Chicago and Toronto score high marks as D.C. fails MLS midterm grades
Major League Soccer's midway point is as good a time as any to take stock, separating true contenders from also-rans.
The grades below are weighted for preseason expectations. Clubs with resources that have underperformed have been docked a few extra points (I'm looking at you, Seattle), while those outstripping their size are bumped up a bit (I see you, Houston).
Plenty of time still remains until the gauntlet of the stretch run, but here's how each MLS team has fared from kickoff through this past holiday weekend:
Atlanta United: B -- That might seem harsh for a side on track to become the fourth expansion team to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs in its first season, but it also speaks to the level of anticipation and respect for what Tata Martino & Co. are attempting to accomplish down in Georgia. Atlanta still hasn't figured out how to turn positive performances into consistent results, and until then, there is room for improvement.
Chicago Fire: A+ -- Plenty tabbed the Fire as a potential sleeper, given the quality of offseason signings such as Dax McCarty and Juninho, and an ongoing cultural shift within the front office. Not even the most optimistic observers foresaw this. After finishing at the very bottom of the league in both 2015 and 2016, Chicago is currently leading the Supporters' Shield race with a goal differential (plus-18) that hints at sustainability.
Colorado Rapids: D -- Colorado's run to last season's Western Conference final felt like a fluke even as it unfolded, and that impression has held up. The Rapids are 0-7-0 away from home, have scored fewer goals than anybody other than last-place Real Salt Lake and are outside of the playoff picture even in a down year in the West.
Columbus Crew SC: B -- The good news is that Columbus looks more like the Eastern Conference champion of 2015 rather than the playoff non-qualifier of a year ago. The bad news is that even that Cup finalist had flaws, and they're only exacerbated in the current squad. The Crew still struggles to defend or grind out results away from home.
D.C. United: F -- DCU's shoestring budget is finally fraying. For years, it was possible to contend in MLS via shrewd, bargain-bin signings and collective belief. As the league continues to evolve, that might no longer be the case. See: D.C.'s putrid return of 12 goals from 18 games.
FC Dallas: A- -- Dallas has fallen off the pace in the Shield race, but if you'd have promised Oscar Pareja second place in the West despite missing playmaker Mauro Diaz for almost three months, surely the FCD coach would've taken it.
Houston Dynamo: A -- Nitpick its winless road record if you must, but Houston's dramatic turnaround is second only to Chicago's. Under first-year coach Wilmer Cabrera and with an electrifying attacking front, this has quickly become one of the most exciting teams in MLS. It's been a long time since anyone suggested that about the Dynamo.
LA Galaxy: C+ -- This is a tough team to grade. On the one hand, Los Angeles has weathered the departure of coach Bruce Arena to the U.S. men's national team and a shift in organizational emphasis to remain in the playoff spots. On the other, LA remains one of the wealthiest clubs in the league, and it thus seems fair to take a critical eye to a season with some notable low points.
Minnesota United: C- -- Much like its front office's approach in the lead-up to the club's inaugural season, this team has done just enough to avoid completely embarrassing itself in Year 1. There have been cringe-worthy moments, to be sure -- see: Atlanta 6, Minnesota 1 in the home opener -- but there's also something admirable in the way Adrian Heath's squad has steadied itself after that early turbulence.
Montreal Impact: C- -- It is a definite disappointment for the defending conference finalists to sit four points out of the playoff places at the midway point. Yet it could be much worse if not for a recent uptick in form. And with seven of its next 10 matches at home and games in hand on the teams it is chasing, the Impact could rise quickly.
New England Revolution: C -- Besides the outlier of its Eastern Conference title in 2014, the Revs have been spinning tires in place for years now: relatively fun to watch, feisty on their day and ultimately forgettable.
New York City FC: A -- This might be the most well-rounded team in the league, with few obvious holes. David Villa is a front-runner for his second straight MVP, and Patrick Vieira should get a long look for coach of the year. It shouldn't be underappreciated, either, how far NYCFC have come in just their third season in MLS.
New York Red Bulls: C- -- Something is amiss in Harrison. Blame it on the loss of McCarty's influence, or lack of production from Sacha Kljestan, or the novelty of coach Jesse Marsch's message wearing off in Year 3. But three first-place finishes in four years have set a high bar, and so far, this team hasn't cleared it.
Orlando City SC: B+ -- Points deducted for the lull that followed a blazing start, but the Lions have far outpaced what most expected of them in 2017. A negative goal differential means Orlando could still tumble from its fourth-place standing. Jason Kreis is a good enough coach, though -- and this core has enough talent -- to at the very least secure the club's first MLS playoff appearance.
Philadelphia Union: C -- Last year's playoff appearance could've been a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Instead, it feels like an outlier for a club of scant resources still figuring out how to consistently compete.
Portland Timbers: B- -- Red-hot March aside, Portland remains dogged by familiar vices. For all of their talented attackers and long passages of positive play, the Timbers struggle to close out games and lack the backbone necessary for true title contention. As always, though, if this team can figure out how to deal with those flaws, the sky's the limit.
Real Salt Lake: D- -- Only the extenuating circumstances of injuries and international absences keep RSL's grade from failing. Salt Lake has the youthful pieces to bounce back quickly, but for the time being, what was once the model small-market franchise in the league is bottoming out.
San Jose Earthquakes: B -- San Jose's competitiveness relative to its resources makes it all the more baffling that it chose to cut longtime coach Dom Kinnear loose last week. With the transitory feel of this roster, it's hard to imagine asking for much more than playoff contention.
Seattle Sounders: D -- Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer knew it would be difficult maintaining the intensity of last season's late push over the course of a full campaign, and results bear that out. Following a shortened offseason, some veterans look badly in need of a break, and Jordan Morris' sophomore slump hasn't helped the defending champs.
Sporting Kansas City: A -- Many teams would've been crushed by the weight of SKC's recent postseason losses, consumed by the what-ifs of the dynasty that wasn't. Sporting, though, has used them as motivation, as reasons to lock in during stretches of the season other sides overlook. Kansas City has been rewarded with top standing in the West.
Toronto FC: A+ -- Look no further than the team that defeated Toronto FC on a cold December night for evidence of how hard it is to maintain positive vibes after a long playoff run. Toronto has used its MLS Cup loss as a springboard, and it has only gotten better. With Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore all on their games, TFC is a tough out.
Vancouver Whitecaps: C -- The 'Caps are trending toward irrelevance, which is a bummer given what a lively, young group it boasted just a few years ago. The trade of Kekuta Manneh, in many ways a personification of those heady, earlier days, felt like a Rubicon crossed in the modern history of the club.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.