Major League Soccer

MLS power rankings: Christian Benteke has Zlatan-ified DC United

MLS power rankings: Christian Benteke has Zlatan-ified DC United

Christian Benteke is tied for the golden boot this season with 11 goals. Photograph: Mady Mertens/USA Today Sports

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.

Trouble in the Music City

29. New England Revolution

28. Chicago Fire

27. Sporting Kansas City

26. FC Dallas

25. San Jose Earthquakes

24. Nashville SC

The best versions of Nashville SC, the ones that pushed into the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff field or made a run to the Leagues Cup final, were built on a couple of core principles. First, they were defensively compact. Second, they were incisive in transition.

This year’s version of Nashville SC is neither of those things. With just 14 points from 12 games, they’re languishing down in 10th in the Eastern Conference. And now, this year’s version of Nashville SC is without its manager: Gary Smith was fired on Thursday.

Defensively, only 10 teams in MLS have allowed more xG per game than Nashville, according to American Soccer Analysis. So many of those conceded chances came back in a 5-0 loss to LAFC in March, a match that kicked off a five-game winless run. LAFC carved right through their former conference mates in a way that we’re just not used to seeing.

Nashville have been noticeably more passive defensively in 2024 than they were in 2023, struggling to apply pressure without the ball. Last year, they sat 18th in MLS in passes allowed per defensive action with 13.4, according to Opta. This year? They’re 27th in the league with 16.2. Their line of confrontation is deeper, but that hasn’t translated to actual compactness.

Getting Walker Zimmerman back into the defense after his injury problems has helped, but it used to be that Nashville took joy in being difficult to play against regardless of which 11 players were on the field. Some of that identity seems to have faded.

Nashville have had more than their fair share of injuries even beyond Zimmerman. However, those don’t fully explain their attacking woes.

Nashville aren’t a direct team this year. Troublingly, they’re not an effective possession team, either. Former league MVP Hany Mukhtar is at his best off the ball rather than on it and general manager Mike Jacobs has assembled a squad that’s nigh on devoid of progressive passing in central midfield. So if they’re not especially quick in transition and not effective in possession, what are we left with? Well, we’re left with a team that’s a shell of its former self. The next manager has some work to do.

On the hot seat

23. Portland Timbers

22. CF Montréal

21. Orlando City

20. Seattle Sounders

19. St. Louis City

18. Atlanta United

There are a handful of warm managerial seats across the league, but now that Smith has been fired, none is toastier than Gonzalo Pineda’s.

Atlanta United came into 2024 with legitimate aspirations to finish near the very top of the East, but currently find themselves with just three wins in the first third of the 2024 campaign. Despite upgrading in midfield and in the middle of the backline over the offseason to support their attack, which is one of the top personnel groups in the league, success hasn’t come for the Five Stripes.

Pineda will mourn the fact that he’s been without his preferred center back pairing since the middle of March due to injuries, but there are deeper-seeded tactical problems in Atlanta. Their press has been in shambles for long stretches this year. According to Opta, Atlanta United press outside their defensive third more than all but six teams in MLS. And yet, they’ve forced the fourth-fewest high turnovers in MLS.

Sequences like the one above are the kinds that should have Atlanta United’s front office members convening the following morning to, shall we say, chat about the team’s future.

Since he arrived in Atlanta in the middle of the 2021 season, Pineda has done very little to build an effective tactical approach. He’s relied on standard shapes (usually a 4-2-3-1 in attack and a 4-4-2 defensive shape) and has preferred player-dictated movements rather than hard-and-fast patterns. When his best players have been available, Pineda’s team has looked good. Without them, they’ve struggled. It’s hard to conclude, then, that the Mexican manager is adding a ton of value.

Now with the team spiraling, and the defensive structure at a low for Pineda’s time in charge, it may be time for a change on the sidelines.

Former River Plate manager Marcelo Gallardo appears to be available and his son plays for Atlanta United’s MLS Next Pro team. Make of that what you will.

Major allegations

17. Philadelphia Union

16. Austin FC

15. Toronto FC

14. Houston Dynamo

13. Colorado Rapids

12. Vancouver Whitecaps

In one of the strangest stories of the 2024 season, Toronto FC manager John Herdman alleged that New York City FC manager Nick Cushing punched one of Toronto’s players “in the face”.

Herdman shared the allegation after Toronto FC’s 3-2 loss to NYCFC over the weekend, stating that the incident occurred after the teams met back in March. Cameras in the tunnels of Yankee Stadium, where the incident supposedly took place, didn’t document an assault and Cushing has denied these allegations. “I categorically deny any involvement or any incident where I have punched or assaulted any Toronto FC player or staff member,” he said. “I am shocked, personally. I’m upset by the allegation.”

According to reports, NYC FC had already sent MLS and Toronto FC videos of his half-time incident from their March meeting and believed the matter to be closed. That is, until Herdman’s postgame comments on Saturday evening.

In a postgame melee over the weekend involving players, staff members, and the head coaches, Herdman charged towards Cushing and the two had to be separated.

The whole thing is bizarre and the future is murky, at best. These sorts of allegations should be taken extremely seriously, as should the decision to pose them in the first place. MLS is now reviewing this situation, though it’s hard to imagine that they’ll receive much more evidence than they did after their initial review nearly two months ago.

For now, we wait. Herdman was suspended for one match for his involvement in the postgame scuffle, but he and Cushing remain in charge of their teams.

The Zlatan-ification of Christian Benteke

11. DC United

10. Charlotte FC

9. NYCFC

8. LA Galaxy

7. New York Red Bulls

6. Minnesota United

More than maybe any player in MLS history not named Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimović changed the very fabric of how his team played. During his time with the LA Galaxy, Zlatan won a whole bunch of aerial duels, conducted attacks, and finished them, too. Sure, there were useful players around the Swedish legend, but he was the LA Galaxy of five years ago.

Christian Benteke is that player for DC United right now. He’s having a Zlatan-esque impact – not just in front of goal, where he’s tied for the Golden Boot lead with 11 goals this year, but in terms of Troy Lesesne’s tactical approach.

DC play some of the most direct soccer in MLS, ranking third in the league in direct attacking speed, according to Opta. Why do they attack so directly? Because of Benteke. The Belgian is averaging a staggering 13.5 successful aerial duels per 90 minutes, according to FBref. The next closest player in all of MLS? They’re winning 5.2 aerials per 90.

I truly cannot emphasize enough how absurd that number is. It’s like Benteke’s playing a completely different sport to every other forward in the league as he leads the line for this new-look DC United team. There isn’t a single center back in MLS who can match his physicality on either set pieces or in open play.

He scored a hat-trick of headers against Atlanta United on Saturday, constantly running off the back shoulder of the opposing center backs to meet a teammate’s service inside the six-yard box. He’s an asset in buildup, too, giving his teammates a sure-fire outlet to progress the ball. He’s truly singular.

There’s no one else in this league who can do what Benteke does. And as a result, there’s no other team in MLS who can punish their opponents quietly like DC United.

The rich get richer

5. LAFC

4. Real Salt Lake

3. Columbus Crew

2. FC Cincinnati

1. Inter Miami

A not-insignificant part of me thinks that Matias Rojas has broken MLS.

In the Paraguayan international’s first 247 minutes in the league since he arrived last month, he’s already totted up three goals and an assist. And these aren’t just your run-of-the-ball, standard goal contribution fare. No, there are goal contributions and then there are goal contributions. These have been the latter.

Allow me to present Rojas’ first goal for Miami, which came in the form of an absolute scorcher against the New York Red Bulls:

And then there was his most recent goal, a free kick against CF Montréal that surely made Messi proud.

The 28-year-old’s assist for Inter Miami’s game-winner on Saturday was another peach, with Rojas perfectly weighting a ball into the path of Benjamin Cremaschi.

After a dispute with his former club, Corinthians in Brazil, about image rights payments, Rojas was free to sign anywhere in the world. With Argentinian Gerardo “Tata” Martino steering the ship and the greatest of all time in the squad, Inter Miami became Rojas’ go-to destination.

As the plays up above illustrate, he’s been an incredible addition to this Miami squad.

Facundo Farías’ preseason injury left them light on left-sided attackers. But now with Rojas’ cultured left foot and penchant for the final ball, there’s another huge attacking threat in the frontline along with Messi and Luis Suárez. He’s made it even more difficult for opposing teams to press Inter Miami, not with line-stretching off-ball movement but with precise touches in buildup. Then in the final third, he’s given Miami yet another lock-picker.

Rojas’ tendency to drop rather than to stretch puts extra pressure on Martino’s central midfielders to provide verticality. But as Cremaschi found out on Saturday, Miami’s piano players do a really, really good job of rewarding their piano carriers.

With Rojas taking to life in Miami and with one more DP spot set to open for the club as roster rules shift in the summer, this team is only getting better.

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