Sophomore risers! The 5 most improved players in MLS from year one to year two

Quick Hits
  • Now that the MLS playoffs are underway, we’re taking a look back at a group of MLS players who truly improved from 2021 to 2022
  • Let’s spotlight five players who bettered themselves from last year to this year, using data from American Soccer Analysis (and our own eyes)

Look, I take little joy in writing about the veterans who have finally had their reckoning with Father Time. Or in writing about youngsters who have fallen flat. So let’s stay positive, shall we? Today, we’re looking at MLS players who bettered themselves from 2021 to 2022. 

That’s right. It’s time to talk about the sophomores. The term sophomore can be a bit nebulous when it comes to professional soccer, though. Should a player who played 100 total minutes the year prior move on from rookie status? Should there be an age limit?

Let’s go through our criteria for what it means to be a sophomore. 

First of all, we’re using the term “sophomore” relative to MLS and not to professional soccer. So, players on their second or third team, but their first in MLS, are eligible. Being a sophomore does have a connotation of youth, so we only looked into players who have yet to turn 25. That may seem like an old cutoff, but if the BYU college football team can start guys in their mid-to-late 20s, we can too. There’s also a minutes criteria for our definition, given that players need a solid Year 1 workload to graduate to sophomore status. We set that cutoff at 500 minutes, including playoffs. 

Okay, now that we’ve established our sophomore pool, let’s look at five of the biggest MLS risers from the 2022 regular season with some help from American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric.

Goals added measured per 96 minutes, all stats from the regular season.

Adalberto Carrasquilla CM, Houston Dynamo

2021: 609 minutes, -0.02 g+ above average

2022: 2,659 minutes, +0.01 g+ above average

The Houston Dynamo midfielder starts off the list primarily for alphabetical reasons, but it could just as easily be because he’s the most aesthetically pleasing player on this list. U.S. men’s national team fans will be familiar with Carrasquilla from his caps with Panama and the flashes he’s shown at the international level have become a constant in MLS. The 23-year-old quickly became a regular upon arriving in early August, 2021, starting eight of eleven games when available. He’s been even more of a focal point for Pablo Nagamu… *check notes* Kenny Bundy in 2022.

Carrasquilla has expanded his passing profile considerably in his second season, both in progression and creativity. Not only is he getting on the ball more, he’s more efficient. Carrasquilla’s average vertical distance per completed pass has jumped from 4 to 5.85 yards and he’s climbed into the top ten percent of MLS midfielders in final third entries.

If you haven’t watched the young midfielder, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Turn on Houston next year, ignore the dumpster fire and look for the guy with sweet hair.

Brenner ST, FC Cincinnati

2021: 3,035 minutes, -0.13 g+ above average

2022: 2,308 minutes (playoffs included), +0.05 g+ above average

Out of all the players that fit our sophomore criteria, Brenner was one of the worst in 2021 based on g+. However, the Brazilian has worked tirelessly in 2022 to move his name securely out of the bust category. 

The narrative around Brenner has shifted from “how does FC Cincinnati recoup value from the $13 million transfer fee for a now-depreciated asset” to “how long is FC Cincinnati going to be able to keep this guy around before a bigger fish snags him”. The 22-year-old skyrocketed into the top six in non-penalty expected goals and expected assists per 96 among MLS attackers. His goal output has ballooned from eight to 18, driven by growth in shot volume and shot quality.

Brenner has been both a contributor and a beneficiary of an improved Cincinnati team in 2022, but he deserves more credit than simply being a finisher. His strike partnership with Brandon Vazquez allows him to fill a more creative role at times and he’s doubled his rate of shot-creating passes, passes into the penalty area, and progressive passes.

Talk about a sophomore rise.

Daniel Pereira DM, Austin FC

2021: 1,714 minutes, -0.05 g+ above average

2022: 2,357 minutes (playoffs included), +0.04 g+ above average

Pereira’s numbers don’t pop as much as some of the other inclusions on this list, but that shouldn’t diminish our appreciation of his growth in 2022. The Venezualen midfielder was drafted out of Virginia Tech in Austin FC’s inaugural season and thrust right into a rotation role. There were growing pains for team and player alike, but this year has been a completely different story.

Even if the underlying metrics don’t totally back up the results, Austin’s ascent to the upper echelon of the Western Conference standings is the talk of the town. Pereira has been in the middle of it all, quite literally. Head coach Josh Wolff has leaned on him more in his sophomore season, increasing his minutes percentage from 51% to 68% while also making sure he’s on the ball, with his touch percentage rising from 6.7% to 8.4%. 

Pereira’s ball progression as both dribbler and passer has taken a step forward as well, to the point that he leads Austin FC in final third entries. And while Austin’s defense still isn’t great, it’s at least a bit better than it was last year, shaving 0.19 expected goals allowed off their per 96 minute rate according to FBref.

As Austin’s deepest midfielder, Pereira probably deserves some credit for his team’s defensive improvement. The young Venezuelan’s continued development will be critical in Austin’s quest for continued stability. He also gave us one of the best goals of the year and deserves some love for this screamer against Charlotte.

Santiago Moreno W, Portland Timbers

2021: 632 minutes (playoffs included), 0.01 g+ above average

2022: 2,659 minutes, 0.03 g+ above average

The Colombian was a late addition to the Portland Timbers last year and didn’t get his first appearance until the end of August, 2021. Moreno only started four times, but was an important rotation piece for a team that made a run to the MLS Cup. 

Now a bit further along in his MLS career, the winger exploded into the forefront of Portland’s attack in Year 2. Starting 28 of 34 games, he ranked 15th among qualified MLS wingers in goals added above average and continued to be an effective passer from both sides of the field. Moreno led Portland in shot-creating open play passes and finished second behind only Sebastian Blanco in expected assists and passes into the penalty area, according to FBref.

Still, his dribbling might be his most impressive feature. He dribbled past 76 players this season, which put him fifth in all of MLS in that category during the regular season. He has a rare combination of high volume and high efficiency dribbling, which led to him topping Portland in shot-creating dribbles. There are few players defenders should fear more when they approach with the ball at their feet than the Timbers’ Moreno.

Talles Magno FW, New York City FC

2021: 575 minutes (playoffs included), 0.01 g+ above average

2022: 2,886 minutes, 0.07 g+ above average

The Brazilian has increased his role more than any other sophomore riser after he largely looked lost in the wilderness in 2021. Still, brief glimpses of immense talent burst through those rookie season struggles.

The 20-year-old delivered on those glimpses of potential in 2022, dropping anchor in NYCFC’s default starting 11 this season, starting in all but two league games this season. Magno is incredibly strong on the ball and almost impossible to dispossess even when it looks like he has nowhere to go. For a player who never seems to get out of first gear, he still ranks near the top of the league in progressive carries and is fifth among all MLS wingers in goals added via dribbling. 

Magno provides value working off the ball as well. He’s active dropping in to link up with the midfield and defense, regularly providing critical connections between the lines. His third place ranking in receiving goals added highlights an ability to find valuable pockets to receive passes.

While Magno is best on the left wing, NYCFC think so highly of him that they elected to wait to acquire a Taty Castellanos replacement to afford Magno a chance at striker. Was taking Magno off the wing the right decision? That’s a question for another day. Regardless of where he’s positioned, Magno is a joy to watch with the ball at his feet.

The five sophomore risers listed here are just a selection of my favorites, but there are many others who deserve some love. Below you’ll find a visualization of a few more players who have made the second-year jump.