The season's (slightly more than) half in the books. Time to hand out some grades:
This was my big concern, and Bobby Warshaw's, and everyone else's with the Five Stripes heading into this season:
that's a heck of a lot of international players new to the league that need to hit all at once. I'll take the under on Wins— Bobby Warshaw (@bwarshaw14) February 6, 2017
Said concerns were mostly unfounded. While Atlanta haven't had a 100 percent success rate with their imports, each of their front four (Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, Yamil Asad) has been a spectacular success, while Carlos Carmona in midfield and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez in central defense have been better-than-solid.
This team was built well internally, too, as guys like Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst look revitalized, and rookie SuperDraft pick Julian Gressel has been a revelation. Somehow they all meshed understood their on-field identity from literally the first game. They're currently the sixth best team in the league in terms of points per game, and with a home-heavy schedule remaining, have the chance to climb.
About the only gripe to have with this team is that Tata Martino has, at times, struggled to adjust to certain in-game situations, and that No. 2 overall SuperDraft pick Miles Robinson has yet to get any run. But on balance any Atlanta supporter who's not incredibly happy with their team's first 19 MLS games should get their heads checked.
Worst-to-worst-to-first-and-it-doesn't-look-even-a-little-like-a-fluke gets you an A+. I'd give an A++ if I believed in that sort of thing, specifically because Chicago are putting together goals like this one:
Chicago, like Atlanta, hit on a their most important offseason imports: Bastian Schweinsteiger and current Golden Boot leader Nemanja Nikolic, and the no-brainer Dax McCarty trade continues to look like a franchise-changer. Having guys who can pass and play like that have elevated holdovers like Michael De Leeuw, Luis Solignac and especially David Accam to new heights, and at the same time protected a central defense that is occasionally in danger of being overpowered.
But you can see and hear the under-the-radar highlight of the year for this team in the clip above: The play of fullbacks Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster. Both have been Best XI-caliber, and while that speaks to Chicago's ability to use possession to its utmost, it also speaks to head coach Veljko Paunovic's good work developing the talent he already had on hand.
In MLS, more than most other leagues, you don't get to go out and buy solutions. You usually have to build a bunch of them in-house, and that's a big reason the Fire are on top.
This season has been the regression to the mean that the underlying numbers suggested would happen following the magic of 2016. Statistical analysis doesn't give you guarantees, it gives you probabilities, and in this case the probabilities hit.
So it's been a poor season in terms of attacking, a worse-than-last-year season in terms of defending, and a predictable season in terms of results. The Rapids braintrust, to their credit, seem to have recognized this and have shifted whole hog into rebuilding mode. There are some promising early signs – Kortne Ford seems like a guy whose name should be written on the lineup sheet in pen for the next decade – but there are many more questions than answers as of now.
One thing to keep an eye on: They are neither as young nor as explosive as many of the other teams in rebuild mode, including their Rocky Mountain neighbors.
Crew SC are just barely above the red line on points, but are actually seventh in PPG, and it's largely because their offseason signings designed to shore up the defense haven't worked. Couple that with Ola Kamara coming back to earth (he's merely a "good" finisher now, not an otherworldly one) in front of net and both Ethan Finlay and Kekuta Manneh sputtering along at winger, and that's the recipe for a team underachieving relative to expectations and, frankly, talent.
The silver lining is that in Homegrown center back Alex Crognale they have themselves a long-term starter (who should, you know, be starting), and Brazilian defensive midfielder Artur seems like found money. So this grade could improve if they jell and make a second-half run.
But it could also get worse in a big hurry.
The team that scored 2.5 goals per game over the back half of last season has entirely disappeared. D.C. are tied for last in the league with 18 points, and are dead last in goals scored with just 14 in their 19 games. A large chunk of that is due to some unfortunate injuries, but literally every team in the league has to deal with injuries to key players at one point or another. United have failed to do so.
Another troubling issue was their misidentification of Homegrown midfielder Ian Harkes's natural position. Harkes has now settled in as a No. 8 – a savvy, ball-moving metronome – which is his best spot. But they went into preseason assuming he'd be the team's defensive midfielder, and in so doing they failed to really address that spot. So when Marcelo Sarvas got old, they were forced to try to staunch a gaping wound with a series of mismatched band-aids:
Might want to get some pressure to the ball there.
And so as with Colorado, the rebuild is underway. The good news in that regard is that Harkes really does look the part of a long-term central midfield solution, and that 26-year-old Kofi Opare has come into his own at center back.
They're doing the job – some guys are overperforming perhaps a bit, and most of their offseason imports are underperforming (though Roland Lamah has recently come alive). They found the No. 9 they've needed all along, though it turned out he was already on the team, and the bottom line is that A) they kept in contention when Mauro Diaz was out hurt, and B) Diaz is now back and is balling out.
Los Toros Tejanos did take a very hard L in Kansas City on Tuesday night which means they won't be repeating as Open Cup champs, but there really is only title they care about this year (Hint: It's not the Shield, either). For now, they're in good shape to contend for it.
But if those offseason signings had been a bit better? "Good shape" would translate out as "overwhelming favorites." That drops them a full letter grade.
If I spend the entire season waiting for the other shoe to drop, and said shoe never drops, that means I'm an idiot. And I'm afraid that's what the Houston Dynamo are going to do to me in 2017.
They are the league's most bizarre team, based upon their home/road splits: 8-0-2 at BBVA Compass Stadium, 0-7-2 everywhere else. They don't have a single defender most teams in the league would look at and say "yeah, that's a guy we'd trade for," their central midfield is a mishmash of mismatched parts, and their "playmaker" entered this season with four assists in 7600 career minutes (for context: Diaz has four assists in 291 minutes this season).
But said playmaker – Alex – has been excellent this year, opening up the game for the never-ending stream of speedy attackers wearing orange:
Wilmer Cabrera's done great work, and the front office obviously did some seriously good work as well. Just one road win and I'd probably have bumped them up to an A- here.
They've finally integrated some of the Los Dos guys, which is to their benefit. And they pulled out of what looked to be an early-season death spiral, which propelled them into an unexpected eight-game unbeaten run in which they played better soccer than most wanted to give them credit for.
"Death spiral" is still "tailspin," though. LA are below the red line, they have a comedically bad record at home, their defense is capable of some atrocious outings, and the 'keeper spot has not been great. The good, eight-game unbeaten run they were on has now turned into a dispiriting, three-game losing streak that was punctuated with a 6-2 home loss to what was, at the time, the league's worst team.
My hunch is that the powers that be watch the tape, see what went right in May and early June, and are able to replicate that for a good chunk of the season's second half (bolstered by, presumably, a splashy new DP signing). If that's how it goes the denizens of Carson will forgive these early-season blunders.
If it's the other thing, tho, they will remain very unhappy and very loud about it.
They've mostly avoided ignominy, and will under no circumstances go down as one of the worst expansion teams (or worst MLS teams of any stripe) of all-time. The defensive numbers are still double-plus ungood, but have improved since March's Hindenburg-crashing-into-the-Titanic-level start, and so has the overall sense of direction around the team.
Along the way they've found two legitimate stars in Kevin Molino and Christian Ramirez, and a handful of affordable second- and third-tier players. Would this season be catastrophic if Ramirez hadn't been able to translate his NASL success to MLS? Of course. But the fact is, he has translated said success, and that means MNUFC's braintrust can start thinking about DP additions at spots other than center forward. That's a luxury.
So they're scuffling along near the bottom of the pack, but have an identified and useful core, and get to make their additions for 2018 starting real soon. It's not been great, but that's good enough for a passing grade.
They got Blerim Dzemaili to cross the pond early, which counts as a big win, and they finally realized Anthony Jackson-Hamel can play. Plus they have a budding, future superstar in Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla:
This is fun. I'm having fun.
Yet, the Impact as a whole are not, really. Critical issues in both midfield and especially central defense haven't been addressed, and they currently sit below the red line in the East on both total points and points per game. For as much as certain individual talents have had bright, shiny moments, the team as a whole is scuffling.
The silver lining is that they've got 10 home games left, which is more than anybody else in the league. Their schedule means a second-half run is possible as long as they give up a few less goals.
The Revs allowed themselves to get to the point where they needed to sign an entirely new crop of central defenders. Only one of those guys (Antonio Delamea) has been up to the job. They also dragged their feet on some potentially useful offseason trades, and may have bet too soon on a young-ish goalkeeper who looks quite like he could use another year of seasoning. Plus defensive midfield continues to be a sore spot – Xavier Kouassi has once again been mostly injured, and on-loan Gershon Koffie has not been as influential as he was last year (in between his own injuries).
The occasionally breathtaking attack and very good underlying numbers, in terms of chance creation and expected goals, has not been enough to make up for all of the above. New England are now eight points below the red line, are winless on the road, and have just eight home games left.
It's tough math.
All their big offseason signings have hit, Sean Johnson's been revitalized in goal, the defense is no longer a bleeding wound, and they deftly moved into the "hey, Andrea Pirlo's not really a starter anymore..." era with no discernible drama. I'm not sure that many MLS locker rooms could've handled such a big move without creating more than a ripple.
Are they still a touch too over-reliant upon David Villa? Probably. But I'm not going to ding a team for relying too much on their best – and arguably the league's best – player. They'd be stupid to build themselves any other way.
They only partially addressed their depth needs on the backline, which meant that the double-whammy of Gideon Baah's season-ending injury and Aurelien Collin's on-again, off-again status has been near-fatal.
But let's face it: The thing that really counts here is the Dax McCarty trade. I get why they did it and support the decision-making to a great extent, but if they don't use the cap space and allocation money on two separate match-winners early in the window, RBNY fans will demand that I drop their grade to an F. And they'll be right.
Nobody has more riding on this transfer window than RBNY. Given their recent not-so-great track record with regard to imports, it's squeaky bum time in Harrison.
If you'd told me in March that this team, with this roster, combined with Cyle Larin's off-field indiscretions entered the Gold Cup break above the red line in the East, I'd have laughed in your face. And to be fair, it has been a horror show since the start of May, as OCSC have gone 2-6-5 in the league and had an embarrassing US Open Cup defeat to Miami FC.
But this is a team of mis-matched parts built by too many people on too varied a timeline to have any right to be where they're currently at. There will be significant alterations this summer, and then something approaching a complete teardown and rebuild in the winter window.
So here's the debate: Over their last 12 games, they are 6-3-3, which is the fourth-best record in the league over that span. That's a third of the season! That's pretty good!
But... are they actually good? Well, only three of those games were against playoff teams, so it was a very soft part of the schedule. They did go 1-1-1 against those three playoff teams, of course, which speaks well. And they're generally passing the eye test as well as the results test – the Union know who they are, and the guy they're playing through is delivering:
I'm convinced the Union are pretty good, even if a couple of their important offseason signings have underdelivered.
But things are about to become unpleasant. C.J. Sapong, as great as he's been through four months, has no history of keeping this productivity up over the course of an entire year, there is still a question mark occupying the midfield playmaker spot, and they have the league's toughest remaining schedule. It could get bleak, quick.
And at that point, we're looking back at that 0-4-4 start and saying "yup, the Union's season was over before it began." Because of that, I can't give them better than a C right here.
Scroll up through the rest of these blurbs and you'll see the word "injury" quite a bit, and that's no different for the Timbers. Their central defense was a mess before the season even began.
They coped with it early on by scoring a metric ton of goals and relying on an attack that was for a time, on turf, as dynamic as it looked on paper. But as April turned into May, that attack dried up and the Timbers are skidding. They're 2-5-5 in their last 12 games, which is worst in the Western Conference, and they've dropped to sixth in that conference in PPG. All this while they have a significantly harder schedule than the teams just behind them in the standings.
2017, for the Timbers, wasn't supposed to be like this.
The good news is that they've re-reinforced their defense, and that Caleb Porter's teams have a habit of coming together for the stretch run. So right now I'll give them a "fine, if mostly forgettable C" for their first-half grade.
It. Is. Not. Easy. To. Rebuild.
Truth be told, though, I thought the RSL braintrust mostly nailed it. Justen Glad was ready to be a star on the backline, they had youth at other spots thanks to their academy and Real Monarchs investment, and two DPs on the front line with Best XI ceilings.
Injuries, man. Injuries. But also, Yura Movsisyan's inability to become a top-tier MLS striker remains perplexing, as does the cold war he's apparently in with head coach Mike Petke. Movsisyan – age, experience, skillset, you name it – fits with an RSL team brimming with young, attacking talent. Except for the fact that he doesn't, and might not going forward, and his struggles have in part defined a pretty miserable 2017 for a team that was supposed to be "transitioning between eras" rather than "rebuilding whole hog."
Thus it's been painful, but they have a cushion-soft schedule the rest of the way, some of the most legitimately exciting young talent in the league, and reinforcements coming. This is almost certainly not going down as a good year in RSL lore, but it's setting up what should be a run of good years in the not-very-distant-at-all future.
Fifth points on the West in both points and PPG means the Quakes have exceeded expectations. And the way they've played recently, since installing Chris Leitch as head coach, suggests the best is yet to come:
San Jose keep the ball through midfield, spread their opponents out in attack, and rely upon uncommon skill from a few guys (including Tommy Thompson, who has 1g/4a in his last ~500 minutes across all competitions) to punish back-foot defenses. They're up there with Chicago and NYCFC and Atlanta in the "holy hell this team is fun to watch!" MLS Live power rankings, it happened in an eye blink, and nobody saw it coming.
Also, Wondo Forever.
People trying to throw dirt on Seattle's grave are fooling themselves. Sorry folks, but they're 4-2-2 in their last eight and are about to be pretty good again. The MLS Cup hangover is done and reinforcements are trickling in.
I'm not sure what they have up their sleeves will propel them up the standings and into legit contention a la last year – the top of the league is better than in 2016 – but you will see this team playing meaningful soccer in November, which means they did enough to get a passing grade for the first half of the year.
Sporting KC: B+
They built the best defense in the league – again – and have, in Tim Melia, the current favorite for Goalkeeper of the Year. Ilie Sanchez has been overshadowed by some other, starrier, imports, but he's been essential at defensive midfield. Gerso Fernandes and Latif Blessing have both had their moments on the wings, as has Daniel Salloi. Graham Zusi has adjusted well to right back.
So even with Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer kiiiinda stuck in third gear, Sporting are doing what they do: Grinding opponents to dust, winning more than they lose, and setting themselves up for another playoff appearance without really challenging for the Supporters' Shield.
Obviously keep an eye on Ike Opara's injury, especially if they get a Godfather offer for Erik Palmer-Brown over the next couple of weeks. EPB is more than ready to step in and play starter's minutes in this league, but if he goes and Opara's out for an extended length of time, the second half of 2017 could get dicey.
Want to see one play that indicates that everybody in the locker room knows exactly who needs to get fed, because without him they really don't have the kind of ceiling they need to win the multiple pieces of silverware they have their eyes on?
Jozy Altidore is one of the league's best strikers. He's paid $4.9 million per year, and he's in alone on goal, and that is an insane pass. But getting Sebastian Giovinco going – getting him confident and sharp and relentless like he was in 2015 and most of 2016 – was so important that Altidore basically stopped his own breakaway in order to give Giovinco a contested lay-up. By most measures that was not the correct soccer play.
Altidore did it because he's (probably too) unselfish in front of net, and also because if TFC as they exist now are able to mold the 2017 version of Giovinco back into the 2015 version of Giovinco, they will become a thundering juggernaut. They've already won a piece of hardware, average 2 PPG, have the league's second-best goal differential, and survived the most insane month (7-1-1 across all competitions from April 28 through May 31) I can remember any MLS team having, ever. NYCFC and Chicago may have slightly higher ceilings than TFC – arrival of 2015 Giovinco pending – but neither would've been able to handle that grind the way the Reds did.
So they are already the deepest team in MLS history. Altidore's pass above shows that everybody in the organization is sacrificing what it takes to be the best team in MLS history, too.
They get an A. If they figure out how to get Giovinco to stop shooting every time he's within 35 yards, we can bump it up to an A+.
Vancouver Whitecaps: B-
I didn't get the Kekuta Manneh trade, but two coaches who think you shouldn't be starting makes it a quorum so I'm not about to ding Carl Robinson & Co. here. In fact, it's become very hard to argue with a bunch of their moves, as the 'Caps have sort of silently crept up the standings out West.
They're now in sixth place on 24 points (fourth on PPG), but have games in hand on everybody left of the Mississippi, and Yordy Reyna has made an immediate and unmissable impression upon his return from injury. Cristian Techera has been incrementally more productive this year, Matias Laba is Matias Laba, and the central defensive pairing of Kendall Waston and Tim Parker is mostly underrated around the league. Both fullback spots have held up well, as has youngster Alphonso Davies.
The big issue is that Fredy Montero hasn't really delivered, and while his partnership with Reyna shows promise (through just 53 minutes, so have a sample-sized grain of salt with this take), we're halfway through the season and still guessing at how the 'Caps are going to generate a consistent attack.