Grading the MLS Teams Midway Through the 2016 Season
If it feels like the first half of the Major League Soccer season has flown by, it has.
Before the league embarks on a busy July schedule in which most of the 20 clubs will play five or more matches, we wanted to take a look back at the opening four months of the regular season.
We opted to grade each MLS squad in four categories. The offensive grade was determined by goals scored, diversity in production and attacking chemistry. Our defensive category took into account goals against, clean sheets and a variety of little things that give each club an advantage.
In addition to the two main areas of play, we graded each manager for his tactical decisions and talent acquisitions as well as the team for its performance as a unit.
Continue reading to see what grades were handed out to the 20 sides in MLS.
It's hard to find positives when you talk about the Chicago Fire attack. The Fire are averaging a goal per match and have been shut out on four occasions, while six of their goals have come in two matches. Chicago netted three against a lackluster New York City FC defense on March 6 and again on June 22 versus a Philadelphia side dealing with the loss of midfield linchpin Vincent Nogueira.
Chicago's defense hasn't been stellar, but it hasn't been a complete disaster, either. Only D.C. United and Toronto FC have let in a fewer number of goals than the Fire. Rookie Jonathan Campbell has been one of the surprises on the back line. However, we're still waiting for fellow first-year man Brandon Vincent to show quality on a weekly basis.
Veljko Paunovic was thrown into a complete mess of a situation when he took over at Toyota Park during the offseason. The Serbian has a few good parts to work with, none better than speedy Ghanaian forward David Accam, but it's going to take a few transfer windows for him to form a highly competitive side.
After 14 matches, the Fire are already nine points off the playoff positions in the Eastern Conference. The good news is they have three games in hand on the top teams in the standings. However, we're not sure if Chicago is built for so many league contests in a short period of time as well as their continued participation in the U.S. Open Cup.
Eleven different players have contributed to Colorado's goal tally of 19 through 16 matches. The overall total isn't exactly mind blowing, but getting goals from every position on the pitch is a needed quality if you want to challenge for the Supporters' Shield. Jermaine Jones, who has played in a No. 10 role, Kevin Doyle and Shkelzen Gashi are a nice attacking trio that should continue to pose a threat to opposing defenses.
No team comes close to matching the defensive record of the Rapids through four months. Pablo Mastroeni's men have conceded on 11 occasions and five of their six shutouts have come in 1-0 results. The back four of Mekeil Williams, Bobby Burling, Axel Sjoberg and Marc Burch have shined in front of Zac MacMath in net. As long as the Rapids keep the same defensive consistency with Tim Howard in net, they should remain near the top of the Western Conference standings.
Mastroeni delivered the managerial master stroke of the season when he shifted Jones into the No. 10 role in order to keep the chemistry in midfield between Micheal Azira and Sam Cronin. His acquisition of veterans was questioned in the offseason, but he's gotten them to buy into a system that can't be stopped.
In addition to their stellar defensive mark, the Rapids are 7-0-1 at home and they've only lost twice on the road. Colorado is the only club averaging two points per game this deep into the season, but that may drop as it deals with the grueling Western Conference schedule.
Things just haven't been the same in attack for MLS Cup runner-up Columbus Crew in 2016. A spat over a penalty between Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain on May 7 resulted in the former's departure to New England by way of a trade before the following week ended.
Ola Kamara has scored five goals in his last four matches as the top target forward, but questions remain about the Crew's abilities in the final third since Higuain is out for at least a month with a hernia injury.
The Crew back line has appeared to turn a corner in the last month as they have let in three goals since the start of May, but the defensive setup didn't impress in March and April. Fifteen of the 22 tallies the Crew have conceded came in the first two months of the season. We're still not convinced the Crew can put it all together, but the back four has progressed enough to stir up some positive belief.
Gregg Berhalter has dealt with plenty of unforeseen circumstances since the start of the season. The locker room tumult and injuries all over the pitch halted the coach from playing his style of soccer in every match. If he can replace Higuain in the short term and find a way to infuse confidence in his other attackers, Berhalter may lead the Crew to a late surge for the postseason.
No one expected the Crew to follow up their phenomenal 2015 by laying an egg and not being a threat in the Eastern Conference table. The postseason credentials of the ninth-place side in the East will be determined during a busy July slate that features five contests against Eastern Conference opposition, including two versus Toronto FC.
Rarely will D.C. United put together an attacking masterpiece over multiple matches. However, we've witnessed bits of flair produced by Patrick Nyarko and Luciano Acosta in the club's first 16 games. The addition of Lamar Neagle has helped the D.C. attack on the wings, but the Black and Red lack a dynamic, young center forward that can change games in an instant.
Travis Worra and Andrew Dykstra delivered some admirable performances with Bill Hamid out injured. D.C. currently boasts the best defensive record in the Eastern Conference as the Black and Red have given up just 16 strikes. With Hamid back in the lineup, that total should remain low for the rest of the 2016 campaign.
Ben Olsen's decision to tuck Nick DeLeon into the center of the pitch next to Marcelo Sarvas has helped bring organization to the midfield with Nyarko and Neagle on the wings. However, Olsen's refusal to start Acosta until May was a baffling call given the creativity of the Argentine.
D.C. has put itself in good position to qualify for the playoffs once again. United will probably fly under the radar for the rest of the season as they normally do. Acosta, Hamid and Steve Birnbaum are the keys to the team's success and as long as the trio are healthy, D.C. will be playing past October.
FC Dallas are one of the few clubs in MLS that have the talent to hit you from all angles in the final third and succeed at their game plan. When he's healthy, Mauro Diaz is one of the top creators in the league. In just 13 matches, the 25-year-old has two goals and seven assists.
Fabian Castillo may not be at the top of the major stat categories, but the pacy winger has still been able to make an impact. Toss in a forward combination of Michael Barrios, Tesho Akindele and Maximiliano Urruti and you have a front line that can keep Oscar Pareja's side near the top of the Western Conference.
The FC Dallas back line is in the middle of the pack when it comes to goals conceded, but the club's recent run of form has produced impressive numbers. The Matt Hedges-led defense has conceded six times since May 11 and the squad has lost once during the span of seven games. There shouldn't be much concern about the FC Dallas defense moving forward as it appears it is rounding into form at the right time.
Pareja hasn't done anything tactically to blow anyone's mind since March, but he doesn't have to with the talent on his roster. As long as he makes the occasional tweaks to adjust for injuries and suspensions properly, the Colombian will guide his side to the Western Conference playoffs.
We haven't seen the best of FC Dallas yet, and that's not a bad thing considering the team's second-place standing in the Western Conference. As long as Diaz remains fully fit, the team will challenge for the Supporters' Shield. The same can be said about Castillo, who might not be in MLS much longer if he continues to thrive in Texas.
There's a good reason why we shouldn't make a big deal about things that happen in the first two weeks of an eight-month season. The Houston Dynamo burst out of the gates with eight goals in their first two matches, including a 5-0 throttling of rival FC Dallas in Week 2, but they've only found the back of the net 14 times in the last 14 contests.
Giles Barnes, Will Bruin and Andrew Wenger all have four goals in 2016, but none of them have been in blazing form for long stretches.
On five occasions in the first four months, the Dynamo defense has let in more than three goals. But the good news, if there is any, for the Houston back four is NYCFC's record at the back is still much worse. Houston appeared to improve defensively since the May 11 loss to San Jose, but that hope was thrown away after giving up three goals to Portland on Sunday.
Owen Coyle was never suited for MLS. The Scottish boss failed to turn the Dynamo into a contender once Dominic Kinnear left for San Jose. Luckily for Houston, it didn't have to endure a second wasted season as the two parted ways in May.
How the Dynamo perform in the second half of the season under the direction of interim boss Wade Barrett will teach us a lot about the mettle of those involved in the squad. If he leads Houston to a respectable second-half record and advances further in the U.S. Open Cup, 2016 will be deemed a slight success given the circumstances.
The LA Galaxy may sit sixth in the Western Conference table at the midway point of the season, but they have been one of the most productive teams in front of the net.
Four different players have scored four goals in league play for Bruce Arena's side in 2016. Giovani dos Santos leads the pack with seven, while Mike Magee is second with five. Gyasi Zardes and Robbie Keane both have four tallies. Those totals should rise as the Galaxy turn into another gear in the coming months.
The Galaxy received plenty of criticism for their signing of Ashley Cole, but the left-back has proved the doubters wrong as he's been one of the top full-backs in the league for four months. The former Chelsea man and his partners in defense carry the third-best defensive record in the league into July.
MLS continues to be a wacky league where the unexpected occurs on a regular basis. One of the few consistencies year after year is the managerial performance of Arena. The experienced players he's brought into the squad have performed admirably, and the Galaxy are set to qualify for the postseason once again if all goes well.
The Galaxy haven't played their best soccer yet, and that is a planned strategy. LA usually finds its rhythm around late summer as the talk of potential MLS Cup winners starts to heat up.
If you're a fan of MLS and don't have Ignacio Piatti on your list of top 10 players, shame on you. The Argentine midfielder has been superb since Week 1 for the Montreal Impact. The 31-year-old has nine goals and three assists in 14 matches for the fourth-place side in the Eastern Conference.
In addition to Piatti, Didier Drogba is performing well at forward with five goals and five assists, and even the wildly erratic Dominic Oduro owns four goals and five assists.
Montreal's back line hasn't been phenomenal, but it also hasn't been catastrophically bad. The Impact possess a middle-of-the-run defense that has conceded 22 goals and recorded only three clean sheets. In order to earn a high seed in the East, the team must get a few better showings from their defense, especially at home where they are 3-1-3.
Mauro Biello has been able to justify his appointment after the firing of Frank Klopas in August 2015. He's been able to get the best out of Piatti and Drogba as well as Oduro, who entered 2016 with a history of being unable to finish in key situations.
The Impact's offense will always be better than their defense as long as Piatti and Drogba are on the roster. Both superstars should win a few games by themselves in the second half, but the club's home record is a bit concerning. However, Montreal's 2-3-3 road record is the second best among teams currently in the East playoff race.
New England Revolution
Despite bringing Kei Kamara over from Columbus, the New England Revolution offense hasn't found its rhythm during the first half of the season. Lee Nguyen has put together a nice four months with four goals and six assists, but no one else has consistently produced in front of goal, even Kamara, who hasn't scored since his arrival in New England.
Through 16 matches, the Revs have the second-worst defensive record in the East. Jay Heaps' side has let in three less goals than the horrific NYCFC defense. If you haven't caught on by now, being close to NYCFC in any defensive category is bad.
It seems like Heaps has done more complaining about the referees than actual managing. The New England boss has been critical of the officiating after plenty of his club's matches and hasn't been able to get the best out of his talented youngsters up top.
The coach also hasn't been able to replace the impact of Jones in midfield. Scott Caldwell and Gershon Koffie are a nice combination, but neither is as good as the United States men's national team star.
The Revolution have been one of the most underwhelming sides in the league this season. Everyone knows what this team is capable of given the talent on the roster, but nothing is clicking yet for the eighth-place team in the East.
New York City FC
Who knows where NYCFC would be without David Villa. The Spanish legend leads the league with 11 goals on 42 shots on goal. Those 42 attempts on target come from a total of 99 shots Villa has taken in 17 matches.
The pieces around the 34-year-old are starting to provide him with some help, especially 19-year-old Jack Harrison, who was selected first overall in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft. If Harrison, Khiry Shelton and Thomas McNamara are able to provide enough support for Villa during the second part of the season, NYCFC has a fighting chance to qualify for the postseason.
The one thing holding NYCFC back from being considered a playoff contender is its defense. The major blemish on the club's defensive resume is the 7-0 defeat at the hands of the New York Red Bulls on May 21 at Yankee Stadium. Patrick Vieira's men have conceded more than two goals in nine matches in 2016, but a shutout in Seattle on Saturday may have set them on the right track.
All things considered, Vieira's done a decent job in his first season in charge of the second-year franchise. The former Arsenal star hasn't had all of the club's top players at his disposal on a consistent basis. If he gets Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo to help defensively in addition to their contributions in midfield, NYCFC could surprise some people. If they can't get support from midfield for the struggling back four, more of the same will continue.
We're not exactly sure how NYCFC is in second place at the moment given the calamity in defense, but the club deserves credit for clawing away on the road to earn a 4-2-1 record. Now the key will be to get results at Yankee Stadium, where they are 2-3-5. A win over the Red Bulls at home on Sunday would be the perfect cure for that.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls opened the 2016 campaign with a collection of atrocious attacking performances. Jesse Marsch's side finally broke their poor form on April 24 in a 3-2 win over Orlando City. After putting together a few decent showings up top, the Red Bulls exploded for seven goals in their blowout of NYCFC on May 21. There are still things to improve in attack, but the Red Bulls are on the right track to fix them.
Just like the offense, the Red Bulls defense took two months to finally work out early-season issues. During their skid to start the season, the Red Bulls gave up 16 goals. Since the victory over Orlando, they have kept five clean sheets, four of which came in a row from May 18 to June 19. All signs point to further improvement in the New York defense, but we still have to keep their poor start in mind when handing out a grade.
Marsch didn't make many drastic changes to his lineup as his side worked out of a slump. The only major move made by the New York boss came out of need as he acquired center back Aurelien Collin to bolster depth at that position. Marsch's high-pressing system is unique in MLS, and it should continue to help the Red Bulls earn points during their chase of the top seed in the East.
The Red Bulls deserve credit for working through their rough patch in March and April and coming out a better team. The final few months of the regular season are what really matter and the Red Bulls have set themselves up for success with their turnaround.
Cyle Larin may be the focal point of the Orlando City attack, but he certainly isn't the only scoring threat in Adrian Heath's lineup. The Canada international, who is one of a few young players who should make a big move overseas in a year or two, has eight goals, including two of the game winning variety.
With Larin and Kaka—a key contributor when healthy in 2016—in the spotlight, it's easy to overlook Kevin Molino, but the winger from Trinidad and Tobago deserves recognition as well after notching six goals and five assists in 14 games.
It's not ideal to have one clean sheet at the halfway mark of the season. Even in the wild and wacky MLS, clubs are able to record shutouts as long as they have a sturdy defense. Keeping a lead has been of one the problems holding back the Lions from moving into the elite of the Eastern Conference. Correcting the issues in defense should also improve the club's current 3-0-6 home record, which is one of the worst in MLS.
Trading Collin to the Red Bulls was a shrewd move by Heath at the time, but getting the older center back out of town hasn't exactly improved the Lions defensively. Adding Julio Baptista as an asset off the bench has already produced rewards in the form of two goals and two assists. But until the coach fixes the Orlando back line, his season grade won't get any higher.
The talent on the Orlando roster suggests it should be better than 4-3-8 four months into the season. All the pieces are there to be one of the top three seeds in the East, but everything hasn't come together yet for the Lions. If they aren't able to fix their woes at the back by the start of September, the Lions could be in a fight just to get into the playoffs.
The additions and holdovers on Philadelphia's attacking depth chart immediately formed a chemistry on the pitch. C.J. Sapong is playing close to USMNT-caliber soccer with his physical play, while Chris Pontius, Sebastien Le Toux and Tranquillo Barnetta have worked well behind him.
In recent weeks, offseason acquisition Roland Alberg has been thrust into the spotlight thanks to his scoring prowess. The Dutchman, Brazilian veteran Ilsinho and rookie Fabian Herbers have added depth to the Union roster that wasn't there a year ago.
If we handed these grades out before the Copa America Centenario break, the Union would have at least an A-minus. However, they've slipped up recently due to the sudden departure of midfielder Vincent Nogueira. Without the Frenchman in front of the back four, there is no stop gap between them and the attackers.
The space opened up by Nogueira's absence has allowed players like Kekuta Manneh to breeze into space and beat the Union defenders in one-on-one play. With Maurice Edu still working his way back from offseason surgery, the Union need to find a fix internally or spend in the transfer market to sure up the area in front of the back four.
Jim Curtin bought into the plan of sporting director Earnie Stewart once the former USMNT midfielder arrived from AZ Alkmaar. The two used an aggressive strategy at the draft to acquire Joshua Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry and Herbers with three of the top six picks. They also brought in Ilsinho and Alberg on shrewd transfers to bolster the club's depth at a relatively cheap cost.
No one expected the Union to sit atop the Eastern Conference at the midway point of the season. There is plenty of work to be done if they want to secure the top seed in October, though.
Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri have been the driving forces of the Portland Timbers attack in 2016 as the pair have combined for 16 of the club's 28 goals. Valeri has also contributed a team high of five assists.
Portland has also received needed help off the bench in the form of backup forward Jack McInerney, who has found the back of the net on four occasions. But for as good as the Timbers have been so far up top, they could be better if Lucas Melano finished his chances and Darlington Nagbe produced more in both major offensive stat categories.
Despite the stellar effort of Jake Gleeson in place of the injured Adam Kwarasey in net, the Timbers only have one clean sheet in four months. The lone shutout came against San Jose on June 1. If Portland wants to repeat as MLS Cup champion, the back four that has let in 29 strikes in in 17 games needs to sort itself out.
Caleb Porter deserves credit for bolstering the attack with the addition of McInerney, but his attempt to replace left back Jorge Villafana has come up short so far. The absence of right-back Alvas Powell due to injury has also cost the Timbers. Powell was one of the best full-backs in MLS last season.
Portland isn't in crisis like its neighbors to the north in Seattle, but it also has room to improve as the stretch run of the regular season approaches. Getting Powell back will be a huge boost and Nagbe's return from international duty should also free up more space for Valeri and Adi moving forward.
Portland also has to find a way to win on the road. The Timbers are the only team in a playoff position with zero road victories.
Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake proved right away they have a attack capable of hitting you from all angles. Joao Plata and Juan Manuel Martinez got off to fantastic starts, while Javier Morales and Yura Movsisyan are known quantities at their specific positions. Any one of those four players could end the season in double digits in the goals column. Movsisyan currently leads the team with six.
Jeff Cassar's side benefited greatly from the pairing of Aaron Maund and Justen Glad in the middle of defense. The center-back duo worked well together in front of Nick Rimando and helped the Claret and Cobalt get off to a fast start. Although RSL put in some tremendous work in their own half in March and April, its production has dropped off a bit since the start of May. RSL has allowed multiple goals in four of their last five matches.
Cassar has done enough to regain the faith of the RSL fan base after a rough 2015 season in which the club was out of contention for a postseason position. In order to complete the turnaround, the coach has to find a way to keep RSL around the top half of the Western Conference table.
The Claret and Cobalt are hard to beat at home and have three wins on the road, which is tied for the top mark in the West. As long as the attack continues to flow freely, RSL will be able to challenge any of the contenders in the crowded West.
San Jose Earthquakes
There's always been one constant in the San Jose Earthquakes attack and that is the scoring prowess of Chris Wondolowski, who leads the team with seven tallies in 2016. However, his supporting cast has struggled to produce in front of net.
Chad Barrett and Shea Salinas have performed well off the bench, but neither is going to play 90 minutes on a consistent basis. That means Quincy Amarikwa, Alberto Quintero and Simon Dawkins need to produce more in order to challenge for the postseason.
The Earthquakes have been in most of their matches in 2016 because their defense hasn't made a litany of mistakes. San Jose has conceded 19 goals in 16 matches, but the production of the defensive unit hasn't been matched by those further up the field yet.
Dominic Kinnear has done enough to put San Jose in position for a playoff push in the coming months, but he needs to be better in a stacked Western Conference. If he wants to find a spark in his sputtering attack, he could start Salinas on the wing in order to create more chances from the start.
In all reality, the Earthquakes are one or two quality players away from being in the top six of the West. If San Jose resided in the East, they'd be a playoff team.
Not even Clint Dempsey can save the Seattle attack right now. The USMNT striker hasn't been able to develop chemistry with anyone in the Sounders forward corps since the preseason departure of Obafemi Martins to China. But before he does that, Dempsey needs to find his scoring boots in league play. He trails Jordan Morris on the team scoring chart by three with two goals.
In order to mount any type of challenge in the Western Conference, Seattle must improve on its league low 13 goals.
Considering the Sounders have played without the injured Roman Torres at center back all year and have received no support from the offense, the defense has had a solid first half. When the goals eventually come, they need to match the first-half showing of the back four to put themselves in the top six of the West at the end of October.
Starting left back Joevin Jones on the attacking flank of a 4-3-3 formation didn't exactly go over well with the masses in Seattle. Almost everything Sigi Schmid has tried to cure the club's struggles has flopped. The coach is smart enough to find what works for the 2016 edition of the Sounders, but when the fix comes will determine the club's final position in the table.
Giving Seattle anything higher than a C for its first four months just doesn't feel right. The Sounders have looked out of sync in a few areas and no clear solution seems to be in sight as of now.
Sporting Kansas City
It comes as no surprise that Dom Dwyer is pumping goals into the back of the net for Sporting Kansas City, but what is a shock is the lack of production the club's received from the abundance of wing players on the roster. Outside of the Englishman, only six players have scored a goal for Peter Vermes' side in 2016, and two of them are not considered attack-minded players.
Vermes needs to find the perfect combination of midfielders in his lineup to get even more production out of Dwyer and to spread the wealth around in the goals department so opposing defenses don't focus solely on the forward.
Tim Melia is one of a handful of goalkeepers in MLS who can sway a result in his team's favor with a few big saves. The 30-year-old has earned five shutouts and made 44 saves in 17 starts. Sporting KC's defensive mark has benefited from the play of Melia as they've let in 20 goals and hold a goal differential of minus-two.
It's baffling how little Vermes has got out of his winger surplus. The club stocked up on attack-minded wide midfielders in the offseason to bolster depth and add more quality to the final third. The major sign the plan hasn't worked out is full back Saad Abdul-Salaam leads the club in assists, with four.
Like many squads in MLS, Sporting KC hasn't played its best soccer yet. As long as the required changes are made in the second half, Vermes and Co. will be in and around the top six places in the West.
Any time Sebastian Giovinco is spearheading your attack, you should be in good shape. The Atomic Ant has eight goals and six assists for a Toronto FC team that was without Jozy Altidore for a decent amount of the first half.
Moving forward, the Reds just have to make sure they're not too reliant on the 2015 MLS Most Valuable Player. Only Will Johnson and Drew Moor have netted more than one tally beneath Giovinco on the team scoring chart.
Give Toronto a standing ovation for finally being able to field a competent back line. With Clint Irwin in goal and Moor leading the defense from his center-back position, the Reds have earned the top defensive record in the Eastern Conference. If the defense, which was Toronto's biggest weakness in years past, continues to thrive, the Reds will be a serious MLS Cup contender.
Greg Vanney and his staff made the right moves to add quality to the squad all around the pitch. In addition to improving his team's depth, the coach led his side to 11 points on an eight-game road trip to start the season while the renovations at BMO Field were being completed.
Toronto may sit on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoffs right now, but with a large home slate in front of them in the second half, they should finish in the top three if their form keeps up.
The Vancouver Whitecaps are one of the few clubs in MLS that feature three players with five goals or more. What's more impressive, or scary depending on your point of view, is none of the attackers on the top of the scoring list are true forwards. If the Whitecaps can find someone to fill that role, their play in the final third will improve greatly.
Vancouver has been susceptible to shootouts in 2016 as six of its 17 games have featured at least four goals, including three of the last five. If Kendall Waston is able to keep a cool head in the second half once he gets back from suspension, he and Tim Parker have the potential to form a good amount of chemistry. If that happens, the Whitecaps should be able to cut down on their defensive lapses.
Carl Robinson's side struggled to gain its footing in the first two months of the campaign. The former Wales international appeared to have righted the ship with a three-game winning streak highlighted by a 4-3 win over Toronto FC, but the Whitecaps have only won once since May 14.
If the entire Vancouver squad lives up to its potential, it could win the Western Conference, but we're not convinced everything will come together at once in order for that to happen. The Whitecaps were too erratic in the first half to be trusted as a title contender.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com.