It's tough to get a true read on the MLS power structure, with two of the top teams focused on Concacaf Champions League play and a few others who have yet to have a true home game, but we can get a sense of whose glass is half full–and whose is not.

By Brian Straus
April 10, 2018

For at least one more week, the biggest games involving MLS clubs are taking place beyond MLS. Tuesday night, Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls will try to secure tickets to the Concacaf Champions League finals in semifinal deciders against Mexico’s most iconic teams—Club América and Chivas de Guadalajara—respectively.

This isn’t unprecedented. In 2007, 2008, 2013 and 2017, MLS produced two regional semifinalists. But no finalists emerged. This time does feel a bit different, however. Toronto and New York haven’t lucked or stumbled or Concacafed their way this far. They’ve both already eliminated Mexican opposition, and they’re in decent shape heading into Tuesday’s second legs. They’re on the verge of something historic. Understandably, that diverts a decent chunk of the spotlight from March and April MLS matches, which can be entertaining on their own but tough to fit into a larger narrative as teams try to find their way.

Until TFC and NYRB are knocked out, or until one of them lifts the new-look, yet-to-be-revealed CCL trophy, they’re going to continue to prioritize the continental tournament. Toronto asked that last weekend’s game against D.C. United be rescheduled. The league champs still have played only three MLS matches (the same number as the Seattle Sounders, whose CCL run ended in the quarters). New York, meanwhile, is fielding second-string lineups in its MLS contests, content to grind out a few points here or there.

Until teams from the biggest markets in the USA and Canada start focusing on the MLS campaign—and until we don’t have a situation where some teams have played half as many games as others—it serves no purpose to draw any conclusions about the season so far. Just about every team is still trying to figure itself out, and where it stands in the pecking order. There have been injuries, new coaches learning the landscape and inexplicable VAR applications. There are clubs that still haven’t played a home game. It feels like a dress rehearsal.

Tiers aren’t obvious when the best teams’ eyes are elsewhere, when 16 of 23 clubs are within a game of .500, and when a more-than-half-the-league-gets-in playoff format gives coaches ample time to experiment. But six weeks into the season, we’ve at least watched a few games and can see who looks good (and who doesn’t). So this week’s power ranking tiers will start there.

Looking good tier

Atlanta United (4-1-0), New England Revolution (3-1-1), New York City FC (4-0-1), Sporting Kansas City (4-1-1)

No team in MLS goes for the jugular like Atlanta, which has bounced back from a befuddling season-opening loss with four straight wins, including Saturday’s 5-0 dismantling of LAFC. The streak has coincided with coach Tata Martino’s pivot to a 3-5-2.

Atlanta’s biggest test will come next Sunday in a top-of-the-East clash with NYCFC, which also has a Wednesday game against Real Salt Lake to negotiate. NYC’s performance without David Villa has been impressive, but this week would be a good time for the Spanish talisman, who’s been struggling with calf and groin issues, to return.

SKC is on a five-game unbeaten run and deserves plaudits for two straight shutouts, while New England is the surprise entry in this tier thanks to a 3-0-1 run under new coach Brad Friedel. The Revs had the benefit of early red cards issued to its last two opponents. But like Atlanta, they hit the gas and got the job done, and they’ve refused to allow the Lee Nguyen dispute to become a distraction. That’s the sign of a maturing team.


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The glass-half-full tier

Columbus Crew (3-2-1), LA Galaxy (2-2-1), New York Red Bulls (2-2-0), Orlando City (2-2-1), Real Salt Lake (2-2-1), Toronto FC (1-2-0), Vancouver Whitecaps (3-2-1)

The Crew have lost two straight, but were statistically dominant and unlucky falling to Vancouver and then Chicago, which scored on its only shot on target in Saturday’s 1-0 win. This is still a half-full situation in Columbus, at least on the field.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was unable to repeat his second-half heroics in his second game for the Galaxy, and he probably would appreciate something other than coming on with a two-goal deficit as he works himself into starting condition. But this team still has upside, as well as a summer transfer window to look for some help in the back. Orlando got a big boost from a controversial penalty kick call against Portland, but now has won two in a row and may be getting the hang of things with newcomers Sacha Kljestan and Justin Meram.

RSL has kind of rebounded from its LAFC debacle with two wins in three, and Vancouver—despite Saturday’s loss at RSL—has been tough to beat.

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The glass-half-empty tier

Chicago Fire (1-2-1), Colorado Rapids (1-1-2), FC Dallas (1-0-3), Los Angeles FC (2-2-0), Minnesota United (2-3-0), Montreal Impact (2-3-0), San Jose Earthquakes (1-2-1)

As exciting as they are on the attack, LAFC’s defensive issues have been exposed in loss to LA and Atlanta. This team always was going to be a work in progress for Bob Bradley. Chicago stopped the bleeding with Saturday’s win over the Crew, but the Fire still are a squad in flux—as indicated by Bastian Schweinsteiger’s shuttling between defense and midfield.

Dallas is unbeaten, but also only 1-0-3 through four home games. Minnesota has lost two straight by shutout after a promising start and Colorado, Montreal and San Jose have had uneven starts under new coaches.

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Not looking good tier

D.C. United (0-3-2), Houston Dynamo (1-2-1), Philadelphia Union (1-1-2), Portland Timbers (0-3-2), Seattle Sounders (0-3-0)

Houston has lost two straight at home and in between blew a two-goal lead against a poor D.C. side. That opening rout of Atlanta seems like it happened last season. Meanwhile, Philadelphia can’t score and is 0-1-2 after winning its season opener. It needs to win games like Saturday’s against visiting San Jose. Union playmaker Borek Dockal is still trying to find his groove.

Portland’s loss to Orlando was just agonizing, and it remains winless under new coach Gio Savarese. Seattle and D.C. were idle, with the big news concerning the latter surrounding Monday’s late report that California billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong was set to buy in to the club at a substantial price. Perhaps DCU’s spot in the bottom tier isn’t permanent.

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