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  • It's impossible to conjure conclusions after one month of MLS–let alone one week–so here's the first of our weekly in-the-moment looks at the different tiers developing within the league.
By Brian Straus
March 06, 2018

Toronto FC won just one of its first six games in 2017, a season that ended with an MLS points record and a domestic treble. The eventual MLS Cup runner-up Seattle Sounders lost their opener and were a modest 1-2-3 after six. The prior year, Seattle started 0-3-0 and ended as champion. And in 2015, the Portland Timbers kicked off their title charge with three draws and a defeat.

In fact, only one of the past six MLS Cup winners won their season opener, and only one (the 2014 LA Galaxy) was victorious in at least two of its first four games (and they were 2-3-3 after eight).

In other words, trying to draw a conclusion after a solid month of an MLS season is problematic. Conjuring one after a single game is impossible.

That’s partly by design. Parity and unpredictability was always part of the plan. But as MLS gets going on its 23rd season, it’s also become increasingly stratified. Yes, we’re still stunned by certain scores. Nobody saw Houston 4, Atlanta 0 coming, and only someone comfortable with losing money would bet on a given game.

Yet when it comes to identifying the likely MLS Cup contenders, or picking out the teams that’ll be bringing up the rear, there’s a bit more confidence and consensus. As the league evolves, it’s become easier to identify the haves and have nots, the wills and will nots, and the cans and can nots.

Many publications print power rankings, and most do it weekly. In the NHL, NBA and MLB, teams rise and fall based on their performance over multiple games. And in the NFL, a week constitutes 6.25% of your season (equal to more than five NBA/NHL games and more than two in MLS). In MLS, a single match might surprise or entertain, but it’s often unclear how it fits into the larger narrative.

It’s nice that Houston 4, Atlanta 0 is possible. Unpredictability is fun, and this particular result gives the Dynamo some confidence and United plenty to think about. But it makes for a poor sample size.

So this season, we won’t worry about moving a team a spot or two in an arbitrary ranking because of one result that likely tells us nothing about a club’s relative power. Instead, we’ll look at tiers, because that’s how MLS is structured at the moment. Anything can happen in a given game, including the playoffs. But over time, it’ll become clear who expects to be there and make noise, who’s happy to get in and hope, who needs help and who’s trusting the process.

We begin with how teams are feeling after Week 1:

Off and running

Columbus Crew (1-0-0), Houston Dynamo (1-0-0), LA Galaxy (1-0-0), New York City FC (1-0-0)

They lost their two leading scorers over the winter and face a season of stress and uncertainty. Nobody needed an injection of confidence and momentum like the Crew, and they got it with a deserved 2-0 triumph at Toronto on Saturday. Ola Kamara’s replacement, Gyasi Zardes, scored, and playmaker Federico Higuaín was as influential as ever. Columbus was patient and organized defensively, efficient and decisive going forward and undaunted by facing the champions at BMO Field. One game doesn’t make a season, but you can’t ask for a better start.

Houston’s emphatic display, LA’s return to winning ways at home and NYCFC’s triumph in Kansas City also represent satisfying starts.

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Like we said, one game doesn’t make a season

Atlanta United (0-1-0), Los Angeles FC (1-0-0), Orlando City (0-0-1), Philadelphia Union (1-0-0), Real Salt Lake (0-0-1), Seattle Sounders (0-1-0), Toronto FC (0-1-0)

Toronto and Seattle never want to lose at home—they each fell on home soil only once during the 2017 regular season—but both have much bigger things to worry about as they open the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals this week. Neither is in panic mode following setbacks to Columbus and LAFC, respectively.

The latter will be thrilled with their 1-0 defeat of the Sounders—Diego Rossi’s goal was one for the scrapbook—but a challenging expansion season still lies ahead. Likewise, a Union side from which little is expected will happily take the three points earned Saturday. But New England imploded, and Philly coach Jim Curtin still has work to do building with youngsters like Anthony Fontana and Austin Trusty and new Czech playmaker Borek Dockal.

Atlanta and RSL dropped points on the road, but that won't dent their higher 2018 expectations.

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They were what we thought they were

Chicago Fire (0-0-0), Colorado Rapids (0-0-0), Montreal Impact (0-1-0), New York Red Bulls (0-0-0), Portland Timbers (0-1-0), San Jose Earthquakes (1-0-0), Vancouver Whitecaps (1-0-0)

The Timbers won’t be happy with some slapstick defending in L.A., but the Galaxy are much improved and Portland—still missing midfield linchpin Diego Chara—will take some time to gel under new coach Giovanni Savarese. San Jose and Vancouver are middle-of-the-road clubs that won at home against teams they expected to beat, Montreal fell on the road and three teams–Chicago, Colorado and New York–were idle.

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Wishing for a mulligan

D.C. United (0-0-1), FC Dallas (0-0-1), Minnesota United (0-1-0), New England Revolution (0-1-0), Sporting Kansas City (0-1-0)

Normally, D.C. United would’ve been pleased to snag a season-opening draw in Orlando, especially considering the two-home-games-in-four-months odyssey they’re facing. Get points where you can. But these were two points lost. United’s Darren Mattocks—the striker expected to carry the goal scoring load—missed on a penalty kick and a breakaway, and the visitors were dominated in the second half by 10-man Orlando City.

Dallas also sits at the bottom tier despite a draw. Requiring an own goal to salvage a point at home a few days after CCL elimination at the ends of a Panamanian club has tempered the early-season excitement. The Revs finished their first game under Brad Friedel with nine men, Minnesota still can't defend and SKC had finishing issues—again—and was shut out by visiting NYCFC at Children’s Mercy Park.

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