Major League Soccer has worked awfully hard through the years to make itself a draw in ways that extend beyond offering former European stars with huge names a soft preretirement landing spot. The stadiums are properly sized (as in, they don’t play in NFL stadiums anymore), the fan culture is mostly strong, the teams are loaded with young and hungry players, and the average playing style is aggressive. The league has a lot to offer and doesn’t need to bring in the next David Beckham or Zlatan Ibrahimovic to sell tickets.
When you have a chance to nab Lionel Messi, however, all rules justifiably go out the window.
Messi, probably the greatest soccer player of all time, will make his debut with Inter Miami in the coming weeks, likely when they begin Leagues Cup play against Mexico’s Cruz Azul on July 21. He’ll bring Sergio Busquets, one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time, with him. They’ll be ready for the Leagues Cup, the U.S. Open Cup semifinals and about the last third of the MLS regular season. Spanish outlet Marca has already published a story titled, “How many points does Messi have to win for Inter Miami to challenge for the MLS playoffs?” (The answer: a lot.) This is going to be a pretty interesting experiment, one that I’m guessing will sell a lot of Apple TV+ subscriptions in the meantime. (Apple owns most of the league’s broadcasting rights.)
This fun, intense and often haphazard league just got even more watchable, in other words. And it will likely rope in some new fans.
If you’re one of those newbies, or if you’re signing up for a season pass to rekindle an old flame — or, hey, if you’re Messi or Busquets and you want to know what the hell you just got yourself into — allow me to be your sherpa. You can simply look at the league table to figure out who has been good or bad this season, but who brings the most bang for the entertainment buck? Who’s the most watchable?
For the past few years, I have been sharing Watchability Rankings for the teams in Europe’s biggest leagues. I did the same for MLS last summer. With the new blood on the horizon, now seems like the best possible time to post this year’s list.
You can look at the criteria in-depth here, but the gist is this: shots; goals; offensive aggression; defensive pressure; close games; big, fun matches; and plain old quality are entertaining and watchable. The teams that have those things end up ranking pretty highly, even more so if they throw a few fun defensive breakdowns into the mix as well. You can be good but unwatchable, and you can be mediocre and ridiculously entertaining.
Let’s get to the list. As I did last year, I included a European statistical equivalent for each team in case that helps with familiarity.
Do not watch unless you have a rooting interest (Grade: 0-0.9)
29. Colorado Rapids (0.5)
Last year: 25th
Two years ago, Colorado was the top seed in the West. The Rapids collapsed into both dire and mostly unwatchable ball last season, and they currently have both the fewest points and fewest goals in the league in 2023. It is not a surprise that they are lowest on this list as well.
European equivalent: AC Ajaccio. Colorado made a ton of moves in response to last year’s collapse, and I’m not sure “play like the third-worst team in Ligue 1” is what they had in mind.
28. Toronto FC (0.6)
Last year: 7th
Toronto was watchable for the wrong reasons last season, pressing intensely but getting mostly destroyed. Bob Bradley dialed back the intensity in the hopes of paring down breakdowns. Instead, Toronto has just pared down most of its good scoring chances, and it has just three wins in 22 matches. Bradley was fired in June.
European equivalent: Crystal Palace. Like Palace, Toronto is stodgy and unwatchable and just fired a once-promising coach. Unfortunately, Roy Hodgson isn’t available for the Reds.
27. FC Dallas (0.8)
Last year: 18th
Dallas is getting another strong season from Jesus Ferreira (10 goals in 18 matches), but no one else has scored more than two goals. It’s 21st in goals per game but fifth in goals allowed — a combination that has made it solidly competitive (fifth in the West) but not very entertaining.
European equivalent: Union Berlin. Dallas isn’t isn’t quite as direct (or quite as good), but it enjoys the same “sacrifice good looks in the name of preventing your opponent from getting any” battle of attrition. And with Brenden Aaronson on his way to Berlin, maybe Union should come after Ferreira, too?
Will a move to Europe benefit Jesus Ferreira’s USMNT career?
Herculez Gomez and Sebastian Salazar believe Jesus Ferreira is ready for a move to a European club.
At least it’s soccer on TV, right? (Grade: 1-2.9)
26. CF Montreal (1.0)
Last year: 12th
Montreal doesn’t have the attack to threaten good teams (and its one-goal-per-match average suggests it doesn’t really threaten others either), but if there’s one positive thing about watching Montreal, it’s that you’re probably not going to see a draw — it has had only two in 20 matches.
European equivalent: Torino. Decent, intense and mostly forgettable. That has been Torino’s thing for a while.
25. Houston Dynamo FC (1.1)
Last year: 27th
The addition of Amine Bassi has helped add a bit more creativity to the Houston attack, and it’s up to seventh in the West after finishing 13th last year. But the defensive intensity and verticality both still lack.
European equivalent: AFC Bournemouth. Granted, with fewer 9-0 losses.
24. New York City FC (1.4)
Last year: 5th
As it turns out, losing the league’s best goal scorer (Taty Castellanos) can impact the quality of your attack quite a bit. NYCFC still pass the ball pretty well, but they’re now 23rd in shots per match, 20th in xG per shot and 11th in the East. A reset year for the 2021 champs.
European equivalent: Roma. If you play like a Jose Mourinho team, only without the wins and with fewer goals, you might have lost your way a bit.
23. Sporting Kansas City (1.6)
Last year: 23rd
Here’s a combination I didn’t think was possible: Sporting currently rank sixth in the league in possessions started in the attacking third (which suggests solid timing of pressure and transition opportunities) and last in the league in xG per shot. No MLS team has been less creative, and creativity is watchability!
European equivalent: Everton. It’s probably not great when your vision aligns with that of a visionless English team that has been getting worse for years.
22. Nashville SC (2.1)
Last year: 28th
Quality trumps watchability, and Nashville has plenty of quality. After needing a late run to snare a playoff bid last year, it’s back to second in the West. But Gary Smith’s style aims to prevent opponent shot quality above all else. Successful but not particularly entertaining.
European equivalent: Lazio. But hey, Lazio was one of the best of Europe’s unwatchables this year!
21. Seattle Sounders (2.9)
Last year: 16th
Seattle has played five matches against teams averaging at least 1.5 points per game; it has scored three goals in those matches (all against St. Louis City) and allowed two. Are the Sounders good? Definitely. Are they playing some serious lowest-common-denominator ball? Also yes.
Could be great fun, could be awful (Grade: 3-5.9)
20. Minnesota United (3.1)
Last year: 15th
Statistically, Minnesota is basically a less successful version of Nashville so far this season, but it scores higher here because its attack offers a bit more variety and shot quality. (Why are United less successful, then? Because those quality shots are in no way going into the net.)
European equivalent: Lorient. Both are basically .500 teams, too.
19. LA Galaxy (4.0)
Last year: 14th
Maybe this week’s El Trafico win in a packed Rose Bowl will give the Galaxy a shot in the arm. They need it — despite major contributions from the incredible Riqui Puig, LA is 13th in the West, and its pressing and general aesthetic value are both low.
18. Inter Miami (4.5)
Last year: 24th
Inter Miami offer some fun creativity and more through-ball attempts than anyone in the league. They also score less than a goal per match and rank 24th in shot quality (xG per shot). Adding Messi will change that dramatically, but they’re 15 points out of an automatic playoff bid in the East.
European equivalent: Southampton. Messi is joining Southampton. This is going to be weird.
17. New York Red Bulls (4.9)
Last year: 8th
This has been a fascinating club in recent years, adhering to all of the Red Bull-style watchwords — pressing, intensity, verticality — but with almost none of the creativity and attacking upside. They managed to finish fourth in the East last year, but the attack has been particularly dire in 2023. So have the results.
European equivalent: Eintracht Frankfurt. Lots of pressing and intensity producing low-quantity, high-quality shots in both directions.
16. D.C. United (5.3)
Last year: 9th
Veterans Christian Benteke and Mateusz Klich have performed beautifully for Wayne Rooney’s United (combined: 10 goals, 10 assists), who have overcome a dismal start to rise to eighth in the East. Maybe the main thing holding them back? Their games are rarely close; they have the sixth lowest amount of possession in one-goal or tie games.
European equivalent: Fiorentina. Congratulations for your upcoming run to the Conference League final, D.C.
15. Orlando City (5.5)
Last year: 10th
The good news: Orlando has improved over last season, when it was frankly pretty fortunate to finish seventh in the East despite a poor goal differential. Orlando is currently sixth, and its numbers suggest it has better staying power.
The bad news: Orlando City is more stable because its defense is sturdier. Boo, defense.
European equivalent: Atalanta. Granted, Atalanta wasn’t quite as sparkly and fun as normal this year, but there are certainly worse watchability role models.
14. Real Salt Lake (5.6)
Last year: 20th
No one switches play more, and their passing in the attacking third is well above average. They’re currently fourth in the West, too. But they create no good shots (second-worst in xG per shot), and in six matches against teams averaging 1.5 points per game or more, they have been outscored 14-3. They’re probably not as good (or as watchable) as their record suggests.
European equivalent: Empoli. Salt Lake is higher in the table, but both teams boast the same “high shot quantity, low shot quality” instincts.
13. Austin (5.9)
Last year: 6th
Austin FC started this season in mostly awful form — losing to Haiti‘s Violette AC in the first round of the Concacaf Champions League, getting blown out by LAFC in an early-season marquee game, falling to Chicago in the U.S. Open Cup and winning just two of their first 11 league matches. But they’ve stabilized of late, winning five of nine league matches, and they make up for a lack of defensive intensity with shot volume and fun matches against good teams.
European equivalent: Udinese. Same midtable location, same combination of shot volume and passive defense.
Sidebar: USL Championship watchability kings
MLS, of course, isn’t the only American men’s soccer league available for your viewing pleasure this summer. You can find a bounty of action from the USL Championship, America’s second-division league, on ESPN+. The general style of the league is similar, and you get the added bonus of finding out all the different ways a team can fit a soccer pitch into a minor league baseball stadium. I love it.
There’s no need to share full, 24-team Watchability Rankings for this league (you’re in last place, Miami FC), but here’s the top five, if you’re looking for the most enjoyable way to get your feet wet.
5. Charleston Battery (8.2). They score a lot, and their absurd defensive pressure means they give up huge opportunities in counterattacking situations, too. Win-win. They’re tied with Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay for most points in the East.
4. San Diego Loyal (8.8) and 3. Phoenix Rising (9.0). On paper, these are basically the same teams — prolific, intense and defensively fragile. They’re also right next to each other in the West table: Phoenix is sixth, San Diego seventh.
2. Memphis 901 (9.5). Only Sacramento and El Paso average more points per game, and no one scores more goals than the 901. No one plays more prolific matches against fellow good teams, either.
1. San Antonio (9.6). The defending league champs haven’t been quite as good this season, but they play the most intense defense in the league, and San Antonio has an absolute gem in Minnesota loanee and former St. John’s University star Tani Oluwaseyi (six goals and four assists in eight matches).
The potential for enjoyment is pretty good (Grade: 6-7.9)
12. San Jose Earthquakes (6.1)
Last year: 2nd
Last year, I wrote this about the Quakes: “They are way too experienced to play like such an inexperienced team, but that only matters if you care about the results.” They’re far more defensively stable this year, and they look the part of a veteran team. But that’s not nearly as fun.
11. Chicago Fire (6.8)
Last year: 17th
It has been quite a while since the Fire were good — they haven’t made the playoffs since 2017 — but a leap from 20-year-old Brian Gutierrez (ninth in the league with seven assists) has given the attack a shot in the arm, at least. And in the past three games, they’ve doubled their season win total from two to four. A tiny positive trend, but a positive trend all the same.
European equivalent: Getafe. Forever-close games, passive defense, unfortunate results.
10. Charlotte (7.0)
Last year: 22nd
They really aren’t any better than they were last year, but increased defensive intensity (and increased defensive breakdowns), combined with a willingness to take swings at good teams — a 3-3 draw vs. Seattle, a 4-2 loss to Columbus, a 3-0 loss and a 3-1 win vs. Atlanta — make them a lot more fun to watch.
European equivalent: FC Cologne. Big crowds, fun atmosphere, plenty of goals, middling results. Hey, that’s decent living.
9. Cincinnati (7.3)
Last year: 4th
After a rough start to MLS life, Cincy jumped to fifth in the East last year. Now they’re first, leading the overall race for the Supporters’ Shield by six points. Their xG figures suggest that level is unsustainable, but between strong shot quality and heavy use of through-balls, they should by all means remain fun to watch.
European equivalent: Atletico Madrid. Good defense, directness and underrated shot quality. Just call Luciano Acosta the Antoine Griezmann of MLS (at least, until Antoine Griezmann becomes the Antoine Griezmann of MLS in the future).
8. Portland Timbers (7.7)
Last year: 19th
They’re trending in the wrong direction as a club, from MLS Cup runner-up in 2021 to eighth in the West in 2022 to 12th at the moment. But their matches are usually close, their defense is pretty generous (to put it nicely) and you can expect fireworks when they play good teams, whether that’s a 4-1 win (vs. Seattle), a 3-2 nailbiter (vs. LAFC) or a 5-1 loss (vs. Atlanta).
European equivalent: Celta Vigo. The games are almost always close, the shots are almost always wayward and the scoreboard lights up against good teams.
You’re going to have a good time (Grade: 8-8.9)
7. New England Revolution (8.3)
Last year: 13th
After slipping from first to tenth in the East last year, the Revs are back up to third, thanks primarily to a delightful attack that combines both quality and quantity. Carles Gil (seven goals, nine assists) has found a lovely dance partner in Bobby Wood (seven goals, four assists).
6. LAFC (8.3)
Last year: 1st
Los Angeles began 2023 with form as good as anything we’ve seen in MLS, but since losing to Leon in the Concacaf Champions League final in early June, they’ve lost their way. They’ve fallen in five of their past seven league matches, and their watchability numbers have dipped in kind. Still, this is a proactive and infinitely high-ceilinged team.
European equivalent: Bayern Munich. Lots of pressing, lots of total shot attempts and a recent run of disappointing results. Perfect match!
5. Vancouver Whitecaps (8.3)
Last year: 26th
They were ninth in the West last year, and they’re ninth this year. But almost no one has seen more of an identity shift than the Caps, who deploy a creative and diverse attack — five guys have between four and eight combined goals and assists, and no one has more — and are on pace to score 14 more goals than last season.
European equivalent: Sassuolo. Like Atalanta, Sassuolo wasn’t quite as good this season, but they’re generally a decent watchability role model.
Clear room in your schedule to always watch (Grade: 9-10)
4. Philadelphia Union (9.0)
Last year: 11th
Last year’s league runners-up have slipped from first to fifth in the East, but that’s due mostly to a terrible start. They’ve pulled 26 points from their past 12 matches, and the duo of Daniel Gazdag and Julian Carranza has combined for 17 goals and 12 assists. They’re active, they’re fun, and they’re humming at the moment.
3. Atlanta United (9.1)
Last year: 3rd
Defensive intensity? Check! They allow 9.9 passes per defensive action, third-lowest in the league.
High-scoring games, even against good opponents? Check! Their matches average 3.5 combined goals, and they drew 3-3 with New England in May.
Atlanta checks nearly every box this season, and really, the only reason it doesn’t rank higher than third is that it hasn’t won enough — currently just seventh in the East.
European equivalent: Manchester City. With about half the wins.
2. Columbus Crew (9.5)
Last year: 21st
They’re averaging the most goals and most assists, they have the highest possession rate, and their pass-completion rate ranks second. And when they play another good team, big things happen — sometimes good (6-1 over Atlanta), sometimes bad (4-1 loss to Philadelphia, 3-1 defeat to Nashville). They’ve jumped from eighth to fourth in the East and from the 20s to nearly the top on the Watchability list.
European equivalent: Arsenal. Delightful, modern ball with the need for a bit more defensive oomph.
1. St. Louis City (9.7)
Last year: Unrated
In naming longtime Bundesliga staffer Lutz Pfannenstiel as sporting director, hiring a former Bundesliga defender in manager Bradley Carnell and bringing in players with Bundesliga experience, like goalkeeper Roman Burki and midfielder Eduard Lowen, it was clear how St. Louis City was modeling itself as it prepared for its first MLS season. And considering the Bundesliga is the most consistently watchable of Europe’s big leagues, that’s a pretty good model to follow! They’ve had an up-and-down season after a sizzling start, but they’re ridiculously direct in attack and intense in defense, and they score lots of goals. No complaints here.
European equivalent: Mainz. I enjoy this one because Mainz is basically the most perfectly average Bundesliga team in terms of both quality and style. The vision has come to fruition.