Ike Opara - Josef Martinez - ATLvSKC - 2018-05-09
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Seltzer: The five most improved MLS teams in 2018

Now that the 2018 MLS regular season has passed the quarter-pole, we've done a check on which clubs have improved their results the most over last year. 

The gulf between conferences that was discussed so often last season only seems to be getting wider, as all but one of these most improved teams can be found near the top of the East. 

No. 5: New York City FC 

How much have they improved?

The Pigeons are up 0.32 points per game from their 2017 clip. They're a perfect 4-0-0 at home after dropping points at Yankee Stadium seven times in 2017. Though the defense is slightly less stingy than it was last year, NYCFC are scoring a quarter of a goal more per contest. 

How are they doing it?

Maxi Moralez is playing like a boss, while newbies Jesus Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi have added verve and needed production (six goals and six assists between them thus far) to an NYCFC flank stable that lost Jack Harrison during preseason. Thanks to these three, the team even went on a 3-0-1 tear with David Villa out of the lineup.

No. 4: New York Red Bulls

How much have they improved?

Moving across Gotham, the Red Bulls have increased their average point haul by 0.39-a-game. After finishing last season with a +6 goal differential, they're already up to +11 through eight rounds. Most of that improvement stems from the fact that they're scoring over a goal-per-game more than last year.  

How are they doing it?

Fans and observers were rightfully skeptical over how the Red Bulls could replace the playmaking production of Sacha Kljestan, but that question has now been answered. The Kaku saga was well worth it, as he's notched three goals and a league-best six helpers. NYRB II grad Florian Valot has been a pleasant surprise, pitching in with three of each.

In all, 13 players have chalked up assists and the squad is averaging an MLS-best 7.5 shots on target. With all the new blood in attack to support him, Bradley Wright-Phillips (six league goals, plus three in Champions League play) is off to the best season start of his MLS career.

No. 3: Atlanta United

How much have they improved?

Even with Wednesday's home loss, the Five Stripes are pocketing 0.58 points per game more than last season. Like NYCFC, Atlanta United are scoring about one-fourth of a goal more per game. Tata Martino's boys have struck for multiple goals (something they did in just over half their 2017 games) in seven of their first 10 games. They had a losing road record in 2017, but are 3-1-0 away from home this year.

How are they doing it?

It's largely just more of the same, isn't it? Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez have accounted for 13 goals (including eight in the final half hour of games) and six assists so far. Throw in the business-like midfield might of Darlington Nagbe and a couple clever tactical alterations from Martino, and Atlanta United are efficiently wearing opponents down more than ever. 

No. 2: Sporting KC

How much have they improved?

The lone West representative on this list is pulling points at a rate 0.65-per-game higher than in 2017, in large part because they are scoring nearly a goal-per-game more than they did last season. Sporting KC have already posted more road wins this year (3-1-1 away so far) than they did all of last year (2-8-7). They've also been better in close games, with four of their seven victories coming in one-goal squeakers.

How are they doing it?

Felipe Gutierrez and Johnny Russell have been bolts of lightning for a Sporting KC attack that is squeezing off a league-high 18.4 shots per contest. Daniel Salloi is also coming into his own for an offense-by-committee approach that has the team atop the open-play scoring chart. 

They did have to outscore some early struggles at the back, but Peter Vermes has Tim Melia and the defense back to pitching shutouts (five from their last seven matches).

No. 1: Orlando City

How much have they improved?

The most improved team in the league at this juncture is also the only one that didn't reach the playoffs in 2017. Orlando City are a whopping 0.96 points-per-game better off than they were last season. Even though offseason recruit Justin Meram has yet to find the net, the Lions' attack is netting almost a goal more per game this year.

How are they doing it?

Kljestan (two goals, five assists), Yoshimar Yotun (3G, 3A) and Meram (3A) give the Lions more playmaking ideas than they've ever had, and Dom Dwyer is benefitting from it. Few teams are winning as many fouls in the final third Orlando City, and they've rung the bell from a dead ball seven times in nine games. 

And one can certainly not go without mentioning their "Cardiac Cats" routine, which has conjured five late winners and rallied for victory four times.

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