Let's tip the cap to the great Zach Lowe, whose annual "Tiers of the NBA" column was/is the inspiration behind this one. The first edition of my "Tiers of MLS" take ran back in winter, back when it was clear that FC Dallas, Toronto FC, Seattle and the Red Bulls would utterly dominate this season.
So... yeah. There's some stuff we need to revisit.
Bear in mind that the below aren't power rankings and definitely aren't just a raw read of the standings. It's more of a melange of how they've played so far, ambient talent level, depth, cohesion, chemistry, and je ne sais quoi.
These teams are mostly in the order I think they'll finish, but what really matters is the tier designation:
TIER I: CONTENDERS
New York City FC
This is going to bother folks because they just lost last night and kiiiiinda fell apart once Yangel Herrera had to come off injured. So far they've been a cut below their best when he's not around, and their relative lack of depth compared to a couple of the other teams in this top tier is my biggest concern with this group.
But hot damn is their upside, when clicking, sky high. David Villa is still the best center forward in the league; Herrera and Alex Ring are both top three players at their positions; Sean Johnson is revitalized as a shot-stopper in net; the fullbacks overlap high and hard and constantly; Jack Harrison, Rodney Wallace and Maxi Moralez are all match-winners buzzing around with Villa.
That's like their ninth-best goal this season. NYCFC are the most fun team to watch in the league because they're always trying to do outrageous, aggressive, beautiful attacking stuff.
Of course that leaves them exposed, which is exactly what happened against Vancouver in Wednesday night's 3-2 loss.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Still Villa, though people are maaaaybe sleeping on how good the Ring/Herrera/Moralez central midfield trio is when they're all together. They have a claim on "best in the league."
BIGGEST QUESTION: What happens when they have to move down the depth chart? They've found plenty of answers at fullback, wing and even central defense, but goalkeeper and central midfield... haven't been great. And every Cityzens fan should live in fear of Villa going down for any appreciable length of time.
The first half of their season was brutal in terms of packing a pretty insane amount of games into such a short period of time, and all they did was manage 38 points from 19 regular season outings, the second-best goal differential and third-best defense, and last week added a sixth Canadian Championship.
They did this despite Sebastian Giovinco "struggling" by his lofty standards, despite losing for a long stretch the one guy I thought they couldn't do without (Drew Moor), and then losing that guy's replacement (Nick Hagglund) – who'd been their best defender to that point. They made a change in goal but kept the locker room together, they've balanced a crowded roster in central midfield while creating a new hierarchy at that spot, and at left wingback and at center forward. They've played without their captain, and they've played without their target forward, and they've won on 48 hours of rest, and they've come from behind to win a game that had silverware riding on it.
And through it all it's never felt like the Reds have taken it out of third gear. I keep waiting for them to look as good as they did in last year's playoffs. It hasn't happened yet, even in Wednesday's comprehensive 3-1 dismemberment of Orlando City.
Here's the thing: The second half of the season is much more manageable in terms of time between games, but much more difficult in terms of quality of competition. The Reds have a chance to claim this tier entirely for themselves.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: That depth, man. I'll argue that NYCFC's ceiling, and maybe Chicago's and even FC Dallas's are all a little bit higher than Toronto's. But nobody in league history has TFC's kind of depth.
BIGGEST QUESTION: The one place they haven't had real depth is right wingback, and last week Kyle Fisher hit Steven Beitashour so hard he burst Beitashour's pancreas. Right now rookie Oyvind Alseth is out there doing a pretty decent job of covering (he was drafted specifically to play wingback, so there you go).
Beyond that, the other big question is Giovinco. He's been productive with 9g/4a in 1200 minutes thus far, but he hasn't been the same, dominant, atomic force he was in 2015 and most of 2016. Can they get him back to that level?
Most of their offseason signings didn't work out (or haven't worked out yet, I guess). Javier Morales wasn't able to replace Mauro Diaz as the playmaker; Anibal Chala was loaned back to a club in Ecuador; Carlos Cermeño has played sparingly as a deep midfield reserve; Cristian Colman can not hit water if he fell out of a boat; Roland Lamah rarely threatened.
The guys who were supposed to elevate last year's Supporters' Shield winners haven't done it, and that's mattered – FC Dallas spent most of May and June "coping" rather than "excelling" as they dropped off the Western Conference pace just a little bit.
And then Diaz got healthy, and Lamah started to take the measure of MLS, and the depth they have in central midfield won them points they otherwise would've dropped. Somehow they have the luxury of bringing this guy off the bench:
Not bad, right?
And yes, that's Maxi Urruti – the Los Toros Tejanos team MVP at the midway point without question, and a leaguewide Best XI candidate for certain – finishing the play off. They've needed Urruti to be a match-winner, and he's delivered from Day 1 of the season.
So despite what has to be considered, at this point, a very disappointing crop of winter signings, FC Dallas are back atop the West on points per game, are unbeaten in four and have scored seven in their last two outings. On the other side of the Gold Cup, once they have their defense whole again, it's hard to figure out a way to beat this team because even if you do score on them (as D.C. United managed in Tuesday's 4-2 loss at Frisco), they have the firepower to turn the other way and just rip you up.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Their pragmatism. They run to create space for Diaz, because they know that Diaz will dime them. When he's not out there, they run to force turnovers, because they know that's their best chance to create can't-miss chances. And they are completely committed defensively.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Can Urruti keep this up? He's already set a career high in goals (11) and equaled his career high in assists (4). If the well goes dry Dallas will still be good, but look at some of the other goalscorers in this top group.
My line at the beginning of the year was "I think they'll be better, but I'm not sure if they'll be good."
Chicago are very, very very good. They have the best goal-differential and second-best offense in the league. They have the league MVP in Bastian Schweinsteiger (yup!!!), they have, in Nemanja Nikolic, a guy who's on track to set the single-season scoring record. They're averaging 2 ppg and sit atop the Supporters' Shield race. They just went to Portland and got a 2-2 draw despite missing, in Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty, their two most important players, and despite losing force-magnifying right back Matt Polster to an injury midway through the first half.
They're unbeaten in 11 games, and they're doing it with possession:
Armchair Analyst: Chicago rope-a-doped Atlanta to death, with Schweinsteiger conducting pretty much everything pic.twitter.com/1EBZzjzliq— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) June 10, 2017
That "process" I highlighted at the start of June has resulted in goals off of 18-, 15- and 14-pass sequences since then. Nobody's quite figured out how to stop them since Veljko Paunovic moved Schweinsteiger into his natural, deep-lying midfield role.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: The gestalt of the the thing. Chicago have amazing passers in central midfield, and guys with that particular skillset open the field up for fast, clever attackers. In Nikolic, David Accam, Michael De Leeuw and Luis Solignac, they've got fast, clever attackers.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Can they be overpowered in central defense? The Revs battered them a few weeks ago by going upstairs, and Chicago held on for dear life. Aerial prowess and raw physicality wasn't a determining factor in that game, but does anybody remember what Altidore did to the Eastern Conference in last year's playoffs?
They've got the league's best defense, they've got a pair of international-caliber central midfielders, they have a d-mid imported from Iberia, they have relentlessly overlapping fullbacks, they have Dom Dwyer doing the dirty work up top – no center forward in the league is as willing to go over the middle and take a hit.
That's the usual SKC formula. To it they've added a match-winning goalkeeper in Tim Melia, and a finally-100%-healthy-and-playing-like-the-Defender-of-the-Year Ike Opara:
That goal – the game-winner against LA – was a nice way to highlight Opara's athleticism. But more important is how he's married his athleticism to his soccer brain and instincts, and uses that ability to compress space and make the field smaller no matter what attack SKC are facing. He's been the best player on the team this year, and the best defender in the league.
So it's 2017 and SKC are still out there winning games in large part because of their defense. They've conceded just 13 goals in 19 games.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Read that last sentence again.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Unless Peter Vermes starts trusting Erik Palmer-Brown (who I think will be sold next week anyway), they really do go only three deep at center back. That's a major concern since Opara's already set a career high for starts (17), and will set a career high in total minutes played at the 13' mark of Thursday's game against Philadelphia (8:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE).
An even bigger question is probably the attack. Dwyer has just 5g/1a, and DP winger Gerso Fernandes has 6g/1a. Not bad, but the simple fact is that SKC are nowhere near as explosive going forward as any of the other teams in this top tier.
Let's see what they've dealt with thus far:
- The usual "expansion team" issues in terms of chemistry
- The most road-heavy schedule in the league
- A months-long injury to their star goalscorer
- US Open Cup disappointment
And yet there they are, fourth in the Eastern Conference with a freaking bullet. And that bullet's name is Josef Martinez, whose movement in and around the area is a joy to behold in A) how aggressive it is, and B) how it gives the Five Stripes their shape and identity. If you're a young forward who wants to learn how to score goals, watch Martinez. His movement is joyfully direct and vicious.
But obviously he's not the only thing about Atlanta United that's working. Miguel Almiron has been a two-way force as a No. 10, as have wingers Yamil Asad and Hector Villalba. Alec Kann has been mostly very good in goal, and the center back pairing of Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez have more strengths than weaknesses. Greg Garza, meanwhile, is probably the league's cleverest left back when it comes to surging forward:
The thing I love most about Atlanta, though? They have no mercy at all. There is no sense to this team that they're "easing into the regular season" or playing for a point on the road or sitting on a lead.
No, they want to embarrass you. They want to score six every single time out, and with the attackers they have... hell, why not? Tuesday's 4-2 win over San Jose was just another "we're going to outscore you" data point.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: That attack is ridiculous now that Josef's healthy again. And yes, I've decided that he's so good he needs only go by one name.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Yeah, I almost don't want to put the Five Stripes into this top tier because of their defense. "Better than expected" is still "not particularly good," and when you couple that with the amount of risks they take playing out of the back, their aggressive high line, and their weakness on set pieces... the highlights of their 2-0 loss at Chicago last month tell a pretty complete story.
TIER II: IN THE HUNT
Is this too high? I bet you all feel like this is too high. I understand your skepticism, since the Sounders are still below the red line, have gotten a stinker of a season from Roman Torres, are dealing with injuries to Chad Marshall, Ozzie Alonso and Brad Evans, and haven't been able to get Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris to mesh.
But they're 4-2-2 in their last eight games. They've addressed their issues at right back, they have another DP slot they're surely going to use, and Dempsey just had his best game of the season in the 3-1 win over Colorado not by poaching goals, but by working in concert with Lodeiro and the rest of the attack:
Plus we can all agree that this group knows how to put together a late-summer surge up the table, right? Seattle have most of the pieces from last year's team that did the damn thing, and have upgraded significantly from Nelson Valdez to Will Bruin at center forward.
On top of all that: Nine of their final 15 games are at home, and five of their six road games are winnable (only the mid-September trip to Dallas looks like a surefire L to me). The Sounders have what is probably the easiest schedule in the league from here on out, which should give Marshall and Torres – if Torres is still around – the time they need to get healthy and replicate last season's chemistry.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: A collective, "been there, done that" cool that was on display in the late stages of last week's 2-2 draw at Portland despite playing a man down for nearly an hour.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Morris has been a pretty major disappointment in his sophomore season. It seems to stem from the ankle injury he suffered in March – he hasn't really looked the same player since then, and struggles to create separation.
But also, Seattle are playing on the front foot much more often this year, and Morris hasn't been able to figure out how to be dangerous when his team's in possession. He doesn't make the runs Bruin makes (let alone someone like Josef or Nikolic), which makes it hard to justify giving him a ton of minutes as a No. 9. But his service has been sporadic when playing on the wing.
It's a conundrum. He's got to figure some stuff out, but so does Brian Schmetzer.
Like the Sounders, this is going to feel too high for some folks. And if Philly gets thumped at Sporting on Thursday I'll look like a jackass.
But here are some numbers: Over the last 11 games, the Union are 6-3-2 with a +10 goal differential, which is fourth best in the entire league. They're one of only five teams in the Eastern Conference with a positive goal differential for the year (+4).
You may be tempted to write the above off as nothing but a blip, and it's true that only two of those 11 games have been against playoff teams (a 2-0 win over visiting Houston and a 2-1 loss at NYCFC). But they're utterly dominating teams below them now, and it's not fluky. Rather, it's the product of Jim Curtin making some necessary lineup changes – C.J. Sapong at center forward, Fafa Picault at left wing, and an entirely reconstructed defense. That last big is telling, as Philly have conceded only four goals since Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliott became the starting tandem in the middle of the backline.
Elliott, not Julian Gressel, is probably the Rookie of the Year at this point.
Sapong, though, is the team MVP, as he showed in Sunday's 3-0 win over New England:
He's as important to what Philly does as Villa is to NYCFC. If he goes into his usual second-half-of-the-season tailspin, the Union are dead.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: The defense conceded 14 times in their first seven games. Then Curtin made the necessary adjustments, and they've conceded six in their last 10.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Counterintuitively, moving Ilsinho to the No. 10 spot has been part of that defensive surge because he offers energy and ball security in the middle of the pitch (Roland Alberg does not).
What Ilsinho lacks, though, is the traditional No. 10 stuff in terms of completing dangerous passes, creating chances or scoring goals. It puts a ton of pressure on the shoulders of Sapong and Haris Medunjanin, and it's something the Union braintrust must address this window if they want a shot at the playoffs.
Wednesday night was a statement win for the 'Caps, who came back from 2-1 down with two wonderful goals on crosses from the right flank to beat NYCFC 3-2. Everybody likes to talk about how crossing the ball is an inefficient way of attempting to create chances, but if you spread the field, overlap the fullbacks and hit the right kind of crosses aiming for the right kind of runs, you can generate plenty of danger and plenty of goals. This is exactly what Columbus have been doing under Gregg Berhalter for the last four seasons.
Vancouver look like they're about to become that same team, but with a few tweaks. First, they have a physically dominant (if occasionally reckless and over-aggressive) central defense in Kendall Waston and Tim Parker, a reliably destructive d-mid in Matias Laba, and speed not just along the front three, but underneath them in the form of Yordy Reyna.
Fredy Montero, as a center forward, loves to drop off the line and play this ball:
Problem is that with Reyna injured, there's been nobody to hit it to all year. That's changed.
Vancouver are about to be better than you all think.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: There's really not one thing that jumps out, here. Defensively they're in the middle of the pack (and have conceded eight in their last three games), and attack-wise they're still finding themselves, and they're not a particularly good possession team, and they don't have a genius chance creator. But now that Reyna's healthy I think I just like how the pieces fit. The whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
BIGGEST QUESTION: What happens when they have to chase? Chicago ripped them apart 4-0 last weekend just by using the ball well, and it seems like more teams are trying to play that kind of game in 2017.
Following Wednesday night's 3-1 win over visiting Montreal the Dynamo are now 8-0-2 at home and 0-7-2 on the road, which is absurd. Homefield advantage has always been a thing in MLS, but 2017 is pushing that truth to new heights, and nobody embodies that quite like the Dynamo.
So... which is the real Dynamo? Are they the group that kills all comers with seven-seconds-or-less breakouts after turnovers, as so:
Or are they the team whose attack goes in the toilet as their defense gets carved up on the road? I'm not sure, and I doubt they're sure, either.
But we're going to find out real quick, because Houston have five of seven after the Gold Cup break on the road. Yes, they're third place in the West, yet they're only four points above the red line, and you know the folks below them are loading up to make a mid-summer run.
Of course, Houston seem to be loading up themselves. They've recently been linked to an Argentine No. 10, and they have more deal-able attacking trade assets than anybody in the league. They could end up looking like an appreciably different team two weeks from now, and they may have to be in order to keep a playoff spot.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: The aforementioned attackers. If the 4x100 relay was part of the All-Star festivities the Dynamo would be clear favorites.
BIGGEST QUESTION: The defense. Their 29 goals conceded is middle of the pack, but the other teams around them – Seattle, Portland, LA – have all had to contend with major backline and defensive midfield injuries. Houston have been in good health for most of the season, yet at times border on "sieve-like."
Like the Dynamo they've ridden a hot start and are doing just enough over the last two months to keep their heads above water, which includes Wednesday's 2-2 home draw against Chicago. That result left Portland in fourth place in the West on 27 points, but just sixth in points per game and all of the teams in the playoff race have at least one game in hand. Things are more precarious than the standings perhaps indicate at this point.
The big issue has obviously been the defense, which has been both beset by injuries since preseason. Combine that with Alvas Powell napping through a few crucial moments, and Vytas Andriuskevicius tending a little too far towards his attacking duties at left back, and that's the recipe for giving up more than 1.5 goals per game.
In attack, they've still got Diego Valeri. He's good:
But it's safe to say that the Timbers are waiting for everyone else to jell around their superstar playmaker. Fanendo Adi's been productive – he has 10g/2a already – but not as influential as I suspect Portland were expecting, while Sebasitan Blanco has been a supporting player only thus far. Darlington Nagbe has had his moments, but we all know at this point that he's a really talented cog, not a guy who imposes his will each game out.
And so Portland are kind of adrift and playing like a team that's still trying to find itself. Their overall performance against Chicago was probably a positive in that regard despite the disappointing result, as Portland were locked in and aggressive for the full 90.
That said: The Timbers have now won just twice in their last 12 and are on a five-game winless streak. If the new defenders they're adding this window don't click, they'll be in serious trouble.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: They have like five guys who can go out there and decide to be the best player on the field on any given day. Few teams in the league have that luxury.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Defense. They've had luck adding mid-season pieces before, and need the same in 2017.
Their home record, especially after Tuesday's 6-2 humiliation at the hands of RSL, remains mystifying. But my rule of thumb is that only truly disastrous teams fail to figure out how to win at home over the course of a season, and given how well LA have played on the road, they're not a truly disastrous team.
They are a very weird team, though, and it largely centers around center back Jelle Van Damme. It's no coincidence that the Galaxy were helpless without him on Tuesday, and it's also no coincidence that LA only started playing better after head coach Curt Onalfo had to yank Van Damme for tactical reasons midway through an eventual 2-2 draw against Chicago back in May. Van Damme – save for a petulant red card at the end of last weekend's CaliClasico – has been a rock for the Galaxy since then, cutting down on his forays off the backline, keeping his distribution simple, and generally making the guys around him better.
They'll get Dos Santos back for the whole second half of the season, and Alessandrini is healthy again. And while they were coping without those guys and with other injuries, they discovered that a whole bunch of their kids can really, really play the game. So there will be no shortage of trade opportunities when the window opens on July 10 if that's what they decide they need.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: The depth of their attacking talent. Dos Santos and Alessandrini are both Best XI-caliber players, and there are a half-dozen better-than-useful pieces around them or backing them up.
BIGGEST QUESTION: 'Keeper is one, for sure. Clement Diop cost them a pair of wins recently, vs. Sporting KC and Houston. That's killer.
Bigger still is what kind of effect Jermaine Jones has when he's back. The Galaxy don't need a hero in central midfield, they need a metronome. And if Jones can't fill that role, Onalfo has to have the courage to keep him on the bench.
TIER III: WILL THEY FIGURE IT OUT?
San Jose Earthquakes
The 4-2 loss at Atlanta on Tuesday was probably expected. It's hard to cross the country and play a good team on short rest while missing a handful of key pieces and expect anything except an L.
And that's what the Quakes go. But anybody who saw the first 30 minutes of the game before Kofi Sarkodie took a red card (and to be fair, he should've been sent off after about 10 minutes) saw a San Jose team with more purpose in possession than they've had since 2012. They weren't flustered trying to play through the Five Stripes' pressure, they had ideas in the final third, and they were mostly in sync.
That's in keeping with what they showed last week in both the CaliClasico and their US Open Cup win against Seattle's reserves. San Jose have a style now, and the early returns on the Chris Leitch era are good:
San Jose have become a must-watch team, from an aesthetic perspective, almost overnight. And as Shea Salinas showed against the Galaxy, they still retain a little bit of that stoppage-time Goonies magic.
I may be underrating them, by the way. They're above the red line and they're playing better soccer than they were two weeks ago, so they might belong one tier up.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Anibal Godoy at defensive midfield. It's a bit of an experiment – he's always been more of a box-to-box player – but I think it's going to work.
BIGGEST QUES: The Quakes are still at an overall talent deficit compared to most of the teams around them. Chris Wondolowski can still win a game for you, but nobody else in the lineup has shown the ability to do that consistently.
Columbus Crew SC
Tuesday's 1-0 win at Minnesota United was gigantic. Usually inter-conference games are kinda meh, but given where Crew SC were in the standings, the way they'd fallen apart defensively so often throughout May, and the absence of a couple of key players, getting a road win there was huge to the point of possibly calling it "season-saving."
Columbus are, in a lot of ways, what they have been since Berhalter took over: A chance-creating juggernaut that sends its fullbacks forward, gets great production from the front three, and struggles mightily in defense. Center back Jonathan Mensah has justifiably taken a big portion of the blame (he was benched in the MNUFC game, and it wouldn't surprise me to see rookies Alex Crognale and Lalas Abubakar start getting more time at Mensah's expense), but the issues often start further upfield:
These lapses have killed Columbus since mid-April. They're just 6-9-0 over their last 15 games, which includes a good mix of home and away, playoff teams and strugglers, roster juggling and not. That stretch is fairly indicative of who this actually is, and their 32 goals conceded (worst in the East) isn't lying to all of us.
Columbus need to keep Artur healthy, and Berhalter the head coach needs to bench some of the guys that Berhalter the technical director signed.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: The attack. Justin Meram's been an all-star, Federico Higuain found one more year of greatness in his legs, Ola Kamara's still a reliable goalscorer, and even Kekuta Manneh is coming around. Ethan Finlay has fallen off a cliff but when Columbus are humming, they get goals against anybody.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Central defense. Turning the job over to a pair of rookies would be a tough call to make, but the veterans are kind of taking the decision out of Berhalter's hands with how they're performing.
New York Red Bulls
For all the wailing, all the recriminations, all the injuries and underperformances, and everything else under the sun, the Red Bulls head into the Gold Cup break sixth in the East on points per game and with two games in hand on the teams directly in front of them. New York's not fine – they have a ton of work to do, and it's a coinflip as to whether or not they actually make it to November – but certain segments of the fanbase have been acting like the season's over since about mid-April.
Clearly that's not the case, and Wednesday's 3-2 win at New England signified as much (this blurb would probably be very different without that result, for what it's worth). The Red Bulls have now won three of five, and have discovered a new side to their personality as they've dropped off their high pressure a little bit and started playing through the lines:
That win, and the fact they've advanced to the Open Cup quarterfinals, gives the front office a little bit of breathing room. But they still need to do some serious surgery on the roster this window, and they need to contend with the fact that Aurelien Collin still seems irreplaceable. The very best thing that can happen for RBNY in the second half of the season is to get him healthy and keep him healthy.
If that doesn't happen, I doubt they make the playoffs.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Bradley Wright-Phillips isn't breaking any records this year, but the man still finds goals.
BIGGEST QUESTION: The entire defense has been clobbered with injuries all season long. New York have a ton of allocation money (both GAM and TAM) to use this window, and a good chuck of it should go to central defense, while the rest will probably go toward getting some sort of partner for Wright-Phillips.
Orlando City SC
They get to stay at this tier for maybe one more match day. Right now the Purple Lions are riding off their hot start, back when they won six of their first seven, which has kept their heads barely above water in the no-longer-soft East this year. Since the start of May, though, they're just 2-6-5 and the wins came against D.C. and RSL, arguably the two worst teams in the league (you'll see them in the next tier).
Like everyone else they've had to deal with various injuries and suspensions, and while that was acceptable for the first two months of the season they've had no real way of coping since then. The central defense has come apart as neither Jose Aja nor Tommy Redding have been able to lock down a job next to Jonathan Spector, the central midfield has no rhythm, and Kaká has been MIA. After Wednesday's 3-1 loss to Toronto FC, it's hard to point to much that OCSC do well:
The Purple Lions have a lot of salary coming off the books following this season. Nobody should be focusing on 2018 yet, but unless something mind-blowingly magical happens over the next four months, expect this team to look very different next year.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Cyle Larin, if he keeps himself on the field, can get goals other strikers don't find. If they solidify the defense and let him poach, they can steal enough results to stay above the red line.
BIGGEST QUESTION: The central defense. But also, they just lack an identity and I can't figure out why since, when they actually decide to possess the ball, they look pretty good. If I were Jason Kreis I'd start drilling on that.
Montreal have 10 home games left, which is more than anybody in the league. They also have games in hand on everybody except Philadelphia in the East, and are likely to get at least one more reinforcement (I'm guessing in defense) during the window. They are seven points below the red line in the East, but things aren't nearly as desperate as they appear.
But they are indeed nonetheless pretty desperate. There's no real replacement for Ambroise Oyongo at left back, and if Ignacio Piatti – who was hurt last weekend – is out for an extended period, this team is about to crash and burn. We might have seen a little of that in Wednesday's 3-1 loss at Houston, in which the Impact were directionless and appeared frustrated with each other for the duration.
Even without Piatti, though, they do have a match-winning winger:
Ballou Tabla is a major problem, and putting Blerim Dzemaili next to him means Montreal should be able to create danger even in Piatti's absence. It just won't be nearly as much, and both guys will have more defenders buzzing them for as long as the Argentine is out.
Regardless, they'll have to figure out a way because the Impact defense is not good enough to reliably win games on their own.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Talent in attack. In addition to the guys already mentioned, Matteo Mancosu and Anthony Jackson-Hamel have formed an adequate center forward duo, while Dominic Oduro can still give good minutes on the wing.
BIGGEST QUESTION: They've allowed 29 goals in 17 games, which makes them the worst per-90 defense in the East.
New England Revolution
Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Revs. Because on Wednesday night in a mouth-punch of a 3-2 loss to the Red Bulls, it might've started tolling for you guys.
New England are now eight points below the red line and have just eight home games left, which they maybe have to sweep? Or go 7-0-1? It's hard to see anything less than 22 points from that slate will do the trick, considering that they're currently 0-7-3 on the road and their performances away from Foxborough have been getting worse, not better.
They'll also have to climb above four Eastern Conference teams in order to reach the playoffs. That's... not easy, especially when they've flitted through formations and lineups all season, leading to these types of defensive breakdowns:
The only good news I can find for the Revs is that expected goals models love them (and that passes the eye test – they're clearly more talented than their results indicate), and that they just traded up to the No. 2 spot in the allocation order. That means there's got to be a big(ish) signing incoming, and New England fans should be closing their eyes and wishing with all their might that said signing is a center back who's got a left back buddy as a sidekick.
To be clear: A run to the playoffs from this position wouldn't be unprecedented, as Seattle were 10 points below the red line as of July 25th last season. Nobody's running around guaranteeing that the Revs won't make the postseason.
But they've dug themselves a huge hole to climb out of, and instilled little confidence they'll manage to do the job.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: In his last 19 games as a target forward, Juan Agudelo has 15 goals and 4 assists. They should play him there more often.
BIGGEST QUESTION: They went 1-for-2 on center back signings this offseason.
TIER IV: OVERHAUL
Real Salt Lake
RSL are more talented than their current place in the standings, but they are not yet a better team than their place in the standings simply because so much of that talent is newly arrived or very young. Their best defender is 20, their best wingers are 19 and 20, their best left back is 19, their playmaker is 22.
That is a young roster balanced by a very old roster at goalkeeper and defensive midfield. Both Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman are useful players, but they're years past their respective primes at this point and that fact has, in big moments, been glaring.
Nonetheless, this is a team that utterly dismantled LA by 6-2 on Tuesday night, and has looked more dangerous and threatening since Jefferson Savarino arrived and Joao Plata woke up. Justen Glad and newly arrived Marcelo Silva, meanwhile, should start shoring up a defense that's routinely been gashed this year:
Those goals can't happen anymore, and to be fair they really haven't been happening over the last couple of weeks. RSL conceded six in the above game to Dallas, and have conceded five in four games since then. Incremental improvement is still improvement.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Youth. They have it just about everywhere, and there's more coming through the academy and from overseas. Results will be more bad than good over the next four months, but every RSL fan should be able to look at the current roster and the types of acquisitions that are being made and think "ok yeah, I see what's happening and this is good. We're gonna be Dallas."
BIGGEST QUESTION: Injuries have killed them on the backline especially. But also, Yura Movsisyan's indifferent goal-scoring form. If he'd been finishing like a DP, RSL would have four or five more points and would be very much in the Western Conference discussion.
Colorado have gotten frisky over the last 10 games, going 5-5-0 mostly against teams that were above the red line. But seven of those 10 games were at home, and they've got just six home games left on the season, and they've been helpless and pointless (0-7-0) away from Commerce City this year. So when Seattle came to town on Tuesday and Deuce did 'em dirty to the tune of 3-1, the sound you heard was Colorado's season ending. They are not coming back from this.
What they can focus on now is getting more minutes for quality young(ish) players like Kortne Ford and Marlon Hairston, deciding how they really feel about Dominique Badji as their starting No. 9, and seeing if they can get Axel Sjoberg healthy. Between those guys along with Mo Saeid and Josh Gatt, you can see the start of an early-to-mid-20s core forming.
I should also note that veteran Kevin Doyle has been playing the best soccer of his MLS career over the last few weeks. I still can't get over this pass:
Expect the roster shake-up to continue through both the summer and winter transfer windows.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Homefield advantage still plays a huge role at 5280, and they've made good use of that this year. The amount of speed they have in Badji, Gatt and Hairston is pretty nice as well.
BIGGEST QUESTION: They lack depth, finishing and don't commit to holding the ball through midfield, so they're not able to force opponents to chase the game as much as they'd like to.
People forget this, but D.C.'s late-season run in 2016 was almost as impressive as Seattle's. That run was, of course, driven by the four-headed attack of Patrick Nyarko, Lucho Acosta, Lloyd Sam and Patrick Mullins. And at no point in 2017 have D.C. had all four of those guys healthy and available and on the field at the same time.
So their attack has been dreadful, which has been upgraded to "occasionally functional" upon Nyarko's return from injury last month:
About the only unexpected bright spot this year has been the play of fifth-year center back Kofi Opare. Getting him and the struggling Steve Birnbaum as many minutes as possible in the same backline together should be one of the goals for the rest of 2017, and damn the results.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Theoretically there's a chance that when Mullins gets back the attack clicks like it did last year. Theoretically.
I've long thought Honduran d-mid Bryan Acosta, a 23-year-old who plays for Real Espana and already has 34 national team caps, would be a very good MLS target. Hopefully D.C. will be one of the many teams scouting him this month at the Gold Cup.
They had too many misses on big attempted signings this winter, and took too long to solidify their core, and have no depth in defense, and have really only gotten productivity out of two guys going forward (Kevin Molino and Christian "Cap him now!" Ramirez).
MNUFC are a damn sight better than many figured they would be but as Wednesday's limp 1-0 loss to Columbus shows, they just do not have the depth to compete when missing a few of their more important players. And one defensive mistake means they're playing from behind:
When they push numbers forward they lose their shape and get stretched out. When they lose their shape and get stretched out they concede goals. So far it's 42 in all, which means they're on course to produce the worst by-the-numbers defense in league history.
So it's safe to assume there will be some summertime reinforcements. Two could already be on the way, as they've already inked Scottish winger Sam Nicholson it seems they'll be acquiring RBNY Homegrown striker Brandon Allen on a loan with an option to buy, and why not? Allen's been nearly as prolific in the USL as Ramirez was in the NASL. Precedent matters.
The more pressing concern, though, is getting depth all along the backline. That could also come from the USL or NASL, another foray abroad, or perhaps from within MLS. The latest reports have them targeting Vancouver's Christian Dean, which is a move I'd give two big thumbs up.
Regardless, the playoffs are out of reach. Slowly adding more pieces to add to the Molino-Ramirez-Francisco Calvo-Sam Cronin-Jerome Thiesson core (and hopefully embracing the idea that Miguel Ibarra and Brent Kallman are part of it as well) is the job now, and for the rest of 2017.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Ramirez's goalscoring instincts. He finds chances where other strikers don't.
BIGGEST QUESTION: They're still disjointed, either all defense or all attack. Whenever they throw numbers forward they get burned, and whenever they sit back they're impotent.