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MLS Watchability Rankings: The most entertaining clubs, and their European equivalents

Written by 
Published in Soccer
Thursday, 23 June 2022 10:07

The European soccer season ended in May, and there's no major men's international tournament on deck this summer. The NBA season just ended, and the NHL season is about to. Happily distracted by the Men's and Women's College World Series? The latter is over, and the former will be soon.

Granted, the WNBA season is rolling on, and I guess some of you out there might actually watch professional baseball. Regardless, you likely have a hole in your sports schedule at the moment -- at least until the plethora of women's tournaments like the European Championship, CONCACAF's W Championship and Copa America Femenina kick off next month. One option for filling that gap: the chaotic and unwieldy beast known as Major League Soccer.

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With 28 teams (and counting), fun game day environments and no dominant style or club, you can be assured of a giant mess come playoff time, and you can likely find a team that fits your general aesthetic requirements. To help you find just the right team to follow, let's break out a fun and familiar concept: watchability.

Each spring, I rank all 98 teams in Europe's Big Five leagues based generally on how fun they are to watch. I crafted a formula that takes into account a team's quality, shot frequency and quality (for both them and their opponent), pressure, intensity and general prettiness and offers bonus points of sorts to teams that are consistently involved in close matches and/or teams that put on a prolific show against good teams. Bayern Munich have ranked No. 1 for two straight years, which is frankly a sign that the statistical model is calibrated correctly.

With the 2022 MLS season approaching the midway point, let's see who has graded out as the most and least watchable teams in the U.S. and Canada's top men's soccer league on a scale of zero to 10. For each, I have included the European club that most fits their style. (Note: While quality does play a small role in the formula, there are plenty of good-but-unwatchable teams out there, just as there are some thrilling train wrecks. Looking at you, San Jose.)

Do not watch unless you have a rooting interest (Grade: 0-0.9)

28. Nashville SC (0.6)

Nashville has a cool, new stadium and could very well make the playoffs this season. Its games are usually close, but usually because NSC are taking few shots and allowing opponents almost no quality looks. They are both scoring and allowing barely one goal per match.

Closest European comparable: Wolverhampton Wanderers. No team in Europe performed better while almost entirely removing "score goals" from the to-do list.

27. Houston Dynamo FC (0.8)

Another potential playoff contender -- really, everyone in the Western Conference still has a shot at the postseason -- Houston almost never pressures the ball and attempts very little verticality in possession. The Dynamo have had moments of offensive inspiration, but those have been increasingly few and far between.

Closest European comparable: Stade de Reims, a comfortably mid-table French team with almost no memorable characteristics this season.

26. Vancouver Whitecaps (0.9)

A team that gave the world one of the sport's most exciting young players in Bayern's Alphonso Davies hasn't thrilled much since the Canada international's departure. The 'Caps' leaky defense assures that you'll see some goals, but they don't tend to come via exciting, end-to-end action.

Closest European comparable: Sampdoria. Both teams play in neat-looking old(ish) stadiums, both wear blue and both tend to navigate through forgettable seasons with, of late, sketchy defense.

25. Colorado Rapids (0.9)

The defending Western Conference top seeds do occasionally attempt pressing and direct attacking, and few attempt more long switches of play (a personal aesthetic favorite), but they don't really do any of it particularly well this season, and after a wild early start (a 3-0 loss to LAFC and a 3-0 win over Atlanta), six of their past 13 matches have ended with scores of 0-0, 1-0 or 1-1.

Closest European comparable: Espanyol. One of my favorite teams to watch midway through 2021-22, Barcelona's No. 2 team slowly degraded into forgettable play and a 14th-place finish. We'll see if Colorado avoids a similar fate.

At least it's soccer on TV, right? (Grade: 1-2.9)

24. Inter Miami CF (1.0)

Inter play in a glamorous location and act like a glamorous team -- David Beckham is their president, former Napoli and Juventus star Gonzalo Higuain is their Designated Player and they are one of the clubs generally rumored to have a chance at Lionel Messi if he ever decides to come over and aim for 100 goals in a season -- but they have yet to produce glamorous play. They finished 10th and 11th in the East in their first two seasons, and they currently sit 10th this season. Great pink home kits, though.

Closest European comparable: Troyes. Pretty sure "We aim to play like a low-scoring French yo-yo team" wasn't in the promotional materials.

23. Sporting Kansas City (1.1)

One of the league's most storied old clubs -- long live the days of the Kansas City Wiz -- Sporting introduced Preki to a U.S. audience and more recently gave the world Gianluca Busio. But in 2022, it's giving the world matches with the fewest possible shots and a steady stream of 0-0 and 1-0 games. (Their jarring 7-2 loss at Portland was the exception that proves the rule.)

Closest European comparable: Crystal Palace. Granted, Palace were much more successful this season than Sporting have been, but they played an awfully similar "sound, fury and the fewest possible shot attempts" style.

22. Charlotte FC (1.2)

The league's debutants are holding their own, currently standing in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and giving the new home crowd plenty of energetic pressing and long switches of play. But their passive attack produces little verticality and almost no shot attempts.

Closest European comparable: Torino. Does this mean we should start calling Charlotte Il Toro --- The Bull -- like Torino? I say yes.

21. Columbus Crew (1.6)

Oh, how the (briefly) mighty have fallen, or at least grown dull. The 2020 MLS Cup winners missed the playoffs in 2021 and might do so again. That isn't a crime from a watchability standpoint; that their matches are rarely either close or prolific, however, is.

Closest European comparable: Burnley, a club that made "sturdy and unwatchable" almost likable in recent years. Does this mean Columbus should hire Sean Dyche? Absolutely.

20. Real Salt Lake (2.0)

They're almost constantly involved in close games, and they generate some high-quality looks at goal. And since a disastrous 6-0 loss to New York City FC (watchable for the wrong reasons), they've been quite good, pulling 16 points from eight matches.

Closest European comparable: Nice. Nice's 2021-22 manager, Christophe Galtier, has mastered a style of defense, steady ball control and often boring play. Not the worst team to be compared to, but certainly not the best either.

19. Portland Timbers (2.4)

Their crowd is intense, their tifos are legendary, they've got maybe the single most enjoyable player in the league to watch in Yimmi Chara, their matches feature plenty of goals ... and yet they are miserable to watch this year. The Timbers take nothing but low-quality shots, they apply minimal defensive pressure and against almost every good team they've played, they've come away with either a 0-0 or 1-1 draw.

Closest European comparable: Newcastle United. Granted, Newcastle were two completely different teams this season -- one before their controversial takeover, one after -- but even when they started playing well they weren't particularly enjoyable to watch.

18. FC Dallas (2.5)

After a season of dire underachievement, Dallas added Paul Arriola and exciting teenager Alan Velasco, among others, and has begun to thrive again (recent slump aside). But FCD have done it with control more than thrilling play -- their verticality is almost nil, there is no full-court press, and while they attempt some high-quality shots, those are the only shots you'll see in a given match.

Closest European comparable: Juventus. I love this comparison because (a) Juve's Weston McKennie came from Dallas' prolific academy and (b) Juventus under Massimiliano Allegri are the ultimate "You're good and you have fun players -- you should be so much more fun to watch than this!" team.

Could be great fun, could be awful (Grade: 3-5.9)

17. Chicago Fire FC (3.3)

Chicago has made one playoff appearance in nine seasons, and it's currently tied with D.C. United for the fewest points in the East. (This being MLS, it's still only six points out of a playoff spot.) The Fire almost never score, and they don't allow many goals either. So why do they grade out all right from a watchability perspective? Because their games are almost always close (within one goal 93% of the time), and they press with frantic energy. And after four 0-0 draws in their first seven matches, the ball has begun to find the net at least a little bit.

Closest European comparable: Genoa. I guess it's not a great sign when your stylistic twin scored 27 goals in 38 matches and got relegated, huh?

16. Seattle Sounders FC (3.7)

The Sounders are a difficult team to judge in 2022. They allocated most of their early-season quality to winning the CONCACAF Champions League in May and won only two of their first eight league matches, but since mid-May, they've taken 13 points from six matches, half of which have featured at least three goals. They should rise in both the Western Conference table and Watchability Rankings moving forward.

Closest European comparable: West Ham United. They defend well, they're constantly in close matches and they give us occasional flashes of beautiful verticality. Sounds like West Ham to me!

15. Minnesota United FC (5.8)

Promoted from the NASL in 2017, the Loons have played mostly playoff-caliber ball through the years. This year, though, they've won just one of their past seven matches, and only six of their 15 matches have featured more than two goals. They get bonus points for constantly playing in close matches (96% of the time), but that only goes so far.

Closest European comparable: Rayo Vallecano. One of the most exciting underdog stories on the continent, Rayo were in contention for a spot in continental competition midway through 2021-22 before the offense dried up and they finished 12th. Not the most thrilling comp in the world.

14. LA Galaxy (5.8)

Having Douglas Costa, Javier Hernandez and young attacker Efrain Alvarez should absolutely place you pretty high on the watchability list, and the Galaxy have certainly had their moments, beating Austin 4-1 and Portland 3-1. But they've scored only 11 goals in 13 other matches, and while a mostly strong defense is a plus in the playoff race, it doesn't help them here.

Closest European comparable: Sevilla. Watching Sevilla this season was the ultimate exercise in "I know I'm watching a good team, but would it hurt if they showed it a bit more often?"

The potential for enjoyment is pretty good (Grade: 6-7.9)

13. New England Revolution (6.1)

Now to the more consistently attractive clubs! New England was bad-watchable early in the season (16 goals allowed in its first eight matches), and it's been good-watchable since (15 goals scored in its past eight). Bruce Arena's team is more quantity over quality in attack, but it's worked well for the Revs of late.

Closest European comparable: Southampton. No Premier League team has combined generally attractive play with occasionally dire stinkers like the Saints. Good or bad, however, they're usually watchable!

12. CF Montreal (6.2)

It's been a few years since L'Impact played meaningful ball in MLS, but they're currently four points out of first in the East, in part because of a run of gorgeous play from attacker Djordje Mihailovic (seven goals, four assists, 25 chances created). He has made them the best kind of "low quantity, high quality" team in attack. We'll see if they can keep up either the quality or watchability as he misses time with injury.

Closest European comparable: Lazio. A combination of rare but high-quality looks has worked out reasonably well for Lazio of late, even if it results in occasional strings of listlessness.

11. Philadelphia Union (6.4)

They gave the world Brendan Aaronson, and they are relentlessly vertical in attack. And with an incredible (and incredibly depressing) run of seven draws in eight matches, the Union have mastered the art of the close game. For better or worse.

Closest European comparable: Athletic Club. No team combines passion, draws and goalless play like the glorious squad from Bilbao.

10. Orlando City SC (7.1)

Orlando plays in bold purple kits, its logo is a cranky-looking lion with a particularly fluffy mane, and despite losing both Daryl Dike and Nani from last year's squad, the central Floridians are still producing a reasonably entertaining mix of quality, quality shots and reasonably prolific matches against decent teams (see: April's 4-2 loss to LAFC).

Closest European comparable: AS Roma. Jose Mourinho has quietly mastered a mix of being more prolific than expected and being good ... but not too good. Like Orlando, Roma's colors are great, too.

9. D.C. United (7.1)

Again, you don't have to be good to be watchable. United have won only two of their past 12 matches, but six of their past nine have featured at least three goals. Few teams press with more abandon, with all of the benefits (lots of possessions starting in dangerous areas) and liabilities (opponents destroy them in transition) of such an approach.

Closest European comparable: Mainz. Finally, a German team shows up on this list. And not a particularly good one.

8. New York Red Bulls (7.4)

The Red Bulls play a distinctly Red Bull style -- tempo, pressure, extreme aggressiveness, lots of stamina required -- and unlike last season, they are no longer mired in a dreadful finishing slump. (They turned 52.4 expected goals (xG) into only 39 goals last season.) Their matches against good teams haven't been particularly exciting, but they light into bad ones! There's fun in that!

Closest European comparable: FC Cologne. They aren't quite good enough to qualify for the most obvious German comparison -- sister club RB Leipzig -- but hey, watching Cologne was immensely enjoyable this year.

You're going to have a good time (Grade: 8-8.9)

7. Toronto FC (8.1)

One of MLS' most consistently strong clubs from 2016 to 2020, the Reds collapsed last year and haven't rebounded much so far in 2022, currently holding down 12th place in the East. But they press with abandon, and they have played in matches with scores of 4-1 (loss), 5-4 (loss) and 3-2 (win), not to mention six 2-1s or 2-2s. You will have fun watching them, as long as you're not actually a Toronto fan.

Closest European comparable: Saint-Etienne. The storied French club won just seven of 38 matches and got itself relegated in 2021-22 ... but it did so with panache, scoring 42 goals and allowing 77.

6. Austin FC (8.6)

The Fightin' Matthew McConaugheys came out throwing absolute haymakers this season, winning their first two matches 5-0 and 5-1. Their scoring pace has obviously slowed down, but they've still managed 19 goals in their past 13 matches, and they've had the kindness to allow at least two goals in five of their past 11 matches, too.

Closest European comparable: Napoli. Almost no good team both attempted and allowed a higher volume of shots than the Azzurri in 2021-22. More teams should imitate Napoli, to be honest.

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Clear room in your schedule to always watch (Grade: 9-10)

5. New York City FC (9.3)

The defending MLS Cup winners play in Yankee Stadium (which always looks wonderfully strange on television), and they began the season alternating between tight losses and absurdly prolific wins. Their first four victories of the season came by scores of 4-1, 6-0, 5-4 and 3-0. Things have grown considerably less chaotic since then, and we'll see what impact the loss of manager Ronny Deila to Standard Liege makes, but NYCFC have been the very definition of watchable this season.

Closest European comparable: Manchester City. Yes, it's an ambitious comp, but they've been the best team, with the best possession numbers (and lots of counter-pressing), in the East.

4. FC Cincinnati (9.3)

The best team in USL in 2018 landed in MLS with a thud, finishing 24th, 26th and 27th overall in their first three seasons. Their fourth has gone a little better, however. They're tied for the last playoff spot in the East at the moment, and their brand of ball assures that someone -- be it they or their opponents -- has the ball in a dangerous area at all times. They've scored at least two goals in five of six wins, and they've lost matches by scores of 5-0, 4-3, 3-2 and 4-3. What more could you possibly ask for from a casual watch?

Closest European comparable: Valencia. They've been too glitchy and young to succeed in the past couple of years, but Los Che play ambitious and often frantic and prolific ball.

3. Atlanta United FC (9.4)

The 2018 MLS Cup winners have been all over the map this season, taking 10 points from their first five matches, then one from four, then eight from five. But they both attempt and allow lots of shots, and they have pulled solid teams into absolute track meets -- 3-3 vs. Montreal in March, 2-2 vs. New England and Nashville in May.

Closest European comparable: Sassuolo. The hipster's Atalanta, few teams have been as delightful to watch (actual results aside) throughout the past couple of seasons. A Sassuolo comp is a compliment, even if it isn't a harbinger of success.

2. San Jose Earthquakes (9.4)

They are way too experienced to play like such an inexperienced team, but that only matters if you care about the results. The Quakes press as much as anyone, shoot from anywhere at any time and spend most of their time playing in a close match that they will ultimately lose. After pulling three points from their first seven matches, they have slowly found better form (12 points from their past eight), but more importantly, they have either scored or allowed (or both!) three or more goals in six of their past 11 matches.

Closest European comparable: Leeds. No team in Europe tried harder in 2021-22, just as no team made you yell "NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" more.

1. LAFC (9.8)

After producing mostly awesome play for their first two seasons in existence, LAFC fell off the pace a bit in the past two. But they've been the unquestionable best team in the West thus far, sitting in first place with both the best goal differential and xG differential. They're more direct than most successful European teams (which makes finding a proper comparable difficult), but they press heavily, they attempt a lot of shots and they occasionally offer opponents good looks as well. What more can you ask for from a good team?

Closest European comparable: AS Monaco. Mediocre for much of 2021-22, Monaco unleashed a brilliant nine-game winning streak late in the season with a unique combination of ball pressure, counterattacking and only marginally decent possession numbers. They were all things at once, which can be very good at times (and less so at others). Just like LAFC.

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