Voices: Joseph Lowery

Columbus Crew to Toronto FC: How legit are top early teams?


I’m very much here for the symmetry we’re seeing at the top of the table in MLS right now. Through the first few weeks of the season, exactly seven teams are sitting on seven points.

Which of those seven teams are legit? And which ones are flying a bit too close to the sun?

Let’s investigate, using a very real rating system called the “Legitness Score” that I totally didn’t make up three seconds ago.

Legitness Score: 10/10

Come on, now. There’s no world where the Columbus Crew walk out with anything less than full marks.

Conceding a late equalizer against Minnesota United on Matchday 3 stings, but this Crew team looks downright scary yet again. Wilfried Nancy’s squad was the only MLS team competing in the Concacaf Champions Cup to collect three points during Matchday 4 – and they took care of business on the road against the Houston Dynamo in CCC play to give themselves a real edge coming into this week’s second leg.

The talent is there. The depth looks stronger this year than last, especially when it comes to Jacen Russell-Rowe in the attack. The possession-heavy tactical approach is still giving opponents fits. The Crew are the best team in the league right now.

Inter Miami CF logo
Inter Miami CF

Legitness Score: 9/10

They’ve played one more game than the other six teams sitting on seven points at this stage of the 2024 season, but it’s foolish to doubt Inter Miami. Did their 3-2 loss to CF Montréal on Sunday lower their estimations in the eyes of the masses? Probably. However, you simply can’t put too much stock into the performance of a heavily rotated lineup from Tata Martino as Miami push to progress in the Concacaf Champions Cup.

Eventually, Miami will have to pick up points when Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez aren’t in the XI. That’s non-negotiable. But I’m withholding judgment on their depth until Federico Redondo settles into life in Florida and until the front office replaces right back DeAndre Yedlin.

This Miami team, while imperfect, is scary good at their best. I’d wager we'll see far more of their best than their worst in 2024. That 5-0 win over Orlando City SC on Matchday 3 was one of the biggest demolitions we’ve ever seen in this league.

Minnesota United FC logo
Minnesota United FC

Legitness Score: 6/10

If you’re Minnesota United head coach Eric Ramsay, it’s hard to imagine a better situation to walk into than this one. Your new team is undefeated, riding high, and isn’t far from getting one of the best No. 10s in the entire league back from injury.

Life is good for the Loons.

I’ll admit, I’m still not over how aggressively Minnesota United pressed the Columbus Crew on Matchday 3. I’ve never seen a non-Red Bulls MLS team press with that much intensity. Sure, it wasn’t the press that earned them a home point that day, but you can bet it will be a big ol’ weapon in Ramsay’s back pocket against less press-resistant opponents moving forward.

If Emanuel Reynoso rows in the same direction as everyone else, this team could finish dangerously close to the top of the Western Conference. Some of their game control issues are real (see: Saturday’s nervy 3-2 win over Orlando City), but I’m not floored that Minnesota have started well.

Legitness Score: 6/10

I’m loving what Laurent Courtois and CF Montréal are doing right now.

Halfway through a taxing six-game road trip to start the year, Montréal have picked up two wins in a row. And they’re doing it while using an effective mixture of possession play and deeper defending in a 5-4-1 block. Courtois has been more pragmatic than Wilfried Nancy was while opening his time in charge of CFMTL in 2022, but that pragmatism is serving Montréal well.

I’ll be surprised if we don’t see Montréal become more of a Columbus-esque possession team as they break into their home schedule. But I won’t be shocked. This team lacks the sort of top-end talent that makes the Crew, well, the Crew. That’s what holds back their Legitness Score from being higher than a 6/10, though it hasn’t held them back from major results in 2024.

New York Red Bulls logo
New York Red Bulls

Legitness Score: 8/10

The New York Red Bulls were the second-best defensive team in MLS last year, based on expected goals allowed data from FBref. This year, it looks like they’ve maintained so much of that defensive solidity under new manager Sandro Schwarz, while also adding a dose of attacking quality.

Emil Forsberg continues to shine bright on the ball. Whether he’s playing in the left halfspace behind two strikers or as a pure No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 (like he did in RBNY’s 2-1 win vs. FC Dallas on Saturday), the Swede has been a major upgrade. The same goes for Forsberg’s countryman Noah Eile in the middle of the backline. Oh, and Lewis Morgan is back scoring goals.

The striker spot is still a big question mark, but this team is much improved from last season. Let’s not forget that so much of the underlying data already loved them in 2023. The rest of the Eastern Conference should be scared.

Portland Timbers logo
Portland Timbers

Legitness Score: 6/10

This Portland Timbers team will obviously be miles better than they were in 2023, when they finished 10th in the Western Conference. Maxime Crépeau is a major upgrade in goal, Kamal Miller adds some stability to the backline, and at least one more big-time DP (Jonathan Rodríguez) will be a huge boost in the attack.

All of that is true. But you know what else is true? The Portland Timbers have been reaaaaal fortunate through three games this season.

Scoring four goals on 0.5 xG to kick things off against the Colorado Rapids was a wild turn of events. The Timbers were also out-created against D.C. United and New York City FC, snagging two late goals against Nick Cushing’s side after having very little joy for most of the game.

I buy Portland as a Western Conference team with a solid shot at a home Audi MLS Cup Playoffs game this year. But are they this good? Not yet.

Toronto FC logo
Toronto FC

Legitness Score: 4/10

I hope the image of Lorenzo Insigne scoring a banger and then running across the field to jump into John Herdman’s arms replays in the minds of Toronto FC fans for a long, long time. It was an incredibly special moment on Saturday, especially after the soap opera that was their 2023:

Collecting seven points from three games is an amazing accomplishment for a team that many of us (myself included) picked to win the Wooden Spoon ahead of the season. That possibility is off the table, which is fantastic for Toronto FC. That said… even though getting real production from your DPs is step one to relevance in MLS, I’m still not all the way there on this team.

Herdman deserves a ton of credit for getting real buy-in from his team. But can you survive off Insigne bangers forever? No. This group is yet to show much variety in the final third, and there are still justified concerns about their depth.

Setting the concerns aside, everyone in Toronto should be proud of what they’ve accomplished so far this year. They might be a playoff-caliber team after all.