MLS Tiers, Week 5: There's Zlatan and Then There's Everyone Else
Poor Dominique Badji. Score your first pro hat trick to give your team its first win of the season—and your new coach his first win, period—only to see your achievement overshadowed entirely by the Zlatan supernova.
Such is the nature of star power. Badji is a good story. The 25-year-old was born in Senegal and went to high school in Northern Virginia before starring at Boston University—the same BU that’s won a single NCAA tournament game over the past two decades. There was no elite club pedigree or junior national team exposure. He was just about the longest of professional long shots. Most fourth-round MLS draft picks never see the field. But Badji has persevered. He weathered the ups and downs in Commerce City and in 2017, his third MLS campaign, he tallied 10 goals in all competitions. And then Saturday, he scored three in one half as the Rapids defeated the visiting Philadelphia Union.
It’s a breakthrough for Badji. It’s a breakthrough for Colorado. But more than likely, you haven’t seen the hat trick because there’s this video of Fox’s Rob Stone spraying Zlatan Ibrahimovic with his own branded cologne, and that’s must-see.
Because Zlatan demands our attention. Because Zlatan is narrative and star power, and because despite the hype and goofy quotes and the full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times, he somehow continues to exceed expectations and amaze. You may never watch Badji’s hat trick, but you’ll be stumbling across Ibra’s 45-yard one-timer against LAFC for years.
The 2018 MLS season is still very young and confusing (how have the Seattle Sounders failed to score a goal?) Players and managers are getting settled in and two teams, Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls, are focused (rightly) on the Concacaf Champions League. It’s still difficult to figure out who fits where and which clubs will hit their stride. But star power can’t be quantified. We know it when we see it. So after just a few weeks, or in Ibra’s case, about 15 minutes, we do have a sense of Q rating, charisma and story line. Which teams are really worth watching? Which ones make for appointment viewing, and who still isn’t ready for prime time?
In recognition of Zlatan’s peerless ability to command the spotlight, this week’s MLS tier ranking looks at who’s worth your attention one month into the campaign.
The Zlatan tier
LA Galaxy (2-1-1), Zlatan (1-0-0)
Whatever he does from here on out, it’ll be a story. MLS, you’re welcome.
Mortal, but still must-see tier
Atlanta United (3-1-0), Los Angeles FC (2-1-0), New York City FC (4-0-1), New York Red Bulls (2-2-0), Toronto FC (1-2-0)
Tune in to see NYCFC because it has the league’s best record and is learning to win without David Villa, who’s certainly Ibra’s on-field equal—at least—and who’s missed the past three matches. It’s worth watching coach Patrick Vieira stick to a style and add players like Jesus Medina and Anton Tinnerholm to the mix, building a team with genuine identity rather than one relying on fading stars. There’s only one Zlatan.
Despite blowing that three-goal lead to the Galaxy and Ibrahimovic, LAFC remains in great shape for a team that’s three games old and in Carlos Vela, Marco Ureña and Diego Rossi, it has attackers who are proving themselves highlight-reel worthy. The same goes for Atlanta, which has won three straight following that bizarre season-opening capitulation in Houston. Meanwhile, TFC and the Red Bulls (along with Bradley Wright-Phillips, the Harrison Zlatan) make for compelling viewing as they navigate CCL and MLS play. Both are well-coached, well-constructed clubs that set different, but admirable, standards.
The potential is apparent—or at least they’re functional—tier
Colorado Rapids (1-1-1), Columbus Crew (3-1-1), FC Dallas (1-0-2), Orlando City (1-2-1), Montreal Impact (2-2-0), New England Revolution (2-1-1), San Jose Earthquakes (1-2-0), Sporting Kansas City (3-1-1), Vancouver Whitecaps (3-1-1)
They may not be newsworthy outside their individual markets, but each of these teams has something going for it—or at least appears to be building something—one month in.
SKC, Vancouver and Columbus have found ways to get points, even if it’s not always pretty or consistent. New coaches in San Jose (Mikael Stahre) and New England (Brad Friedel) are starting to lay a foundation. Orlando finally won on Saturday. It may have been over a Red Bulls B team, but what matters is Lions coach Jason Kreis getting closer to finding the best way to use Dom Dwyer, Justin Meram and Sacha Kljestan. That’ll be fun to watch, if and when.
Montreal has beaten last season's conference champions back-to-back. FCD's Roland Lamah quietly has three goals and an assist in three games, and FCD is quietly unbeaten. And Badji’s hat trick is worth a spot in this tier, at least.
Not ready for prime time tier
Chicago Fire (0-2-1), D.C. United (0-3-2), Houston Dynamo (1-2-1), Minnesota United (2-3-0), Philadelphia Union (1-1-1), Portland Timbers (0-2-2), Real Salt Lake (1-2-1), Seattle Sounders (0-3-0)
The teams in this tier are either underperforming enough to cause frustration among even their own fan bases, or are flat-out admitting they’ve got problems. RSL coach Mike Petke and Chicago coach Veljko Paunovic have been honorably but brutally honest about the work they’ve got ahead of them. More was expected from those two clubs. Minnesota falls a tier because it’s way too early to be talking about a lack of respect. That’s just a turn-off, especially after a loss.
Meanwhile, the Dynamo suddenly are quite vincible at home, the growing pains (and absences) in Portland are real, and D.C. may be out of contention by the time Audi Field opens in July. Seattle remains stuck the starting gate with no goals and three red cards in three games. After nearly a decade as one of the league’s must-see teams, being nigh unwatchable is new and unwelcome territory.