the game’s dying minutes. Even after all the drama this season has provided – the closed-door meetings and the open air statements – they, as a collective, just don’t seem that bought in.

Plus Josef Martinez doesn’t really move anymore. He somehow looks less healthy and mobile than he did last year when he struggled so badly coming off of ACL surgery. It’s hard to see them making a run if this version of the King is the one they’ll be getting for the next two months.

They’ve gone 8-6-5 since Phil Neville called Gonzalo Higuain out and then benched the DP in early April. You’d think that would cost Neville the relationship – that a veteran as decorated and as close to the end as Higuain would just turn off and tune out after that kind of moment – and for a while I think it did.

And then something weird happened a month ago: Pipita embraced his role and tuned back in. He’s scored six goals in seven appearances over the past month, seemingly revitalized (or, in the context of his MLS career, just vitalized) by the addition of playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo.

The wingers have been relatively productive, and the central midfield has been good, the backline has just about held it together, and Drake Callender has been a revelation in goal. The Herons aren’t done yet!

MY WORRY: Pipita’s going to have to shoulder even more of the burden over the next 4-to-6 weeks as Miami deal with the absence of Leo Campana, who strained a thigh muscle. I’d argue this team’s been at its best when Campana has been starting and Higuain’s been a change-of-pace sub either in place of the big man or alongside him.

That’s no longer an option. The workload itself is a worry, but defensively I’m just not sure a playoff push is the right time to see if Higuain and Pozuelo can manage sustained minutes together. You can hide one of them, but in a high-leverage game it’ll be really, really hard to hide both.

The only other team that’s been as cursed by injuries as Atlanta this year, though in Vancouver’s case it’s been less “out for the season” stuff and more “well, we’ve got six new guys on the injured list this week, let’s see what kind of XI we can scrape together” stuff.

They have soldiered on and held onto their playoff hopes by a thread. And now, in theory at least, they can put out the kind of lineup that should be able to bang out some sort of winning streak:

ArmchairAnalystWhitecaps

That’s really quite a good XI, and with two straight months of six-pointers on the schedule it’s a good time to finally have your best available.

MY WORRY: How long until Alessandro Schopf is ready? Can the wingbacks do the job defensively? Why has the attack spent so much of the season looking so damn mechanical, almost like the players are thinking rather than playing? Can anybody on this team avoid health & safety protocols down the stretch?

Those are the ones that come to mind, as does the situation in goal. None of the four ‘keepers they’ve had to use this year have looked anything more than back-up caliber, and in the midst of the good vibes of last season’s unexpected push to the playoffs, it was kind of lost on the fans that their MVP wasn’t Ryan Gauld or Brian White, but the since-departed Maxime Crepeau. He was unreal down the stretch.

They haven’t been getting anything close to that level of performance in net this year.

On paper it all works, and more to the point is that on grass, we’ve all seen it work. Orlando City are into the US Open Cup final because they survived some very close calls and then, in the biggest game in club history, put in their best performance in club history with a 5-1 win over the visiting Red Bulls to punch their ticket.

And then if you look at the talent on the roster… it’s not overwhelming in any particular spot, but it’s a bunch of good-to-very good players scattered from back to front, guys who seem pretty well designed to balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses on both sides of the ball. Add in the fact that they’re playing for one of the most successful coaches of the past decade in Oscar Pareja, and are coming off of two straight playoff appearances, and it all looks like an easy win.

MY WORRY: It has been anything but. That massive performance against the Red Bulls was a serious outlier by the eye test, and the boxscore and especially the advanced numbers.

Most advanced metrics – everything from expected goals differential to nerdier stuff like American Soccer Analysis’s G+ model – reckon that Orlando are one of the half-dozen or so worst teams in the league, and while that might feel shocking since they’ve spent most of the year above the playoff line, their actual goal differential of -9 is seventh-worst. They’re marginally better on PPG, in which they’re now tied for eighth-worst.

So the eye test, the advanced numbers, and the boxscore numbers are all starting to align. I’ve been waiting all season for them to find the gas and start stringing together sequences like the ones I clipped above for the Galaxy section, but those don’t exist for the Lions, and if anything the past month suggests they’re further from, not closer to, becoming that sort of team.

It still could happen, of course. But you’d need a sharper eye than mine to find signs that its arrival is imminent.

The whole summary of why they’re here is this: They just put together one of the most remarkable transfer windows in league history. It’s not just that they added five new starters, including two of the most expensive DPs ever. It’s that Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea and Domenico Criscito are all capable of being the best in the league at their respective positions. I think in the case of Insigne and Laryea, I literally expect them to be.

That’s on top of solid veterans like Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio (coming to life since the additions), Jesus Jimenez and Alex Bono (quietly having the best year of his career).

They’ve taken seven points and scored eight goals in three games. They really could be five points clear by the end of next week

MY WORRY: Defense and schedule.

The first is obvious: Neither Insigne nor Bernardeschi defend all that much, nor does Jimenez. That puts a ton of strain on the central midfield to cover a ton of ground, and while they’ve done ok with that so far, nobody out there is prime Diego Chara.

Covering for the midfield in turn puts a ton of pressure on the central defense and oh god oh god please send help.

As for the schedule, they’ve got the Timbers at home, then the Revs at home on short rest, then at Miami on short rest, at Charlotte, home vs. the Galaxy on short rest, and then home for the Canadian Classique on short rest.

It’s not the toughest schedule in the world and they don’t have to change time zones, but two three-game weeks when you’re trying to make up a deficit in the standings is not easy.

In all honesty I don’t expect them to manage it.

TIER V: Let's think about 2023

Tied for best in the league on attacking restarts, and tied for second-worst in the league defensively on restarts. Such is the duality of QuakesLife.

The best thing about this year is that they’ve done what I think is shrewd work pruning the Almeyda-focused signings and building out a foundation of in-their-prime pieces who can provide a framework for what’s to come. Jeremy Ebobisse, Cristian Espinoza, Jamiro Monteiro, J.T. Marcinkowski, a few of the defenders, maybe Benji Kikanovic as well… that’s not a bad starting point, so long as they can continue to add and develop talent.

MY WORRY: Cade Cowell stagnated, and both Jackson Yueill and Judson are below the level they hit in 2019 and 2020 – well below for Judson. Teams that want to work on a budget can’t really afford for key pieces to suddenly regress, or in Cowell’s case, for a high-upside youngster to show almost zero growth (some would argue negative growth, and I’m not going to say they’re wrong).

I like what I’ve seen from Tanner Beason and Nathan, but am not 100% convinced they’re starting caliber in MLS, let alone starting caliber for a good team in MLS. The same goes for Kikanovic and Paul Marie.

And here’s the big one: When Austin got themselves somewhat sorted out last year and really understood what they wanted to be as a team, they went out and spent what it took to bring in an MVP caliber No. 10. So have the Revs, the Crew, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Chicago, even Philadelphia.

Monteiro’s a really good player who can be a long-term piece of a puzzle in San Jose, but he’s not an MVP-caliber No. 10. And this is a league where you probably need one of those (Maxi Moralez, Lucas Zelarayan, Nico Lodeiro, Miguel Almiron, Victor Vazquez, Lodeiro again, Diego Valeri… that takes us to the beginning of the TAM era) if you’re going to win the last game of the year.

They look set to end up about where I predicted – I said they’d end up somewhere around the Austin/Minnesota debut season axis (31 to 36 points).

What’s been weird is the way they’ve gotten there. I figured all the South Americans they were bringing in to execute Miguel Angel Ramirez’s vision would provide some cohesion and some attacking flair, and that they’d go out midseason to get their own Driussi a la Austin. Instead MAR didn’t last half a season and the South American attacking imports have, to a man, either underdelivered or been sent packing.

And so the Crown have evolved under interim manager Christian Lattanzio into a compact team full of high-floor/low-ceiling tryhards and wingers who can run. There are certainly worse Year 1 identities than that.

MY WORRY: They’ve got the most difficult remaining schedule of anyone remaining, with eight of their final 10 against teams currently above the playoff line and the other two against Orlando and Toronto sides that will be desperate to push above it. Between that and Guzman Corujo's season-ending injury, Charlotte are not going to make the playoffs.

The main issue is that they have three DPs on the roster, one of whom is a center forward with 7g/3a in 1750 minutes, one of whom is a winger with 0g/0a in about 600 minutes, and one of whom does not start because he constantly does stuff like this:

There is no Driussi in that bunch.

The rest of their talent ID has been ok, and I give sporting director Zoran Krneta credit for realizing his initial roster building errors early on and subsequently adding more MLS experience over the course of the season. It’s helped stabilize the team.

But they wasted a lot of blood and treasure putting together an original squad that didn’t really work, and it’s going to be a busy offseason trying to fix that. It’ll at least be fun down the stretch here to get a read on how big a role Nuno Santos can play in whatever attempted reboot is coming.

They did the right thing in purchasing Coco Carrasquilla, and made a splash with the Hector Herrera signing. They spent big on Sebastian Ferreira, and I don’t think it’s wrong to expect he’ll be more effective next year.

Thor Ulfarsson has had a decent rookie season and should improve. Darwin Quintero still has some juice left and could be kept around as a super-sub, and Fafa Picault is a useful veteran. Steve Clark was mostly good.

MY WORRY: I don’t see how those pieces fit, really, and so far neither does head coach Paulo Nagamura. The Dynamo have actually gotten worse, both in terms of results and underlying numbers, since Herrera’s arrival, and thus far there’s no clear shape or philosophy that’s underpinning what they’re trying to do.

I’m not saying it’s not there, by the way – I’m just saying that if it is, it’s not obvious. Maybe it’s that the players aren’t buying into it, or that they just don’t fit. Tough to say.

Lotta work to do this offseason. From the outside looking in I’d say they need to have a better idea of the direction they want to go in, and more clarity on how they can build a cohesive whole rather than just collecting talent.

Probably the poster child for trying to hang on one year too long. Peter Vermes has finally conceded to Father Time and started getting more run for youngish players like Felipe Hernandez and Cam Duke, as well as making a couple of new signings in Erik Thommy and William Agada.

It’s too early to say how many of them will be part of a real long-term solution, or of how they’ll fit when Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda presumably return next year. But it feels like a page will be turned for sure.

MY WORRY: Are they going to lose Daniel Salloi in free agency? Are Pulido and Kinda actually DP-level answers? Will Johnny Russell – 33 in April – suddenly get old next year? How good can Hernandez, Duke, Thommy and Agada actually be?

Even if all those are answered in ways that are pleasing to KC fans, d-mid and both center back positions will remain massive questions. Same goes for both fullback slots and goal. Things right now actually look worse than they did during that awful 2019 season, which is the only time in the past 13 years that Sporting’s missed the playoffs.

This year will make it twice since 2010. Lots to do this winter.

D.C.’s not making the playoffs but they’ll at least be interesting down the stretch as they started their offseason teardown and rebuild in midseason. Christian Benteke should have something left as a pure goalscorer if not much else, while other additions like Martin Rodriguez, Victor Palsson and Ravel Morrison all seem like potentially very good signings.

Taxi Fountas, of course, has more than crossed that threshold.

So you’d be right to argue it’s Wayne Rooney’s team now, and given that Derby County played some hard-working and occasionally aesthetically pleasing soccer under him last season, I see actual reason for optimism if you’re a D.C. fan.

MY WORRY: Morrison has been on 12 teams in the past 10 years – 15 teams if you count the trio he played for twice, and has twice spent time without a club at all. That’s a hell of a resume to have for a midfield centerpiece.

Benteke will be 32 at the end of this year, Rodriguez has bounced around almost as much as Morrison, and Fountas’s production is unsustainable. The defense is a mess (they’re giving up more than two goals per game) and my god, has the goalkeeper situation been bad. Maybe David Ochoa fixes it, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he’s gone next year.

On top of that we really have no idea whether Rooney can develop talent, and he really needs to be able to develop talent because you can’t really win in MLS if you can’t do that. Turning potential into productivity in this league is like a cheat code (go back and reference that Cincy blurb about Pat Noonan).

I have no idea if this is going to work, but it’s a grand experiment that’s threatening to make D.C. truly relevant again for the first time since Rooney himself was out there wearing the No. 9. And hell, since it’s been so long since United fans have had something to feel great about, and since the vibes right now are so good, let’s have Gerry Rafferty play us out: