Neil W. Blackmon
Ranking teams is fun and a great conversation piece, which is why fans enjoy preseason rankings, from college football to the NFL to the Premier League to our very own MLS.
But the reality is there’s little use in power rankings early in the season, when sample sizes are too small to draw too many thoughtful, evidenced conclusions.
Last weekend was Kentucky Derby weekend, and in keeping with the parlance of the world’s most famous horse race, it also saw the MLS season stroll past the quarter turn and into week ten. Week Ten brought the league’s first set of midweek fixtures, with Orlando and Toronto playing a thrilling game at BMO Field and Sporting Kansas City dispatching the Red Bulls. Sticking with the horse racing theme, the weekend matches brought all the chaos of a Kentucky Derby backstretch, with Portland and Orlando, thus far two of the season’s elite sides, losing matches to lower table clubs 3-0 and 4-0, respectively.
These unusual results are a prime reminder that the season is only in early May, and far more stories will be written and told in the coming months than have already been determined. They are proof that early season power rankings, while fun, don’t need to be taken too seriously. And they’re why we at TYAC opted to avoid releasing a series of power rankings until Week Ten.
We will also hold off on NASL and USL power rankings, at least until a few more matches have been played. But for now- here’s our first batch of MLS Power Rankings for the 2017 MLS season, collected after vote by our small editorial staff.
1) FC Dallas
At 2.25 points per game, it’s crazy to think the Hoops are playing at present- and for the foreseeable future- without their best attacking player, Mauro Diaz, who continues to recover from last season’s Achilles injury that certainly cost Dallas an honest run at the treble.
For all the chatter about Diaz and attacking pieces like Maxi Urruti, whose goalscoring prowess continues at a blistering rate early in 2017, Oscar Pareja’s club are built on defense, with Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman and two dynamite but different holding midfielders in Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa and a third stout mid in Carlos Gruezo. Strength through the spine has seen Dallas concede only five goals this season, a big part of how you stay unbeaten without your most dynamic attacking player.
2) Toronto FC
Hard to have a better week than Toronto FC just did. First, they won a thrilling game against to that point red-hot Orlando City, on the backs of some tremendous finishing by Seba Giovinco and some poor finishing from Cyle Larin, playing back on Canadian soil. That win saw Toronto give up plenty of chances but weather the storm, showing that this is a team very much capable of closing out games and finding ways to grind out results.
What they did next was a testament to their pluck and depth- a road victory at Seattle in a MLS Cup rematch. And while the win certainly won’t ease the pain of their MLS Cup anguish, it will perhaps exorcise a few demons, especially for Jozy Altidore, who was denied brilliantly by Stefan Frei (again) but managed to overcome any flashbacks and draw the critical penalty and score the ensuing goal that was the difference.
3) New York City FC
The best match NYCFC have played this campaign came Sunday, when they handled an Atlanta team that has captured everyone’s attention this spring. Patrick Vieira’s team reversed Atlanta’s season-long script of jumping on opponents early, scoring in the 17th minute through David Villa and getting two goals in two minutes early in the second half to seal the win.
The impressive play of Venezuelan youngster Yangel Herrera continues in the middle of the park, giving bite to the Pigeons midfield and making it easier to swallow the reality that Andrea Pirlo’s career as a footballer is winding down, even if he remains a local favorite at the Red Hook and Gowanus craft beer and wine bars.
It’s hard to know, for now, what this club’s ceiling is but this weekend’s tilt against FC Dallas will be an outstanding barometer.
4) Portland Timbers
Sure, they lost 3-0 to the middling Earthquakes. But sometimes a side gets Wondo’d. And that type of result is especially possible when you lack Valeri and Nagbe. There are depth questions for this team that could stretch into the summer, although the long overdue decision by MLS to include a Gold Cup break into the schedule should help.
The Timbers ceiling continues to be plagued by their road struggles, but their top-end talent is still elite in this league and they are nearly unbreakable at home, where they’ll play Atlanta United this weekend.
5) Orlando City SC
Jason Kreis’s club was the talk of the league heading into this week, and in a stylish, back and forth 2-1 loss at Toronto, they appeared every bit the type of team that is a legitimate MLS Cup contender.
Winning a Supporters Shield is a different proposition altogether, and the Lions lack of depth showed dramatically over the weekend in a 4-0 and could have been worse throttling to Houston. Still, a Toronto to Houston five day road swing is about as brutal a slog as you’ll get in the MLS schedule, so Orlando gets a bit of a break for the second performance.
Still, the club needs more from role players with five games in three weeks on tap. How many points the club takes from these matches could be matter down the road, as a club seemingly bound for its first playoff appearance will want as many playoff matches as possible in front of that rabid fan base and supporters wall.
6) Sporting Kansas City
Another team that reminded us “there’s no place like home” in MLS. Peter Vermes fielded his best 11 midweek against New York Red Bulls and dominated for ninety minutes, winning 2-0. The team then traveled to Minnesota United, fielded a second-choice defense and was outplayed and outworked in a 2-0 defeat to the surging Loons. Like Orlando and Portland ahead of them, there’s wonderful top-end talent on this team. But where they end up playoff seeding wise will be dictated largely by how much they get from the rest of the roster. Thus far, it’s been a mixed bag.
7) Columbus Crew
The Crew roughed up New England this weekend to set up a midweek showdown this week against Toronto at Mapfre Stadium. There’s a staff divide on Greg Berhalter’s team, with the naysayers suggesting the reconstructed defense has still allowed 13 goals, in ten games, which is better but not enough to make them legitimate MLS Cup contenders. The optimists think they’ve got a reliable goalscorer in Ola Kamara, a lovely playmaker in Iraqi international Justin Meram, who snagged another assist this past weekend, and will improve dramatically on defense as Jonathan Mensah adjusts and grows comfortable in MLS. Room for growth here.
8) Houston Dynamo
Teams that can score goals in several ways win soccer games and the Dynamo meet that criterion, especially at home. The 4-0 drubbing of Orlando was all the more impressive because they pulled it off without the services of Cubo Torres, who is an early season Golden Boot candidate. Romell Quioto won’t remain one of MLS (and CONCACAF’s) best kept secrets for long if he puts in shifts like he did against Orlando City.
9) New York Red Bulls
The red portion of New York debut in the top ten of our power rankings, but will need to play better to stay there. Jesse Marsch opted to rest Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips midweek at Sporting Kansas City, and his team looked rudderless and listless. The duo returned to play Philadelphia this weekend, and the club looked…rudderless and listless. Conceding five and scoring none is as bad a week as the club have had under Marsch, and with a desperate LA Galaxy in town this weekend, the Red Bulls better get the ship righted quickly.
10) Seattle Sounders
The champs lost a “rematch” of the MLS Cup to Toronto, which isn’t that concerning. What is worrying is the continued poor play of the center backs, a strength of last year’s MLS Cup winners, and the fact the Sounders have collected only five points from four home games, a poor return given the notoriety of the homefield advantage.
11) Chicago Fire
Bastian Schweinsteiger may be struggling to adapt to MLS, but there’s little question the Fire have been a better club with him on the field. And while people debate the meaning and whether anger over his comments about the league this week is warranted, the Fire should be concerning themselves with how they let the Galaxy back into a match they were dominating this weekend. The Sounders await this weekend, and with it, the chance to end a three game winless stretch.
12) San Jose Earthquakes
Chris Wondolowski’s masterful performance helped San Jose throttle Portland 3-0 at home this weekend, giving Dom Kinnear’s team a second straight victory after a month and a half without a “W.” They don’t play pretty soccer, and even with Danny Hoesen and longtime Costa Rican international Marco Ureña in the lineup, they are so heavily reliant on Wondolowksi that he’s second in MLS in assists- marinate on that, seriously. Still, there are signs that things are getting better, and in a league where it’s fairly easy to make the playoffs, this is a team that might.
13) Atlanta United
I thought one of the best pieces of tactical soccer writing of the year in MLS thus far came from Matthew Doyle, who wrote in early February that as good as Atlanta United may be in attack and in the stands, perspective was necessary because of the limitations the team has in the back. Few listened, with some even contemplating whether Atlanta were genuine Supporters Shield contenders after a torrid start to the season saw Atlanta rocket towards the top of the table.
The reality is this team has very little margin for error defensively, needing a pair of 33 year olds, Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz, to be almost flawless as the team’s defensive spine. When those two don’t play perfectly, they can struggle. Couple the defensive issues with the lack of Josef Martinez, injured playing with Venezuela, and you begin to understand the recent rash of poor results.
A trip to Portland means it may get worse before it gets better.
14) Vancouver Whitecaps
They don’t score enough and this season, Carl Robinson’s club has leaked too many goals, surrendering 14 in only nine games. Nonetheless, Brek Shea returned, scored and played well for the club this past weekend and the acquisition of Bernie Ibini from Club Brugge gives the team another option out wide, which should make them harder to defend moving forward. This is a club whose better soccer is in front of it, but also one that will be challenged in the next month, starting with a trip to Houston this weekend.
15) Montreal Impact
Could we be witnessing a youth movement in Montreal? 18 year old Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla lifted the club to three points on the road this weekend in DC, and the side were good enough defensively (coupled with DC being, well, DC) to limit United to only two shots on target in the victory. That’s a quality defensive performance, and the kind that helps you grind the results you need to make a run at playoff qualification.
16) Minnesota United
Don’t look now but Adrian Heath’s side have as many points as their fellow expansion side, Atlanta United. Given how thoroughly the Loons were run through by Atlanta (and everyone else) the first month of the season, that’s an impressive accomplishment.
So what’s changed? Mainly, the addition of Sam Cronin has made a resounding difference to the team’s organization, and the defense, a sieve for a month, has conceded only once in the last three games.
Still, don’t get too excited. Having just played four of six at home, they begin a tough five game stretch with three away from home, including this weekend at BMO Field and Toronto FC.
17) DC United
Things started well for DC this year but the reality is the club is very limited offensively, heavily reliant on playmaking from the wings, and when little things, like Luciano Acosta pinging a howitzer off a crossbar, work against DC, so do results. With a healthy Bill Hamid between the pipes and Ben Olsen’s conservative setups, DC will have a chance at the playoffs. But there will be continue to be plenty of performances where you shake your head after ninety minutes too, if not before.
18) LA Galaxy
The injury to Jermaine Jones is significant enough it may keep him out of US qualifiers next month against Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico. The better question, astutely asked by Ryan Rosenblatt at FOX Sports yesterday, is what that means for the Galaxy (and USA, potentially)? At least for one game, Jones’s exit made LA a better team, as the side rallied from two goals down to salvage a point against Chicago last weekend. I’m still not sure what to make of Curt Onalfo’s team this year, and the front office appears to be lost in the woods a bit, but maybe the effort shown to get that point builds something moving forward.
19) New England Revolution
Through ten games, the Revs are averaging a point a contest. This is what happens when you combine a mediocre midfield with a host of silly plays, the latest being Je-Vaughn Watson’s clothesline this weekend on Nico Hansen. The reacquisition of Gershorn Koffie from Sweden may resolve the midfield issues, but how much time will the club give Jay Heaps? Or better stated, how much time should they?
20) Philadelphia Union
CJ Sapong’s hat trick finally gave the Sons of Ben a “W” to celebrate. This is a bad soccer team, which is surprising given the effusive praise the club received for bringing Earnie Stewart to change that last year. Still a win is a win, and perhaps they buy sweet time for an evaluation of Stewart’s defenses of Jim Curtin, which while admirable, seem short-sighted.
21) Real Salt Lake
A funny thing about the Royals is that they seem to be doing things right at the academy-level, at least based on surface-level optics. Four members (Danny Acosta, Justen Glad, Brooks Lennon and Sebastian Saucedo) of Tab Ramos’s American team for the U-20 World Cup are currently with Real Salt Lake, and the club owns the rights to a fifth (Aaron Herrera). Young talent exists in Sandy, Utah.
What the club lacks, at least according to new manager Mike Petke, is a formation, which he conceded is still up in the air after a disspiriting 3-0 defeat to FC Dallas. There’s plenty to like long-term. There isn’t this season, so far.
22) Colorado Rapids
Quick, think of something good that has happened to the Rapids since they won on the opening weekend? Actually, I’ll give you time. You’ll need it because the Rapids, who dropped a dire 1-0 to Vancouver Friday night, have lost five straight, and with only five goals in eight games, they’ll struggle to do much better moving forward.
Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.