Voices: Joseph Lowery

5 under-the-radar players to watch during the 2022 MLS season

We all like to be right, don’t we? One reason using data to look deeper at specific teams and players is so valuable is because it gives us extra information. It can help us either look beneath the surface or look across a broader surface and learn more about a particular subject. And when we have extra information on various subjects, we can make better, more educated guesses about those things.

Now, let’s apply this idea to the most important part of soccer: Arguing about it with your friends. With the 2022 MLS season breathing down your neck, you’re not far away from countless group chat conversations about which MLS players are good, which ones are bad, and which ones are due for a breakout season.

With the help of Second Spectrum’s data, I’ve selected a handful of under-the-radar players who recorded strong underlying numbers in 2021 and could generate some serious buzz in 2022. These are buy-low, sell-high kind of players – guys you can start following now while they’re near the ground floor and ride to the moon during 2022. Okay, that sounded like a crypto advertisement, but you get what I mean.

Backing some of these data-informed picks might just help you look smart during an argument with a soccer-loving friend. You’re welcome.

Let’s get started.

Miguel Berry didn’t play a ton last year for the struggling Columbus Crew – just 840 minutes – but when he did…he was special. Filling in the gaps for Gyasi Zardes as Caleb Porter’s No. 9, Berry put up numbers in the attack. Among players with at least 500 minutes last season, Berry averaged the most open-play xG per 90 minutes in the entire league with 0.54. The most!

The 6-foot-3, right-footed striker showed a knack for well-timed runs inside the 18-yard box during his first full MLS season. This off-ball run to cut right in front of New York Red Bulls defender Sean Nealis is an absolutely beautiful piece of movement and leads to one of Berry’s eight goals from 2021.

High-quality shots from close range like the one above were a fixture of Berry’s game last season: Among midfielders and forwards with at least 500 minutes, Berry led the league in average shot quality.

Can Berry continue to create these hugely valuable goalscoring opportunities over a longer stretch? I don’t know. But I sure am interested in finding out.

After a hot start to 2021 featuring a goal and an assist in Houston’s first three games, Tyler Pasher couldn’t stay involved in Tab Ramos’ Dynamo team last year. Due to injuries and international matches with Canada, Pasher didn’t play more than four consecutive games with Houston until the final portion of the season.

When Pasher was involved, though, he was a bright orange spot for the Dynamo. Looking at players who played at least 500 minutes in 2021, Pasher finished the year in the 94th percentile in xA per 90 minutes. Over the course of his 844 minutes, Pasher’s 0.19 expected assists per 90 figure put him in the same category as players like Atlanta’s Luiz Araujo, Nashville’s Randall Leal, and FC Dallas’ new, record-breaking trade acquisition Paul Arriola.

Not too shabby, right?

It’s also worth noting Pasher’s chance creation numbers came on a team that had a hard time generating scoring chances last season. Houston finished 2021 with the seventh-lowest xG total in MLS. With his cultured left foot, speed, and vision, Pasher could be a valuable piece for a new-look Dynamo team in 2022.

Joining Minnesota from Talleres in Argentina last May, Franco Fragapane is another impressive chance creator who was overshadowed at times in 2021. Like Pasher, Fragapane averaged 0.19 xA per 90 minutes, which put him in the 93rd percentile among players with at least 500 minutes. Unlike Pasher, Fragapane’s numbers came over a larger sample size (just over 1,500 minutes vs. nearly 900 minutes), which gives some additional credence to his underlying numbers.

Operating as one of the outside midfielders in Adrian Heath’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Fragapane thrived in the left half-space during 2021. Though he’s right-footed and created ample chances by cutting in on his right last season, the Argentinian is also capable of counteracting his own scouting report. As defenders shape to cut off his inside angle, Fragapane can find opportunities to feed teammates with his left foot, like on this play against Houston in late September.

Though Fragapane isn’t the biggest name in Minnesota’s attack, he can cause major problems for opposing defenders – and should do exactly that in 2022.

Relying on a 19-year-old center back as much as they did last year was certainly not a part of LAFC’s plan heading into 2021. But after Eddie Segura’s knee injury left them short at the back, that’s exactly what happened. Mamadou Fall, who was born in Senegal, moved to the United States to join the Montverde Academy and signed for LAFC in June 2021. He ended up starting 16 games for LAFC.

Regularly playing on the outside of LAFC’s back three, Fall showed an impressive ability to progress the ball. Per FBref, Fall ranked in the 84th percentile among MLS center backs with his progressive passes per 90 minutes. And according to Second Spectrum, he finished last season in the 95th percentile among center backs for average opponents bypassed per touch.

Having a defender like Fall, who is unusually skilled on the ball for a teenager, is a huge asset for LAFC. I mean, this clip of Fall playing as a right outside center back against the LA Galaxy is just absurd. With Kim Moon-Hwan tucking inside, Fall fills the outside channel, drives downfield, beats two opponents and plays a lovely ball into the box. This is downright unfair stuff for a center back to be doing.

Even with his on-ball comfort in many situations, there is room for Fall to improve: He hasn’t quite grown into his 6-foot-2 frame yet and he isn’t always totally engaged in defensive situations. But oh man, if those two things fall into place during 2022, Fall has all the tools to be a star in MLS.

This could finally be Nicolas Acevedo’s year. While he signed for NYCFC in March 2020, the Uruguayan central midfielder wasn’t able to join New York City until the summer of that year. Between travel delays and heavy competition for spots in Ronny Deila’s midfield, Acevedo didn’t become a real fixture for NYCFC until last season. Even then, Acevedo didn’t play more than 1,400 minutes and missed the last two months of his team’s MLS Cup run with an injury.

This year, though, with James Sands off to Rangers and more MLS experience under his belt, will be Acevedo’s chance to climb into the spotlight.

Acevedo, who recently signed a new contract with New York City, is a silky-smooth, technical central midfield distributor – and you can see that pretty clearly when you look at his numbers. Among players with at least 500 minutes last season, Acevedo ranked in the 93rd percentile for completed passes to teammates between the lines per 90 minutes. He also finished 2021 in the 90th percentile among players with at least 500 minutes in progressive passes completed per 90.

So few players in MLS are better than Acevedo when it comes to these quick, incisive passes:

With Acevedo, NYCFC have a high-quality player who can help them control games and get the ball into their star attackers. That’s exactly what Deila wants from his central midfield group.