Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Ranking all 29 MLS teams by tier for 2024

Doyle Tiers - 2.23.24 update

As is now tradition, my final piece of season preview coverage starts with a tip of the cap to the great Zach Lowe for the inspiration, courtesy of his Annual Tiers of the NBA opus.

What follows are not hard-and-fast Power Rankings, per se, but rather something a little looser in terms of talent level, cohesion, chemistry and all the et ceteras that make teams tick (or not).

These teams are mostly in the order I think they'll finish, but what really matters is the tier designation.

Tier 1: Trophy Favorites

These are the teams that I expect to win some sort of trophy this year, be it Concacaf Champions Cup, Leagues Cup, MLS Cup, US Open Cup or the Supporters’ Shield. And Columbus will be competing for Campeones Cup on top of all that, so… yeah. These guys have got to add something to their cabinet this year or I think they’ll rightly be disappointed.

Is Wilfried Nancy rewriting the MLS meta? In years past we’ve seen great, gorgeous possession teams either flame out in the playoffs (2019 LAFC) or dial it back and become more pragmatic en route to winning the Cup (2018 Atlanta, 2021 NYCFC).

Not Columbus. When they went into a little down spell in late summer, you know what they did? They went after the ball – and committed to keeping it – even harder. And they rode that ethos straight through the playoffs and into a legendary performance in MLS Cup, where they absolutely battered an overwhelmed LAFC side. That included this masterpiece:

I think they’ll just keep doing that, and because Nancy’s so great at developing players, I think they’ll have the depth and legs to compete across virtually every front. Add in elite top-end talent and an open-ish DP slot (they can move Darlington Nagbe onto a TAM deal and bring in another DP any time the window’s open), and this team’s kind of looking like a juggernaut-in-waiting.

My Worry: The last time we felt like that about the Crew, when they were coming off an MLS Cup win in 2020, they face-planted and missed the playoffs entirely.

Different coach, (mostly) different players, different era – so I’m not actually worried about this. I just couldn’t find anything legitimate to pick at.

First-Choice XI

3-4-2-1: Schulte; Amundsen, Camacho, Moreira; Yeboah, Nagbe, Morris, Farsi; Matan, Rossi; Cucho

The Herons made magic in Leagues Cup, then struggled down the stretch last year when Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba got hurt. They couldn’t create chances consistently and the defense was not solid enough to provide cover and grind out 1-0 wins. The magic had run out.

So they went out and brought in Luis Suárez (26g/17a in about 4,600 minutes for Gremio last year across all competitions) and Julian Gressel (annually one of the leading chance creators in MLS). And they got veteran CB Nicolás Freire, who was a rock along the Pumas UNAM backline for half a decade (and we know, based on a ton of evidence, that success in Liga MX translates to MLS success at a high level).

I understand everyone’s had some fun at their expense for the poor results during the preseason odyssey, but c’mon. Messi’s the greatest player of all time, has won virtually every trophy he’s ever competed for (only the Coupe de France, US Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield have eluded him thus far), and even with a couple of injuries already, this roster is freaking stacked.

There will be some bumps – their inability to get runners in behind was the one thing from preseason that really concerned me – but are we really betting against Messi and Suárez in MLS?

One more note: I think their roster crunch is solved with the sale of Gregore to Botafogo and the looming parting of ways with Coco Jean (and if that means Robert Taylor and DeAndre Yedlin are still around, then I’m much less concerned about getting runners in behind). Add in the possible arrival of Federico Redondo, and… yeah. I’m not going to fall into the trap of underrating Messi. There are 28 other coaches in MLS who would kill for this level of talent.

My Worry: Maybe Suárez really is broken. If that’s the case, then that puts a lot of pressure on Leo Campana, who hasn’t exactly been a pillar of good health.

The other big issue is Sergio Busquets, who has been the greatest d-mid in the history of the game when his team has 70% possession and in need of major protection when his side’s chasing. That’s become axiomatic now that he’s in his mid-30s, and a huge portion of the early season is going to be dedicated to the young central midfielders on the roster figuring out when to run for Busquets, and where.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: Callender; Alba, Avilés, Kryvtsov, Yedlin; Gómez, Busquets, Gressel; Taylor, Suárez, Messi

Cincy lost more this offseason than I expected with four starters departing via one mechanism or another. But they patched those holes both from within MLS – Miles Robinson and Corey Baird are two of the bigger free-agent signings in league history – and by going out on the market and making the types of signings they’re basically batting 1.000 on since Chris Albright and Pat Noonan came to town.

Having that kind of stability in the decision-making tree has trickled down to stability at the core of the roster, where last year’s Shield champs are still as solid as they come. Luciano Acosta was the MVP; Matt Miazga was the Defender of the Year; Roman Celentano remains solid as hell in goal; and Aaron Boupendza looks like one of the preseason Golden Boot favorites.

Also, I wouldn’t be at all shocked if Cincy are a little tidier in possession than they were for big chunks of last year. Baird, who will finally be playing as a second forward (his natural position) should play a large role in that, as should new central midfielder Pavel Bucha, who’s drawn preseason raves.

My Worry: Off-field stuff with Boupendza seems like a real concern. He had to be disciplined by Noonan at one point last year, and he had some, uh, unpleasantness back home in Gabon, and the guy’s just got an “expect the unexpected” kind of vibe.

I also think the whole thing could need a significant tune-up mid-season if/when they sell Álvaro Barreal. He’s such a key piece of everything they do that removing him could create a sort of failure cascade in which everyone else in the attack becomes 15% less efficient.

First-Choice XI

3-4-1-2: Celentano; Murphy, Miazga, Robinson; Barreal, Bucha, Nwobodo, Orellano; Acosta; Boupendza, Baird

Tier 2: Elite Contenders

These are the teams that have the pieces – or in LAFC’s case, will have the pieces – and the foundation to go out there and win something. If they do so, nobody should be surprised by it. If they don’t manage to win, nobody should be too shocked.

But if they’re outright bad? Then yeah, that’d be shocking.

I went back and forth with myself about where I wanted to put Atlanta in this group and decided this was the best fit. It might feel weird since the Five Stripes have essentially been a meme team since 2020, but their overall talent is maybe second only to Miami, and their two windows last year were so damn good that I’m expecting they hit it out of the park with their new signings this winter.

By the time that second window had closed, they’d given their No. 10, Thiago Almada, a ton of toys to play with on both wings and up top, as well as giving him a ball-winning bodyguard in Tristan Muyumba. This winter they upgraded the spot next to Muyumba by adding Polish international d-mid Bartosz Slisz and signing veteran Dax McCarty via free agency, replaced Miles Robinson with Norwegian international CB Stian Gregersen, and upgraded Brad Guzan by signing Josh Cohen in goal.

The defense still isn’t going to be great, I don’t think. But this attack could score 80 goals.

My Worry: This attack could score 80 goals if Almada stays happy and Giorgos Giakoumakis stays healthy. The types of teams interested in Almada right now are the types of teams that usually get their man, and the kid has made no secret of the fact he wants to head to Europe.

The other looming worry I have is maybe Gonzalo Pineda just isn’t quite up to it as a tactician. I think we saw some good things down the stretch last year, but this team conceded eight goals in three games during their Round One elimination at the hands of Columbus in the playoffs. And it wasn’t just a personnel issue.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Cohen; Wiley, Abram, Gregersen, Lennon; Slisz, Muyumba; Silva, Almada, Lobjanidze; Giakoumakis

The case for the first entrant from the West is open and shut:

  • Their underlying and boxscore numbers defensively last year were elite, so they brought everyone back and can realistically expect growth from a few of their academy kids to boot (I am very high on Reed Baker-Whiting and Josh Atencio in particular).
  • Their underlying attacking numbers were pretty good, but their boxscore numbers were bad. So they targeted two specific upgrades (Young DP left winger Pedro de la Vega and free agent No. 9 Danny Musovski) to address their two biggest needs.

Everything about the way Seattle were structured last year worked. They just lacked wingers with the ability to consistently eliminate fullbacks off the dribble and provide the final ball. That is going to be de la Vega’s primary function this season and beyond.

As for Musovski, I think he’s third on the depth chart to start the season, but I also expect him to see north of 2,000 minutes across all competitions. Brian Schmetzer will not have any hesitation rotating him, Jordan Morris and Raúl Ruidíaz, and I think there’s a decent chance we see some formational flexibility as well (the 3-5-2 is certainly a club that should be in Schmetzer’s bag again this year).

My Worry: Is de la Vega good enough to be that guy? If he’s not, this is still a 50-point team. If he is… well, I don’t think they’d precisely be favorites to win any particular trophy. But they’d have to be in every discussion.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Frei; Nouhou, Ragen, Yeimar, A. Roldan; João Paulo, Atencio; de la Vega, Rusnák, C. Roldan; Morris

I had convinced myself Orlando would go out this offseason and make a splash for the kind of No. 10 that could catapult them from a very good 63-point side into one that tops 70 points and heads into the season as an apex predator.

It was not to be. They instead signed Sounders legend Nico Lodeiro as an MLS free agent and spent their DP slot on Colombian international No. 9 Luis Muriel to replace Duncan McGuire. Except… McGuire’s still in town. Blackburn’s inability to do simple paperwork has left Orlando with, depending upon your point of view, either an embarrassment of riches or a logjam that’s bound to lead to some discontent.

Even with this offseason not going to script – either the one I’d imagined for them or the one they’d intended – this team still looks really, really good to me in large part because Muriel is the type of No. 9 who obviates a lot of the need for an elite No. 10. The Atalanta legend has been in about the 95th percentile globally of chance creation stats among center forwards for the past decade, and given the attacking talent around him (it’s a good bet that two of Facundo Torres, Iván Angulo and Martín Ojeda will be out there at all times, and it’s also a good bet that Muriel and McGuire will play together at least a little bit), I’m pretty sure the Lions are gonna eat.

The other big offseason move was bringing in center back David Brekalo as a starter. It was a necessary addition and, on paper, a good one.

My Worry: A new No. 9, a new No. 10 and a new CB. That’s a lot of changes up the spine of the team, even if they’re understandable changes. Chemistry carried Orlando to several wins they maybe shouldn’t have otherwise picked up last year. Can the same thing happen again in 2024?

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Gallese; Santos, Jansson, Brekalo, Thorhallsson; Araújo, Cartagena; Angulo, Lodeiro, Torres; Muriel

I am absolutely ok with Philly keeping the gang together – they’ve returned nearly 98% of last year’s minutes – and giving them one last shot at Cup (any Cup!) glory. This group has earned it.

The argument for them is the same as it’s always been:

  • They have elite talent at goalkeeper, on the backline and d-mid.
  • They have very good talent everywhere else.
  • They can expect growing contributions from their homegrown cadre.
  • They play with clarity and commitment from the top of the roster to the bottom.

That clarity and commitment have allowed head coach Jim Curtin to plug and play new options almost at will with little drop-off. Even last year, which felt like a down season in a lot of ways, saw Philly collect 55 points and post a +16 goal differential, which was tied for fourth-best in the league.

If they get any sort of two-way growth from Jack McGlynn, this group might be a tier too low.

My Worry: McGlynn might not have that jump in him for one, and for two, last year was a STRUGGLE for Mikael Uhre. The Danish DP No. 9 did all the typical stretch-the-field stuff, but couldn’t finish plays off at a high enough level in the biggest moments.

And that’s what it’s come down to for this group: time and again, in the biggest games, the guys who are supposed to be Philly’s best players (Uhre, Dániel Gazdag, Julián Carranza, Andre Blake) haven’t been match-winners.

This will be their last year, as a collective, to shed that label.

First-Choice XI

4-4-2 diamond: Blake; Wagner, Elliott, Glesnes, Mbaizo; Martínez; McGlynn, Gazdag, Bedoya; Uhre, Carranza

I’ve got them outside the top 10 in my power rankings to start the season, as they’ve just lost too much institutional know-how from the group that made the past two MLS Cups (famously winning in 2022 in a fashion I still can’t wrap my head around). I mean, I understand Carlos Vela isn’t who he was five years ago, and it‘s probably time to move on from him unless he’s willing to take a non-DP contract. But he was still an elite chance creator in 2023:

FbRef - Vela scouting report

It’s going to take some time to figure out how to replace that (no formal update on Vela, by the way). And Giorgio Chiellini, Kellyn Acosta and Diego Palacios. And, depending upon how much rust Hugo Lloris is sporting, maybe Maxime Crépeau, too.

Nonetheless, I am bullish on LAFC to improve as the season goes along because I think they’ve kept two DP slots open for a reason (“reason” kind of rhymes with “Griezmann”). By the stretch run, I suspect the Black & Gold will be a wagon.

In the meantime, they still have a collection of high-level talent at most spots. And while their depth chart is littered with kids, most of those kids – Nathan Ordaz, Mateusz Bogusz, David Martínez, Tomás Ángel – have shown plenty of reasons for optimism.

Oh, I also love how Eddie Atuesta’s back, even if I think we’re more likely to see him playing as a No. 8 instead of his old role as a regista at the back point of the 4-3-3 (still Ilie’s job for now).

My Worry: Dénis Bouanga massively overperformed his xG last year and LAFC still barely crested 50 points. What happens if he regresses this year? What happens if neither Cristian Olivera nor any of the other young attackers consistently puts the ball into the back of the net? What if Lloris really is cooked? Will the summer reinforcements arrive in time?

On top of all that, LAFC had become pretty one-dimensional by the time the playoffs arrived last year. I’m not saying they should try to turn back the clock to 2019, but they need to figure out how to use the ball against the best teams at least a little bit.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: Lloris; Campos, Long, Murillo, Hollingshead; Atuesta, Ilie, Tillman; Bouanga, Ordaz, Olivera

Yeah, I’m going to put the Red Bulls in this category. Playing the way they played last year – the way they controlled games and generated chances – they were more like a 52-to-55-point team. Their 43 points were the absolute floor.

Even while scraping along that floor, they still buried Charlotte (a team with some momentum) in the Wild Card round, then pushed the Shield winners in the second leg of Round One before blowing it. It wasn’t a successful year by any stretch, but it definitely wasn’t a “this team’s dead and buried” season, either. They were smart not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

So, what did RBNY need? An elite chance creator, a bit of chemistry, some stability in their overall approach and a chunk of good luck in front of goal.

Emil Forsberg – the biggest signing RBNY have made since the Thierry Henry/Rafa Márquez/Tim Cahill era – is that chance creator, and chemistry should come from having kept most of this group together for the past year. Stability in their approach should come from having Sandro Schwarz as their head coach from the jump with no outside expectations of a move (that loomed over Gerhard Struber from the moment he set foot in Harrison).

As for good luck in front of goal… you can’t really buy that. But you can buy a new No. 9, and sources say the Red Bulls are still on the hunt for one of those.

Even if they don’t land one until the summer, I like this group for a significant year-over-year jump.

My Worry: Forsberg is one elite piece (probably). Will Dante Vanzeir get there in Year 2? I’m not counting on that. Will Lewis Morgan return to what he was in 2022? I’m not expecting it. Will any of the other attackers on the roster turn into lethal goalscorers? I’d be surprised. Will the No. 9 they’re searching for on the transfer market have a Forsberg-type profile? Almost certainly not.

RB Global really has shown some ambition this window with the acquisitions of Forsberg, Dennis Gjengaar and Noah Eile. But the Harrison branch of the office is still ballin’ on a budget compared to MLS’s heaviest hitters.

First-Choice XI

4-2-2-2: Coronel; Tolkin, S. Nealis, Reyes, Duncan; Amaya, Edelman; Forsberg, Morgan; Manoel, Vanzeir

Ok, here goes:

  • The Revs were on a 65-point pace last year before the mid-season coaching implosion.
  • They have added pieces to strengthen the defense and wings.
  • Their track record with goalkeepers suggests we should all be hugely optimistic about Henrich Ravas.
  • Both Noel Buck and Esmir Bajraktarevic look ready to contribute to winning at a high level.
  • They have a veteran midfield that fits together; teams with veteran midfields that fit together don’t drop stupid points.

On top of all that, new head coach Caleb Porter excels at the very thing (putting in an organized and structured defensive scheme out of a standard 4-2-3-1) the Revs had mostly lacked over the past few years. For a team with as much veteran talent as this one, they were weirdly gappy and prone to getting run out on in transition.

It’s easy to see a path to title contention for this group.

My Worry: If you’re going into the season with Giacomo Vrioni and Bobby Wood as the entirety of your No. 9 depth chart, are you really going to contend for titles? There just isn’t a very long list of MLS teams who’ve won meaningful things without a top-tier No. 9.

If it’s clear by midseason Vrioni ain’t it, will ownership make the necessary moves to clear him out and bring in someone like, oh I don’t know, Adam Buksa?

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Ravas; Jones, Romney, Kessler, Lima; Kaye, Polster; Chancalay, C. Gil, Bajraktarevic; Vrioni

Tier 3: High-Upside Mystery Box

You could talk me into anything from a deep playoff run and Shield contention to a 40-point season (and a complete rebuild next winter) for everyone here.

For what it’s worth, the parity of the league is such that a buddy of mine suggested every single MLS team belongs in this category. It’s hard to argue that point.

Technically, I should have them as title contenders since I think they’re pretty clear favorites to win the Canadian Championship again. That is a significant piece of hardware that gets the ‘Caps an early jump on their season (this time it was a Concacaf Champions Cup 4-1 aggregate loss to Tigres UANL in which Vancouver looked organized and promising, but rusty and lacking a cutting-edge in the final third).

As befits a team that did very well across the board last season, there were minimal changes to the ‘Caps’ roster this winter. As of now, they’re bringing back 86.6% of last year’s minutes, a number that would jump to over 90% if they can figure out a way to spring Richie Laryea from Nottingham Forest jail.

Consider that to be a wager on team chemistry and collective spirit. I don’t think it’s a bad one.

My Worry: We saw it against Tigres in last year’s Leagues Cup and last week’s CCC, and against LAFC in last year’s playoffs: Vancouver’s top-end attackers can not match the top-end attackers of the continent’s biggest teams in the biggest games.

First-Choice XI

3-4-1-2: Takaoka; Blackmon, Veselinović, Brown; Martins, Cubas, Schöpf, Raposo; Vite; White, Gauld

Sporting got healthy 10 games into last season and proceeded to pick up about 1.7 points per game from there on out, which translates to about 58 points throughout the season. They then canonized that pace by strangling the Quakes in the Wild Card and then absolutely burying St. Louis in Round One of the Western Conference playoffs.

The vast majority of that team is back. The central defense is sorted, depth has been added in attack, and there will be no adjustment period for Nemanja Radoja at d-mid this year. It should all just work from the start at something close to that 1.7 ppg pace.

My Worry: Seven of the projected starting XI are 30+ with four of those guys (Alan Pulido, Johnny Russell, Andreu Fontàs and Tim Melia) into/approaching – or even past, in Melia’s case – their mid-30s.

Old teams get injured. Old teams run out of gas. Old teams need subs and squad rotation to last through the 10-month, potentially 50-game grind of a season that is MLS in this day and age. In all honesty, I think a huge reason they were fresh and fit for the stretch run and playoffs is because they were so broken and battered to start the season, which prevented manager Peter Vermes from overworking his guys.

Vermes has a lot of virtues as a manager. He’s still yet to learn the power of subs and squad rotation.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: Melia; Leibold, Fontàs, Rosero, Davis; Thommy, Radoja, Walter; Sallói, Pulido, Russell

You could tell me anywhere from third to 12th in the East for NYCFC and I’d buy it. Here’s the case for third:

  • Once they had close to a full squad for the stretch run last year, they became very tough to beat (one loss in their final eight).
  • They have an obvious hierarchy at ‘keeper and along the backline.
  • They’ve added both proven talent and high-upside young pieces to the attack.
  • They have actual No. 9s, which means we’ll get to see Talles Magno back at left wing.

No one should mistake this for the glory days under Patrick Vieira, Dome Torrent and Ronny Deila – this group still has too many unanswered questions (and to be clear, the efficacy of head coach Nick Cushing is one of those). But now they’ve pushed the Jovan Mijatović deal across the finish line, CFG’s transfer fee outlay for this roster will top $20 million from just the past two windows.

There’s a lot of talent here.

My Worry: If Sporting are a bit too old, then NYCFC are probably a bit too young – they’ve got exactly one guy over the age of 26 projected to be in the starting lineup. Guys like James Sands (23), Santiago Rodríguez (24) and Talles Magno (21) are all grizzled vets. In this league and most others, young teams may play good soccer for long stretches, but they tend not to win stuff.

The other worry is that maybe Cushing’s not the guy. The poor results of the past year-and-a-half are understandable and largely explained by personnel decisions (they sold Taty Castellanos in the middle of 2022 and didn’t replace him for a year, then let virtually every other veteran walk ahead of last season).

But he hasn’t shown the ability to mold a team into something more than the sum of its parts, and player development since he took over has been more miss than hit. With such a young roster, that’s a giant red flag.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Freese; O’Toole, Risa, Thiago, Ilenič; Sands, Parks; Talles, Rodríguez, Fernández; Bakrar

I might be too high on this team?

People keep giving me side-eye when I talk about how high my expectations are for the Loons this year, given that as of this writing, they don’t officially have a manager (and as of you reading this, you now know their manager is going to be 32-year-old Manchester United assistant Eric Ramsay). It’s hard to expect the type of cohesion that’s necessary for winning games if your preseason’s come with a placeholder blowing the whistle.

But they have a full year of Emanuel Reynoso and Teemu Pukki. They have, hopefully, a healthy Robin Lod. They have Bongi Hlongwane ready to go nuclear. They have upgraded their deep-lying midfield and their backline, and hopefully they will be able to coax a bounce-back season from Dayne St. Clair.

Even if St. Clair doesn’t bounce back, a full year of this attack should give the Loons plenty of 4-3 scorchers:

They might be the most fun team in the West.

My Worry: They might also get a new manager who comes in and decides he needs to tear the whole thing down, or he can’t build around an older No. 9 and a doesn’t-defend-hardly-at-all No. 10, and then the whole thing goes up in smoke.

A front office and coaching situation rife with so many unknowns (both Ramsay and CSO Khaled El-Ahmad are new to MLS) doesn’t inspire confidence in the stability of the roster and product on the field.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: St. Clair; Rosales, Tapias, Eriksson, Taylor; Arriaga, Dotson; Hlongwane, Reynoso, Lod; Pukki

They’ll still have one of the best defenses in the league, and still have one of the best players in the league in Hany Mukhtar. Providing the slump he hit in the back-half of 2023 doesn’t carry over into 2024, anyway.

Sam Surridge should improve with a full year in town to get to know his teammates. I like the Tyler Boyd acquisition quite a bit – if he stays healthy, I think he’s pretty clearly the best third attacker Nashville will have had in the Hany era.

They should be very good on set pieces again. Maybe even great.

My Worry: They have bumped against the ceiling of what’s possible with Gary Smith’s game model, which has repeatedly crumbled under the weight of a thousand opposing passes. And the players know it:

There is… I’m not going to call it discontent swirling around Nashville, but it’s something close to that. Especially because when they tried to use the ball this preseason it didn’t go well, and Smith then went right back to the old game model.

Making all of this exponentially more difficult is the loss of Dax McCarty in free agency. Dax is one of the best this league’s ever seen at playing third-line passes to playmakers in the pockets, and it’s probably not a surprise Hany’s effectiveness waned right around when Dax ran out of gas last year.

First-Choice XI

4-4-1-1: Willis; Lovitz, Maher, Zimmerman, Moore; Shaffelburg, Godoy, Davis, Boyd; Mukhtar; Surridge

I had wondered, following Columbus’ MLS Cup win, if Wilfried Nancy’s approach would spawn imitators. What Dallas have shown in preseason is they’re willing to step to the plate and take a big swing at being the Western Conference version of Nancy-ball.

In some ways, this marks a departure for head coach Nico Estévez, who has focused primarily on positional play out of a 4-3-3 in his two years on the sideline. In other ways, this is sort of a natural evolution, as both Estévez's highly-regimented positional play and Nancy’s more flowing, daring approach are ball-dominant. So for Dallas, in some ways, this is just a mentality shift from using the ball as a means of controlling the game and mitigating risk to using the ball as a means of blowing the game open by inviting opponents upfield and then eliminating them.

It’s going to be fascinating to see how it unfolds. I am certain there will be some “when playing it out of the back goes wrong” moments early in the season, and there might be a lack of top-end chance creation. But I bet it’ll all be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

My Worry: A mentality change, a formation change, questions about depth along the backline and fit along the front line, and an injury to their best playmaker? That’s a lot to deal with before the ball’s even been kicked, and none of that even touches on the fact that Jesús Ferreira was almost (but not really almost) sold this winter.

Oh, and they’ve got to integrate a new, record signing in Petar Musa. It’s a lot.

First-Choice XI

3-4-2-1: Paes; Farfan, Tafari, Ibeagha; Sealy, Pomykal, Illarramendi, Arriola; Ferreira, Kamungo; Musa

St. Louis’ success last year was born primarily of two things: Bradley Carnell’s clarity on how he wanted his side to play (and how to execute it), and Roman Bürki’s excellence in goal. The veteran deservedly won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, and I voted Carnell for MLS Coach of the Year (he finished second to Pat Noonan).

Most of the pieces crucial to last year’s expansion success are back, with potential upgrades added at both fullback slots and, perhaps, defensive midfield (if that is indeed Chris Durkin’s long-term home).

I think there will be some justified concern about the team’s overperformance last year. To put it into context: St. Louis beat their xG and expected points numbers, as per American Soccer Analysis, by more in 2023 than what Austin pulled off in 2022. And we saw what regression to the mean meant for Austin last year.

That said, Carnell’s game model is similar to what Jim Curtin does in Philly or Pat Noonan in Cincy and obviously has roots in what every coach has to do in New Jersey. And those teams make the playoffs every single year. St. Louis surely expect to do the same.

My Worry: Back to that regression to the mean bit: we actually saw it happen to St. Louis throughout last season.

  • They went 10W-5L-1D across all competitions for the first three months of the season.
  • They went 8W-12L-4D from June onwards.

Central defense and defensive midfield are particularly large concerns (just go watch those playoff losses to Sporting again if you want a taste of what I mean). And if Bürki regresses to just league average, things could get rugged pretty quickly.

First-Choice XI

4-2-2-2: Bürki; Dyhr, Nilsson, Parker, Totland; Löwen, Durkin; Thórisson, Jackson; Klauss, Adeniran

Riqui + elite wingers” is enough to get me on board for a Galaxy renaissance:

The number of freaking unreal passes he hits that went to waste over the past two years is too damn high. Will Kuntz made it his mission this offseason to rectify that by bringing in two high-level DPs in club-record signing Gabriel Pec and Ghanaian international Joseph Paintsil, who’s been beating the Belgian league like a drum the past couple of years.

They look like great signings. I suspect both will hit, and I think No. 9 Dejan Joveljic will reap the benefits, and I hope Mark Delgado and Gastón Brugman have an injury-free year deep in midfield, and I think Miki Yamane will be an upgrade at right back.

There is real reason to be optimistic about the Galaxy.

My Worry: Until and unless they fix their rest defense – i.e., their shape in deep midfield and the backline when they’re in possession, as well as the overall philosophy on where to take the type of attacking risks that sometimes result in goals, but usually result in turnovers – every loss of possession will be a five-alarm fire. This has been an ongoing issue for the Galaxy for years, and it’s exacerbated by Puig being central to everything they do.

He’s a brilliant player worth building around. He also needs to be hidden defensively to a degree that Greg Vanney & Co. have not previously managed.

Central defense and goalkeeper are also areas of very obvious concern. This team could start stringing together 3-2 losses and not stop until some drastic changes are made from the players to the coaching staff to all points beyond.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Micovic; Aude, Nelson, Yoshida, Yamane; Delgado, Brugman; Paintsil, Puig, Pec; Joveljic

I’m going to give Houston bulletin board material by putting them at the bottom of Tier 3 here, and I hope it fuels them to play as beautifully as what we saw from them last year. I still can’t get over the goal they gave me for my birthday:

Almost every guy involved in that sequence is back, including Coco Carrasquilla. We all thought he’d be sold back to a European team, or maybe to Liga MX giants (Club América were reportedly interested). But Houston have kept him around and kept him happy, and that’s one gigantic W already in the books.

They’ve also got an obvious first-choice group along the backline that was missing until the stretch run last season, and the chemistry of that midfield is just impossible to ignore. However, we might not see it until April if Héctor Herrera’s injury lingers.

My Worry: HH was mostly healthy last year. So far this year… no. Artur was mostly healthy last year. Fingers crossed.

Nelson Quiñones, who was supposed to be the breakout attacking star, is lost for the season with a knee injury. Corey Baird left in free agency and they’re replacing him with Sebastián Ferreira, the DP striker they tried to jettison all of last year.

They opened up another DP slot with the departure of Teenage Hadebe, but didn’t fill it. They don’t really have a backup d-mid. Their biggest offseason acquisition was either Ján Greguš or Gabe Segal.

Coming off last year’s magical season and potentially with two open DP slots, this team had a chance to go HAM in the winter window. They did the opposite of that.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Clark; Escobar, Micael, Sviatchenko, Dorsey; Raines, Artur; Aliyu, Bassi, Carrasquilla; Ferreira

Tier 4: I’ve Got Questions

These are for teams who kind of leave me scratching my head for one reason or another, and who, by and large, probably don’t have the upside to really compete for the biggest prizes.

Evander turned into a pretty good signing throughout last season, while Santi Moreno leveled up and Felipe Mora returned to his pre-injury form. They also did work within the league, getting Kamal Miller for GAM and Maxime Crépeau via free agency. That should be left center back and goalkeeper taken care of for a half-decade.

I would also argue the personnel they have on hand mostly fits new head coach Phil Neville’s preferred 4-2-3-1. Diego Chara and either Cristhian Paredes or Eryk Williamson deep with Evander as a 10, Moreno pinching into the half-space from the right wing and Juan Mosquera bombing forward on the overlap? You’ve got yourself a stew going.

My Worry: Evander and Moreno were both better as free 8s in a 4-3-3 than as a 10 and as a right winger in a 4-2-3-1. Chara is going to be 38 (!!!) in two months. Neither Williamson nor Paredes can stay healthy, while Mora and Dairon Asprilla are both over 30.

Marvin Loría is already hurt, which means there’s no winger depth, and Claudio Bravo is already hurt, which means there’s no left back, period. None of the choices for right center back can defend on the front foot, really, and they’re going to have to given the space Mosquera leaves when he goes on the overlap.

Owner Merritt Paulson reportedly told fans there are two DPs incoming who will be huge signings, and if both of those hit, I might have this team two tiers too low.

But last season ended four months ago and this season starts this weekend.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Crépeau; E. Miller, K. Miller, McGraw, Mosquera; Paredes, Chara; Asprilla, Evander, Moreno; Mora

RSL have made three straight postseasons and have done so while developing young guys with potential into relatively high-level MLS players. Would it shock anyone if Diego Luna or Andrés Gómez won Young Player of the Year this season? I don’t think it should. Both are capable of it based on their own merits and the fact they will get plenty of playing time.

They’ve also got an ownership group that’s been willing to spend: Chicho Arango is one of the best No. 9s in the league, and guys like Gómez, Braian Ojeda, Nelson Palacio and newcomer Matt Crooks didn’t come cheap.

Plus, as long as Pablo Mastroeni’s the head coach, they’ve got their secret weapon:

This team has consistently overperformed both expectations and underlying numbers for years.

My Worry: They fired Mastroeni’s staff out from under him and appointed a new group of assistants. They also moved GM Elliot Fall along and made Kurt Schmid the new (interim) chief soccer officer.

Two DPs (Damir Kreilach and Jefferson Savarino) are gone with no replacements. The center backs were a little bit soft last year, and while I think Crooks will work as an attacker, I suspect they’ll sacrifice a lot of the ball in central midfield by having him out there.

I love Luna, but his inability to beat guys off the dribble and create separation has been an issue that’s impacted his playmaking at this level. Gómez is fun, but was very one-speed last year. The fullbacks both tend to push high at the same time, which can be fun as a neutral, but a slowly unfolding disaster if you’re an RSL fan.

It all feels unmoored.

First-Choice XI

4-4-1-1: MacMath; Katranis, Vera, Glad, Brody; Luna, Ruiz, Ojeda, Gómez; Crooks; Arango

Another year, another overhaul for the Fire. Once again they have put together a team that is better on paper than the one that preceded it, and I will give them extra credit for actually making moves within the league: Kellyn Acosta (free agency) and Andrew Gutman (trade) are almost certainly starters, while Tom Barlow (trade) is an affordable back-up 9 with a history of producing in postseason games (remember those, Fire fans???).

They got themselves a new right center back and a new right back on the international transfer market, and then went out and broke the club record by spending more than $12 million on Belgian No. 9 Hugo Cuypers.

Then they mutually parted ways with Jairo Torres – arguably the league’s worst DP signing ever – which suggests another big move is on the way. Oh, and they shipped Kacper Przybylko to sister club FC Lugano (and for me, that would be such a selling point for signing with the Fire. Imagine you ink a new deal, stink out loud for two years, and then get sent to a club in the foothills of the Swiss Alps right near Milan? On a freaking lake? It’s like a setting from season 3 of “Succession”).

They had themselves a really good offseason and it’s not done yet. Fire fans should be… I’m not gonna say “happy.” I don’t think Fire fans should be happy until they’ve got a home playoff win or two under their belts.

But there should be some cautious optimism that things might be pointed in a more positive direction.

My Worry: They’re still the Fire.

Most of their signings have been misses during the Georg Heitz era, so it’d take a leap of faith to assume he got them all right this time. And while I’d expect some progress from Brian Gutiérrez as a playmaker, he played a lot last year pulling the strings for a team that finished 24th in expected assists and 29th out of 29 in key passes. It’d take a massive individual jump from him to push the entire team into the top half of either of those particular stats, especially considering most of last year was played under Frank Klopas as interim manager. Klopas is back in the full-time gig now, so don’t expect many changes from a tactical perspective.

So yeah, they’re in better shape. I still think it’s more likely they finish in the bottom third of the East than climb up for air.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Brady; Gutman, Czichos, Salquist, Arigoni; Acosta, Navarro; Haile-Selassie, Gutiérrez, Shaqiri; Cuypers

They smartly aborted their run with Maximum Overdrive to hire Laurent Courtois and return to a version of Nancy-ball, which had been so successful in 2021 and 2022 at not just winning games, but at developing players as well. That’s crucial for a Montréal side that’s leaned heavily into the youth movement at home and is always bargain-hunting abroad. There needs to be a culture of internal improvement or this team’s going nowhere.

The happy version of this season probably looks more like 2021 than the heights of 2022. They’ll play either a 3-4-2-1 or a 3-4-1-2 with lots of patience in the build-up, attacking wingbacks and young players getting the nod at multiple spots on the pitch. And throughout all of it, the emphasis will be on being courageous with the ball. We saw it from Nancy’s team in Columbus (and Montréal), and we’ve seen it from Courtois’ teams at the MLS NEXT Pro level as well.

Victor Wanyama back in his orchestrating role. Young locals like Nathan Saliba, Rida Zouhir and Jules-Anthony Vilsaint getting big minutes. Mathieu Choinière, Joel Waterman and Kwadwo Opoku trying to level up. Dominic Iankov and Matías Cóccaro making their bows. Josef Martínez sipping from the fountain of youth, maybe?

It’s potentially a lot of fun.

My Worry: The talent gap between 2022 Montréal and the top of the table was much smaller than folks initially realized.

For 2024? Even with the purchases of Iankov and Cóccaro, it seems like the talent gap this year has significantly increased, and the East has turned into a woodchipper as teams near the top of the conference have spent and spent and spent (and mostly wisely!).

Think about Nancy’s Crew side. I love talking about his tactical approach and ability to develop young players, but also, they spent $10 million on Cucho two summers ago, around $6 million on Diego Rossi last summer, and another $3 million on Marino Hinestroza this winter. And they negotiated Darlington Nagbe’s cap hit down so they can go out and spend big again at virtually any point this year. Want me to talk about Atlanta and Miami now? Or that $20 million NYCFC spent? Or Cincinnati? Chicago spending $12 million on one DP with another probably on the way? Or even the Red Bulls starting to get back into the global transfer market?

What I’m saying is Courtois could do everything right, and Wanyama could be exactly the player he was two years ago, and all the young guys could hit their potential and Iankov could be a stud… and Montréal could still finish 10th. It’s that kind of league now.

First-Choice XI

3-4-1-2: Sirois; Sosa, Waterman, Corbo; Choinière, Wanyama, Piette, Ruan; Iankov; Cóccaro, Opoku

Let’s just focus on the first part of that tweet for now. Here goes:

Relative to expectations, both among the fanbase and among pundits across the league, the Rapids probably had the best winter. Djordje Mihailovic was a top-tier chance creator in this league and fits perfectly at left wing in front of a rugged and relentless three-man central midfield. Putting Djordje there – paying to put Djordje there – limits the weaknesses of playing Cole Bassett as a 10 (playmaking) while emphasizing his strengths (box arrival, field coverage and defense).

We know what Sam Vines can do as a left back in this league, and we can all hope Zack Steffen gets back to his 2018 form. New d-mid Lamine Diack is something of a mystery, but one with a promising CV. Put him and Bassett around Connor Ronan, with Jasper Löffelsend as the top sub, and man… I think I really like that.

Plus they did work in the SuperDraft, ending up with three of the top five picks. Add in Omir Fernandez as a free-agency signing and damn, things actually look nice in Colorado.

My Worry: Now let’s focus on the second part of that tweet:

  1. There is a decent chance Chris Armas just isn’t a great head coach.
  2. There are zero proven goalscorers on this team.

Any time I get out over my skis thinking about what this group’s upside is, I remember they’re spending DP slots on Rafael Navarro and Kévin Cabral. Navarro might still come good, but I think we can probably close the MLS book on Cabral.

It’s hard to win when you’ve got two DPs contributing nothing. And that defense, including Diack and Steffen, is more good in theory than in reality at this point.

There are a lot of guys, up to and including the manager, with a lot of stuff to prove this year.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Steffen; Vines, Maxsø, Bombito, Rosenberry; Diack, Ronan; Mihailovic, Bassett, Lewis; Navarro

The Quakes finally broke me last year, and I am dispensing with my annual tradition of being way too high on them.

I will say, though, that I think it was smart to try to upgrade their defense, and Daniel is probably the best goalkeeper in the league heading into this season. I like the Amahl Pellegrino pick-up even though he’s not at the age profile you usually see coming into the league. Getting Preston Judd for pocket change was a really smart move.

The front line fits together well. The backline should be better. The goalkeeper is a match-winner.

My Worry: The midfield… ehhh. Carlos Gruezo didn’t play like a DP last year and Jackson Yueill hasn’t ever progressed beyond “reliable starter.” Maybe Niko Tsakiris overtakes him this year, or maybe Tsakiris is the No. 10? Right now I’m betting against that – head coach Luchi Gonzalez has said the plan is to sign a DP attacking midfielder and maybe a U22 Initiative attacker on top of that.

If (when?) they do that they’ll be pretty deep and… I don’t know. Maybe I should be higher on this group considering the defensive improvement they already made under Luchi. It was just so lacking in any attacking spark last year that it’s hard to see a path toward the top of the conference.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Daniel; Costa, Rodrigues, Wilson, Akapo; Yueill, Gruezo; Pellegrino, Tsakiris, Espinoza; Ebobisse

Tier 5: More Work Needed

I’m not gonna call them no-hopers, but these four teams need a ton of work.

Between what he did at New Mexico and with the Red Bulls, Troy Lesesne strikes me as a good MLS coach. And I quite like the intra-league moves they made this offseason (provided they’re going to play a 3-4-1-2):

I have said elsewhere that I am weirdly bullish on a D.C. team that has so many questions and so few clear answers. Even the one they had last year – the forward pairing of Christian Benteke and Ted Ku-DiPietro – remains up in the air since it’s not at all clear if Lesesne is going to play with a front two or a front three (he’s used a lot of both during his managerial career).

It does feel, though, that with Ally Mackay as the new CSO and a guy who’s proven he can coach in MLS as the new manager, things are now pointed in a better direction. Maybe that stability is imbuing me with this unfounded optimism.

My Worry: Benteke and another of the DPs, midfielder Mateusz Klich, are in their mid-30s. Their final DP, d-mid Matti Peltola, is just 21 and has never played outside of Finland.

Ku-DiPietro was good in his limited minutes last year. Gabriel Pirani was very bad in limited minutes last year – he was in the first percentile of both assists and expected assists among attacking midfielders and wingers over the past 365 days. Yes, that means 99% of attackers were more productive than he was, and yes, he was by far their biggest transfer outlay this winter at a reported $1.3 million.

None of the defenders on the roster played well last year. Pedro Santos is good but old. Alex Bono had a great half-season, but that does nothing to dispel his high highs/low lows past.

They have stacked a ton of ifs. They’ll have to thread a few needles to get this right.

First-Choice XI

3-4-1-2: Bono; McVey, Birnbaum, Herrera; Santos, Klich, Peltola, Stroud; Pirani; Benteke, Ku-DiPietro

Year No. 3 brings in coach No. 3, as Charlotte’s decision to part with Christian Lattanzio eventually happened after a little post-season delay.

In comes Englishman Dean Smith, who had some success starting about a decade ago with Brentford and then Aston Villa, but has seen diminishing returns since then, first with Norwich and then with a brief stop at Leicester City.

What he’s got on his hands is a team that’s been put together basically by committee since Day 1 as Charlotte’s brain trust veered from one coach to another, one game model to another, and one player acquisition philosophy to another. None of it has worked appreciably well, even if 85 combined points and one playoff appearance during the club’s first two years can probably be counted as a success.

I’m not even gonna segue here. I’m just going to post a clip of 15-year-old homegrown Nimfasha Berchimas:

He could get real, first-team minutes this year. He’s that kind of talent.

My Worry: There aren’t a lot of guys who’d be first-choice players on playoff teams on this roster right now. Maybe Enzo Copetti gets there, but he didn’t look it last year. Karol Swiderski is gone and as of now, there’s no DP No. 10 (or 9.5) to replace him. The wingers – including Berchimas – are talented prospects, not productive pros.

The central midfielders are mostly past their prime or, in the case of Nikola Petković, are unproven. The center backs and fullbacks struggled last year.

I think there’s likely to be a full teardown before this team can realistically be built into a playoff contender.

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Kahlina; Uronen, Privett, Malanda, Byrne; Diani, Westwood; Vargas, Arfield, Dejaegere; Copetti

Here’s what I wrote at the end of last season:

The roster construction shortcomings mainly exposed the lack of top-end talent on the wings and up front. The wingers varied from functional (Ethan Finlay) to unplayable (Rodney Redes), while Gyasi Zardes didn’t quite fit with Sebastián Driussi in the way everyone suspected he wouldn’t quite fit with Sebastián Driussi (both guys score their goals with one-time finishes off of box movement).

What was exposed in the game model was an over-reliance on crossing the ball and some pretty catastrophic rest defense, which is to say that for the better part of the season, every single turnover felt like a five-alarm fire headed in the other direction.

I think Diego Rubio makes sense as an attack partner with Driussi. I like Dani Pereira, Jon Gallagher and Owen Wolff. Brad Stuver remains the most underrated shot-stopper in the league.

But I have them down here for a reason.

My Worry: They cleared out some cap room and then brought in… Rubio, Jáder Obrian and Brendan Hines-Ike? They brought in a left back from Brazil’s second tier? Emiliano Rigoni is still taking up a DP slot?

People love to blame the coach when things go wrong – and Josh Wolff was not blameless for last year – but at the core of 2023’s failures was a talent issue. That hasn’t been adequately addressed (even if I could talk myself into something fun like Josh playing Owen as a false winger, a la Coco in Houston or Gavi at Barcelona).

First-Choice XI

4-2-3-1: Stuver; Biro, Väisänen, Cascante, Gallagher; Pereira, Ring; Obrian, Driussi, Wolff; Rubio

The argument for Toronto being good this year is the problems of the past two years come down to one thing: coaching. And that John Herdman is the solution.

In the too-good-to-be-plausible timeline, he gets the Italians to buy in, Latif Blessing to look like the 2019 version of himself, Jonathan Osorio to look like the 2019 version of himself, Deybi Flores to be a ball-winning mad-man behind him, kids like DeAndre Kerr and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty to grab starting spots with both hands, Sean Johnson to turn back the clock a few years, and the defense to look, at the very least, professional.

My Worry: That is so, so so many asks of a roster that was legendarily dysfunctional last year and has made all of three new additions this year (Flores, first overall SuperDraft pick Tyrese Spicer and center back Kevin Long).

And look, maybe it happens, but what have we seen from either Lorenzo Insigne or Federico Bernardeschi to think they care enough to make it happen? It has to come from those guys, mind you, since there are basically zero other match-winners on this roster. The Italians have that talent, but they also have a history of barely showing up – and a winter spent seeding media on both sides of the pond with their desire to be anywhere but Toronto.

Maybe now they’ve had no takers, their professional pride will kick and and they’ll play closer to their potential – and in the process drag this team along with them.

But I doubt it.

First-Choice XI

4-3-3: Johnson; Petretta, Rosted, Long, Marshall-Rutty; Blessing, Flores, Osorio; Insigne, Kerr, Bernardeschi