Strength of schedule matters. Since this should go without saying, I risk entering the realm of mansplaining just by bringing it up, but it’s something often overlooked this early in the season, even if this point in the season is where an easy schedule will have its biggest influence.
Just look at the top of each conference. In the East, you have a Houston team that’s been able to rack up six points and a plus-five difference with home games against the Revolution and Impact. This weekend’s results in New England and Montréal only reinforced the idea that the standings (and, our rankings) may have overvalued Houston’s hot start.
It’s the same story in the West. FC Dallas has seven points in three games, but its wins have come against Montréal and Chivas USA. Óscar Pareja’s team got a point in Kansas City, but it was against a Sporting squad that’s been juggling commitments. Dallas deserves credit for their start, but proper credit considers their level of competition.
As games go by and we learn more about teams, perceptions need to be adjusted. In Week 1, Vancouver blew out New York, a result that earned them a spot high in our rankings. With time we’ve seen the Red Bulls’ struggles go beyond one game. And with Houston, that 4-0 win on opening night over New England looked different once the Revs went their next 180 minutes without a goal.
It works the other way, too. Toronto’s win in Seattle looks better after the Sounders’ performance in Quebec, while Sporting’s 1-0 over San Jose looks very good when you consider that same team took a Champions League semifinalist to penalty kicks three nights before.
The point: We need to stay mentally nimble in this early portion of the calendar. The unknowns vastly outnumber the knows, part of the reason teams keep jumping around this table.
Here’s our Power Ranking, after Week 3 of the MLS season:
Toronto FC: A day after TFC’s win over D.C. United, I was still not on board with moving them to the top of this list. A second viewing of the game convinced me. A one-goal loss was the best possible result for D.C. United, and while D.C. is the worst team int he league, in all phases of the game, Toronto was much better. Their performance exceeded a 1-0. Combine that form with a win at CenturyLink and Toronto is clearly off to the league’s best start. (2-0-0)
Real Salt Lake: Even after their slip on Saturday, RSL still fairs well in the test that matters to this list: If they play tomorrow, neutral field, who wins? I know the cosmic law of Power Rankings says a team with two straight draws shouldn’t be this high, but when I watched those San Jose and LA draws, I didn’t see a team that’s so incredibly vulnerable. I saw a team that had two difficult games against tough opponents. Granted, one of those games was at home, but it will take more than a Robbie Keane counterattack (and, some late match fatigue) to make RSL look worse than the other 17 teams on this list. (1-0-2)
Columbus Crew: With the possible exception of central defense, the Crew look incredible right now. Every person in Gregg Berhalter’s starting XI has such a strong, specific idea of what they’re supposed to do – a cognizance that’s most evident in their midfield. Wil Trapp’s the anchor, Tony Tchani’s the shuttler, while Federico Higuaín’s the creator. Thanks in no small part to Tchani (an unsung hero on Saturday), the threesome maintains a balance that centers the team, a virtue that allowed the Crew to defeat a strong Union squad. (2-0-0)
Sporting Kansas City: Kansas City has so many asterisks, it’s impossible to feel good about this ranking. On Saturday, the team was still resting players (Matt Belser, Uri Rosell, C.J. Sapong), playing on short rest, and facing a quality opponent. At the same time, this team needs to start generating more chances. Against San Jose, there were enough opportunities before Dom Dwyer’s goal to make me believe the attack’s coming around. Besides, the team Sporting was going up against had Victor Bernardez and Clarence Goodson in central defense. (1-1-1)
Philadelphia Union: Saturday’s game was great – by far the best game of the week. Both teams, so drastically improved since last year, played at a level that would have beaten most teams in the league. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, they happened to be visiting another of the league’s better sides, but if you look at the first 15 minutes and the quarter-hour that begins at the 60-minute mark, you’ll see the quality Philadelphia brings to this spot. (1-1-1)
Houston Dynamo: Dom Kinnear’s team didn’t play, but we learned more about their start. The two teams they played (and, played at BBVA Compass) are a combined 0-5-1 through six games, with neither team producing a win at home this weekend. We need to see Houston against better teams before we’re so sure this perfect record goes beyond an easy schedule. (2-0-0)
Seattle Sounders: Here’s the difficulty with the Sounders: They just played their best game of the season but did so playing a formation (4-3-3) they’re unlikely to employ when Clint Dempsey and Brad Evans are available. That midfield that performed so well in Montréal? Two of its three parts will be on the bench when a full squad is available. I want to rank the Sounders higher, but when I ask myself how Saturday’s result informs how the team will fair forward, I’m not sure which Sounders team to judge. The one that played on Saturday was better than the one we’ve seen to this point in the season, but it’s also not Seattle’s preferred setup. (2-1-0)
FC Dallas: Pros – most points in the league; MLS’s best attack; Mauro Díaz and Fabian Castillo; a set-up that is going to give Castillo and Je-Vaughn Watson a chance to embarrass defenders all year. Cons – their schedule; their defense; not knowing whether Watson can maintain Saturday’s level all season. (2-0-1)
LA Galaxy: A draw in Sandy should normally move a team up the rankings, but this early in the season, with enough teams making big leaps (Columbus, Dallas), LA still managed to slip. The defense looks better with A.J. DeLaGarza in the middle, with Todd Duivant’s return to the starting lineup also giving Galaxy fans hope the back four can be stabilized. We’ll have to wait and see how often Bruce Arena goes with a midfield diamond, though. That may have been one part opponent (RSL), one part resting players. (0-1-1)
San Jose Earthquakes: Chris Wondolowski’s late miss in Kansas City may have cost the Earthquakes a point, but a 1-0 loss at Sporting is nothing to fret over. A bigger concern may be getting the team’s two-man midfield working together. Right now, it’s too much of the same between Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi and Sam Cronin. At times it felt like all three Sporting midfielders could do whatever they wanted in the space between Wondo and the Earthquakes midfielders. (0-1-1)
Colorado Rapids: If Columbus-Philadelphia was the weekend’s best game, Colorado-Portland was the worst. Neither team looked good, with the Rapids eventually breaking the game open after Donovan Ricketts got himself sent off. If the Timbers’ keeper doesn’t do his Street Fighter impression instead of staying calm on his clearance, that game ends 0-0. Instead, Colorado gets a win and, thanks to other teams, a small bump on this list. (1-0-1)
Vancouver Whitecaps: Another uninspiring performance on the road is rewarded with a point thanks to David Ousted, whose first half save on Andy Dorman rivals Troy Perkins’ Sunday stop for weekend’s best. Ultimately, however, the result recommends Vancouver more than the form, something that’s worrisome going forward. Fortunately, the Whitecaps get to make their tweaks while enjoying an unbeaten start. (1-0-2)
Portland Timbers: The Timbers have had 270 minutes to tempt us. Now, we’re inching toward conclusions, mostly based on their consistently teasing performances. The defending is fine but tends to have one or two big errors per game. Going forward, the team stills control play, but the only goals they’ve scored this year have been poached by Gastón Fernández. With Will Johnson and Diego Valeri yet to show their 2013 form, Portland has small questions at each level of the field, something that’s led to a poor start. (0-1-2)
Chivas USA: The 3-1 loss looks worse than it played out. Michel’s final goal insurance was a fluke deflection off the Chivas wall. At the same time, Chivas was clearly second best on Saturday, and while you can chalk that up to the absences of Bobby Burling and Agustín Pelletieri, it may also be the team regressing to their mean, a little. (1-1-1)
Chicago Fire: This may be a bit low, but given how bad New York (and, in hindsight, Portland) has been, it’s difficult to assign too much credit for Saturday’s performance. Chicago were the slightly better team, generating the better chances throughout, yet they were unable to find a winner against a team who, on current form, they should be beating at home. The central defense looked very good, and Jeff Larentowicz has had a strong start to the season. Mike Magee, however, doesn’t look like a two-in-three scorer. (0-1-2)
New York Red Bulls: That attacking midfielder Mike Petke so desperately wanted? The Red Bulls needed him on Saturday. They also needed a much better day from Tim Cahill, who couldn’t seem to stay onside or keep his hands off the ball (or, mark Jeff Larentowicz on a corner). The fullbacks look like a problem, but thanks to Luis Robles, Ibrahim Sekagya, and Dax McCarty, the Red Bulls were able to get out of Chicago with a point. (0-1-2)
New England Revolution: Just like on the field, New England’s progress in this ranking is small but noticeable. The team generated more chances on Saturday, but Teal Bunbury couldn’t do anything with them. The questions at the back went untested, largely because of improved play in midfield. New England earned its first point of the season, but as we said last week, the result is less important than the performance. The Revolution need to keep that momentum going into San Jose. (0-2-1)
Montréal Impact: It’s difficult to both praise Seattle and be down on Montréal, especially with Marco Di Vaio yet to play a minute for the Impact. But Hernan Bernardello and Patrice Bernier look redundant in midfield. Collen Warner is a non-factor when starting at left midfield, and the team has no consistent, non-Di Vaio way of generating chances. Saturday only added context to their two losses in Texas. (0-3-0)
D.C. United: Despite the improved result, D.C. shortcomings were still evident. The attack was ineffectual. The midfield did nothing to stop Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osario. A central defense pairing of Jeff Parke and Bobby Boswell seemed to spend as much time turned toward their own goal as facing the middle of the field. The team spent big for Eddie Johnson and have no way to get him the ball. (0-2-0)