We’re halfway through the 2022 MLS regular season and a lot has happened. Coaches have come and gone. An MLS team won the Concacaf Champions League for the first time. FC Cincinnati are…kinda good now?
Here at Backheeled, we put together an MLS experts roundtable to help us all take stock of the first half of the 2022 MLS regular season.
We asked 13 people who cover MLS to nominate players and teams for various categories, including best team, next player who will thrive in Europe, biggest surprise, and more.
Speaking of experts, let’s introduce our group.
- Jordan Angeli, broadcast analyst, Columbus Crew
- Tom Bogert, insider, MLS
- Kieran Doyle, data expert, American Soccer Analysis
- Matt Doyle, writer, MLS
- Justin Egan, contributor, Backheeled
- David Gass, host, MLS
- Michele Giannone, sideline reporter, TUDN
- Herculez Gomez, broadcast analyst and co-host, ESPN
- Stu Holden, broadcast analyst, FOX Sports
- Sam Jones, writer, MLS, Backheeled
- Joe Lowery, editor, Backheeled
- Eliot McKinley, data expert, American Soccer Analysis
- Jeff Rueter, staff writer, The AthleticNow that we’ve run through the people behind the answers, let’s get to the actual answers.
BEST TEAM: LAFC (10 VOTES)
Stu Holden: LAFC. They have shown that they are a more balanced team in all phases of the game this season. There’s still an ability to ramp up the tempo and put teams under pressure at a relentless pace, but they can also downshift and play in a mid-block.
Justin Egan: Easily LAFC so far. They’re in first place in all of the categories that matter (Supporters’ Shield, xG, and goals added differential).
Jeff Rueter: Many of us raised our eyebrows when LAFC handed the keys to the relatively inexperienced Steve Cherundolo. However, the former United States international has provided some sorely needed stability. They’ve been convincing since the opening weekend, and are welcoming Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellinii in July — and still have an open DP slot.
Others receiving votes: Seattle Sounders (2), FC Dallas (1)
Matt Doyle: Sounders. They won the CCL, dummy.
Kieran Doyle: FC Dallas. They’re not actually the best, but they have the most cohesive talent and identity for their squad and everyone is *extremely* bought in.
BEST PLAYER: HANY MUKHTAR, NASHVILLE SC (5 VOTES)
Tom Bogert: If you take Hany out of Nashville, what does that team look like?
J. Sam Jones: Hany Mukhtar has a bunch of goals and assists this season on a team that sees goal scoring as nothing but an act of brutish necessity. “How drab,” Gary Smith says when he sees the ball hit the back of the net while he’s wearing some kind of like, I dunno, Marie Antoinette-era costume and wig deal. “But alas we must, to please the masses.”
Eliot McKinley: Mukhtar leads the league in goals added, xG, and xG+xA while carrying Nashville on his back by contributing 57% of the team’s total xG.
Others receiving votes: Sebastian Driussi (2), Djordje Mihailovic (2), Jesus Ferreira (2), Ilie Sánchez (1), Dayne St. Clair (1)
Herculez Gomez: Sebastian Driussi. He has Austin FC in a place I never expected them to be, fighting near the top of both the West and Supporters’ Shield standings. And he’s a killer in the box with playmaking ability.
David Gass: Djordie Mihailovic. He’s the focus when you play Montreal and he’s still been unstoppable. He can finish, he added the killer pass, and physically, he’s bossing opposing defensive midfielders.
Joe Lowery: I’m all about Jesus Ferreira and the work that he’s done this year. He’s been one of the league’s leaders in goals pretty much all season and his movement in and out of possession makes him an essential player for Dallas.
Michele Giannone: The MVP of the league right now is Ilie Sánchez. He has been the most dependable, influential, and irreplaceable player on the best team in MLS.
FAVORITE TEAM TO WATCH: NYCFC (4 VOTES)
Justin Egan: There is no team in MLS more chaotic than NYCFC. They love to score goals, they play a beautiful style of soccer, and pretty much all of the other teams in the Eastern Conference don’t like them, so things can get very spicy.
Tom Bogert: NYCFC play the most beautiful soccer in the league, with LAFC and Austin FC right up there with them. This changes almost on a week-to-week basis for me and depends on matchup, etc… But still: NYCFC.
Other receiving votes: Seattle Sounders (2), FC Dallas (2), Columbus Crew (1), New York Red Bulls (1), Houston Dynamo (1), CF Montreal (1), Real Salt Lake (1)
Stu Holden: Seattle Sounders. I love watching this team play in big matches. They have the best “big match mentality” in the league and you only need to look at the last 10 years + CCL to see why. Brian Schmetzer knows how to push the right buttons and this team has some real winners.
J. Sam Jones: When I was a kid my parents took me to go see David Copperfield and at the end of the show he brought out a bunch of people from the audience and made them sit down on stage in some kind of massive set piece and then a big curtain blocked them from view and when it lifted all like 12 of them were gone and everyone stood and clapped but as I stood and clapped I got kind of worried like “Where did those people actually go though and are they coming back and wait are people just going to be walking out to their car and saying ‘Wow, what a great show, sure glad we didn’t forget anything’ and then like they’d suddenly remember ‘Oh no, we forgot Alan’ and have to go and find Alan wherever David Copperfield had sent him or maybe Alan was actually in on it the whole time and so I kept relaying all my concerns about Alan and the rest of the people that disappeared to my family on the trip home and eventually they got so annoyed with me they said “Sam, it’s a magic show, just shut up and enjoy it.” And that’s what it’s like to watch RSL.
BEST COACH: PAT NOONAN, FC CINCINNATI (4 VOTES)
Jordan Angeli: Pat Noonan took a lackluster Cincy team and turned them into a team that people are talking about and are, get this, a team that wins games! I’ve heard nothing but great things about him and when you are trying to change the culture of a team, it’s important to make everyone know and feel like they are a part of it. Players seem to know their roles and are excelling in them at this point of the season.
Jeff Rueter: What Pat Noonan has accomplished in his first few months with FC Cincinnati is nothing short of remarkable.
Others receiving votes: Steve Cherundolo (3), Wilfried Nancy (3), Jim Curtin (1), Pablo Mastroeni (1), Brian Schmetzer (1)
Eliot McKinley: Steve Cherundolo. Taking over LAFC, who has been arguably the best regular season team in MLS since 2018, was no small task. He’s hit the ground running and halfway through the season, LAFC is a candidate to break the points record set by New England last year.
David Gass: This might be the toughest category of them all, but I have to go with Wilfried Nancy. Montreal have one of the thinnest rosters of any top team, beat they beat a Liga MX team, dealt with CCL, and have covered for missing players.
Matt Doyle: Brain Schmetzer. They won the CCL, dummy.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: FC CINCINNATI AND THEIR STARS (6 VOTES)
Matt Doyle: Lucho Acosta playing at an MVP level. Lucho was actually very good last year and has been Best XI in the past (though I didn’t think he deserved it in 2018), but he’s evolved from a guy who occasionally makes game-breaking plays to a Lodeiro-esque field general who does a little bit of everything along with a metric ton of chance creation. He’s become a much, much better player than I ever thought he would be.
Justin Egan: I don’t think anyone had Brandon Vazquez penciled in as a top five striker this year. He’s thrived making runs into the box to provide targets for Cincy’s wide players. Vazquez has also improved a lot of little things that have boosted his technical ability as a striker.
Stu Holden: FC Cincinnati. I’m beyond impressive with what Pat Noonan has been able to do in his first season in charge. Chris Albright has been turning the roster over and after a rough start to the season, Noonan has slowly developed a team that has shown character, grit, and an ability to win some tough games.
Others receiving votes: New York Red Bulls/Frankie Amaya (2), RSL (1), Charlotte FC firing Miguel Angel Ramirez (1), LAFC (1), Jesus Ferreira (1) the entire state of Texas (1)
Herculez Gomez: Jesus Ferreira scoring so many goals, plus a healthy amount of assists. Didn’t see that coming – and not bad for a guy who’s “not a 9”.
Jordan Angeli: The return of Frankie Amaya. He has not only found his home with NYRB but he’s also fit enough and mentally tuned in enough to be the heartbeat of the fastest team in this league. He is everywhere for the Red Bulls and has been the MVP of their team this season.
J. Sam Jones: The entire state of Texas. After missing out on the playoffs entirely last year, it seems like they’ve either gotten nearly everything sorted out (Dallas), have taken a massive leap forward (Austin) or taken the steps needed to run up to a massive leap (Houston). Every single team is trending upward. And all it took was a few moves and a little extra time.
BIGGEST OVERACHIEVING TEAM: RSL (5.5 VOTES)
Michele Giannone: RSL. What they are doing without Damir Kreilach and after losing Albert Rusnak is nothing short of a miracle. Kudos to Mastroeni for galvanizing that group and making tough but smart decisions.
Joe Lowery: RSL. I’m not sure anyone had them up this high in the West.
Others receiving votes: Austin FC (3), FC Cincinnati (1.5), FC Dallas (1), New York Red Bulls (1), Orlando City (1)
J. Sam Jones: Austin are good. I want to continue to firmly put myself in the “Austin are good” camp. But they aren’t quite *this* good. They’ve been overperforming their expected goals numbers by a near historic rate for about the entire season. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up missing out on a home playoff game by the end of the year. And I’ll stand by that and take all the hate and vitriol you can send my way, Austin. Or my name isn’t Tom Bogert aka @TomBogert on Twitter.
Jordan Angeli: Orlando. Each time I watch them play, I don’t leave thinking “I just watched one of the best 10 teams in this league.” They have a lot of really good individual pieces (Pato, Torres, Kara, Urso, Pereyra) but their performances seem choppy and disconnected.
BIGGEST UNDERACHIEVING TEAM: ATLANTA UNITED (4 VOTES)
Jeff Rueter: Atlanta United, mainly due to their complete inability to protect their players’ legs. The team entered 2022 with renewed confidence, but losing several key players to Achilles and knee injuries has left them looking like a shell of its own expectations.
Kieran Doyle: Atlanta. They have like seven DPs and are still actively bad most weeks even with whatever Josef Martinez is now. It’s kind of impressive how hard every transfer has missed since Tito Villalba, Josef, and Miguel Almiron.
Herculez Gomez: Atlanta United. Sure, injuries are a factor. But since Tata Martino’s departure, it’s always something. Too much talent in that roster to not be fighting for titles.
Others receiving votes: LA Galaxy (3), Chicago Fire (1), Minnesota United (1), Sporting Kansas City (1), Toronto FC (1), Colorado Rapids (1)
Michele Giannone: LA Galaxy. They lack depth, they can’t afford Mark Delgado to miss time, Efra hasn’t popped yet, and you can’t depend on Vazquez for a whole season. It’s all in the front office. I trust Greg Vanney, but the hole is getting deeper.
Tom Bogert: Chicago Fire. There are so many individual pieces I like on this team and yet… it’s just not working. Hopefully Xherdan Shaqiri finds his top gear when he’s back from injury, Kacper Przybylko gets out of his slump, Jairo Torres lives up to his price tag and the role players step up, but man.
NEXT MLS PLAYER WHO WILL THRIVE IN EUROPE: TATY CASTELLANOS, NYCFC (4.5 VOTES)
Joe Lowery: Taty Castellanos. I’m honestly shocked that he’s still in this league after how good he was last year. A smart European team is going to finally pay NYCFC’s asking price and be better off for it.
Tom Bogert: It should be Taty Castellanos. If Backheeled has any readers in decision making positions at European clubs, please know this: TATY IS WORTH $15 MILLION. JUST DO IT. I PROMISE.
David Gass: Taty. He can play on the wing or as a center forward at a high level. Plus, I think he is better suited to not be the star player on a team.
Others also receiving votes: Mamadou Mbacke Fall (1.5), Djordje Mihailovic (1.5), Kai Wagner (1), Jesus Ferreira (1), Paxten Aaronson (1), Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty (1), Francisco Calvo (1), Jose Cifuentes (0.5)
Matt Doyle: Mbacke Fall. He’s not getting as much hype because he’s not domestic, but my word, this kid’s the best teenaged center back this league’s ever seen, and he’s not going to be here much longer.
Kieran Doyle: After a super hot finishing season with good underlying numbers and a strong World Cup, Jesus Ferreira goes to, like, Hoffenheim in January.
Eliot McKinley: Paxten Aaronson. He has perhaps played more minutes for the US U-20s than the Union this year. But European teams will see his pedigree and come calling sooner rather than later.
J. Sam Jones: Francisco Calvo.
BEST RECENT SIGNING: ILIE SANCHEZ, LAFC (3 VOTES)
Joe Lowery: Ilie. Signing him to replace Atuesta in the midfield was a great move by LAFC’s front office. He’s not the flashiest player, but his passing range and ability to read the game from deep in midfield makes him invaluable. Long live MLS free agency.
Matt Doyle: John Thorrington completely remade the club culture by importing more than 1,000 games’ worth of MLS experience in the likes of Ilie, Kellyn Acosta, Ryan Hollingshead, Maxime Crepeau and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. Overnight the Black-and-Gold have a type of solidity and veteran pragmatism that they’ve just never quite managed before. They’re not as spectacular as previous versions of LAFC, but I think they’re deeper, tougher and more consistent. And they will win a trophy of some sort this season because of that.
Others also receiving votes: Luquinhas (2), Leonardo Campana (2), Paul Arriola (1), Lewis Morgan (1) Andres Cubas (1), Walker Zimmerman (1), Cucho Hernandez (1), Gareth Bale (1)
Jeff Rueter: It’s Leonardo Campana. There isn’t a long lineage of Premier League loanees who have made an instant impact in MLS, but Campana has been a savior for Inter Miami and handed Gonzalo Higuain a clear transition into his impending retirement. Miami had to operate with tight restrictions in a league full of tight restrictions, but adding Campana has come off brilliantly.
Stu Holden: Paul Arriola. I love the intraleague signings we’re starting to see more of now and Arriola is playing arguably the best soccer of his career in Dallas. Playing in the same system as the USMNT has helped him make a smooth transition and the goals and assists are flowing.
Tom Bogert: Luquinhas has been so good for the New York Red Bulls. He’s definitely showing Best XI talent. This was a team with a really solid foundation and good coaching, so they desperately needed that elite-level attacking piece to really have a chance at the top of the East. And it looks like they’ve found that in Luquinhas.