MLS power rankings: Toronto’s Italian stars look like they finally care

<span>Lorenzo Insigne joined <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Toronto FC;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Toronto FC</a> from Napoli as a Designated Player in 2022. </span><span>Photograph: Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports</span>

In the first few weeks of every new MLS season, there’s a race to gather as much information as possible. Offseason expectations are reformed. New opinions arise. Hot takes are scrubbed from the digital archives.

Welcome to the first edition of the Guardian’s 2024 MLS power rankings, where we’ll be doing plenty of scrubbing ourselves throughout the year.

Now, 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 Italians may actually care

29. Austin FC

28. Colorado Rapids

27. San Jose Earthquakes

26. Chicago Fire

25. New York City FC

24. Toronto FC

Plenty of folks, myself included, thought Toronto FC would struggle mightily in 2024 after “winning” last year’s Wooden Spoon as the worst team in MLS.

Maybe, just maybe, I was wrong about this team. In the first two games of the year, they earned a point on the road against last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners in FC Cincinnati and toppled the New England Revolution to earn three points in another road clash. John Herdman’s team hasn’t been elite – they were second-best in both of their games so far in terms of chance creation. But there’s been a massive, season-altering change taking place in Toronto: the Italians actually seem to care.

Despite Federico Bernardeschi’s public desire to return to Juventus in the most recent January transfer window, he’s still in MLS. Herdman’s been using him as a right wingback in a 3-4-3 shape, and … it’s kind of been working? Sure, Bernardeschi’s lack of defensive effort is heaping an extra helping of responsibility on center back Shane O’Neill’s plate. But in attack, the 30-year-old is threatening as an inverted wide player when Toronto pushes up the field.

Then there’s Lorenzo Insigne, who not only scored a beauty against New England last week, but he also tracked back to win the ball in midfield in the first half. Yes, you read that correctly.

If Herdman continues to get Insigne and Bernardeschi to buy what he’s selling from the sidelines, Toronto FC will be a genuine threat in every game they play this year. After all, the fastest ticket to success in MLS is for your big-money Designated Players to perform at a high level. Things aren’t all the way there in Toronto. Consistency is still a question, as is the quality along the backline and up top. But Toronto FC are climbing.

Sticking in Canada …

23. Charlotte FC

22. Nashville SC

21. CF Montréal

20. Vancouver Whitecaps

19. New England Revolution

18. Orlando City

After Thierry Henry stepped down as CF Montréal’s manager in February 2021 due to family reasons, the club promoted one of his assistants to the top job: Wilfried Nancy. Nancy couldn’t quite help Montréal to get over the playoff line in 2021, but they came back stronger in 2022, finishing second in the Eastern Conference.

Charmed by Nancy’s success, Columbus Crew president Tim Bezbatchenko lured the Frenchman away from Montréal ahead of last season. The Crew made full use of Nancy’s tactical acumen, winning the MLS Cup in December.

Still searching for a manager to restore the same bold attacking principles Nancy used to great success during his time at the club, CF Montréal hired Laurent Courtois from Columbus Crew 2 as their new coach for this season. Undoubtedly influenced by Nancy in Columbus, Courtois would bring pretty, effective soccer back to Montréal after the club finished 10th in the East in 2023.

In Courtois’ first two games at the helm this year, CF Montréal have shifted back to a more patient, Nancy-esque approach. Their direct attacking speed has dropped from 1.85 meters a second under Hernán Losada last year to 1.67 this year, according to Opta. They’re in a familiar 3-4-3 with careful buildup, too. But stuck on a six-game road trip to start the year, Courtois isn’t trying to push his luck. Across the 0-0 draw at Orlando City and a 2-1 win at FC Dallas, Montréal averaged just 42.5% possession. The 45-year-old manager isn’t afraid of a little pragmatism as his ideas start to take hold.

All press is good press

17. DC United

16. Houston Dynamo

15. Sporting Kansas City

14. Real Salt Lake

13. Portland Timbers

12. Minnesota United

The Loons came out flying against Columbus in a 1-1 draw last weekend, pressing with more intensity than in any of their seven previous MLS campaigns.

With Adrian Heath gone and Khaled El-Ahmad in as the club’s new chief soccer officer, we’re seeing a stylistic shift towards high pressing in Minnesota. Erik Ramsey, the now-former Manchester United assistant who will become the youngest coach in MLS at 32 when he leads his first game later this month, will further emphasize that shift.

Against the Crew, Minnesota United used a 4-1-4-1 shape as the structure for their intense press. Their two No 8s discouraged passing into Columbus’ double pivot. Their wingers were aggressive in closing down the ball. Striker Teemu Pukki split the field in half with his movement up top. Few teams have troubled Columbus’ attacking play over the last year or so, but Minnesota did just that for the first 25 minutes last weekend.

The game started well, but then things fell apart. Columbus started finding the gaps on either side of Will Trapp at the base of midfield. Then they started breaking into the attacking half. Then they started finding Cucho Hernández in the box. And then the ball was in the back of the net. Despite its flaws, the press looks like a real asset for Minnesota United. The Crew are better at adjusting their possession patterns in real time than any other team in MLS.

Will anybody else in the league be able to play through this?

Emanuel Reynoso, the team’s star attacking midfielder, will ask questions of the press when he’s back from injury. Can Ramsey get Reynoso to engage defensively, when that’s not really part of the deal these ball-dominant stars sign when they come to MLS?

New year, new New York Red Bulls

11. FC Dallas

10. St. Louis City

9. New York Red Bulls

8. LA Galaxy

7. Seattle Sounders

6. Atlanta United

By signing Emil Forsberg to replace Luquinhas over the offseason, the Red Bulls upgraded in attacking midfield. It’s early days, but that swap is right up there with Luis Suárez replacing Josef Martínez up top for Miami in terms of net value added at any position over the offseason.

Last year, Luquinhas ranked in the bottom third in expected assisted goals among his positional peers, according to FBref. He was press resistant, sure. But capable of creating chances? Not so much. In direct contrast to the DP he replaced, Forsberg is already unlocking new possibilities for the New York branch of the Red Bull family. In RBNY’s draw with Nashville SC to start their season, Forsberg found his teammates with clever distribution from both feet (and his head!) in the attacking half.

It’s not just Forsberg who’s changing games and how they’re played for the Red Bulls, though. It’s also 21-year-old Swedish center back Noah Eile, who is – and I’m not exaggerating here – one of the best passers from the backline that’s ever been seen on this side of the Atlantic. The young defender adds another dimension to the New York Red Bulls’ direct, high pressing approach. He gives them an occasional sense of calm, sprinkling in a bit of finesse whenever the pedal-to-the-metal, energy drink soccer either isn’t working or doesn’t fit the moment.

The Red Bulls are more talented, more versatile, and much more fun to watch this year than they were last year.

Win-now mode

5. Los Angeles FC

4. Philadelphia Union

3. FC Cincinnati

2. Inter Miami

1. Columbus Crew

FC Cincinnati are looking for an encore. After finishing with the best record in MLS in 2023, Cincinnati’s front office put together a trade that strengthens their squad and (temporarily) weakens a conference threat. On Monday, Cincinnati officially acquired former USMNT team right back DeAndre Yedlin from Inter Miami.

Yedlin, 30, isn’t a gamechanger all on his own at this point in his career. But it’s been years since he’s played on a consistently good team and his numbers should benefit from having talent and structure around him in Ohio.

For Pat Noonan, Yedlin fills an obvious position of need at right wingback. Santiago Arias simply wasn’t on the field often enough at that spot last year and left over the offseason, opening the door for Yedlin to be a regular threat on the overlap. He’ll make the field even bigger for Lucho Acosta in the attacking midfield and Aaron Boupendza in the forward line.

Even with those incremental improvements, big questions remain about just how good FC Cincinnati will be this season. Four points through two games is a fine start, but they looked far from dominant across their opening draw with Toronto FC and this past weekend’s narrow win over the Chicago Fire. There are now five new starters in Noonan’s presumed first-choice lineup.

Trusting general manager Chris Albright’s eye for talent is usually a safe idea, but this group has chemistry to build.