Atlanta United and NYCFC enjoyed a fierce, entertaining battle against one another, confirming their status in MLS's upper echelon as teams begin to move past the feeling-out phase and into the meat of the season.

By Brian Straus
April 18, 2018

For fans who long for an MLS that more closely resembles Europe’s top leagues, behold: we’re a mere seven weeks into the season, and two clubs have already broken away from the pack.

It’s early, of course. And thanks to parity, roster restrictions, a short 12-team playoff and some very reasonable excuses in Toronto, Seattle and the red half of the New York area, there’s no guarantee that either Atlanta United or NYCFC will still be standing in December. But right now, in mid April, they’re clearly the cream of the MLS crop.

And what a show they put on Sunday afternoon. The 2-2 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium was wild but well-played, tactically engrossing and featured some virtuoso attacking play from Atlanta’s Miguel Almirón and a stunning equalizer by NYCFC’s Alexander Ring.

“I think that is one of the highest, intense games we’ve had, probably in the past year and half this team has been going on. … Two very good teams,” Atlanta and USA defender Greg Garza said.

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It was a quite a show, and it hammered home the fact that the strength of MLS is at the top and bottom of the Eastern Conference. Atlanta, NYCFC and Toronto FC, which is putting its MLS campaign on the back burner while focusing on Concacaf, are the three best teams in the league, and at the moment it’s not particularly close.

For the remainder, it’s a bit of a muddled mess. While the rest of MLS tries to figure itself out, the premium is on getting points where you can find them. Until trends and identities become clearer, perception and potential are the only factors separating teams whose results on a given day seem somewhat random.

So with that, here are this week’s power tiers, where the margin separating teams thins as we descend.

Cream of the crop

Atlanta United (4-1-1), New York City FC (5-0-2), Toronto FC (1-3-0)

Yes, TFC is in the Eastern basement, but the Reds’ CCL run should silence any debate about their place among the MLS elite. Beginning next month, their climb up the conference standings will begin, with the drama surrounding their effort to catch Atlanta and NYCFC sure to be a talking point come autumn.

NYCFC’s point in Atlanta is all the more impressive considering Patrick Vieira’s squad played midweek and traveled, while Tata Martino’s rested and hosted. Playing in Atlanta on short rest shouldn’t be legal.

Both have challenging and intriguing assignments this weekend. NYCFC will take on Portland and the Timbers Army, while Atlanta visits L.A. and gets its first taste of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Feeling OK while putting points on the board

FC Dallas (2-0-3), LA Galaxy (3-2-1), Los Angeles FC (3-2-0), New England Revolution (3-2-1), New York Red Bulls (3-2-0), Orlando City (3-2-1), Sporting Kansas City (4-1-2)

Sporting KC is in first place in the West and Dallas is the league’s only unbeaten team outside The Bronx. Neither has been convincing, especially up front. But it’s better to be addressing those issues from a position of strength, which both can do thanks to decent starts.

New York should be fine as it moves past its CCL disappointment, and LAFC did well to rebound from the hammering it took in Atlanta. Orlando’s attack is clicking—the Lions have won three straight—while the Revs still are doing better than many expected despite Saturday’s loss to Dallas. Lee Nguyen’s absence may be the story outside the Revs locker room, but the squad seems to be handling it well.

The Galaxy can’t be pegged title contenders just yet, but compared to last year, they’re skyhöga.

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Still in neutral

Chicago Fire (1-3-1), Colorado Rapids (2-1-2), Columbus Crew (3-3-1), Portland Timbers (1-3-2), Real Salt Lake (2-3-1), Seattle Sounders (0-3-1), Vancouver Whitecaps (3-3-1)

In April, it’s still fair to gauge teams based on preseason perception and talent on paper. There are reasons some start slow—whether it's injuries, CCL and MLS Cup hangover in Seattle or a new manager in Portland—and plenty of time remaining to meet expectations.

Last weekend, the Timbers got their first win under Giovanni Savarese, while Seattle ended its losing streak with a 2-2 draw in K.C.

For now, it still seems like Chicago and RSL are better than their records. Perhaps they are their records, but they’ve got the potential to be better. Columbus (three straight losses) and Vancouver (one win in five) have hit skids, but both started well and could recover. And the Rapids, from whom not much was expected, have proven to be a difficult out under new coach Anthony Hudson. They’re sound defensively and unbeaten in four.

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The struggle is real

D.C. United (1-3-2), Houston Dynamo (1-2-2), Minnesota United (2-4-0), Montreal Impact (2-4-0), Philadelphia Union (1-2-2), San Jose Earthquakes (1-2-2)

Not all hope is lost in the bottom tier. D.C. won its first game of the season Saturday against Columbus—and played a man down for some 40 minutes—but now face three months on the road before the opening of Audi Field. Minnesota may have found a gem in Darwin Quintero, who scored a beauty in his debut against Portland.

Otherwise, however, these are teams on the skids without obvious answers or excuses. At least there’s still time to find them.

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