Yes, we are now through the mid-way point of this most irregular of 2020 regular seasons. I have nothing pithy or witty to say; I simply hope you are staying safe. This year has been a trial.
Yet we move onward. And so it's now time to hand out some midseason grades across the length and breadth of MLS. Bear in mind I'm factoring in MLS is Back Tournament play, off-the-field stuff and just baseline expectations as well. If you want to know who the best teams are, just look at the standings. If you want to know who's having the best year, I've got you covered below.
As in school, we’re going in alphabetical order.
Atlanta United: D
It's hard to point to even one particular thing that's gone right for the Five Stripes in 2020, though the recent addition of DP midfielder Marcelino Moreno could perhaps signal the start of the long climb up from rock bottom. The other silver lining has been the play of young left back George Bello, who's starting to deliver on his promise:
We can also throw in Wednesday night's 1-0 win over FC Dallas. It wasn't pretty but it showed fight and character, both of which had been noticeably absent at times this season.
What they could've done better: Obviously they were behind the 8-ball from basically the start given Josef Martinez's injury, but just as obvious is that they had the wrong coach. Hiring Frank de Boer was a disaster not only because he changed the team's style for the worse, but because he alienated core players and had a hand in shipping others out. He had a key hand in dismantling one of the most fun teams in league history.
Those who were shipped have been replaced inadequately, and key holdovers like Miles Robinson, Brad Guzan, Eric Remedi and Ezequiel Barco have all regressed, first under De Boer and now under interim manager Stephen Glass.
Atlanta have had an incredibly easy schedule to this point as well, with nine of their 13 games coming against either the past three expansion teams or the rapidly sinking Red Bulls.
Chicago Fire FC: C-
It is entirely understandable that the Fire front office decided to revamp the on-field version of this team given that they'd missed the playoffs in three out of four seasons under Veljko Paunovic, and that so many of the key players were the core of last year's side were well into their 30s. It was time for a reset.
That reset, like everything else in 2020, has come in fits and starts. The Fire, under new head coach Raphael Wicky, have shown flashes:
They have also shown that they're still the same old Fire in a lot of ways, conceding soft goals and missing sitters as regularly as almost anyone in the league. They have been, on the whole, a worse team than they were last season, even though I'd argue I've seen some real evidence that they're building a consistent approach and have some real ideas of how they want to play the game.
What they could've done better: Here's what I wrote before they eviscerated the Dynamo on Wednesday night:
If they'd won the past two games they probably earn a B here, right?
Well, they should've won those games. I'm not letting them off the hook for not doing so -- they got a D after all, right? But I'm not about to entirely disclaim process for results. The Fire played as well as they did against Columbus and Orlando, two of the very best teams in the league. Playing that well in the first place is a victory; playing that well against teams legitimately in the trophy hunt? That points to something actually brewing here.
If they keep doing what they're doing in terms of how they play the game, they will start to marry process to results, and their grade will change.
As always with the Fire, though, that's a massive "if." A lot of their fans will believe it only when they see it, and I can't blame them for that.
They kept doing what they were doing. Now they've got to go out this weekend and do it again.
FC Cincinnati: C-
They got out of the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament and they are, at the midway point of the season, above the playoff line. I don't think many people would have bet on either of those outcomes, let alone both.
Cincinnati have managed the above despite entering 2020 with the racial slur-uttering Ron Jans as head coach, and then having to pivot to another edition of Yoann Damet as interim head coach before hiring Jaap Stam as the permanent boss in early summer. Nothing — not one moment — has been easy or smooth with FC Cincy since they came into the league.
For what it's worth: They have 12 points overall, with nine of them coming against two teams I really wanted to give an "F" to, so it's not like they've made a massive leap. But unlike 2019, they're not at the bottom of the barrel.
What they could've done better: They're not at the bottom of the barrel and it's no thanks to their big offseason imports. Signing Yuya Kubo as well as Jurgen Locadia, and then adding expensive TAM playmaker Siem de Jong to the mix never really made sense given the positional and skillset overlap.
And sure enough, the three of them have combined to produce next to nothing
- De Jong has 0g/0a in about 475 minutes, and has yet to go 90
- Locadia has 1g/0a in 830 minutes, and some of the most shocking misses of the year
- Kubo has 2g/0a in 935 minutes and has been moved from forward to central midfield
These acquisitions reeked of "let's just get some talent" without having an actual plan for how to use it. Stam has not been able to figure out the answer.
Columbus Crew SC: A
The best defensive performance in league history through 10 games, year-over-year progression from most of the young players, the integration of some fresh new faces, enough depth to survive myriad injuries and weekly squad rotation with aplomb and an MVP-caliber half-season from their star center forward, all while playing some of the most entertaining soccer in the league?
It's good in Columbus right now. The fans who saved the Crew deserve a team that plays like this and wins like this:
This movement from Gyasi is freaking lethal. Completely outsmarts van der Werff, a solid veteran with a decade of top-flight experience in the Eredivisie.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) September 7, 2020
They are atop the East and atop the Supporters' Shield standings. Their schedule hasn't been a blender, but they've registered wins over Philly and NYCFC, got a draw at Seattle back in March, and have just one loss.
What they could've done better: The only knock is that they were knocked out of the MLS is Back Tournament in the Round of 16 despite earning some "favorites!" buzz. They didn't play bad against Minnesota, but they had real trouble countering the Loons' gambit of just forcing Darlington Nagbe out of central midfield. There was, at that time, no Plan B.
Columbus have been better since then without Nagbe, and they comfortably dispatched a very short-handed Minnesota team on Wednesday night to claim some measure of revenge. There now does appear to be a Plan B.
Colorado Rapids: C+
So much of the Rapids' success over the final two-thirds of the 2019 season came down to their set-piece dominance, and it was always going to be a struggle once that went away.
Well, it went away in July, and yeah ... struggle. But as they were going seven games without a win — including a humiliating 4-1 Rocky Mountain Cup loss to RSL — Robin Fraser was adding some tweaks to both his team's shape and how he uses its personnel, and two weeks ago it just ... clicked. They annihilated RSL 5-0 to win the Rocky Mountain Cup for the first time in five years and just the third time since 2007.
Then they got drilled 4-1 by FC Dallas. Then they went to a Galaxy team that had been playing good soccer and drilled them, 2-0, showing off many of the hallmarks of FraserBall along the way:
They have not been as dominant on set pieces. They have some very good young talent that is improving. They are capable of some big wins, and of some inexplicable losses. They are above the line, but in danger of dropping below it with a run of bad form.
Basically: They get a C+ for being exactly what I thought they would be, but trending in the right direction.
What they could've done better: The changes Fraser's made — Younes Namli moved to a playmaking winger, Cole Bassett into central midfield as a two-way gap-filler who pops up in the box for one-time finishes, and Jonathan Lewis into the starting lineup — could've/should've been made earlier. I think they'd have a few points.
They have a chance to collect a lot more than just a few points over the next month, with five of their next seven at home. How well they fare in those outings will likely determine what kind of grade they get for the full year.
FC Dallas: B
Dallas, thanks to their Covid-induced absence from the MLS is Back Tournament, have had a choppier and more compressed schedule than almost anyone else. There have been moments where they've handled it poorly, and more recently there have been moments where they look to have come through it a deeper, better and more cohesive team.
That is obviously not an easy thing to do in 2020. It's even harder during a year in which you've sold two key players (Reggie Cannon and Zdenek Ondrasek), lost another for the year due to injury (Paxton Pomykal) and have cut ties with a fourth (Jesse Gonzalez) due to a report into domestic violence allegations. They could easily have folded.
They have not. Wednesday night's heavy-legged 1-0 loss at Atlanta snapped a three-game Dallas winning streak, the first of that length under Luchi Gonzalez. They are getting contributions from youngsters, veterans, rotation players and stars:
That's a gorgeous goal.
Dallas are still often fragile defensively and, as always, "how many chances will their wingers miss?" is a pertinent question. But they've faced maybe the hardest road in MLS this year, and have generally handled it better than I think we had a right to expect.
What they could've done better: Luchi Gonzalez has been hesitant to move Bryan Acosta down the central midfield depth chart for one (though Acosta has finally taken that into his own hands and done it himself), and for two there's no young, athletic center back being groomed in the first team. Callum Montgomery is getting reps with San Antonio in the USL, which is good, but I do expect Matt Hedges and Reto Ziegler to wear down over the next six weeks.
D.C. United: C-
I have barely written about D.C. this year in large part because it's seemed unfair. They've suffered a historically-awful run of injuries to key players at just about every spot on the field, and so Ben Olsen has had to stitch together the lineup each game out with a collection of reserves, Homegrowns and the one or two regulars who are able to keep themselves upright.
So for most of this year it's been 11 men (or actually 10 men and one boy, since 17-year-old Kevin Paredes has been a regular) behind the ball, defend hard, try not to give up anything dumb and hit on the counter if the chance is there. Then for the last 15 minutes bring on Pipa Higuain and hope he wizards something up.
This approach has kept D.C. within touching distance of the playoff race. And since Paredes, as well as 16-year-old Moses Nyeman and 17-year-old Griffin Yow are all playing, I'm giving them a #PlayYourKids bump.
If these kids progress year-over-year the way Dallas's do, or Philly's do, then the pain of this season will have been worth it for D.C. (And if they don't progress like that, then questions need to be asked and answered.)
What they could've done better: I have no idea why Russell Canouse, when healthy, is not the regular starter at d-mid (yes, I wrote that before his red card in the loss to Nashville on Wednesday, but I stand by it). The only stretch of consistently good play D.C. have put together over the past four seasons came during the second half of the 2018 season when Canouse locked that job down, but Olsen has mostly used him at right back since.
And the other thing they obviously could've done was avoid having such bad luck*. Canouse, Edison Flores, Felipe, Ola Kamara, Yamil Asad, Steve Birnbaum, Bill Hamid ... all out for one reason or another, and for an extended duration, at times this year.
(*) You can't actually avoid having bad luck. That's what makes it luck.
Houston Dynamo: C
The attack did not come together quickly, but when it did finally come together it was gorgeous and irresistible. Houston have the chance to be one of the highest-scoring teams in the league.
Or they did, anyway, before selling Alberth Elis. They might still have a chance at that even without Elis, which speaks to the good work they've done in identifying and acquiring under-the-radar talents. Add in the fact that, apparently, Darwin Ceren and Memo Rodriguez were born to attack as Free 8s in Tab Ramos's system, and that's the recipe for some fun.
The Dynamo are easy to watch. This is good soccer:
What they could've done better: They are as easy to score against as they are easy to watch. Houston have just two shut outs all season and the backline hasn't exactly been instilling confidence. Games can get away from them quickly — see Wednesday's loss in Chicago — and at other times simple mistakes have gifted opponents results they have not deserved.
It's why they're below the playoffs line despite playing mostly fun soccer since July.
I also think that while Ceren and Memo are born to attack as Free 8s, pushing them up is leaving Matias Vera and the backline badly exposed in transition moments.
LA Galaxy: C-
The Galaxy are tough to grade. They're roughly as good as I expected them to be, but managed it by playing better soccer than I expected despite being without two of their best/most expensive players. They bounced back from utter El Trafico humiliation in Orlando to inflict the same in Carson, and have done it while giving increasingly high-leverage minutes to Homegrown products and guys they brought through USL.
So given all that ... maybe they should be higher, right? I mean, they didn't just outplay LAFC a few weeks back, they out-gameplanned them:
My answer to the rhetorical question above is, however, "no." This is the baseline of what should be expected from the Galaxy, who spend like few others in the league, have the best Homegrown territory to pull from and have massive expectations internally and in the fanbase.
"C" is the grade you get for "ok, good enough." The Galaxy's year has been just south of that.
What they could've done better: Guillermo Barros Schelotto waited way too long to make a necessary change on the backline, finally bringing in Nick DePuy fulltime over Giancarlo Gonzalez in the third and final game of the MLS is Back Tournament. In the seven games since then, the Galaxy have conceded seven goals, while in the previous two they shipped eight.
It's not all on Gonzalez, obviously, but the Galaxy have a half-decade's worth of history now in which they just keep riding with veterans even when those veterans are costing them points, and prefer to try to buy their way out of a hole instead of capitalizing on their talent-rich environment and building top-tier players.
Speaking of preferring to buy ... they need to get Chicharito rolling.
They didn't fall apart without Carlos Vela, and let's not forget the damage they were doing in the CCL before that competition got shut down. Their comeback against Leon was legendary the instant it happened.
But if I told you that, midway through the season, LAFC were clawing to get above the playoff line, what grade would you give them? If I'd told you that Brian Rodriguez was still sitting on just one goal, that Francisco Ginella, Jose Cifuentes and Diego Palacios still hadn't really settled in, that Walker Zimmerman's replacement was Dejan Jakovic and that Latif Blessing was now playing right back, and that it had taken Kenneth Vermeer five games to lose the No. 1 job, what grade would you give them?
It's not a perfect comparison, but in a lot of ways this is starting to feel a lot like Toronto FC's 2018 season. Maybe they'll figure it out and it'll be more like Atlanta's 2019 season, though.
What they could've done better: To me, it largely comes back to the Zimmerman trade, as well as letting Steven Beitashour walk without a ready-made replacement (Tristan Blackmon has not been it). The right side of that defense gets shredded game after game after game.
The other thing is that they actually did survive Vela's injury. But as soon as Eduard Atuesta went down, the whole thing fell apart. That is maybe the lurking worry for what happens in 2021 and beyond.
Inter Miami: D
I think we all kind of expected Miami to be better than they have been thus far in 2020. It was always a reach for them to be the next LAFC or Atlanta, but even with the roster kind of half-formed and the season as choppy as it has been, it feels like Miami should be better than just 3-8-2 right now.
The good news, though, is that they have had some good moments and they have steadfastly refused to get blown out. All those one-goal losses (Wednesday's 4-1 loss to the Red Bulls was literally their first multi-goal loss) should, in theory, turn into points as Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Blaise Matuidi integrate and as Gonzalo Higuain arrives. Top-end talent like that — and like Rodolfo Pizarro, who's fluffed some chances but has been much more good than bad — combined with guys who are just "pretty good" should get you results in this league.
So it's been a slow start, and the future remains uncertain (which is always true), but if you're a Miami fan, you're probably looking forward to the back nine here.
What they could've done better: I've said time and again that I would've gone with a playmaker (Pizarro is not that) for the final DP slot over Higuain. I'm pretty close to certain that Higuain will be excellent, but I do think that midfield is missing the little bit of oomph trophy-winning teams have in this league.
Which brings us to the real issue. It'd be way too early to use the "B" word even if 2020 was a normal season, so I'm certainly not going to call Matias Pellegrini a bust. But he was super-expensive, came to Miami with real bona fides, and has delivered next to nothing. This is not like Rodriguez in LA, where you can see the talent but the lack of end product is perplexing. This is "oh man, he's just not cut out for it at this level right now."
Also, I'm going to whisper this part, but: Matuidi has struggled.
Minnesota United: B-
They've been without Ike Opara for so long, and largely stayed afloat — or better than just staying afloat in Orlando — despite his absence. They also signed a bigtime Argentinean playmaker from Boca Juniors in Bebelo Reynoso, got Kevin Molino healthy again, got real progress from a bunch of recent SuperDraft picks, and shored up their wings with some signings over the winter.
At times they've played stunning soccer:
After making the playoffs last year, and making the semifinals of this summer's tournament without Opara, and spending a ton on Bebelo, the expectations should be for them to live the rest of the regular season near the top of the standings and to make a lengthy playoff run.
What they could've done better: They've won just twice since leaving Florida and they suddenly can't stop shipping goals. Teams have finally committed to keeping the ball on the ground, and the Loons, without Opara's coverage, are suddenly much more vulnerable.
The other thing is that Ozzie Alonso did kind of get run into the ground from mid-July to late August. Hopefully he won't be out much longer, because Minnesota's much, much easier to break down when he's on the sidelines.
They're 2-5-1 since coming back from Florida. Sunday at home against RSL feels huge, and this B- could end up feeling very generous very soon.
Montreal Impact: C-
It all started pretty well, with a two-legged CCL victory over Saprissa and then some pretty good defensive performances in the league back in March. But it hasn't been the same since then, and Wednesday night's crushing 3-0 loss at a short-handed New England side kind of drives the point home: Montreal are 4-7-0 with a -2 goal differential since play resumed in July. That's not how you make the playoffs.
There is some talent on the roster and Montreal's front office did a nice job of going out and getting Victor Wanyama, who is presumably the type of d-mid Thierry Henry wants. Between him and the distribution of young Luis Binks the Impact have the ability to move the game around a bit and use the ball well.
But right now they're just not.
What they could've done better: They upgraded the central defense and central midfield, but not center forward! Romell Quioto has been a pretty good stopgap, but Quioto is not the most reliable guy in the world (as he showed vs. Philly), and he's never really been a center forward before. It feels like the experiment of playing him there, while worthwhile, is also on borrowed time.
The other issue is that Henry hasn't really shown the type of trust in his young attacking options that he's shown in the likes of Binks and Zachary Brault-Guillard. To win in MLS you have to be able to get young attackers to level up — look at what Jordan Morris has become, or Diego Rossi, or Josef Martinez (who was a young player without a position when he got to Atlanta, remember).
Something close to that has to happen with one of these Impact kids.
New England Revolution: C
There has been nothing at all consistent about the Revs' performance this year, which is probably fitting given that they're missing, in Carles Gil, both their best and most important player. They have been searching for the right way to replace him ever since he went down for the season, and it's tough to be consistent when that's the way you have to approach games.
The good news for New England is that they've been able to get answers in each of the past three SuperDrafts (Brandon Bye in 2018; Tajon Buchanan and DeJuan Jones in 2019; Rookie of the Year front-runner Henry Kessler in 2020) while adding solid pieces from within the league. Getting Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen back was smart, as was bringing Matt Polster home. Veterans Andrew Farrell, Scott Caldwell and Teal Bunbury have all been above-average to very good, while Matt Turner continues to be the best 'keeper in the league.
New England's solidly in the playoff hunt, which is right where everyone thought they would be.
What they could've done better: DP center forward Adam Buksa, who has two goals in 860 minutes, has played himself out of the starting XI. He has not played like a DP.
Even without Gil, it's fair to wonder how many more points the Revs would have if they'd brought in a guy who could've gotten goals from the jump.
Nashville SC: C+
I thought Nashville would be pretty good up the spine and in central defense after bringing in a host of proven, high-level MLS veterans to man those spots. And guess what? They've exceeded expectations and are literally one of the best defensive teams in the league by the advanced numbers (I'm mostly referring to xG here) and by the box score numbers.
They've avoided mistakes and avoided giving away cheap goals, for the most part. They are hard to break down and have become good at using Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy's passing to spring forward in transition. They can press:
In Alistair Johnston it looks like the struck gold at least once in the SuperDraft.
There's lots to like here.
What they could've done better: Is anyone going to be able to put the ball in the net? Everybody knew it was going to be a problem but it is actually a PROBLEM, and while Jhonder Cadiz should help, it's not like the striker corps already in the fold have been squandering perfect service. Nashville's attack doesn't generate good looks (except on set pieces), and if you can't generate good looks on a regular basis then you probably can't win on a regular basis.
This is more than just a talent issue. This is an "attacking patterns of play" issue. Nashville have to develop some.
They're going to make the playoffs, almost certainly, and that's usually the starting point for determining whether or not a season was some variation of a success or some variation of a failure. By the simplest metric, they'll clear that first bar and for some, that will be enough.
There is some leeway here as well. Heber, who was magnificent last season, has been either snakebitten or hurt for most of 2020, and then suffered what looked like a serious injury on Wednesday night. Taty Castellanos has mostly not picked up the slack, nor have any of the wingers. Father Time has caught up to mighty Maxi Moralez, who is still often magnificent when healthy but is not often healthy in the first place. There is no replacing him.
Lots of coaches would go "defense first" in this situation. Ronny Deila's not the first to decide his best path to winning is to first not lose.
What they could've done better: There has been some upset in the fanbase over Deila's defense first-last-and-always approach, one that's so at odds with Dome Torrent and Patrick Vieira, the managers who came before him. That culture matters, and while the Dome-to-Deila switch hasn't been as pronounced as, say, Tata Martino-to-Frank De Boer, it doesn't seem that far off.
A point of interest: Alex Ring, one of the five best d-mids in MLS, is playing left wing.
Literally all of the attackers have regressed. There is a common thread here.
New York Red Bulls: C-
I bumped them up from an F following their big win over Miami, which is their second in three games and had the feel of a statement win, or maybe an "ok, we're through the worst of it" win.
Maybe. It was enough to buy them a letter grade-and-a-half boost based upon how strong a performance it was, and the fact that they are now comfortably above the playoff line. They really did seem to be playing happy and fun and aggressive soccer for the first time all year, and they just smashed Miami on the rocks of that press. It was a throwback performance from a team — and an interim head coach — who badly needed one.
This is also pretty clearly a team in the midst of a rebuild. Bad losses and dry spells are part of the deal, but if it ends up with a bunch of the kids rising to the moment and earning starting jobs to create a new foundation, the front office will likely deem the struggle to have been worth it.
What they could've done better: They apparently could have handled Bradley Wright-Phillips' departure better. It's genuinely sad that he left on bad terms.
As for on the field stuff, I said my piece about Chris Armas and why I understood the decision to let him go. Bradley Carnell hasn't addressed all those issues, but in general the team has looked more cohesive and energetic the past few games. He's also making the wise decision to play Brian White more, and to use Kaku as a No. 10. That helps.
I am skeptical of their DP signings, but am willing to be proved wrong. I understand the frustrations of the RBNY fanbase, but I think if you had offered them "7th place in the East and a much younger, potentially more exciting team" at the start of the year, most of them would've taken it.
Orlando City: A+
What we seem to be seeing is one of the all-time great single-season turnarounds. Orlando were historically bad (or thereabouts) in one way or another for most of the past five years. Oscar Pareja came in last winter, made a few changes* — this was not an overhaul — and have them playing arguably the best soccer in the league.
(*) To be fair, sporting director Luis Muzzi made a ton of changes before and during the 2019 season, so Pareja did come into a team that had been overhauled prior to his arrival.
They've been able to go on the road and counterattack teams, and have been able to weather storms when under pressure, and mostly have been able to get on the ball a ton and use it to dictate games and then, eventually, win them. They are, at times, a truly beautiful team to watch.
Nani has been mostly healthy and mostly excellent. Mauricio Pereyra has been mostly healthy and mostly excellent even though he's not putting up big numbers. Benji Michel, Chris Mueller, Jhegson Mendez, Joao Moutinho and Ruan have leveled up. Uri Rosell looks rejuvenated. Daryl Dike looks like a centerpiece for a long, long time:
This has all been a very fun and unexpected development.
What they could've done better: Could've won the Tournament, I guess! And there've been some issues with holding onto leads and dropping points. Pareja would like, I'm sure, to see his team start pitching some shutouts.
But I think anything other than an A+ would be ridiculous. Orlando are overperforming expectations by a mile and it's not because they're getting lucky or they're riding somebody's random hot streak. They've legitimately become one of the best teams in the league.
Philadelphia Union: A
The Union, more explicitly than any other team in the league, have two mandates:
- Compete and try to win trophies
- Build great players out of the academy and sell them on to Europe
They have improved year after year, and competed for multiple trophies over the past five seasons with Jim Curtin as manager. They made it to the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament, playing some pretty and effective soccer along the way. And now they're on the verge of selling young Brenden Aaronson to a Champions League team — RB Salzburg — in Europe:
I'm not going to say "they've checked all the boxes" because they won't have done that until somebody's holding something shiny. But their improvement has been steady and measurable, they have survived Ilsinho descending from godhood and becoming a merely good MLS winger, and Aaronson is far from the only academy kid making good on his promise.
What they could've done better: They could've won the Tournament. Truth is they didn't really play well enough throughout most of it — Andre Blake was their MVP this summer — but they got to the semifinals, gave themselves a chance, and then just melted down defending set pieces against the Timbers. I'm sure that had to frustrate Curtin & co.
Other than that there's not much. Philly fans, for once, are pretty happy.
Portland Timbers: A-
Here, Timbers fans, relive the glory of this summer's Tournament win. To me, it's a major trophy:
I think it obviously was to everyone in the Timbers organization as well. And all 24 teams in Orlando were going after that thing. Hard.
And now they're looking at the final 10 games of the season while sitting in second place in the West and sitting on their second-ever MLS trophy. It's been a tough year in Portland for a lot of reasons, but at least the Timbers are giving their fans some joy.
What they could've done better: The defense obviously fell off rather bigtime after play resumed in August: From August 23 to September 19, they shipped 17 goals in seven games. Yikes.
They got a lead and battened down the hatches on Wednesday against the Sounders, coaxing Seattle into 29 open play crosses (Nico Lodeiro attempted 21!!!!). It was a good win, but it did harken back to Timbers teams of yesteryear that couldn't really put their foot on the ball and dictate the game when it was there to be controlled. They are still vicious on the counterattack, but without Sebastian Blanco, they are not as multi-faceted as they were in July.
They are so good on the counter and on set pieces they might not need to fix that. They might have enough anyway. But it's hard to see them, without Blanco, getting another trophy in 2020.
Real Salt Lake: C-
Grimly hanging on, down around the playoff line. It's another year of a lot of the same stuff from RSL, who have endured a rocky summer off the field that does, at the least, seem to promise better days ahead.
But on the field this is still an inconsistent, pretty non-descript team. They are capable of putting together good, solid 2-0 wins like the one they posted over the suddenly slumping Galaxy on Wednesday night, and are just as capable of losing at home to Vancouver, or throttling LAFC, or getting destroyed by Colorado.
There's no telling which version of RSL will show up on any give game day. You can just be certain that they'll be there at the end of the regular season with some work to do to get across the finish line.
What they could've done better: It's incredible to me that it's still not clear who this team's best forward is, and that it might very well be their best central midfielder, Damir Kreilach. It's just such a weirdly constructed roster, and is in turn being used weirdly by head coach Freddy Juarez.
They have also been one of the traditionally more aggressive teams about pushing academy products through, though that seems to have now dried up. The newer academy products aren't getting any playing time, and the older ones — Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera et al — have not improved year-over-year.
I would expect Glad to have a new address in 2021, for what it's worth.
Seattle Sounders: B
Seattle are tied atop the West on total points and are first in points per game. Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz and Lodeiro are all playing at an MVP clip. They have survived some underperformance from their center backs as well as a few injuries in defensive midfield.
They brought Brad Smith back and are once again hella deep at left back, which basically no one else on the continent can claim. Shane O'Neill is in the process of reviving his once-promising career. Their goal differential (+15) is second-best in the league.
The Sounders mostly look like champions these days, and have put together some truly stunning performances. I don't think they've maxed out quite yet, but even with Wednesday night's loss, it still feels like this team has momentum and is evolving into something better and better over the course of 2020.
What they could've done better: For as much talent and veteran knowhow they have, they still settle:
Opta tells me Valeri and Lodeiro had the most "good crosses" in the match with 3 each. Valeri attempted 6 crosses while Lodeiro attempted 21. #RCTID— Mike Donovan (@TheMikeDonovan) September 24, 2020
If you can get out in front of this team you can coax them into a night of hopeful crosses. To Seattle's credit, sometimes those end up as goals, especially when Brian Schmetzer brings Will Bruin on in a two-forward set-up. But a team this talented should have other tools to blow up a bunker.
The other knock is that this is that they didn't really show up in Orlando. I get it — the Sounders value MLS Cup above everything else. But I was disappointed in what I saw from them.
San Jose Earthquakes: F
5 - @SJEarthquakes have conceded 5 goals in a match for the fifth time this season, the most 5-goal games allowed by a team in a single season in @MLS history, despite playing just 13 games. Low. pic.twitter.com/4sPiHbKbzy— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) September 24, 2020
The numbers are the numbers.
What they could've done better: At some point, Matias Almeyda is going to have to really assess his man-marking system. I know it worked well in Liga MX, but that was mostly in tournament play. Chivas mostly struggled during the regular season as teams got more film of and more reps against them.
The MLS season is longer than the Liga MX season, and stability amongst teams is greater. Once a group learns to play against man-marking, the novelty wears off and so does the built in "whoa, this is different!" advantage. Most of the guys who learned how to go against it in 2019 will still be around in 2020, including coaches. The vast majority of Liga MX sides don't operate like that.
This isn't all on Almeyda. The Quakes are near the bottom of the league in terms of raw talent and didn't exactly open the checkbook to bring in reinforcements last winter or this summer — though it should be noted that most of the reinforcements they brought in last summer were hand-picked by Almeyda, and have not delivered.
San Jose will certainly undergo a reboot this winter when most of the big-money players come off the books. I have no idea if Almeyda will be the one doing the shopping for their replacements, but with the record losses piling up, it's not difficult to imagine an overhaul hitting more than just the roster.
Sporting KC: B-
The underlying numbers last year said that Sporting should've been a better team then, and would be a better team now. They underachieved mightily in 2019 by almost every metric.
They have achieved adequately in 2020. They are near the top of the West, which is good and appropriate for a team with as much talent, and that spent as much cash this offseason as they did. They have produced some gorgeous soccer, and have done so while fighting off and fighting through both injuries and that great core group really starting to age out and cost points.
Peter Vermes has also done a nice job of bringing the Homegrowns into the fold, with Gianluca Busio, Jaylin Lindsey and Felipe Hernandez all getting significant run (and taking some lumps). This is the right thing to do during the regular season with a team that has repeatedly broken down late in the year over the past decade. Sporting does have real and effective depth now.
What they could've done better: It's not clear they have an XI that can compete at the top of the league. Alan Pulido has yet to emerge as a goalscoring threat (though he's done great work as a hold-up man and playmaker releasing the wingers), the central midfield is still gappy and unbalanced, and defensively ... Sporting are shipping two a game since play restarted in August. They were bounced out of the MLS is Back Tournament by a Philly team that just blitzed them off the field over a 20-minute stretch of the first half and won 3-1.
The defensive issues that destroyed this team's 2019 are still there to a frightening degree in 2020.
Toronto FC: B-
They are, in terms of total points and points per game, one of the very best teams in MLS. Alejandro Pozuelo, now with plenty of rest, is playing at an MVP-caliber clip in 2020 after playing at a Best XI-caliber clip in 2019 despite a tank that spent most of the season on empty. Michael Bradley got hurt and it kind of hasn't mattered (if anything Toronto have been better, as they've diversified their distribution routine — which always has to run through Bradley when he's out there).
They have discovered a star in Ayo Akinola:
Toronto need that proof of concept with regard to their academy. They've done well to develop older guys like Jonathan Osorio or to rehab cast-offs like Richie Laryea, but Akinola is the first real academy-to-first-team success story, and he has made a difference in big games this year. His goalscoring rate is not sustainable, but given how good he is at finding big chances and how good Toronto's attack — mostly Pozuelo — is at generating them, he won't ever go completely dry.
It should surprise no one if Toronto are raising a trophy at the end of the season.
What they could've done better: It would be a little bit of a surprise though, wouldn't it? That defense has altered between slow and soft and mistake-prone in big moments and they almost always leave the door open to for teams to come back into games that could've been killed off by the hour mark.
Toronto are almost impossible to stop, but if you get on the ball, they're not all that hard to play against. They'll give you looks on set pieces, turnovers, loose balls in the box ... you name it.
Vancouver Whitecaps: C-
The 'Caps are just two points below the playoff line in the West, powered by a run in which they won three games out of four. Lucas Cavallini hasn't been super productive, but he's clearly intent upon leaving his mark, and in Michael Baldisimo they have developed another gem of a Homegrown. Thomas Hasal probably deserves a shout for that as well.
There have been some good moments for Vancouver.
What they could've done better: There have been a lot of bad moments as well, including Wednesday's 6-0 humiliation at LAFC which was over inside of 10 minutes. Their -13 goal differential is second-worst in the league, and if you pro-rate it over the course of a normal 34-game season, it would be one of the worst marks in league history. The underlying numbers agree — again — that Vancouver are exactly as porous as they seem. The eye test concurs in gruesome fashion.
There has been a clear step forward in attacking talent with this team, and that is leading to better results. But only to a degree, and in such a way as to appear divorced from any process. The things that Vancouver were poor at last year — preventing high-quality chances; stopping the ball from getting into zone 14 — are things they are still poor at this year.