2021 MLS Final Eastern Conference Power Rankings

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 12: The Philip F. Anschutz Trophy for MLS Cup winners (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 12: The Philip F. Anschutz Trophy for MLS Cup winners (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) /
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NYCFC, Alexander Callens, MLS
NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 21: Alexander Callens of New York City FC celebrates with teammates (Photo by Ira L. Black – Corbis/Getty Images) /

The MLS Contenders

2: NYCFC (14-9-11), 51 points

While New England will forever be known as owners of the 2021 Supporters Shield, maybe the Pigeons can take solace knowing they are the holders of the league’s best Expected Goal Differential (xGD). At 22.5 xGD, NYCFC finished 10.4xGD higher than the record-breaking Revolution.

Yes, according to the nerds, based on their chances created and conceded, NYCFC should have finished the season with more than their 51 point haul if not for a lot of bad luck.

It’s not hard to see why.

This season Yankee Stadium was home to more than just one of baseball’s most disappointing teams but also some of the most exciting young talents in MLS. Led by 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner Valentín Castellanos, James Sands, Keaton Parks, Jesus Medina, Santiago Rodriguez, Malte Amundsen, all under 25, played major roles in their regular-season success.

Scattered through each department of the team is a blend of youth and experience. Club legend Maxi Moralez spent the season firmly entrenched amongst the league’s most lethal passers. At the same time, longtime MLS defenders Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens led a defense that conceded 36 goals.

Perhaps the playoffs are the time for this youthful squad to shake off the bad juju?

3: Philadelphia Union (14-12-8), 54 points

Despite losing significant production from the previous season following Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie’s departures to Europe, Philadelphia maintained strong positioning throughout the season, leading to the conference’s two-seed.

Outside of the previously mentioned starlets, Philadelphia returned a majority of their core and supplemented their departures with some shrewd signings in Stuart Findlay and Leon Flach. Both have had a bright start to their MLS careers and have fit perfectly into Head Coach Jim Curtin’s preferred 4-4-2.

Philadelphia has an elite defense and goalkeeper with an experienced group of veterans in attack, perfect ingredients to make some waves in the playoffs. While primed to make a run, Curtin and his squad must come fired if they are to avenge last season’s first-round embarrassment.

4: Nashville SC (12-18-4), 54 points

Nashville becomes the fifth expansion franchise in MLS history to make the playoffs in their first two seasons. Now, they are looking to join Houston Dynamo and Atlanta United as expansion clubs that lifted an MLS Cup in their second season.

Just like their first season, Nashville is home to one of the staunchest defenses in MLS. Nashville conceded 33 goals in 34 games, mainly with the formidable backline of Alistair Johnson, Dave Romney, Daniel Lovitz, and 2020 Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman.
While the defenses remain similar, Nashville’s attack has taken a significant leap forward. Last year’s squad averaged 1.04 goals per game; that number has jumped up to 1.6 this season.

Two factors in this offensive output were Hany Mukhtar’s emergence and the reemergence of striker CJ Sapong.

Mukhtar, who in his second season has developed into a bonafide MVP contender with 16 goals and ten assists to his name. While Sapong, in his first season in Nashville, became the perfect target for Nashville up front, scoring 12 goals.

5: Atlanta United (13-12-9), 51 points

Like the tattoo on Ben Affleck’s back, Atlanta United has seemingly risen from the ashes to prop themselves up with the league’s contenders.

After Gabriel Heinze proved to be an opponent of hydration and winning games, Atlanta decided to sack the Argentine and hire Seattle assistant Gonzalo Pineda as his successor.
Under Heinze, Atlanta possessed no offensive identity and appeared disjointed in the final third, evident by them scoring only 16 goals during this 17 game stretch.

Now under the guidance of Pineda, the Five Stripes are displaying better-attacking patterns and creativity, averaging 1.5 goals per game while maintaining one of the league’s best defenses.

Pineda’s reign has been boosted by the midseason arrival of Brazilian dynamo Luiz Araujo, who has wasted no time acclimating to the States, netting three times and assisting a further four in 15 appearances. The former Lille man completes the league’s most expensive attacking triumvirate alongside Josef Martínez, 12 goals, and Ezequiel Barco, seven goals and six assists.