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MLS tier rankings: One month in and lots of questions remain

The Sounders took quite a tumble in the second edition of our rankings.

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6 min read

The MLS season is a month old and if it’s folly to try to guess what teams will look like in preseason then what do we call the idiocy of thinking you’ve got a handle on things after just five weeks?

It’s still very early and teams have a long ways to go and if you’re trying to figure out what teams can do to shore things up in the summer transfer window, don’t forget the first transfer window is still open until April 23.

So there’s lots of time, which means lots of change on the horizon, but the points won and lost to this point are forever. How do the teams stack up right now?

MLS Cup contenders

FC Cincinnati

Columbus Crew

Minnesota United

Nobody would be surprised if you told them before the season that MLS Cup ran through Ohio. You’re talking about last year’s Cup and Shield winners, after all. Columbus didn’t lose much from last season’s excellent team and Cincy did a solid job replacing who did depart. Done, dusted, these are your great teams who have looked the part early on this season.

Adding Minnesota to the mix is a bit of a surprise, though. They’ve never finished higher than fourth in the West and didn’t even make the playoffs last season. So how did they get here?

It hasn’t been through big winter signings. Caden Clark has played the most of any newcomer with 187 minutes. It wasn’t top players getting fit either, with Emanuel Reynoso and Bongokuhle Hlongwane playing a combined 77 minutes so far.

The Loons have simply played solid ball, with the departure of Adrian Heath seemingly giving them a bit more openness than they’ve had before. Funnily enough, they’ve done this under an interim coach because they didn’t hire Heath’s permanent replacement in time for opening weekend. Now Eric Ramsay is in charge and we’ll see what he brings to the table, but he’ll have the help of a squad that is getting healthier by the week.

This team was really talented a year ago, and it looks like they might be ready to make good on it.

Almost there

Atlanta United

LA Galaxy


Inter Miami

It wouldn’t be a shock to see any of these teams make the leap into the top tier at some point this season.

LAFC has struggled in the final third, but Olivier Giroud is on his way to help out and they’ll still have a Designated Player slot available. Flip it for the Galaxy, who have the front line sorted out with Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec in to give them arguably the best front four in the league, but they have to sort out the defense. In the case of both LA teams, the path to becoming Cup contenders is clear: make the right moves in the summer.

Nothing has really changed in Atlanta and Miami. The Five Stripes have talent and, on the surface, those players make sense together. Pulling it all together is the next step. Meanwhile Inter just have to figure out how to get their best players on the pitch consistently enough to challenge the top teams.

Good, reliable teams

New York Red Bulls

Philadelphia Union

St. Louis City

Vancouver Whitecaps

Fear not, chaotic good is back with a bang in New Jersey. The Red Bulls have their identity back, but they’re not just a high-octane press. The additions of Noah Eile and Emil Forsberg (unbeknownst to his wife) have done exactly what RBNY hoped, giving them the passing and creativity they have lacked even in some of their better seasons. They’re not one-dimensional, and they are going to be a tough out almost every week.

While the Red Bulls have taken a step up, it appears as if the Union have taken a step back. Jim Curtin has made more with less for a while, but that gets harder to do as time passes and players move on. It looks like Jack McGlynn and Quinn Sullivan are going to have to take big leaps for Philly to compete again, which is probably unfair to ask of 20-year-olds.

As for St. Louis and Vancouver, they are who they are. Neither has a gamebreaking player, but both are well-built and well-drilled. They’ll keep churning out points at a solid clip.

No easy points

Charlotte FC

D.C. United

Houston Dynamo

CF Montréal

Portland Timbers

Real Salt Lake

Seattle Sounders

Sporting Kansas City

Toronto FC

Hello, Charlotte, Toronto and Montréal. All three teams figured to be terrible, but they all hired new managers who are doing a great job instilling a clear system and way of playing. Dean Smith, John Herdman and Laurent Courois might be first, second and third in the way-too-early Manager of the Year race.

D.C. wasn’t expected to be much better and they seem to have hit a home run with their new manager, Troy Lesesne, too. Of course, having Christian Benteke on a heater helps.

Houston and Kansas City are, mostly, what we expected. They’ve got old school MLS guys who are going to make sure their teams are tough to play against, but lack that something special in system or talent to really make waves.

That’s never really been the problem in Seattle, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. No team seems to do as much right and as much wrong at the same time. A little health should fix things and betting on Brian Schmetzer is always the right move so a top four finish in the West still feels more likely than them missing the playoffs, but at some point they’ve got to play one whole, quality soccer game. And then do it again and again.

Finally, RSL will probably be limited by their youth, but they’re also must-watch because of their youth. We knew Diego Luna had the goods, but now they’ve got Andrés Gómez and Fidel Barajas cooking too. These kids are special.

You’ve got problems

Chicago Fire

Colorado Rapids

FC Dallas

Nashville SC

Orlando City

Nobody is surprised to find the Fire and Rapids here. It’s been nice of them to get out of the cellar, and Colorado in particular has looked better than their record indicates, but nobody is scared of playing either of these teams. They just don’t have the creative players to make their teams matter.

Dallas, Nashville and Orlando are not supposed to be here, though.

It appears as if Gary Smith’s conservative approach is finally a problem as Hany Mukhtar has dipped from league MVP caliber to merely very good. Without him at an ungodly level, there just isn’t enough threat and Smith doesn’t seem to have a way to help their star German out.

Oscar Pareja at least has some ideas as he tries to jumpstart Orlando. They’ve had some injuries, but this team hasn’t put it together for a sustained period in either of the last two seasons despite not lacking for talent. Pareja has to make an idea stick sooner rather than later.

As for Dallas, good luck trying to identify their primary problem. Their injuries have been crippling, led by Paxton Pomykal being ruled out for the season. Their centerbacks remain a mess. The new 3-4-3 they’re playing hasn’t ideally fit their talent. This won’t be an easy fix.

This could get really ugly

New England Revolution

New York City FC

San Jose Earthquakes

NYCFC shouldn’t be here. There is more talent in that team than the other two, even if it’s an overwhelmingly great squad. Get Santi Rodríguez on the ball, give him a couple options and don’t step on rakes at the back and this team can be competitive. At some point, Nick Cushing has to show he’s up to the job.

New England and San Jose just don’t have the horses. It’s clear that Bruce Arena and Djordje Petrović were papering over so many holes in Foxborough and the Revs are now being exposed. Luchi Gonzalez did a similarly good job making up for insufficient talent last year, but it’s not fair to ask him to do more with less again. Get these teams some players.

Anyone home?

Austin FC

Austin are the worst team in the league by almost any metric and are somehow even worse to watch, but that’s not why they’re in a tier all to their own. They land here because their ineptitude is no surprise.

This team was awful last season and have been miserable since before they even came into the league, bar a 2022 campaign in which they mocked anyone who doubted anyone who doubted a team built on unsustainable luck. Yet Anthony Precourt has shown little interest in changing course. Being bad is one thing; seemingly not caring about being bad and showing no urgency to get things right is another.