Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Ranking the Western Conference by tiers

Big week or so in the Western Conference, huh? Here are the bullet points, in case you’re having trouble keeping up.

  • The Sounders ran out an MLS record five teenagers (and Raul Ruidiaz scored an absurd banger) to spark a raucous rendition of Jingle Bells in Austin FC’s visiting locker room.
  • Ricardo Pepi scored the youngest hat-trick in league history and got a five-year contract extension from FC Dallas (and some transfer rumors) days later.
  • Bobby Wood scored his first MLS goal to help Real Salt Lake knock off the Rocky Mountain rival Colorado and jump above the playoff line.
  • Sporting Kansas City went to Seattle and knocked the Sounders off their Power Rankings high horse, then added a Super Bowl-winning quarterback to their ownership group in Patrick Mahomes.
  • Austin FC were strongly linked with former River Plate and Zenit forward Sebastian Driussi to fill their vacant Designated Player spot.
  • Tom Bogert reported the Timbers will add Santiago Moreno, a highly-rated 21-year-old Colombian winger from America de Cali, to their attacking options.
  • Bogert – TOMMY SCOOPS!!! – was first to the news that LAFC will trade Canadian international midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye to Colorado for a cool $1 million in GAM (and more).

I’m sure that I'm forgetting something. It was that kind of week, the sort that makes you take stock of just about everything, starting with the conference hierarchy.

With that in mind – and with LAFC-Minnesota on Wednesday night (10:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), plus LA-Portland (10 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes) on Friday to warm us up for the weekend – let’s revisit Matt Doyle’s Western Conference tiers from early April to remind us where things stood then and where they stand now.

Team by team, here's where everyone stands heading into MLS Week 16.

2021 is a disappointment if they don't win a trophy

Preseason tier: If things go right...

Tier I is simply the Sounders’ reality, and I say that reluctantly given I work every day with a Seattle native who can be downright intolerable when his club is winning (so most of the time). Love ya, Producent Anders.

The Sounders have earned the right to look down their noses. In 12 MLS seasons since 2009, they’ve never missed the playoffs, never finished worse than 4th in the Western Conference, never finished worse than 7th in the Supporters’ Shield standings and have won trophies in six of 12 seasons.

That they’re doing it all over again – and perhaps at an even higher level – without three Best XI-quality players (Nicolas Lodeiro, Stefan Frei and Jordan Morris) makes it feel like the impossible is possible. This season certainly won’t be a failure if they don’t win a trophy – remember, there are fewer opportunities to do so with the US Open Cup off the table – but their quality, depth and resiliency means it’s always a disappointment when they don’t.

Preseason tier: If things go right...

Things are going right. Very right. Sporting are the second-highest scoring team in the league (28 goals, two back of New England), just won in Seattle without Alan Pulido and Gianluca Busio, and seem to have found stability in central defense.

How strange that the two clubs with the most long-term stability stand alone in the top tier.

Serious trophy contenders

I left this category empty. That’s how wide the gap is between the very top and the next tier down.

If things go right...

Preseason tier: In the fight

Mark-Anthony Kaye is going to be a big boost, but I also wonder what domino might fall to make room for him in that midfield. Is it Cole Bassett? Kellyn Acosta? Maybe Jack Price wants to go home to the Championship?

No matter what happens, the roster build has been methodical, principled and hugely successful, even without a true go-to goalscorer and almost no contribution from Designated Player Younes Namli, who is currently out with an ankle injury. Robin Fraser is getting a ton out of this group, and there might be even more to tap into.

What I’m saying is that this is one of the quietest success stories in the league, and it could get even better.

Preseason tier: The pack

This is still a project. And this project, as it currently stands, still hinges on Chicharito, as the past few weeks have shown.

Preseason tier: Serious trophy contenders

Along with LAFC, I believe Minnesota are the closest team in their tier to leveling up to “Serious trophy contenders.”

They need more from DP forward Adrien Hunou, as Adrian Heath hasn’t been afraid to point out, but that four-game losing streak to start the year is ancient history. The Loons are 6-1-3 in their last 10 games and haven’t yet played up to their fullest potential. That potential remains the same it did back in preseason.

Preseason tier: 2021 is a disappointment if they don't win a trophy

OK, so they’ve dropped down to the “If things go right…” tier, but their blend of expectations and transfer timing means “2021 is a disappointment if they don’t win a trophy” is still true. Does that make sense? I hope so.

There are plenty of positive signs in downtown Los Angeles: Carlos Vela is seemingly healthy and inching back toward MVP form, a new striker is reportedly on the way thanks to the big GAM haul via the Mark-Anthony Kaye trade, and Brian Rodriguez is back to add another difference-maker (but also a wildcard) to the mix. Yet the results are still middling.

They can absolutely win MLS Cup … only if things go right.

In the fight

Preseason tier: Prove me wrong

I’m not sure I’m rooting for any club harder than Real Salt Lake. They’re the Little Engine That Could in Sandy. They may not make the playoffs, but they aren’t anywhere close to the worst team in the West, which many predicted before the season started.

They’ve got plenty of fight and more to give, too.

Preseason tier: Serious trophy contenders

If I was a Timbers supporter, I’d dispute this classification. Surely this is a “If things go right…” tier team given all the talent and experience in the squad.

I agree! But I’m withholding that status here until more players are fully back – Sebastian Blanco very much included – and the results (four points from an available 21 on the road, -4 goal differential, no result streak longer than two games) more closely track with “serious trophy contenders" than "the pack."

The pack

Preseason tier: Prove me wrong

Here is the form guide for Houston's 2021 season:


They’re not that good, really. They’re not that bad, either. They’re somewhere in between. Hell, they’re not even in an actual “pack” since they’re all alone in this category.

Prove me wrong

Preseason tier: In the fight

If FC Dallas play Ricardo Pepi at center forward at every opportunity from here on out, they’re gonna be “In the fight.”

Preseason tier: In the fight

The tactics? The signings? The future of the club? Prove the results and chaos wrong, Matias.

Preseason tier: The pack

They’re on a little run of form! That form? One win and two draws, which sorta says it all. In some ways, this designation is cruel given they haven’t played a true home game, but this is Vancouver’s reality as well.

Preseason tier: The pack

Maybe a striker gets the least productive attack in the league going. Looking at you, Driussi.