The 2018 MLS season is upon us. Like most MLS seasons, many people enter into an unknown with many unanswered questions and this season is no different. Instead of projecting where each team will finish at the end of the season, we are sampling ESPN NBA writer Zach Lowe’s “tiers” idea, categorizing each team as we evaluate their offseason activity and 2018 prospects.
These are not power rankings or predictions and that might cause our choices to be different from MLSsoccer.com’s Matthew Doyle’s picks. The order within each tier does not matter. It’s more of a way to group similar teams together to make it easier to figure out how teams will fare this season. Let’s get it:
Tier 1: The Elite
Toronto FC, New York City FC and Atlanta United
This group is why the Eastern Conference is as good as it is, and as a whole, they represent a changed MLS. Toronto FC, last year’s treble winners who brought back almost every important contributor, use Targeted Allocation Money to its fullest extent. Atlanta have famously led the charge for promising young South Americans. NYCFC perfected the old winning ways with aging DP David Villa winning MVPs while also adapting to the times with signing 20-year-old Paraguayan Jesus Medina to lead the attack. Toronto and Atlanta have thriving youth academies.
MLS will never produce a team that deserves to be in a tier by itself at the beginning of the season. League-driven parity prevents that. TFC come as close to it as we have ever seen in this league, though, pulling off the first treble in league history last year and keeping the team together for another season.
Toronto could plausibly start the season with the same lineup they played in their MLS Cup domination of the Sounders, a scary proposition for the rest of the league. Sebastian Giovinco, who played most of 2017 partially injured, should be back at 100%, which means he could be approaching 2016 and 2015 levels — GOAT tiers. He remains one of the best free-kick goal-scorer in the world.
Toronto’s only two notable departures were wing-backs Steven Beitashour and Raheem Edwards. Spring signing Nicolas Hasler had begun to steal starts from Beitashour last year, and TFC signed Dutch veteran Gregory Van Der Wiel and Brazilian youth international Auro to compete with Hasler in 2018.
Van Der Wiel played 120 minutes in the 2010 World Cup final, started for PSG for years and just turned 30 earlier in February, making him one heck of a depth signing. But that’s where TFC is right now.
NYCFC, in addition to Atlanta, is in the same tier with them after having arguably the two best offseasons in MLS. The Light Blues, who finished second last season but suffered another playoff disappointment, kept Yangel Herrera in town for another year, upgraded their backline with three defensive signings and handled Jack Harrison’s situation with aplomb.
Herrera, a 20-year-old on-loan from Manchester City, is a highly-touted prospect on the world stage and a prized possession of City Football Group, who have used MLS as a jumping off point for the Venezuelan. He will run Vieira’s three-man midfield next to star d-mid Alexander Ring and DP Maxi Moralez. The front three will again be led by Villa, who is insane:
22 days to the @MLS season.
— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) February 9, 2018
Villa will not be flanked by Harrison this season, who was sold to Man City for good profit and loaned to Middlesbrough. But Medina is in to replace him, and former top-five SuperDraft pick Jonathan Lewis, 20, could start on opening day. To combat the ever-present “Father Time” variable, they signed two Villa backups: 23-year-old Ismael Tajouri, of top Austrian club Austria Wien, and 27-year-old Norwegian Jo Inge Berget.
NYCFC traded for Saad Abdul-Salaam from Sporting KC, the best backup right-back in the league, and acquired Anton Tinnerholm and Cedric Hountondji from European clubs to compete for spots on the backline. At the very least, this improves the defense’s depth after center-back Maxime Chanot missed time last season. It also gives them more versatile options to play against Toronto and Atlanta’s multi-faceted core of attackers.
Andrea Pirlo is no longer around to get sliced up by Giovinco and occupy a DP spot. They got younger, a crucial adaptation in the 2018 version of MLS.
Atlanta haven’t stopped outdoing the rest of the league after a high-flying expansion season that saw them score 70 goals. Joining goals-per-game hero Josef Martinez and Paraguayan savior Miguel Almiron are 18-year-old winger Ezequiel Barco, one of the world’s best young attackers, and USMNT midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who ATL dropped tons of cash on Portland for.
And, for good measure, Atlanta signed Franco Escobar to play right-back and US Open Cup idol Mitch Hildebrandt to back up goalkeeper Brad Guzan. They still need a replacement in defensive midfield with Carlos Carmona being sold back to Chile, and that is no small task. But this organization has shown to be capable of a lot of things. They should be able to get that done.
Flaws? Hard to find. But there are legitimate questions about whether they are strong enough defensively in midfield. Nagbe is an elite passer and distributor, but he needs an athletic ground-coverer and ball-winner next to him to work as a No. 8 in a 4-2-3-1, especially in Tata Martino’s heavy movement system. Diego Chara was that for years in Portland. We’ll see if they can replicate that partnership.
Tier 2: The Chase Pack
Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Chicago Fire
The Sounders, winners of two straight Eastern Conference finals, will be good as long as Nicolas Lodeiro is dominating the ball in the attacking third. Lodeiro has been the big reason for their postseason success, along with deep midfield versatility and a balanced back four. They had strength in the spine with Chad Marshall and Roman Torres and speed on the flanks, led by overlapping renegade Joevin Jones. Just like the last two years, they will be among the class of the conference, with most of those pieces returning.
But while they remain one of the league’s most talented teams, Seattle have a slew of questions to answer, which prevents them from qualifying for the “Elite” tier.
— Jones is gone, signing on a free transfer with German club Darmstadt. With Lodeiro spending so much time inverted off of the right wing, overlapping full backs are crucial for this team, and Jones was elite at it. Nouhou, who mostly looked solid last season, will compete with former Crew left back Waylon Francis for Jones’s spot, and neither will be as good as the Trinidadian was in attack.
— Will Bruin projects as the starting striker again. Bruin is good for 10 goals a year, but he is far from a difference-maker, and it’s hard not to see the spot as a weakness for a team that should be fighting for the conference’s top spot.
— Jordan Morris is out for the season with a torn ACL, suffered in February’s CONCACAF Champions League. That places a considerable amount of goal scoring responsibility on Bruin, Clint Dempsey and whoever they sign to replace Morris. Victor Rodriguez will likely step into the lineup full-time, far from the ideal option.
— Torres and Marshall are one of the top center back pairs in the league, but they are 31 and 33 and only getting slower. Tony Alfaro has not shown to be a long-term solution, and beyond him, they are almost completely barren at the position. Should one of them lose a step or go down injured, it could be a brutal blow.
— Each of the last two years, they have started slow and played down to opponents for much of the regular season before flipping a switch in the postseason. That’s a dangerous game. With the west better this year, it could push them down the standings, hurting playoff seeding, and it’s no guarantee that they pick it up at the most important time. It also indicates that they may not be as good as their playoff results suggest, because the regular season is a larger sample size. I don’t completely buy into that, but there is something there.
Portland is right there with their bitter rivals. Diego Valeri is coming off a superhuman season, winning MVP and scoring 21 goals with 11 assists and singlehandedly carrying an injury-dominated team to first in the conference. Sebastian Blanco will settle into the league and start producing the boxscore stats that didn’t show up last year, especially now that Nagbe isn’t there to steal touches. Fanendo Adi, arguably the league’s best hold-up No. 9, will return to the starting lineup.
Andy Polo arrived on loan from Liga MX to replace Nagbe, who Portland got a huge amount of allocation money for. They brought in Julio Cascante, 24, from Saprissa to play center back, and 19-year-old left back Marco Farfan should rise to a starting role this year on an improved backline.
Chara is coming off a leg injury in the playoffs and will turn 32 in April, arising questions about a deep midfield that needs to get younger. But they traded for D.C. United Homegrown Eryk Williamson, 21, and he will have an opportunity to win minutes. The Timbers improved this offseason, and will again be among the conference’s best.
The Fire, in an otherwise quiet offseason, traded winger David Accam (14g, 6a in 2017) to Philadelphia for a bucket of cash. The move presents numerous questions for a team with a narrow window of success, and it could determine their ability to replicate last year’s success.
Veljko Paunovic emphasized passing and possession through Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty, creating as many chances as possible for Golden Boot-winning striker Nemanja Nikolic. They would spread opponents out, placing full backs Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster on the touchlines, and give Nikolic space to work the channels, with Schweinsteiger sending him through.
A good indicator of how much Chicago tried to get the Polish striker in behind early is the amount of times he was caught offside; the flag was raised on him 1.6 times per game last season, the highest amount in the league. Many of his goals were scored as a result of well-timed runs through the channels. Those channels aren’t open unless opposing teams have to spread out to cover wide players, and Accam was the wide player they had to cover.
The threat of the Ghanaian’s speed and playmaking from wide areas was a big reason for why Nikolic scored as many goals as he did. They have not spent that money on a replacement for Accam, instead hoping younger Americans Jon Bakero and Daniel Johnson can pick up the slack. It’s admirable, but it’s a gamble, as fun as Johnson has been in limited minutes.
Trading Accam made sense — they copped a lot of allocation money for him, and their possession-focused ethos never really suited him very well — but letting such a talented player go will always present repercussions. They have to be able to account for that lost production, or they will get passed up by a top-heavy Eastern Conference.