First a tip of the cap to the great Zach Lowe, who coined this column format with his "Annual Tiers of the NBA" tome. I've blatantly copied that approach for my own preseason Tiers of MLS, and since you all liked it so much and since about 30 percent of the season is in the books, now's a good time to revisit.
What follows are not hard-and-fast Power Rankings, per se, but rather something a little more loose in terms of talent level, cohesion, chemistry and all the et ceteras that make teams tick (or make them awful).
These teams are mostly in the order I think they'll finish, but what really matters is the tier designation.
TIER I: THE ALPHAS
They're leading the Supporters' Shield race and they just took six out of a possible nine points during what was a very, very tough week (Tata Martino says it should've been nine, given what happened on Wednesday against SKC). They have the league's MVP (Miguel Almiron) and co-Golden Boot leader (Josef Martinez), and have proved to possess enough depth to weather a formation shift, a couple of underperforming attackers, and a bunch of injuries.
They also, remember, still have a bunch of allocation cash after this winter's Carlos Carmona sale, and I'm not about to doubt their ability to go into the transfer market this summer and find a difference-maker.
Atlanta have all of the above going for them and are, at this point, playing what I'd consider to be a B+ version of their best game. I think they have another gear they'll find as the season goes on, provided Tata learns from last year's mistakes and doesn't run his troops into the ground.
My Worry: I don't always love the body language from Martinez, which seems to have drifted from "aggressive" to "hostile" when he doesn't get a pass he thinks a teammate should've hit. It's probably nothing, but it's maybe something.
New York Red Bulls
They weathered the CCL hangover infinitely better than any of their peers despite having the most reason to curl up into a shell and die after the disappointment of that home leg against Chivas. They've shown they're probably this year's deepest squad – nobody is better at finding contributors via the academy and USL – and at the top end, they now have Kaku (the league's best newcomer) to join MVP candidate Bradley Wright-Phillips.
RBNY also have formational flexibility in a way they really didn't over the last few years. They're a more mobile team all over the field, which has allowed Jesse Marsch to toggle pretty seamlessly between the 4-2-3-1 and the 3-3-3-1. No matter how they line up, though, they understand exactly how they want to play:
New York's going to win a trophy this year. It might not be the one they want most, but silverware's silverware.
My Worry: The history of coming up short in front of goal in the biggest games is just impossible to ignore. It happened in last year's U.S. Open Cup, and it happened in last year's playoffs, and it happened in this spring's CCL. Maybe Kaku changes that. Maybe he doesn't.
Also, you can still bunker against this team.
So my official take is that this week's salary release from the MLS Players Association should terrify folks specifically with regard to LAFC. Most teams have at least one (many have many, many more than one) contract that is just inexplicable, but the Black-and-Gold are clean as a whistle.
That means they have both money and cap flexibility, and can use both to address whatever needs they feel have cropped up/will be cropping up.
They'll also be adding a DP mid-season, and have just added a TAM striker in Adama Diomande. For some coaches and some teams there's such a thing as too much talent, but Bob Bradley's a veteran at this job and will know how to hold a locker room together while keeping everybody's egos in check. We've already seen some of that following the back-to-back losses against the Galaxy and then Atlanta.
LAFC bounced back from those two games, in which they allowed nine unanswered goals, by going on a still extant six-game unbeaten streak in which they've outscored opponents 13-6. Carlos Vela is an MVP candidate and Diego Rossi is a young player of the year candidate. This team's still only about 75 percent complete and look at where they are, smashing the bad teams they play and going toe-to-toe with the good ones.
My Worry: There's not a lot of depth at center back and my god do they take risks, both tactical and physical. That 5-0 loss to Atlanta isn't who they are, but it's who they can be if and when things go pear-shaped.
New York City FC
They've actually played the toughest schedule in the league thus far with road games at the four other teams in this tier (1-1-2 record, which is pretty good!) and have done so while managing an injury to David Villa, some churn along the backline and a bunch of new faces in attack. Seven of their 11 games overall have been away from Yankee Stadium.
And here they are on 1.91 ppg, good for third in the East. Red Bulls fans have justifiably spent most of the past week dunking on the Cityzens, but come on – this team's legit. You don't win 2-0 at Sporting, you don't draw at both Atlanta and LAFC if you're not.
The most important development for this group, one that we've seen slowly evolving since Patrick Vieira took over in 2016, is a commitment toward playing a true high-pressing system. NYCFC are as front-foot as almost anybody in MLS, and for the most part it's been working, and that in turn has taken some of the larger burden off of Villa. They can actually generate goals now when he's not on the field, just by turning defense into offense.
My Worry: Vieira is suicidally stubborn about playing from the back:
I've never seen anyone play into RBNY's hands as much as NYCFC did last weekend. It was brutal.
They've mostly figured out the defensive issues that looked like they were going to sink SKC's season before it even began. March was ugly for this team as they gave up uncharacteristically soft goals again and again and again, and couldn't seem to figure out how to send numbers forward without getting punished. It felt like the polar opposite of Sporting's teams this decade.
But they slowly improved while the attack didn't slow down much at all. It was probably stupid of me to doubt Peter Vermes's ability to diagnose what was plaguing his defense and then fix it.
It's still not as good as it was last year, mind you. But SKC are comfortably the West's best defensive team over the past six weeks, and punctuated that with Wednesday's significant 2-0 win at Atlanta. They've managed it while Felipe Gutierrez, who was a goalscoring wonder in March, slowly works his way back toward health.
I didn't think they'd make it up to this level, but here they are.
My Worry: Khiry Shelton has been wonderful at doing all the grunt work you could want out of a center forward. He makes unselfish runs off the ball to open space, contests every header, is as diligent as they come on the defensive side, and is a much better passer than the average fan seems to realize.
With Justin Meram's goal on his 29th shot, the MLS leaders in shots without a goal this season:— Paul Carr (@PaulCarrTM) May 14, 2018
24 - Ager Aketxe (1.75 xG)
23 - Khiry Shelton (3.20 xG)
21 - David Accam (1.75 xG)
They need to start getting goals from that spot.
Also, this is SKC. Nobody will *really* believe they're for real until they manage not to collapse down the stretch. Vermes has been a little more willing to rotate his squad this year than in years past, so perhaps they'll be able to avoid their usual October malaise in 2018.
TIER II: STOP IT, THEY'RE FINE
This is the dumbest sentiment that people keep tweeting at me:
I won’t say anything about Orlando’s d because they’re bad.— Connor (@drake_sucks) May 13, 2018
I do have problems with the way TFC gets a pass.
Toronto, fluctuating between about 60 and 85 percent health, were good enough to beat Tigres and America in the CCL before falling to Chivas in penalties. We don't have to reach into ancient history to know this team is elite on both sides of the ball once reasonably healthy; we just have to flip the calendar back a couple of weeks.
Taking 0 of 6 points over the last seven days was a very, very bad stretch for the Reds, but Chris Mavinga and Victor Vazquez both got healthy. Justin Morrow, Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund are almost there. Gregory van der Wiel will be back next weekend as well. I count three Best XI-caliber players and three solid, starting-caliber players there.
It's been an ugly two months of regular-season play, but TFC's going to be fine.
My Worry: If they drop home points next week against Orlando City, then maybe they won't be fine. But the truth is the Lions, Crew SC and Revs have all played home-heavy schedules at this point, and all three are vulnerable to extended runs of bad form/any type of slippage.
Honestly though if anybody out there offers you a bet that the Reds will finish out of the playoffs then take the odds and enjoy your winnings.
TIER III: GETTING THERE
Columbus Crew SC
One of the big questions we all asked before the season started was "how can Columbus account for all the goals they shipped out in the form of Justin Meram and Ola Kamara?" The Meram goals are still an open question, but it turns out "play to the strengths of the system" is the answer for Kamara's output:
Here's the rates Kei, Ola, and Gyasi have scored at with and without Gregg Berhalter. Small sample sizes apply of course, but we can at least say, recently, 3G has demonstrated success at getting his center forwards goals pic.twitter.com/ZgRFyNslBb— Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus) May 12, 2018
Maybe Gyasi Zardes eventually goes ice cold in front of goal again, but I don't think that's going to happen as long as he's playing for Gregg Berhalter. It's mid-May and Zardes is tied for the Golden Boot lead for a reason: he understands how to get himself into position to finish off the good work of the guys around him, and makes no muss, no fuss runs for both the team and himself.
Nobody should be surprised by this since it's exactly what he did in 2014 when he scored 16 goals for the Galaxy. Everyone somewhat justifiably chalked that up to Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane being so great, and fair enough. But now he's doing the same thing in Ohio as well as/better than the guys who came before him, and the team's winning because of it.
They're also winning because of their defense, as Crew SC are now unbeaten in five and have posted three straight shutouts. That's an especially good thing right now, because the schedule's about to get brutal: at New England, at Sporting, vs. TFC, vs. RBNY, vs. Atlanta, at LAFC are the next six. If they take seven points from that, they should be happy.
My Worry: The Meram goals so far mostly don't exist. One of the wingers needs to start putting the ball in the net or Columbus will leave the door open for disappointment.
Orlando City SC
Sunday's 2-1 loss to Atlanta was weirdly the most encouraging performance of the season from Orlando City largely because they showed they could defend and strangle the game at least a little bit. Far too often they've been far too gappy, and I went into the weekend working on the assumption that the Five Stripes would crack them open and drop at least three on their southern neighbors.
To be fair, Atlanta did bag two goals in the first 30 minutes and could've had two more by halftime. They got a lead and protected it.
But Orlando City made them work to protect that lead, and poured good (not irresistible, but still good) pressure on without becoming overly vulnerable at the back. More than their six-game winning streak against either short-handed or inferior opponents, Sunday's loss suggested this team could compete at the very top of the league and perhaps give as good as they get.
Also, here's Will Johnson with our Face of the Week:
Imagine reacting like that after you've blatantly dived.
My Worry: The Lions have never traveled well, and four of their next five are on the road. If you look at their next 11 games (7 on the road), I'd say they're outright favorites in only two of them.
Things look pretty good now. But as last year showed, things can get pretty bad pretty fast.
Somehow I didn't do a video on Mauro Diaz, who is still my favorite player in MLS, after Saturday's dominant, three-assist performance. Say a prayer for every Galaxy defender he sent to the spirit world on this play:
Of course that's our Pass of the Week.
The Magic Little Unicorn™ had been benched, either coming in as a sub or not playing at all, over the past four games. He responded with three assists in a Man of the Match performance as FC Dallas continue to look, little by little, something close to the team that collected 60 points in both 2015 and 2016, and then made it all the way to the CCL semis last spring before last summer's epic collapse.
Does Diaz's return (and Kellyn Acosta's) mean he gets to start forever now? Probably not, and that's the best thing about the new version of FCD! Oscar Pareja has clearly challenged his best players to win their jobs, finally holding them accountable, and most have responded.
They're winning again and they're fun to watch again.
My Worry: The defense is not what it was in 2015 and 2016, which means Jimmy Maurer is having to play like an All-Star week after week. So far he's been up to the task, but that's only "so far."
Also, after next week's visit from the 'Caps they're about to leave Texas for a bit. The home/road split has helped Dallas a ton thus far, and to be honest that might be enough to compete for the third or fourth spot in the West. But also... maybe not?
TIER IV: PROMISING BUT FLAWED
New England Revolution
The Revs have been perhaps the season's biggest surprise, using their high press and some red-hot finishing from Teal Bunbury to collect 17 points from 10 games and grabbing ahold of the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Following Saturday's 3-2 win over visiting TFC they've got a 10-point cushion on the Reds, and historically speaking it's kind of rare to see teams blow leads like that.
I'll say the above is especially applicable to well-coached teams, which is what I'm thinking New England are. Brad Friedel doesn't have them pressing just because he like the high press; he has them doing so because he wants to control game states and make sure that his backline isn't asked to go out there and win him games.
They have done that, mind you. Their 1-0 win over SKC two weeks ago was impressive. But it was also followed by a 4-2 beatdown by Montreal and this weekend's game in which New England looked eternally vulnerable in the second half. I think, defensively speaking, the Revs are closer to that than they are to the team that shut down Sporting.
Friedel's been good enough to figure that out and play toward his team's strengths. It's encouraging.
My Worry: Eventually everybody's going to force the Revs to start doing stuff with the ball:
Armchair Analyst: With the Lee Nguyen trade, the Revs are all-in on Diego Fagundez as a #10. The kid's creative in the final third but has some work to do learning when to be brave on the ball & drive the game through midfieldhttps://t.co/vZlSdcr6wN— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 6, 2018
I don't think they have the personnel for it. Midfield turnovers have an outsized effect on this team's chances of winning.
I love what I see from the Dynamo in attack pretty much every single game, and their ability to build chances out of possession has taken a major step forward over what they managed in 2017. This team generally plays pretty, smart soccer – I've only seen them get out-smarted once, when the Revs countered them to death – and in Alberth Elis they have a Best XI-caliber attacker.
Their young players are improving, and in Eric Alexander they have one of my favorite "man, nobody talks about him but he can really ball" central midfielders in the league. I always hedge toward teams that want to pass the ball, and actually can do so.
On top of all that they take some of the most inventive set pieces in the league, and will be getting unsung d-mid Juan David Cabezas back soon.
My Worry: How soon, though? Houston have already squandered four results – two draws turned into losses, two wins turned into draws – which has cost them nine points. That includes Friday night's 2-2 draw at Vancouver, in which they somehow managed to let poor Andrew Wenger try to defend 1-v-2 at the back post against Kendall freaking Waston:
I would be having words with Rommel Quioto if I was Wenger.
So this team finds a way to lose points, and as much praise as I think Wilmer Cabrera's due for his generally really good talent development and gameplans, he deserves a ton of criticism for his insane sub patterns and inability to get his team to sub out games.
They were very not good to start the year, which was understandable given they 1) had five straight on the road, and 2) played a chunk of that time without Diego Chara. They are still helpless without the Colombian d-mid.
They've rebounded with four straight wins though, and while a big part of that is just getting some personnel back, another part is that Gio Savarese has made a couple of good adjustments. One is that they're no longer bothering with the notion that they're a "possession team." The Timbers are just fine giving you a ton of the ball and waiting to hit you on the break, which they do as well as anyone in the lead.
The other big adjustment is that Savarese's had this team playing a lot out of a 4-3-2-1, the old Christmas Tree formation that's designed to gum up the works in Zone 14 and make all opposing attacking midfielders unhappy. To that end:
Timbers have earned 3 consecutive shutout victories for first time in MLS play and first time in all eras since July 2007. #RCTID— Mike Donovan (@TheMikeDonovan) May 13, 2018
They're not winning with style, but who cares? What matters is that they're winning.
My Worry: The biggest one is Chara. He's 32 and has logged a ton of miles, and it's fair to question how long he can keep it up. Portland have never had an answer without him.
If he goes down for any length of time the Timbers will lose most of those games. It might not be fatal in the West, but it could cost them homefield advantage when the playoffs start, and that likely would be fatal.
Chicago are probably the most "they're missing a piece" team of this bunch, as it's been clear that they could use either a playmaking central midfielder or a playmaking, goalscoring winger or both.
But they've managed to pick up some results and put in some pretty decent performances without either so far in 2018, and it's a credit to both head coach Veljko Paunovic's ability to gameplan against an opponent, as well as his team's ability to buy into their roles. Bastian Schweinsteiger has played sweeper, regista and attacking midfield; Brandon Vincent both left back and left wingback; Mo Adams has been a destroyer and a man marker and a pure d-mid; Grant Lillard and Johan Kappelhof have been complementary pieces on the backline.
The above, along with Nemanja Nikolic's and Dax McCarty's continued presence in central midfield, goalscoring, has given the Fire enough flexibility to match up against most of the league's best teams in weird and weirdly positive ways.
My Worry: It's still not clear what they're building toward, or if they're building toward anything at all. Right now it feels like they're just patching holes from week to week instead of building from one strength to another.
The truth is simple: Unless they upgrade the No. 10 spot or add an All-Star caliber winger, they're almost certainly not going to be a playoff team in 2018.
TIER V: THEY MIGHT BE BROKEN
Can this whole section just be "My Worry?" No? Ok then.
In terms of on-paper talent, the Sounders are still probably one of the top teams in the West, and I don't think any truly rational observer would say otherwise. And the defense can still go out there and win them a game, or at least a point, every now and then.
Plus they're used to starting slow. It's an annual tradition.
My Worry: Everybody's hurt, and a bunch of those who aren't hurt are clearly in the very last stages of their career. Clint Dempsey has one goal in his last 14 regular season games, and Ozzie Alonso can only look like Ozzie Alonso for 45 minutes at a time, and can anyone honestly say that Chad Marshall or Gustav Svensson have been as good as they were last year?
On top of that, they do not make good adjustments:
If you're playing without a playmaker, you've got to figure out how to turn defense into offense. Seattle don't do that.
Things are not hopeless, but they're pretty bleak.
Real Salt Lake
RSL ended last year as one of the most open, fun and exciting attacking teams in the league. And while they weren't exactly an airtight, shut-it-all-down defensive unit, they were mostly pretty good and mostly pretty solid.
That mostly hasn't been the case so far in 2018 as they've bounced between decent enough wins and "oh my god what are you doing" losses. On Saturday against D.C. they flashed at least a little bit of their old verve in the build-up:
Corey Baird's a real one. He'll leave some goals on the table – he's not a great finisher at this point – but his willingness to work his ass off and always give his teammates a run to aim at has been livening things up over the last few weeks. I think he's claimed the starting No. 9 spot for now, and isn't playing like he wants to give it up.
This team should start to score more regularly than they managed in March and early April.
My Worry: They still can't defend at all. It's starting upfield, but it gets catastrophic in central midfield and both fullback slots have been open wounds all year long.
You don't give up two against 10-man D.C. United if you're playing at all well. RSL should be happy for the three points and everything, but the performance left a ton to be desired.
They've got a lot of individual talent, especially in attack.
My Worry: The most expensive defense in the league has thus far been a tire fire, week after week after week. Calen and Bobby took a shot at diagnosing it:
I don't entirely agree with their analysis, but this point is one I'll sign on for: The Galaxy, when they push up, lose all their connection. It's a block of five attackers, and a block of five defenders, and other than Ashley Cole there are no two-way players (and it's really charitable to call Cole any kind of defensive presence these days).
So when the ball is lost, the Galaxy are extraordinarily vulnerable. There's no working in sync to win it back, and there's no quick transitions to drive it forward on the rare occasions when they do.
LA quite obviously have the talent to be one of the best teams in the league, but does anyone really think they'll get there?
The 'Caps actually dominated that game against Houston on Friday, twice fighting back from a goal down and certainly creating enough chances to win the game. Just in terms of robust physicality, they are in on almost every challenge and able to dominate on most set piece situations (both goals against the Dynamo came via restarts – though it should be noted those were Vancouver's first set-piece goals of the season, and yes that's kind of surprising).
Plus Alphonso Davies has been really, really good at driving the game forward off the dribble. He's a weapon in that regard unlike any other in the league.
My Worry: The 'Caps won a lot of games over the last few years just by bunkering up and protecting the 18. They're not as good at that so far this season. And when they do come out of their shell to try to play a little bit...
My job is to overcomplicate the game in order to make it seem like I'm smart but usually it's just like "hey see that guy literally right in the middle of your 2 d-mids and 2 CBs? You should probably mark him." #VANvHOU pic.twitter.com/Jtg8CeJy6H— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 12, 2018
They're giving up cheap goals this year. They didn't last year.
Beyond that is the standing concern about their lack of playmaking in central midfield.
TIER VI: TRUST THE PROCESS
Via native Pennsylvanian Bobby Warshaw: I'm sensitive toward the phrase "Trust the Process." The Sixers did a really intelligent, well thought-out plan and got mocked for it. You should only put that much faith in a process if it is well thought-out and you truly believe in. The Sixers had multiple No. 1 overall picks and consensus franchise game-changers on their team!
Have the Union really put that much effort into making their long-term plan? Are they really sure these guys are worth the short term pain? Are they doing everything they can to help the kids to ensure long term payoff validates that years of futility? I'm down for playing young players and taking that risk, but if I'm a Union fan I'm not sure the front office have laid the ground work for me to trust anything.
I get his concerns, but hey, they just took their academy-laden backline up to Montreal and shutout Ignacio Piatti et al. Even if Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie aren't going to be stars, they're at least starting to look like good pros.
Shout out as well to Cory Burke, who did his time in USL and earned that game-winner on Saturday.
My Worry: What if Ben Simmons's jumper really is broken beyond repair?
TIER VII: OOOF
They tore down and rebuilt a good chunk of this roster over the winter, investing a ton on the backline and at d-mid. That's somehow left them more vulnerable to pretty routine attacks like this:
Are these your European veterans? The Rapids have lost four straight and been outscored 8-2 over that stretch.
San Jose Earthquakes
At least there was a hint of hope with Chris Wondolowski coming off the bench to change the game:
But here's the dirty: San Jose are 2-0-0 with six goals scored and three allowed against MNUFC. Against everyone else they're 0-5-2 with 9 scored and 14 allowed.
They are what their record says they are.
Remi Garde apologized to the fans for the loss to the Union, which... I mean, he's not wrong to do that. Montreal have now taken just three of the last 21 points on offer and are on track to obliterate the record for defensive futility MNUFC set last year.
Obviously the extended road trip isn't helping but D.C. are dead last, with five points through eight games, for a reason – and it's not entirely about their odyssey. Their defensive shape breaks all the time, both fullbacks (but especially left back) have been overrun, they don't hold the ball well in possession, they don't transition well, and they don't create many good chances.
Wayne Rooney might fix some of that, but he's not going to fix all of that. To borrow a line from Taylor Twellman: D.C. United, it's not on him to make it work. It's on you.