Plenty of attention is bestowed every year on contenders for the Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award, with the three 2016 finalists for that honor having been revealed earlier this month.
But every club across MLS has top performers whose leading efforts are integral to their teams regardless of the wider recognition (or lack thereof) they may receive. In that spirit, here's a rundown of the standouts who did the most to make their teams go in 2016.
Chicago Fire – David Accam
One of the only bright spots in Chicago’s tough year, Accam led Chicago with nine goals and finished second on the club with five assists in just 24 regular-season appearances this season. We’ll see if the Ghanaian international is around next year, but, if he is, the Fire will hope he’ll be a leading part of a potent attack featuring Michael de Leeuw and a potentially significant offseason signing.
Colorado Rapids – Sam Cronin
One of the most unheralded players in MLS, Cronin doesn’t show up that often on the stat sheet, but he’s been excellent for Colorado all year. The holding midfielder has been integral to the Rapids’ league-best defense, teaming with Micheal Azira to form an effective shield in front of Colorado’s backline.
Columbus Crew SC – Justin Meram
One of the more technically gifted players in MLS, Meram (pictured above) had the best year of his career in 2016, recording five goals and 13 assists – tied for third in the league – in 33 regular-season appearances. If Columbus are to return to the playoffs in 2017, the Iraq international will again have to play a big role.
D.C. United – Patrick Mullins
Yes, Luciano Acosta was solid, and yes, Mullins spent less than half the season than D.C. But no player had a bigger effect on United than the third-year striker, who recorded eight goals and two assists in just 14 games with D.C. after being acquired in a trade with New York City FC on July 20. Put simply, United's attack was transformed by his arrival.
FC Dallas – Mauro Diaz
Diaz put his tremendous value on display many, many times throughout the season, but his presence perhaps wasn’t as keenly felt until after he went down with a torn Achilles in the penultimate game of the regular season. Dallas were a bit lost offensively without the Argentine, who had 5 goals and 13 assists this year, crashing out of the playoffs at the first hurdle after winning the Supporters’ Shield and US Open Cup double earlier in the year.
Houston Dynamo – Alex
It was another rough year for Houston, but a career season for Alex, who set new career highs with five goals, two assists and 29 starts in the Dynamo midfield. Named the Dynamo Players’ Player of the Year, the Brazilian midfielder added two more goals in Open Cup play.
LA Galaxy – Giovani dos Santos
I considered going with Jelle Van Damme, but dos Santos’ big year was too good to pass on. The Mexican national teamer was really, really solid in his first full year in MLS, leading LA with 14 goals (tied for eighth in the league) and 12 assists (tied for fourth in MLS) despite only playing 28 games.
Montreal Impact – Ignacio Piatti
A certain Toronto FC attacker draws a little bit more attention, but Nacho deserves some serious love, too. The Argentine is one of the best players in the league, and is the man that makes things go for Montreal.
New England Revolution – Lee Nguyen
It flew a bit under the radar, but Nguyen had another solid season for New England, racking up six goals and leading the Revs with 10 assists in 33 appearances. The veteran now has 31 goals and 25 assists over the last three seasons.
New York City FC – David Villa
The only choice, really. El Guaje was marvelous in 2016, improving on his stellar 2015 to finish second in all of MLS with 23 goals in 33 league appearances. The Spanish legend put NYCFC on his back down the stretch, scoring six goals in their final four regular-season matches to sew up the East’s second seed. He’ll be hoping for a better playoff run in 2017, but Villa has plenty to be proud of this year.
New York Red Bulls – Sacha Kljestan
I could’ve just as easily given this designation to Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips, but decided to go with the league’s leading assist man instead. Kljestan was excellent this year, recording six goals and becoming the second player in MLS history to end a year with 20 assists.
Orlando City SC – Kevin Molino
Similar to some of his counterparts on this list on teams that also missed the playoffs, Kevin Molino’s solid year was put together pretty quietly. The Trinidad and Tobago international put together a strong season coming off of his 2015 ACL tear, finishing second on Orlando in both goals (11) and assists (8). While he was runner-up in both categories on their own, his combined total of 19 goals and assists was tied with Kaká for tops among the Lions.
Philadelphia Union – Chris Pontius
One of the most important pieces in the Union’s return to the postseason, Pontius performed really, really solidly in his first season with Philadelphia after being acquired in an offseason trade with D.C. The MLS Comeback Player of the Year led the Union with 12 goals and finished tied for second on the team with six assists, the highest combined total of his eight-year MLS career.
Portland Timbers – Diego Valeri
One of the classiest players in all of MLS, Valeri had yet another excellent year in 2016, leading the Timbers with seven assists and finishing second on the team – and second among MLS midfielders – with 14 goals in 30 league appearances. The Argentine is as dynamic as they come, and now has an outstanding 37 goals and 42 assists in 116 appearances since joining Portland in 2013.
Real Salt Lake – Joao Plata
Back at full health after a broken foot derailed him for much of 2015, Plata finished the 2016 tied for the RSL lead with nine goals and in sole possession of first on the club with 12 assists. The diminutive Ecuadorian is a genuine terror in the attack, and will be a huge part of whatever RSL is able to do in 2017.
San Jose Earthquakes – David Bingham
Bingham didn’t get as much love as I thought he deserved in the Goalkeeper of the Year vote (I voted him as my winner), but the San Jose Earthquakes backstop continued his emergence as one of the top ‘keepers in MLS in 2016. Among ‘keepers with at least 20 appearances, the emerging US international was fourth in goals against average, sixth in saves, fourth in save percentage and tied for fourth in shutouts.
Seattle Sounders – Nicolas Lodeiro
With all apologies to Ozzie Alonso (who was excellent this year), I can’t give this to anyone but Nico Lodeiro. The Uruguayan star was magic after joining Seattle in late July, recording four goals and eight assists in 13 games to lead the Sounders out of their massive midseason hole and into the playoffs. He hasn’t dropped his game in the postseason, recording three goals in three games to power the Sounders into the Western Conference Championship series.
Sporting Kansas City – Benny Feilhaber
The newly re-signed Sporting Kansas City star was excellent again in 2016, finishing tied for third in the league with 13 assists. Feilhaber wasn’t bad in front of goal, either, adding seven goals to go along with that baker’s dozen of helpers. SKC should be thrilled they were able to lock him up for two more years.
Toronto FC – Sebastian Giovinco
My vote for league MVP, the Atomic Ant picked up right where he left off in 2015 this year, scoring 17 goals and notching 15 assists in just 28 regular-season games. The Italian international is the best player in the league, bar none, and was a huge, huge snub for league MVP.
Vancouver Whitecaps – Matias Laba
Matias Laba started slowly, but ended up putting together a pretty solid season in deep midfield for what was a very disappointing Vancouver Whitecaps team. ‘Caps fans will hope the rest of their roster will get it together in time for 2017.