MLS power rankings: Phil Neville is finding his groove with Portland

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Portland Timbers;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Portland Timbers</a> have picked up seven points from their first four games. </span><span>Photograph: Amanda Loman/Getty Images</span>

Prepare your rage. Is it prepared? OK, great.

Welcome back to the Guardian’s MLS Power Rankings, where I have a beef with your specific team and your specific team alone. Now, as a reminder, these aren’t your standard, run-of-the-mill power rankings. We’re still ranking teams from worst to first. But along with the rankings, we’re diving deep into a handful of teams from around the league who are doing particularly interesting things.

The (predictable) worst-case scenario

29. San Jose Earthquakes

28. Austin FC

27. New England Revolution

26. Chicago Fire

25. Colorado Rapids

24. FC Dallas

Asier Illarramendi scoring FC Dallas’ first goal of the season and putting on a giant cowboy hat during the postgame celebrations feels like a distant memory. In reality, it was less than a month ago that Illarramendi and Dallas kicked off their campaign with three points.

But plenty has changed since then. And it hasn’t changed for the better, with the club now on a three-game losing streak.

The 34-year-old Spanish midfielder has only played 135 of a possible 360 minutes this year while dealing with an injury. Paxton Pomykal, the preferred partner for Illarramendi in the middle, has only played seven minutes this season due to injury. Fitness issues were always on the table for Nico Estévez’s preferred central midfield pairing in 2024. According to Transfermarkt, Illarramendi missed 94 games during his final five years in Spain. Pomykal hasn’t started more than 20 games in a single season of his FC Dallas career.

The predictable worst-case scenario in midfield, then, has arrived in Dallas.

Without a reliable double pivot to propel the team’s new 3-4-3, FC Dallas have struggled on both sides of the ball. It’s early days, but they have the fourth-worst expected goal differential per 90 minutes in MLS with -0.51, according to FBref.

Rotation players being drafted into starting central midfield roles has put added strain on the backline. Center-back was an area of concern for Dallas before this year began – Nkosi Tafari is the only player you feel good about starting in that position group. But where, I ask, is the help from midfielders Sebastian Lletget and Patrickson Delgado on this goal from the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday?

It’s truly woeful defending from a team that has far too many moving parts.

Trying to adjust to a new formation (one that Estévez temporarily abandoned against Vancouver, by the way)? Check. Looking for capable central defenders? Check. Waiting for chemistry to develop in the attack between new striker Petar Musa and Jesús Ferreira? Check. And hoping for health for the starters or vastly improved performances from the depth players in midfield? Double check.

There’s a ton of work to do in Dallas.

At home in the halfspace

23. Charlotte FC

22. Orlando City

21. New York City FC

20. Houston Dynamo

19. Seattle Sounders

18. DC United

Think of Arjen Robben’s lightning-quick cut inside on his left foot from the right-wing. Or of Johan Cruyff’s classic turn. Or of Manuel Neuer’s penchant for pushing forward outside his own box to win the ball. Great players often have their thing.

Coco Carrasquilla won’t go down as an all-time great, but at this rate? The midfielder might just go down as a Houston Dynamo great.

The 25-year-old Panama international picked up right where he left off last season, making difficult plays look simple in the final third. Once a more traditional central midfielder, Dynamo manager Ben Olsen shifted Carrasquilla into the right channel when the team had the ball last season, playing a 3-2-5. He’s being used in the same role this season, albeit with even greater responsibility in the final third thanks to Héctor Herrera’s injury. According to American Soccer Analysis, Carrasquilla’s share of his team’s touches in the attacking third of the field has risen from 14.4% last year to 15.6% in 2024.

Shifty on the ball and clever with his off-ball movement, Carrasquilla has plenty of ways to create danger. But he’s developed a go-to move in the final third: switching the play from the right half-space to opposite side of the box.

Here’s that pass breaking Sporting Kansas City’s defensive shape and leading to a goal in Houston’s season opener:

Few players in MLS provide better service than Carrasquilla, who is keeping Houston afloat while three midfield or attacking starters are out injured. It’s so easy to fall in love with his ease and pinpoint accuracy. Now if the Dynamo would only give him a little help in the final third.

Summer can’t come soon enough

17. Nashville SC

16. Toronto FC

15. Philadelphia Union

14. Sporting Kansas City

13. Los Angeles FC

12. St. Louis City

LAFC’s front office settled on an incomplete roster for the first half of the season.

Reigning golden boot winner Denis Bouanga is the only Designated Player in the squad. The other two DP spots are open. With reported interest in Milan and France striker Olivier Giroud and other European stars, the club clearly believes there’s more to be gained in the summer transfer window than in the next month before MLS’s primary transfer window closes.

Giroud would be an entertaining and effective addition to LAFC’s frontline. With his big frame battering opposing center-backs, Bouanga would have even more space to create for himself and his teammates on the left.

While the prospect of Giroud or another high-performing transfer arriving later this year is an exciting one, Steve Cherundolo has been dealt an imperfect hand to start 2024.

We all know LAFC will look very different in July than they do in March, so it’s almost impossible to evaluate this team in the meantime. With MLS on a different calendar than the top European leagues, LAFC are feeling the full brunt of that inconvenience. To grab the high-profile players they want, they have to wait until the middle of the MLS campaign. It’s an inefficient system, to be sure, though not one with an obvious solution for the more ambitious clubs across the league.

Before the big guns arrive this summer, LAFC will still be among the better teams in the West. Even with Cherundolo’s odd distaste for drilling consistent possession patterns into his players and for putting out a forward line in his 4-3-3 with three actual attackers, this team isn’t an easy one to stop. With just four points from four games, though, there’s clearly a long way for this group to go.

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Progress in Portland

11. Portland Timbers

10. Real Salt Lake

9. Vancouver Whitecaps

8. CF Montreal

7. New York Red Bulls

6. Minnesota United

The Portland Timbers got exactly two goals in last year’s regular season from their two DPs not named Evander. Yikes.

Yimmi Chará scored one, while Jaroslaw Niezgoda kindly chipped in with the other. Both of those players left the club in the offseason after Portland missed the playoffs in 2023. Those departures opened up two DP spots for the front office to use and created the potential for the Timbers to have one of the larger turnarounds in MLS from last year to this one.

Even without any new DPs alongside Evander, Portland have had success to the tune of seven points in their first four games. Now, I have some concerns about the sustainability of Phil Neville’s attack. They’ve scored seven goals on just 3.7 xG so far this year, according to FBref, and shouldn’t rely on long-range game-winners at the death to add points to their tally.

While the pessimistic view of Portland is that they’re on a temporary heater, the optimistic view is this:

  • They have clear tactical ideas under Neville, with a focus on mid-block defending and transition attacks

  • Goalkeeping has been a plus, rather than a minus as it was in 2023

  • The front office just added a DP in Jonathan “Cabecita” Rodríguez

The 30-year-old Uruguayan isn’t the historic, record-breaking signing that was rumored over the offseason. But Cabecita put up strong numbers for multiple Liga MX clubs and notched 18 goals in his 3,100 minutes for Club América. He’ll add a real threat to the Timbers’ attack and so clearly moves this team one step forward towards their goal of returning to the top-tier in the Western Conference.

The bar for DP production was in the basement for Portland last year. There’s no chance that Cabecita does anything but jump over it this year.

The Five Stripes are back

5. LA Galaxy

4. FC Cincinnati

3. Atlanta United

2. Inter Miami

1. Columbus Crew

Atlanta United look legit. With two wins and one loss (which came in Columbus against the reigning MLS Cup champions to start the year), the Five Stripes are flying high. Atlanta United have six goals in their last two games, really hitting their stride in the last 45 minutes of a 4-1 win over the New England Revolution and topping southeastern rivals Orlando City 2-0 last weekend.

While Thiago Almada justifiably soaked up much of the attention in Atlanta in 2023, it’s been The Giorgos Giakoumakis Show in 2024. The 29-year-old striker has four goals in his last two games and has pulled off some absurd finishes. This one with the outside of his right foot from a narrow angle is my favorite of the bunch:

It’s not just his ability to latch on to service and put the ball into the back of the net that’s propelling Giakoumakis. Sure, that’s the biggest part of it – I can count the strikers in MLS who are better than Giakoumakis at creating separation from opposing center-backs and finding gaps in the box on one hand. But his goal threat isn’t the only tool in the Greek No 9’s bag. On occasion, he can also serve as a facilitator, even if distribution will never be the primary part of Giakoumakis’ game.

With Giakoumakis spearheading the attack, vertical threats on either wing, an elite string-puller in Almada and a much more capable back four holding things down, all of the pieces just fit in Atlanta. This team is going to score goals on goals on goals over the next eight months.