Major League Soccer

MLS power rankings: FC Cincinnati back on top despite roster upheaval

MLS power rankings: FC Cincinnati back on top despite roster upheaval

Luca Orellano Orellano has been electric at left wingback for FC Cincinnati.Photograph: Jason Whitman/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Welcome back to the Guardian’s MLS power rankings, where I have a beef with your specific team and your specific team alone. Xherdan Shaqiri might have ducked out of his MLS duties early ahead of the international break, but me? I’m still going strong, baby.

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.

Chicago’s massive flop

29. New England Revolution

28. Chicago Fire

27. Sporting Kansas City

26. FC Dallas

25. CF Montreal

24. San Jose Earthquakes

Xherdan Shaqiri didn’t travel with the Chicago Fire last weekend for their away clash with DC United.

Instead, he left the club early to head across the Atlantic ahead of the Euros with Switzerland. Or, let me say all of that a different way: the fourth-highest paid player in all of MLS left a club that’s clawing for points to spend unnecessary time in his home country ahead of summer transfer window.

So, uh, yeah, it’s entirely possible that we’ve seen the last of Shaqiri in Chicago.

The Fire should be chomping at the bit to move on from one of the biggest transfer busts in MLS history. Shaqiri entered the league before the 2022 campaign, but hasn’t come close to justifying his profile or his price tag. He averaged less than half of a goal contribution per game during his time in Chicago and tallied just nine goal contributions in over 2,000 minutes in 2023. This year? He has only two goals and a single assist.

Across his 5,000 MLS minutes, Shaqiri has failed to elevate the (admittedly poor) roster around him while playing as a No 10. It’s time to move on, whether that be via a transfer back to Switzerland to the Chicago Fire’s sister club FC Lugano or to Saudi Arabia. Now, I don’t blame the Chicago Fire for taking a big swing at Shaqiri. At his best, the 32-year-old was a dynamo for club and county and the kind of player who would both draw fans and push the team forward on the field. But the Fire have, clearly, not had that version of Shaqiri.

If – or, it seems, when – he moves, the Fire will have the Swiss international’s Designated Player spot to work with. Expect the front office to be active when it comes to reshuffling the top end of Chicago’s roster when the secondary transfer window opens on 18 July.

Now, if only Fire sporting director Georg Heitz and Sebastian Pelzer could hit on a DP signing …

Predictable struggles

23. St. Louis City

22. Orlando City

21. Nashville SC

20. DC United

19. Atlanta United

18. Seattle Sounders

It’s been a year filled with both the expected and the unexpected for St Louis City.

After topping the West in their expansion season last year, they’re sitting all the way down in 11th in the West and 24th in the Supporters’ Shield standings based on points per game. The drop-off was always coming: no team in MLS over-performed their expected goals more than St Louis, who managed 59 goals on just 42.6 xG, according to FBref.

There were always good pieces at Bradley Carnell’s disposal last season – and Carnell himself deserves credit for his team’s aggressive pressing system. But those pieces got unsustainably hot, took advantage of a plethora of insane mistakes from opposing defenders, and earned an extra boost from Roman Burki’s incredible season in goal.

Fast forward to this year and, well, things have cooled off. Burki has still been excellent in goal, but he’s gone from saving 0.28 goals more than expected per 90 to 0.16, according to FBref. And the scoring? It’s dropped from 1.79 goals per 90 last year to 1.29 this year, even with slightly improved chance creation.

Even more than just a natural regression, St Louis lost 15 goals from their attack over the offseason. Nico Gioacchini moved to Italy, while Jared Stroud was traded to DC United. Neither player was truly replaced. Add that to the fact that there’s only one true Designated Player in the squad and you have a team that was always going to struggle to keep pace.

Now, their issues weren’t all predictable. Star No 8 Eduard Lowen, their best outfield player, has missed all but 300 minutes this year as his wife deals with a recent brain cancer diagnosis. Some things – really, many things – in life are far, far bigger than soccer. I truly wish the Lowen family all of the best in this unimaginably difficult time.

On the field, St Louis need more talent. Straight up. The good news is that sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel knows that. The club got a deal over the line earlier this week in the form of forward Cedric Teuchert, who played for Hannover 96 in the 2. Bundesliga this season. And according to Pfannenstiel, “there will be a few more pieces to come”.

Still, those signings will only have, at most, 10 regular season games to make their mark after being officially registered when the transfer window opens in the summer. The clock on improvement is ticking.

New life in Austin

17. Houston Dynamo

16. Portland Timbers

15. Austin FC

14. Philadelphia Union

13. Charlotte FC

12. Colorado Rapids

Shhh, shhh, don’t worry Austin FC fans. Claudio Reyna can’t hurt you anymore.

The now-former sporting director of the newest club in Texas, who resigned from his post in January 2023 after drama surrounding his family and the Berhalter family at the 2022 World Cup, has a woeful record on DP signings. Sebastián Driussi has been a big hit, but Cecilio Domínguez and Tomás Pochettino both flopped in Austin. The same goes for Emiliano Rigoni, who officially left the club via a buyout last week.

Rigoni, a friend of Driussi, never had the resumé of an elite DP when he arrived from São Paulo two years ago. The 31-year-old scored more than five goals just once in his career – and that one season came in his home country back in 2016-17. For Austin, Rigoni put up just 0.28 goal contributions per 90 minutes and was one of the lowest-impact DPs in the league.

But now he’s gone. The last high-priced failure of Reyna’s reign is out the door.

Now it’s Rodolfo Borrell’s chance to form Austin FC in his image. The offseason was quiet for Borrell, who was hired as Reyna’s replacement in June of last year. But with Rigoni gone and his DP spot open, the stars have aligned for the former Pep Guardiola assistant to make his first sizable addition to the squad.

According to reports, that addition will be Ghanaian winger Osman Bukari. The 25-year-old has double-digit caps for his country and played in the Champions League with Red Star Belgrade this season. Bukari is small, right footed, fast and vertical. He loves to slash in behind opposing backlines and thrives when he has the chance to knife past fullbacks on the dribble.

Borrell still needs to find a chance creator who can drift into the middle, but Bukari will be an obvious upgrade over Rigoni out wide. Things are changing for the better in Austin.

Defying the odds

11. Vancouver Whitecaps

10. Toronto FC

9. Minnesota United

8. New York Red Bulls

7. New York City FC

6. LA Galaxy

Imagine trying to convince me before the season started that Minnesota United, without a manager and without their best player in Emanuel Reynoso, would be sitting fourth in the West at the end of May. I’m too polite to have laughed right in your face, but my crazy alarm would be going off at full volume inside my head.

And yet, here we are at the end of May… with the Loons sitting fourth in the West. If the season ended today, they’d be hosting a home playoff series.

Reynoso, who was last seen holding a bag of cash next to a man with a gun down in Argentina, has been a complete non-factor this season. In his absence, new manager Eric Ramsay has leaned on a host of other pieces to keep his Minnesota United team afloat.

Playing out of a press-heavy 3-4-3 shape, Finnish playmaker Robin Lod, who’s been deployed mostly as a narrow right winger, is in the middle of a career year in Minnesota. He leads his team with 12 goal contributions and is first in the squad in expected assists. He’s putting up Reynoso-esque chance creation numbers right now, averaging 0.32 xA per 96 minutes, according to American Soccer Analysis. That tally puts Lod’s current year above all but two of Reynoso’s seasons in Minnesota.

The dude is a genuine star:

Outside of Lod, 24-year-old striker Tani Oluwaseyi has given the attack a major boost. A relative unknown except to those following the Loons closely or monitoring the second-division USL Championship, Oluwaseyi has notched six goals in 544 minutes this year and has unseated Designated Player Teemu Pukki in the starting lineup for stretches.

Jeong Sang-bin has emerged in the forward line, Dayne St. Clair has been huge in goal, and Michael Boxall continues to lock things down in the backline.

This Minnesota squad is far from perfect – they could use real help in central midfield and one more high-level attacker would go a long way. But they are so much better than anybody thought they would be given their circumstances.

Filling big shoes


4. Real Salt Lake

3. Columbus Crew

2. Inter Miami

1. FC Cincinnati

You know how in elementary school, your PE teacher would split your class into two teams by numbering everyone off? One, two, one, two, one, two… Yeah, well that’s pretty much what FC Cincinnati did with their outfield starters over the offseason.

Exactly half of Cincy’s first-choice starters from 2023 left the club, leaving five holes for the front office to fill. Star striker Brandon Vazquez moved to Liga MX giants Monterrey. Midfielder Junior Moreno signed in Saudi Arabia. Elite left wingback Alvaro Barreal headed to Brazil, as did his opposite Santiago Arias. Promising center back Yerson Mosquera moved back to Wolves, his parent club.

That’s a ton of roster upheaval, which is especially challenging to navigate in MLS with the league’s various roster rules and budget categories.

And yet, FC Cincinnati are right back where they were last year: leading the Supporters’ Shield race. Cincy averaged 2.03 points per game en route to winning the Shield in 2023 and are sitting at an improved 2.06 points per game in 2024. General manager Chris Albright and the rest of the club’s front office put in a master class of talent identification in the primary transfer window, while head coach Pat Noonan has done a fantastic job of integrating the new signings into his consistent 3-4-1-2 setup.

The recent additions have all impressed – but Luca Orellano and Kevin Kelsy, the two players with the biggest shoes to fill, who have shined brightest.

Orellano, Barreal’s replacement, has been electric at left wingback. The 24-year-old doesn’t have Barreal’s vision, but still combines well with Lucho Acosta and adds more goal threat than his predecessor. Orellano leads all left outside backs in MLS in non-penalty expected goals plus expected assisted goals per 90 minutes, according to FBref.

Kelsy, a big-bodied forward filling Vazquez’s shoes, has made an instant impact since arriving just before the primary transfer window closed. The 19-year-old Venezuelan has three goals in just over 300 minutes, is finding good spots in the box, and is using his physicality to create space for his teammates.

Coming into 2024, it felt almost impossible for Cincinnati to lose half of their starters without missing a beat. Even without the injured Aaron Boupendza, who looked poised to be an elite attacker this year, they’ve done exactly that.


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