Before the new Major League Soccer season kicks off (it won't be long now, folks!), we decided to take stock of the best American players the league has to offer as it hits the quarter-century mark.
Often times, rankings such as these have a complicated, even nebulous judging criteria. This one doesn't. It's not about the volume of MLS or international achievements, about past accomplishments or future potential. It's about who stands as the best American players working on home shores, right now, plain and simple.
Some notable retirements in recent years have opened up several spots for newcomers. The boys at the back hold down a slim majority of the top 10, which features a blend of blooming aces, seasoned prime-age vets and golden over-30 oldies. Seattle is the only club with a pair players listed here, but Atlanta United also featured two of them last season before trading one away early in the offseason.
As you'd expect, the last few cuts were the hardest, but that just leaves us with a strong honorable mentions crew: Michael Bradley, Bill Hamid, Sebastian Lletget, Cristian Roldan and CJ Sapong. In addition to the usual near-miss salute, I'll shine a light on the 25 and under players with enough game in their locker to crash the list in the near future: Paul Arriola, Reggie Cannon, Jeremy Ebobisse, Justen Glad, Paxton Pomykal and Jackson Yeuill.
No. 10: Matt Turner, New England Revolution
Some may find this nod premature. I will counter by noting the only MLS netminder even close to the fast-rising New England shot-stopper in counts of larceny over the last two seasons will be found higher on this list. Turner has a ludicrous -13.94 goals against-expected goals against total (as calculated by American Soccer Analysis) since the start of 2018. To put that sum in context: Famed cruel robbery artist Bill Hamid has managed just under half that total (-6.96) in the same time frame.
No. 9: Walker Zimmerman, LAFC
Walker Zimmerman celebrates after scoring for LAFC | USA Today Sports Images
The LAFC defender may have the odd short stretch of mediocrity, but his performance ceiling is pretty much equal to the three center backs still to come in this ranking. Zimmerman makes stops high and low, has become much more efficient with the ball since moving to the Banc and is among the scariest American set piece targets anywhere. After finishing as Defender of the Year runner-up in 2019, he's, ohhh say, 10 percent more consistency away from winning the prize.
No. 8: Stefan Frei, Seattle Sounders FC
It's quite shocking Seattle's big save machine has only ever been called into one USMNT camp (and that ended early due to an injury). It's just as wacky that he's yet to take home an MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. Frei has backstopped the Sounders to two MLS Cups (one which saw him earn the MVP trophy) and a Supporters Shield/US Open Cup double. He's fifth on the all-time MLS shutouts chart and, among 'keepers with at least 125 games played, only Luis Robles boasts a better win percentage.
No. 7: Alejandro Bedoya, Philadelphia Union
Alejandro Bedoya has been at the heart of the Union's rise the last two years. | USA Today Sports Images
Philly's skipper is among the best midfield Swiss army knives in the league, capable of providing an array of key plays when needed. Bedoya offers dogged build work and supplemental, often timely offense, but never forgets defensive teamwork. He's tactically cultured while also operating with a lunch pail work ethic. That game balance and his fiery leadership have helped set the tone for what has easily been the most successful two-season run in franchise history.
No. 6: Miles Robinson, Atlanta United
As with Turner, some may wonder if this ranking comes a bit fast. I don't believe it does, and nobody should be surprised if Atlanta's stud center back becomes an essential US national team cog in the near future. Robinson has the speed to run with pacy forwards, the composure to pick the right spot for tackles, the strength to win aerial challenges and the awareness to account for threats from all angles. Most impressively, he seems to see how plays will unfold ahead of time, which allows him to do all the above jobs without fouling much. And after he takes the ball away, the youngster moves it along safely.
No. 5: Darlington Nagbe, Columbus Crew SC
Considering the style US boss Gregg Berhalter wants to play, it would be just super duper if he could convince Nagbe to come back into the national team fold. The fresh Columbus pick-up is the pre-eminent possession hound in MLS, and among its best traffic directors. Though often derided for not being harder in the tackle, he's practically a one-man pressure valve, silkily working out of crowds to find space for his team to move forward. Though he's never wowed with end-product volume, Nagbe is in invaluable "pass before the pass" guy and counter attack initiator.
No. 4: Ike Opara, Minnesota United
The lanky defender didn't miss a beat following his offseason switch from Sporting KC to Minnesota United. In fact, it can be argued Opara enjoyed the best season of his career in 2019, which ended with him snaring a second Defender of the Year award in three years. The hyper-athletic Loon oversaw a back line that cut its goals against total from 71 to 43 (a slash of about 40%) and keyed the first playoff berth in franchise history. Even at 30, one has to wonder why the USMNT still ignores his dominating talents.
No. 3: Aaron Long, New York Red Bulls
While the Red Bulls center back had more struggles in 2019, he edges out Opara here based on degree of difficulty. No American center back can match Long's ability to defend on the gallop in space, which definitely comes in handy on a high-pressing team that doesn't have Ozzie Alonso (or in years past, Ilie Sanchez) fronting his back line. He has also been tested at the higher international level more times than the other three central defenders on this list combined.
No. 2: Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders FC
If we were specifically here to celebrate the top American performer of the last six months, the Sounders' hometown hero would be the easy and obvious choice. Once derided as a player who couldn't shine as a winger, couldn't play with his left and couldn't cross, Morris obliterated all those judgments in 2019 at both the club and international level. He's still not quite in the "constant 90-minute threat" category, but being one of those "only needs a few sparkling moments to change the game" guys is certainly good enough for now.
No. 1: Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC
The unreasonable anti-Altidore crowd can "@ me" all they want. It won't change the reality that he's currently one of only three US national team players, along with Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams, that has no comparable replacement. It can't change the fact no American player has come close to the Toronto FC ace's offensive efficiency (0.90 goals+assists per 90 minutes) since he returned to MLS in 2015. It isn't going to change the fact he's even better in the MLS postseason (1.10 G+A/90) and World Cup qualifiers (.61 G/90). The only real hole in Jozy's game is avoiding injuries.