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 then since you liked v2.0 in the middle of May so much, and since there's now about a third of the season left and we're just entering the home stretch, it's time for the final Tiers of MLS column of 2018.
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
When they're firing on all pistons, playing from back-to-front, pressing and moving and stringing passes together, it is both glorious and gloriously entertaining. And they've gotten a bit more comfortable attacking against a bunker:
Josef Martinez is having the greatest goalscoring year in MLS history, and is the league MVP. The defense has held firm despite injuries and a bit of squad rotation, as has central midfield. It's hard to look at them on paper and pick out a specific weakness...
My Worry: Except for the fact that Josef's the only one who scores. Neither Miguel Almiron nor Tito Villalba are what they were last year from open play, and let's just say that Yamil Asad has been missed on and off the pitch.
That, plus some very questionable (non)-substitution patterns from Tata Martino have left the Five Stripes vulnerable against the league's best teams for the second straight season. They're just 2-3-5 against what I'd consider to be "good" teams in this league, and while they're still probably the favorites it's hard to paint them as clear favorites.
New York Red Bulls
On Saturday night they went to Chicago and largely controlled the game in a mostly drama-free 1-0 win over the Fire. Bradley Wright-Phillips got his 15th goal of the season – it's his fifth straight year with 15+, which nobody else in league history has ever done – and it came off of good, cohesive high pressure.
My Worry: Ok yeah, all is well, but it's still jarring to see how differently this team plays compared to earlier in the season. I looked through a bunch of numbers to try to put my finger on it, and only came up with this one to shed a little bit of light: Their passing accuracy in the attacking third has improved significantly over the past seven games.
That's a good thing, right? Well, kind of, as long as it's in the service of creating better chances.
Armas has them at about 3 more final third passes per shot pic.twitter.com/QsbVYMeNHA— Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus) August 12, 2018
Hmm. They've got 11g in seven games under Armas, and had 34 in 16 under Jesse Marsch.
They keep winning and they actually lead the league in PPG, and patience is probably a virtue. Going by the eye test, though, if you asked me "are the Red Bulls playing as well as they were earlier in the season?" I'd definitely say "nah."
New York City FC
Is it fair to say that win was tougher than it should have been? Granted, Sebastian Giovinco is looking more and more like his old self, and even 10v11 that can/will/does make TFC a tough out. But NYCFC didn't really seem to know how to make use of the extra man – at no point did they get on the ball a ton at midfield, draw the Reds up, spread them out, and punish them for Jozy Altidore's petulance. Instead their goals came exclusively from backline or goalkeeper errors.
They're still mostly winning a bunch, though. And with Villa back they'll probably win a bunch more.
My Worry: As with the Red Bulls, there's something I just can't quite put my finger on with NYCFC under a new head coach. Domé Torrent clearly has some good ideas about the game and has repeatedly made good second-half subs, but overall they seem to be a bit disengaged and a bit uncertain compared to the first part of the season.
EDIT: It turns out Torrent agrees with my assessment of Sunday's game, because he offered this quote afterward:
“We [were] not able to play better than them with one player more. We have to improve.”
Tier II: On the doorstep?
There haven't been a ton of 15-game unbeaten streaks in MLS history, and the Timbers deserve a ton of credit for theirs even in the wake of Saturday night's streak-snapping 2-1 home loss to Vancouver. It took a pretty rough and rugged confluence of events to grab the L – a missed penalty from Diego Valeri, a terrible mistake from Jeff Attinella, an uncharacteristically disengaged performance from the backline.
These are all the things that didn't happen since April, thanks that made the Timbers unbeatable in the league for four months even as Gio Savarese toggled from formation to formation, even as he tinkered with his midfield and front line, even as he learned the ropes in this league.
My Worry: So take it from Savarese that there are a few things to be concerned about.
“We thought we had to open up the game," Savarese said after they loss. "They were very solid in the back. With [Andy] Polo and [Sebastian] Blanco higher we were able to have more mobility and we were able to find more space. We became more dangerous. We brought our lines higher and also then they defended. They went five in the back. We had more space, but they dealt very well with the crosses. We tried everything that we could."
What it comes down to is that Vancouver bunkered. They wanted nothing to do with the ball – made Portland have all of it – and the Timbers struggled against that.
Few teams at any point this season have done that to Portland, and we still don't know if they're equipped to handle it. Savarese knows it's an issue (they played a 4-4-2 diamond at the start specifically because they knew they had to attack more), at least. So there should be hope that a solution is forthcoming.
Columbus Crew SC
Their 1-0 win over a leggy and weary Dynamo team was congested and often times pretty ugly. Columbus, who had Federico Higuain back for the first time in three weeks, struggled in using the ball to break down the Dynamo.
Throughout 2018 this hasn't been an unusual story, as Crew SC have probably been a better defensive team than attacking. What makes them better than past years is that they are really, really good defensively – among the best in the league by goals against, by the eye test, and by expected goals allowed. They also have probably the league's best shot-stopper in Zack Steffen.
They also have the Lion of Mesopotamia back. Justin Meram looked a lot like his old self in his 30-minute return to Columbus, which bodes well for addressing a few of the lingering attacking issues that plagued this team in June and July.
My Worry: Even with Meram back Columbus mostly only have "pocket wingers" – guys who, instead of the stretching the field vertically, come inside and combine a bunch. Meram is better at that than anyone else on the roster so he's a real upgrade, but without a wing threat to go direct, it still often looks/feels/plays like this team can be bottled up.
Sporting have been one of the biggest mysteries in the league this year, bouncing from fatal weakness at the back to the lockdown defense we've all gotten used to seeing from them this decade. At times they've been an attacking juggernaut, and at others they've gone bone dry. They're dropping home points like they never have at Children's Mercy Park, and then they go out and win on the road in tough spots.
It was a great win, and SKC played very well for the first time in what felt like a long time.
“When we have our full selection available to us, we’re good,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes told The Kansas City Star's Sam McDowell. “I think that’s what the difference in the game is right now. I think we were just very good.”
He's probably right. The midfield and backline were both finally healthy, and while the frontline is still undergoing some renovations, what they had was more than enough to make LAFC miserable.
My Worry: I've yo-yo'd back and forth on this team all season long for two reasons: I still think their defensive frailties are a combination of age catching up to a few guys, and their fullbacks pushing up way too high at times. And I still question whether they'll get enough goals out of their center forwards.
Maybe Krisztian Nemeth will be the answer. Maybe.
Tier III: Talented but flawed
So they're officially not going to be the greatest expansion team of all-time – that distinction's going to be held, at least one more year, by Bob Bradley's 1998 Chicago Fire.
This past week, with a loss in the U.S. Open Cup semis and then their first-ever home loss, was a tough one for this group. They still have their identity (they play the ball a ton), and they still have a ton of depth all over the field, and they're not the first team in MLS history to get hot and then go into a prolonged slump. Chances are they'll pull out of it soon enough and starting winning games again.
My Worry: But yeah, there's also a chance that they're just too soft up the middle for that to happen:
LAFC don't have a d-mid. These are the types of goals you give up when you don't have a d-mid.
Ok so is it panic time yet? A reprise of 2017's epic second-half collapse?
I don't think so. Dallas lost again on Sunday night, this time 2-1 at the Sounders, but they showed plenty of fight/heart/comaraderie/what have you. Last year's team, by this point in the season, had none of that.
Which is to say that last year's meltdown was spurred by chemistry issues. This team seems to have much better chemistry, but their talent is lacking and it shows in the record: just 4-5-1 across all competitions since Mauro Diaz left.
My Worry: Obviously it's "Do they have enough top-end talent to make a Cup run?"
They're in the playoffs – hell, they might still be top of the West when it's all said and done. But other West teams have guys like Valeri, like Zlatan, like Lodeiro, like Vela. These are guys who can go out there and just win the damn game by themselves.
Dallas don't have that. And they don't have much CB depth, either. That means the margin's thinner for them than it is for other West teams in the hunt.
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 result is what mattered most, obviously. But a big chunk of credit has to go to the Union for how they did it – playing their own game by trying to knock the ball around, keep possession, and unlock their opponent down the wings with overloads and smart combination play. Not a lot of teams have been able to do that against New England this year, especially at Foxborough.
All three Philly goals came off of set pieces, so it's not like they were 2009 Barcelona out there. But they were able to repeatedly break through New England's press and did a good job of mostly controlling the game, save for a furious 20-minute onslaught for the Revs just after halftime.
And this is probably the best news for a team that's spent so much time struggling to score throughout their entire history: They've now bagged three or more goals in four of their last six games across all competitions.
My Worry: What if the above stat is a blip? Philly's defense is pretty good, but not so good that they can withstand another run of offensive futility akin to what happened earlier this year.
Tier IV: Let's see what happens
Well let's see... It's August, which means that Seattle's the hottest team in the league, they're climbing up the standings, and we should probably be talking about them as legitimate MLS Cup contenders.
They've done it this year similarly to the way they've done it the past two years: By making a couple of good transfer window moves, by getting mostly healthy, and by giving Nicolas Lodeiro as much of the damn ball as possible. His counting stats aren't especially prolific, but he does more to control the geometry of the game than any other No. 10 in the league, and as more (and better) attacking pieces have been added, Seattle have begun to prosper.
My Worry: It's mid-August, they've won five in a row, they're unbeaten in eight, and they're still below the playoff line. The hole the Sounders dug this spring was wider and deeper than in years past, and they've had to expend more and more energy to try to pull themselves out of it.
I expect them to once again manage it.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the locker room has been galvanized. There is always the risk, when signing on older DP who's done just about everything there is to do in the world of soccer, that they don't really care as much as they could/should/need to.
Wayne Rooney, on that play, took that notion, strangled it and buried it 30 feet underground. This was his "Zlatan vs. LAFC" moment. What a warrior.
So yeah, D.C. are still 11th in the East on total points, but they're up to eighth in PPG, have games in hand on everybody, and have 11 home games left. They could really do this.
My Worry: Um, they needed the above – which capped off a remarkable hat-trick from Lucho Acosta – in order to beat what's a bottom-three team, at home, in a must-win game, after playing up a man for half-an-hour. One remarkable moment at the end can't cover that up.
They can't defend, and goalkeeper has been an issue. Bill Hamid should help that second thing, but they're going to have to figure out the first internally.
New England Revolution
The Revs, following Saturday's devastating loss to Philly, are now 4-7-7 in MLS since the middle of April. They've conceded five set-piece goals, as well as a PK won off a set piece, in the last three games. They don't have (or at least they don't play) great passers of the ball in central midfield, which means they can't use the ball as a way of defending – they can't possess in order to take the sting out of an opponent's attack.
Left back has been a constant issue. Center back has been a constant issue. Teal Bunbury has hit a dry-ish spell in front of net. Things look not great.
My Worry: Michael Mancienne was brought in during the summer window precisely because he seems to perfectly fit New England's biggest need: He is an active and athletic center back who defends like hell in the 18. That should provide stability. That should be the finger in the dike. And once that issue's fixed, Brad Friedel & Co. can start working on the other things killing his team.
But what if that doesn't fix it?
Given how bad they've been all year, TFC should not currently have a shot at making the playoffs. But because the Revs and Impact didn't make a run when they had the opening, and because the Fire and Orlando City have been disasters, and because nobody's quite sure what to make of D.C. just yet, the Reds still very much have a shot.
That said, I think the only way to look at this Sunday's 3-2 loss to NYCFC is "well, at least Altidore and Chris Mavinga will be fresh for the Canadian Championship second leg this Wednesday."
My Worry: That loss is who they are in 2018: undisciplined, error-prone in net and sloppy at the back.
They did really well when the schedule was soft, and a point on Saturday night thanks to a 1-1 draw at RSL is by no means the worst result in the world. It's very obvious that the Impact are trying to be the same thing every week: A team that sits, absorbs, and then tries to counter through one wing or another.
I can count on one hand the number of goals they've scored this season that have come through pure possession, and that's fine. It's good to have an identity, even if it's a limited one.
My Worry: They did really well when the schedule was soft. It stays soft for one more week, then it gets really hard for a bit, and mostly stays that way for the rest of the season. Montreal have shown little to indicate they're capable of winning those types of games against those types of teams.
Of note: They've conceded a bunch of set piece goals.
Tier V: Occasionally feisty
Real Salt Lake
RSL are a very good 9-1-3 at home, which is why Saturday's draw against Montreal was so painful. They struggled quite a bit to break down the Impact's bunker, and while individual RSL players are capable of individual moments of brilliance, there are times in which, as a collective, they do not look like they're linked to each other.
My Worry: The above thing is a big one, for sure. Bigger: They're just 1-8-2 on the road, and six of their final 10 games are away from Sandy.
Center forward is still a glaring issue. Corey Baird works hard and has done some good stuff, but he's miscast and isn't a great finisher. This team doesn't have a guy who can go out there and just poach a goal for you in a smash-and-grab.
The 'Caps are on a bit of a run, having gone 2-0-1 in their last three league games. Extend it back to the last 10, and it still looks pretty good: 5-4-1 in that run. And these are good results, like this weekend's 2-1 win at Portland or last weekend's 2-2 draw at NYCFC.
Vancouver know who they are and make no apologies for it. They'd rather have 30 percent of the ball than 50 percent, and they'd rather win it 80 yards from your goal than 18. They knock the ball down, win it at midfield and then get out and run.
It really has made for some exciting counterattacking play this year, even as the defense has struggled.
My Worry: That defense... woof. Vancouver have conceded 47 times in 24 games, which is the reason why they're under the playoff line instead of above it. It's been marginally better lately, but not by a lot.
Let's all enjoy Darwin Quintero:
He had as fine a month as almost anybody in the league's history, and he helped the Loons make something of their run of home games. He then kept it going with a fine performance on the road in Saturday's draw at the Galaxy.
It's not really been clear what MNUFC have wanted to build towards, but at least, in Quintero, they have their centerpiece.
My Worry: What else do they have? That's not particularly clear, and the defense – which has conceded 48 times in 24 games – remains a mess. Going to the 3-5-2 a couple of months back seems like it's helped, but it really is still tough to say whether their improvement is because of a formation/tactical change (they're holding less of the ball than they used to), or because of the competition they've faced.
The next four are on the road. We'll see where Minnesota stand after this stretch.
They're fun! The Rapids are fun!
For the third straight week they came out in a 4-4-2 diamond, and while they're not going to remind anybody of the glory days-era RSL diamond, it turns out that putting on four midfielders and two fullbacks who can all pass the ball was a pretty good idea. Yes, they left it late, but the Rapids thoroughly deserved their 2-1 win over the visiting Quakes on Saturday night.
My Worry: What happens when they take a massive L? Do they turtle up and go extra-defensive again, playing center backs in midfield and such?
I hope not. Anthony Hudson would do well to take a few lumps over the rest of the season all in the name of being prepared to play better soccer come 2019.
Tier VI: Fading Away
Houston fought and battled and lost – not without controversy – at Columbus. Their spirit was clearly willing, even if their bodies weren't quite up to the task.
Given how pretty they were capable of playing at times this year, and how fun their attack is/was, I'm honestly shocked at how low they are both in the table and in these rankings. Houston have killed two of the best teams in the league this year, dominating Atlanta 4-0 on opening day and then beating NYCFC 3-1 a few months later.
They've never been able to bottle that, though, and it looks very much like the playoffs are gone.
The U.S. Open Cup isn't, though! A trophy would surely take some of the sting out of an otherwise painful season
Orlando City SC
Every single week they seem to find new and newly devastating ways to lose. There are no words of consolation, commiseration or otherwise that can take any of the pain away for this group. What was supposed to be a complete rebuild into borderline contenders – or at least a solid playoff team – has led to a spring, and now summer of abject futility.
Dom Dwyer's been good, and Sacha Kljestan's been good, and Yoshi Yotun's been good. Chris Mueller is promising in a lot of ways. There are a couple of other guys who've had their moments. But they've taken 4 of the last 45 points on offer with no end in sight.
They finished third in the overall table in 2017. In 2018 there's at least an outside chance they collect their third Wooden Spoon in four years.
Just about everything has gone wrong for Chicago. Important players have gotten hurt or regressed, the 'keeper spot has been a open wound, and immediately after signing a permanent deal in July, Aleksandar Katai's productivity dried up. Veljko Paunovic has constantly rotated the backline, which has meant a lack of chemistry, which has meant a constant bleed of bad goals. Nelson Rodriguez wasn't able to sign big-name target, which has meant a weekly talent deficit. It's been too much to overcome.
The only thing that went right? Bastian Schweinsteiger stayed healthy. But even that wasn't enough to coax even a moderately successful season out of the Fire.
San Jose Earthquakes
The worst regular season in MLS history was 2013 D.C. United, who took just 16 points (3-24-7) on the year.
San Jose will be better than that. But not by much.