- With only Decision Day standing between us and the end of MLS’s regular season, we’re using data to help us pick the league’s best player at every position
- There’s room for debate in these selections, but there’s no doubt that many of the biggest stars show well in the spreadsheets
With Decision Day and the end of the MLS regular season on the horizon, it’s time to talk about awards and Best XIs. Look, I don’t make the rules. That’s just the way it is.
Today, we’re going to reflect on (nearly) a whole season’s worth of data to figure out who should be on the MLS Best XI. I combed through the dark depths of spreadsheets and databases alike to try to make the most informed decisions possible. There’s room for debate in many of these selections, but I think this is very close to what the actual Best XI in MLS will look like when it’s released. That is, except for the fact that we’re using a normal 4-3-3 shape and MLS will drop something like a 3-1-6.
But hey, let’s dive in.
STRIKER: HANY MUKTAR, NASHVILLE SC
Hany Muktar was the easiest selection on this list. A striker’s main job is to woo the crowd by banging some goals into the back of the net, and, woah boy, did Hany bang some goals into the back of the net this year.
The German attacker is the current Golden Boot leader with 23 goals and the analytics back Mukhtar as the best attacking player in MLS. He’s currently leading the league in expected goals (20.47), expected goals plus expected assists (28.04), and goals added (5.55). I’ll be totally shocked if Hany doesn’t win the MVP this season.
RIGHT WINGER: CARLOS VELA, LAFC
Despite slowing down this year, Carlos Vela is still deadly when he gets the ball in space on his left foot. Vela leads all wingers in xG+xA (16.09), is second behind Lewis Morgan in goals (12), and is second behind Diego Fagundez in assists (9). While LAFC may need some of its young guns to do more of the running, Vela is producing at an elite level this year.
He’s a big part of why LAFC are Supporters’ Shield winners.
LEFT WINGER: JORDAN MORRIS, SEATTLE SOUNDERS
I just couldn’t bring myself to put Luiz Araujo on this list. Despite the fact that the Brazilian leads all wingers this season in goals added (g+), his on-field production has been meager with only 4 goals and 5 assists.
So, instead of Araujo, Jordan Morris slots in on the left wing. Morris is second behind Araujo in g+ (2.26) and leads all wingers in MLS in non-penalty xG (8.85) and non-penalty xG+xA (13.18). While down from his 2020 league-leading g+ peak, Morris is excellent at getting into dangerous positions to receive the ball. Sure, they missed the playoffs, but seeing Morris play 2000+ minutes this year after his most recent ACL tear is a silver-lining.
ATTACKING MIDFIELDER: CARLES GIL, NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
When you look at the stats, choosing the perfect No. 10 for this year’s Best XI is basically a toss-up between Daniel Gazdag’s goalscoring and Carles Gil playmaking. Gil gets the call, for me, because he’s the best ball progressor in the league in addition to being a chance creator. The Revs’ attacking midfielder is only behind Muktar in g+ and he leads the league in passing g+ (2.53), dribbling g+ (2.74), and is second behind Luciano Acosta in xA (9.38).
Those look like Best XI numbers to me.
CENTRAL MIDFIELDER: JOSÉ CIFUENTES, LAFC
I’ve been high on José Cifuentes all year. The Ecuadorian leads all central midfielders in g+ (4.37), is second in xG (5.44), and is third in xG+xA (9.49). In his piece breaking down what makes LAFC tick, Kevin Nelson remarked that Cifuentes is “good at everything”. It’s that versatility that makes him the best box-to-box midfielder in MLS.
Cifuentes’ ability to find open pockets of space to receive the ball in the midfield and around the box has been pivotal to LAFC’s attacking play. It’s also a big reason why they won the Supporters’ Shield.
DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER: DIEGO CHARA, PORTLAND TIMBERS
When you’re looking for a quality defensive midfielder, you typically want a player who makes plays in front of your backline. Someone who can protect the defense. Someone who can kick-start attacking sequences.
Somehow at age 36, Diego Chara is still doing exactly for the Portland Timbers. The elder Chara leads all defensive midfielders in g+ interrupting and, according to FBref, is in the 73 percentile or better in every defensive action category this year. Father Time waits for no one, except Diego Chara.
LEFT BACK: KAI WAGNER, PHILADELPHIA UNION
The overlapping fullback is a borderline constant in the modern game, and no team in MLS depends on their fullbacks more than the Philadelphia Union. With that in mind, it sure is nice that they have one of the best attacking fullbacks in the league in Kai Wagner, isn’t it?
Playing a narrow 4-4-2 diamond increases Philly’s dependency on Wagner to provide width and crosses from the left flank. Wagner leads all fullbacks in primary assists (9), xA (6.40), and his 82 key passes only fall behind Gil and Acosta, two attacking midfielders. Let that sink in for a second. I was nearly certain that Wagner was going to be transferred in the secondary window this summer, but with the German defender still in the fold, the Union have to be extremely bullish on their MLS Cup chances.
RIGHT BACK: BRANDON BYE, NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
New England are another team that depend on their outside backs to provide width and it seems like they have an endless supply of good ones. After Tajon Buchanan left for Club Brugge, Super Draft pick Brandon Bye seamlessly became their primary attacking option on the right side. The 26-year-old American is currently second among fullbacks in assists (6), third in g+ (1.66), and four in both xA (4.86) and xG+xA (6.92).
Bye doesn’t have Buchanan’s name recognition, but he’s been an extremely useful player for Bruce Arena in 2022.
CENTER BACK: JACK ELLIOT, PHILADELPHIA UNION
With the data that’s available to the general public (and even to professional teams in many corners of the world), it’s difficult to measure the impact that defenders have when they’re, you know, defending. Why? Well, because many advanced metrics are based on on-ball contributions. Think passing, shooting, dribbling, etc…
Still, Jack Elliot shows up in goals added’s interrupting section, leading the lead in that category (2.45). It’s no coincidence that the Philadelphia Union have only given up 26 goals this year with Elliot as one of their defensive cornerstones.
CENTER BACK: ALEXANDER CALLENS, NYCFC
As teams continue to search for ways to gain small advantages over their opponents, set pieces are becoming an increasingly important part of how they create goals. It’s also the one phase of play where center backs play a large attacking role, transforming from defenders to hulking targets in the box.
New York City FC’s talented left center back Alexander Callens has been one of the best targets this season, leading all MLS center backs with 4.30 xG to go with 11 shots on target and 5 goals. Maybe he can teach the LA Galaxy’s Kevin Cabral a thing or two about scoring?
GOALKEEPER: DORDE PETROVIĆ, NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
However, we’ve since learned that Petrović has really big feet. Wait, uh, that’s not right. We’ve since learned that Petrović is a great shot-stopper in his own right. There, that’s better.
After taking over for Turner in June, Petrović has saved 10.45 more goals than expected, which is the best mark in the league. Goalkeeper of the Year favorite Andre Blake is second in that metric, having saved 8.57 more goals than expected. But if you consider that Blake has played 1332 more minutes, Petrovic’s feat looks even more impressive.
All stats courtesy of American Soccer Analysis unless otherwise noted.