When superstar names like Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are racking up incredibly gaudy numbers and goals and practically grabbing audiences by the lapels with attention-grabbing plays and soundbites alike, it’s easy for even extremely strong performances by other, less headline-friendly, players to get lost in the din.
Such will probably be the case again on Friday night, with the national-television meeting between Vela’s LAFC and defending MLS Cup champs Atlanta United hogging the limelight. But I’m here to quietly urge you to make it a doubleheader tonight, by tuning in to MLS LIVE on ESPN+ or DAZN to catch New York City FC vs. Sporting Kansas City at 7:30 pm ET before the aforementioned West-Coast nightcap.
It starts with two words: Maxi Moralez.
The diminutive Argentinean has quietly toiled in the shadow of the bigger names since his arrival in MLS from Club Leon two years ago, leaving few outside of the blue side of New York fully versed in his quality. But talks to a few league insiders and/or observers with an analytics background, and you get a very different picture.
In those circles, Moralez is one of the most respected and feared players in the league. Opponents recognize the impact of his work rate in possession, ball security, the vision and clean passing across multiple areas of the field that helps the Cityzens routinely set the tempo of their matches, and the ability to consistently do damage in the attacking third, whether it’s playing the final ball, the pass before the pass or applying the finishing touch himself. Via Opta, his passing accuracy in the attacking half of the field is an impressive 74.84%, he's created 59 chances, sixth-most in MLS and other strong stats cascade along from there.
In some ways he’s the fusion of several different concepts of the modern playmaker. And that complete skillset – OK, fine, at 5-foot-3 he doesn’t win many aerial duels, give the guy a break – has made him versatile in a positional sense, with Dome Torrent fielding him in a range of advanced roles both centrally and out wide, confident that the pocket-sized maestro will positively impact the game regardless.
Put more simply, Maxi makes NYCFC go. And considering that he leads the league in assists at present, and that the Cityzens have been one of the toughest teams in MLS to beat – they’ve lost just three matches this year, tied for fewest with LAFC – that’s worth watching.
Sporting will certainly be watching Moralez. I suspect he’s the type of player their manager Peter Vermes would absolutely love to have as he tries to repair the wreckage of a season that looked like the most promising in MLS at the dawn of spring, with a front-foot, possession-dominant style that swept aside several very good teams before injuries took a sledgehammer to the grand plan.
Sporting’s spiritual avatar is Ilie Sanchez, the Spanish tempo-setter who links play and sets the tone from deep midfield. If he had a Moralez type ahead of him to reliably do what Moralez does, Sporting’s campaign might look a lot different. I suspect that was Vermes’ thinking when he signed Yohan Croizet to a Designated Player deal ahead of last season; it hasn’t quite worked out that way, as any Sporting supporter will tell you.
But Moralez is wearing the other sky-blue kit right now, so Ilie will have to chase him around the Yankee Stadium pitch Friday night. And if he can even marginally slow down NYCFC’s No. 10, he’ll have done better than most in MLS this year.