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MLS tier rankings: Countdown to kickoff

We're bring in a national voice to give a larger perspective.

Last Updated
5 min read

Editor's note: This is the first of what will become a regular feature in which national MLS writer Ryan Rosenblatt ranks the teams by tier. Enjoy!

A new MLS season is upon us and I have been assigned the lovely task of trying to sort through all 29 teams because, as we all know, this is a reasonable and predictable league where February narratives often hold strong through December.

Despite the unpredictability endemic to the league, it is becoming increasingly easy to sort out the clubs that have it together and those who don’t. Organizational stability, year-to-year turnover and available resources are separating the haves from the have-nots. And then there are the 20-plus teams in the middle engaging in their annual chaos contest.

How do the teams stack up as we get ready to kick off 2024? Let’s tier them all (teams in alphabetical order within each tier).

MLS Cup contenders

Atlanta United

Columbus Crew

FC Cincinnati

Seattle Sounders

Each of these teams has won MLS Cup or the Supporters’ Shield in the last six years, so there’s a foundation of success. They’ve also spent big on top-end talent and have a clear method of playing under managers who have been on the job.

The Crew are the reigning champions, have one of the best managers in the league in Wilfried Nancy and have every key player back. Cincy cruised to the Shield last season and while they lost Brandon Vazquez, they got stronger in the midfield and back line. The Sounders added some impressive talent and depth up front and presumably can’t miss chances left and right for a second season in a row. Atlanta may be the least proven of the teams in this tier, but they also may have the best team on paper with great talent that actually makes sense together for the first time in years.

It’s going to take a spectacularly unlucky next eight months or an all-time implosion for these four teams not to be in the mix by the time the playoffs come around.

Good, reliable teams

New England Revolution

Orlando City

Philadelphia Union

Real Salt Lake

St. Louis City

Vancouver Whitecaps

All of these teams know exactly how they want to play, have some depth and are not going to be dragged down by giant holes anywhere on the pitch. What may be missing, though, is those true stars that can take them to another level.

Carles Gil is still begging for some help in New England and we saw the lack of creativity in St. Louis bite them down the stretch. Orlando was not quite as good as their record indicated a year ago and RSL is the team with the league’s longest playoff streak right now, but there’s a reason they haven’t been a Cup contender at any point in there. 

Philly and Vancouver are the teams that could really take a leap if ownership opens up the checkbook. We’ve seen them play really well before, but the best teams in the league just have a little more than them and it’s hard to close that gap on the cheap.

Potentially elite

Inter Miami


Minnesota United

New York City FC

New York Red Bulls

It wouldn’t be a shock if any of these teams are holding the Shield or Cup later in the year. They all have stupendously high ceilings and are a threat to win every competition. They all also have at least one potentially fatal flaw.

In LA, there’s a ton of turnover with less than half of last year’s minutes coming back. Minnesota are (maybe?) hiring a manager the week of their first game. The New York teams will battle questions at striker and youth.

If any of those teams solve those problems, though, they have the elite top-end talent and mix of players that you can envision them wiping the floor with the league.

Oh, and I don’t know if you heard about this little club called Inter Miami that MLS refuses to acknowledge, but they have many very good players who are also very old.

No easy points

FC Dallas

Houston Dynamo

Nashville SC

Sporting Kansas City

If the tier above this is the high-ceiling clubs, this one is all the high-floor sides. They may not win big, but they all have enough sorted out that they aren’t going to be an embarrassment.

No club typifies this place better than Nashville, where they are so solid and strong at the back that points are never a problem. Reliably running off full points, on the other hand, are hard to reliably come by when your attack is Hany Mukhtar and a prayer for a third year in a row.

SKC will be good when they get the whole crew on the field together, but history says that won’t be often and both Texas clubs have instilled a level of organizational competence.

You’ve got problems

CF Montréal

Chicago Fire

Colorado Rapids

D.C. United

LA Galaxy

Portland Timbers

San Jose Earthquakes

The Galaxy might have the best front four in MLS and they also might have the worst defense so at least their fans' frustration will come with some entertainment.

Chicago, Colorado and D.C. are all handing new managers unexceptional rosters.

The Timbers also gave their new boss an unexceptional roster, but they’re in a unique place because they were in a pretty good position to build a good team when last season ended. Instead of a productive offseason, they hired Phil Neville and most of the holes from November are just as gaping in February.

All these teams can feel better than Montréal, though. Not only are they bad, but they’ve never really been good before. This is simply who they are.

If one team in this group is going to flirt with optimism, it will be San Jose. They took a step forward last season and they should be even more comfortable in Luchi Gonzalez’s system this year. It’s too bad John Fischer was too busy trying to make every baseball fan and city politician hate him to open up the checkbook for the Quakes.

This could get really ugly

Austin FC

Charlotte FC

Toronto FC

The top tier is defined by recent success, which makes Toronto’s place here all the more astounding. They were one of those triumphant clubs not too long ago, but they took the Wooden Spoon last year and didn’t make a single signing of significance this winter.

Austin decided to mostly run it back too, betting that their 2022 success was more reflective of the state of the team than their 2021 and 2023 messes. Just because dumber bets have paid off doesn’t mean you should put your money on this one.

At least Charlotte tried this winter, jettisoning multiple Designated Players and signing multiple prized targets while continuing to push for Luciano Rodríguez, who would cost a pretty penny. The depth of talent still doesn’t appear to be there, nor is there a clear strategy to how this squad will come together, but credit for trying.

Ryan Rosenblatt has been covering MLS for over a decade. He currently writes ESPNFC's Power Rankings column.