Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Each MLS team's most important player for the 2022 season

Earlier this week we highlighted breakout player candidates for all 28 MLS clubs during the 2022 season. Now, we turn to those who will be most important to their team's success in chasing an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs spot, trophies and more.

Away we go.

Arguably the best goalscorer in league history, and certainly the best who’s done it for more than just a couple of years. Josef’s absence in 2020 showed just how important he was on the field, and his power play to remove Gabriel Heinze in 2021 illustrated that he might have pretty good GM instincts, too.

What kind of season they need from him

A reprise of last year (12 goals in 1650 minutes) would technically be fine – Atlanta have enough talent now to compensate, and a better coach – but if the Five Stripes want to start lifting trophies again, Josef probably needs 20+ goals and 3000+ minutes across all comps.

Damn near every turnover Austin committed last year led to a jailbreak in the wrong direction. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data they conceded 26 expected goals in transition, which was by far the worst in the league (Minnesota and San Jose were tied for second-worst with just a shade over 21).

Valencia was brought in to stop that, Diego Chara-style.

What kind of season they need from him

A Diego Chara kind of season.

The Fire need an absolute win so, so badly, and Shaqiri is supposed to be it. He's played at big-name clubs, creates highlight-reel moments, and is still in his prime. He is the type of player that fans pay to see, and that can help turn a team into a winner. He was also slick as hell in his welcome video (though with that music and that setting I was slightly worried that John Wick was gonna pop on screen and end him):

What kind of season they need from him

30 games, 2500 minutes, and 15g/10a counting stats feels like it would work. Though Shaqiri is good enough to make it 25g/10a if he gets on a heater (and stays healthy).

I’ve written it elsewhere but Kann is probably going to represent the single biggest upgrade at any position that any team is able to make this window, even if he’s just an average goalkeeper.

It’s hard to overstate how low the bar is between the sticks for Cincy:

Bear in mind that the numbers suggest Kann will be much more than just average at keeping the ball out of the net. Even if he doesn’t do anything else (and to be fair, he really doesn’t), that will be such a massive boost for this team.

What kind of season they need from him

They just need him to play like he did in the USL: steady, available and mistake-free. If he manages to claim the occasional cross, that’d be nice as well.

With expansion sides, I go with the defensive midfielder by default. Alcivar has a promising pedigree, playing nearly 90 times for Ecuadorian giants LDU Quito and pushing his way into the mix with a pretty solid La Tri this past summer before making the move to Charlotte official.

What kind of season they need from him

The two biggest things will be his ability to win the ball and create smoother transitions in the crib. Miguel Angel Ramirez will want to play a 4-3-3 with a single pivot so Alcivar’s distribution matters quite a bit as well, but the defensive side comes first. It has to.

The Rapids are a team without stars, but I truly believe that Kaye has the ability to become one. Obviously he does a lot of things very well, but his eye for line-splitting through-balls that get his wingers out on the run is what makes him stand apart, and why I think there’s some untapped full-on playmaker potential with him. In fact, he contains the type of playmaking skillset that could amplify the attacking skillsets of guys like Michael Barrios and Jonathan Lewis, who happened to be Colorado’s two top scorers in 2021.

What kind of season they need from him

I think it’s less about numbers and more like you watch him every week and think, “damn, this guy is the best player on the field and is running the show.”

It wasn’t just his defensive presence that Columbus missed last year, nor his ball-winning ability or his still-underrated passing. I think, in large part, the Crew simply missed his energy. Artur comes into every single game like a man on fire, completely intending to play on the front foot and doing so with an infectiousness that usually raises the level of his teammates.

Without him in 2021, almost every game was a slog.

What kind of season they need from him

I’d be happy with 2000 healthy minutes.

Hedges battled through injuries last year, missed 14 games and had what was pretty easily the worst season of his truly great career. Dallas were terrible without him – just 3-7-4, which is 0.9 points per game. They weren’t, however, much better with him, going 4-8-8 for 1.0 ppg.

That, of course, suggests there were other issues with Dallas’s defense besides Hedges (indisputably true). However, I doubt the defense would’ve cratered like it did if a fit, healthy and in-form Hedges was out there for most of 2021.

What kind of season they need from him

If he performs like he did basically every year from 2012 to 2020, that’d be plenty good enough.

Flores, the most expensive signing in D.C. United history, has started just 22 games and scored just two goals in two years. He has been hurt, and when he has not been hurt, he has not… been good.

Almost everybody else on the team hit their numbers last year, and it resulted in a scrappy, entertaining and ultimately fruitless quest to jump over the line and claim the last playoff spot. They need something special, a little bit of magic in the attacking third, to make it happen in 2022.

What kind of season they need from him

2500 healthy minutes and 20 total goal contributions – something like 8g/12a – feels about right, though Flores has the talent to deliver more.

Carrasquilla has the ability to be one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league, with the range to help cover for Darwin Quintero’s, uh, laissez-faire approach to defense, and the ball progression ability to make up for Matias Vera’s weird reluctance to pass or carry the ball forward.

And based upon previous performances from those two players, he’ll have to do both of those things at an extraordinarily high level if the Dynamo are going to be any good this year.

What kind of season they need from him

They probably need him to be Best XI caliber or they're going to be in some trouble.

There aren’t many wingers who’ve ever been the most important player on their respective teams, but Vela’s in a class by himself. What we saw over the last two years was a team that could compete at the very top of the region when Vela was fit and motivated, then a team capable of missing the playoffs entirely when he isn't.

So many of those wonderful sequences of attacking play that LAFC produced last year went for naught. If Vela was on the field, does anyone really think that’d be the case?

What kind of season they need from him

2000 healthy minutes with 20 total goal contributions would probably be enough, right? That’s slightly less than double what he did last year.

Here’s what I wrote last year about Chicharito: “He’s supposed to have the kind of effect on his team that Josef’s had on Atlanta through the years. He fell pretty, pretty short of that mark in 2020.

"The Galaxy need a ton of other stuff to go right if they’re to pull out of this half-decade-long tailspin, but it’s got to start with the highest-paid player in the league. He’s supposed to be the star, and needs to play like it.”

He did all that – dude was electric, with 17g/3a in a shade over 1700 minutes, but it still wasn’t enough because the Galaxy couldn’t stop the ball or win the ball in central midfield. They were soft and gappy, and Delgado is the guy they brought in to fix that.

What kind of season they need from him

LA just need him to get back to the guy he was from 2016-20 with Toronto. And before you say “that’s too long ago, he’s past it!” bear in mind that Delgado is still just 26 years old! He’s only just entering his prime and will do so playing his preferred position in his hometown. Can’t ask for a better stage than that.

Over the course of two years, Miami have only rarely controlled the midfield in the type of way that leads to the creation of repeatable, high-level chances. While bringing Gregore in last year shored up the defense – to an extent – through that part of the pitch, the idea behind acquiring Mota is to get more of the ball and to move it more quickly and accurately into advantageous spots.

What kind of season they need from him

30 starts, 2500 minutes and good chemistry with Gregore would be a nice foundation. Hard to ask for anything more than that at this point.

As long as Reynoso is out there, the Loons are one touch away from having a clear look at goal:

He is a classic, throwback South American No. 10, and he is just brilliant to watch. He is also the alpha and omega of everything Minnesota does, and it’s fair to say that without him they are significantly less dangerous.

What kind of season they need from him

Last year he put in a Best XI-caliber season and they only just snuck into the playoffs. They’ll most likely need something like that from him again.

Wanyama’s been fine for the past two years. No more than that, and no less.

This year he’s got a borderline playoff team around him, year-to-year continuity with the coach, and a full season in the team’s actual home stadium. The hope is that he will find a gear better than “fine.”

What kind of season they need from him

“Good” would probably suffice, though I’m sure they’d like him to hit “really good” or better – the type of year that has us talking about him during our postseason awards show on Extratime.

Hany Mukhtar
Forward/Midfielder · Nashville SC

The defense will still hold up even if Walker Zimmerman is gone for a few games, or regresses from his Defender of the Year form. Sean Davis was brought in as a midfield reinforcement, which means that Anibal Godoy or Dax McCarty can maybe take a step back without it hitting too hard. There’s depth at both wingback slots, and there’s depth – and upside – at center forward.

There is nothing else on this roster like Mukhtar, though. He’s the only one who can conjure something out of nothing, and is both the best playmaker and goalscorer on this side.

What kind of season they need from him

Nashville probably need him to be Best XI-caliber again.

Yeah, there are all kinds of reasons to go in a different direction here, with the most obvious being Carles Gil. But while the Revs survived pretty well last year in their six weeks without Gil, their goals/90 dropped by about 35% when Buksa was off the pitch, and the underlying numbers are pretty well in line with the boxscore numbers.

Buksa’s own goalscoring is a big part of it, obviously, but just as valuable is the room he creates by constantly dragging opposing center backs around. Dude is big, mobile and absolutely wants to go up and dunk on you, so that keeps those center backs on their heels. The knock-on effect of that is it disconnects those center backs from their d-mid shield(s), which in turn provides more room for the likes of Gil and Gustavo Bou.

What kind of season they need from him

If Buksa can just replicate what he did last year, it’ll be great – right up until he’s sold for eight figures this summer.

As per the tracking data, NYCFC led MLS is open play xG, shots and shots per game, and were second in open play goals. Against an organized defense they were even better, racking up 32.3 xG on the season. Only one other team was over 28.

Moralez is the little professor in the middle making the whole thing work. He’s in the 99th percentile of passes attempted from between the lines, and in the 97th percentile of passes completed. He’s in the 98th percentile of passes completed under pressure, and the 98th percentile of progressive passes, and the 93rd percentile of shot assists.

He’s not the flashiest No. 10 in the league, but he spends every second on the pitch working to get his team into better spots.

What kind of season they need from him

At his age – he’ll be 35 the weekend the season starts – I think it’s fair to hope he’s got 2000 more good minutes in the tank that he can spread out across all competitions.

He was the most important player on the team last year, and one of the breakout players in the league. This year his defensive midfielder (Sean Davis) is gone, his left center back’s gone (Andrew Gutman) and his right center back’s (Andres Reyes) out injured for around half the year. So yeah, even with Aaron Long coming back, there’s a lot on Nealis’ shoulders.

What kind of season they need from him

At least as good as last year.

Too often last season Orlando’s attack devolved into a series of “your turn, my turn” isolation 1v1s that produced not much. Mauricio Pereyra tried to knit the whole thing together and provide some kind of connection between center forward Daryl Dike and wingers Nani and Chris Mueller, but the chemistry was never there.

Dike, Nani and Mueller are gone, and Torres is the biggest incoming talent. Like Nani, he is a winger, but unlike Nani, he actually attacks the box and does more than just try to score bangers. Torres is very good at working with and off of others, and he needs to bring that to MLS so that it’s not just Pereyra out there providing the connective tissue in the attack.

What kind of season they need from him

Orlando probably need us to be talking about Torres prominently in the Newcomer of the Year race, right? Twenty goal contributions in 2500 minutes sounds about right.

The Union have a lot of really good players, and there’s an argument for a bunch of them – Jose Martinez, Jack Elliott, Ale Bedoya, even Julian Carranza – as the most important player on the team this coming year (I particularly like the Carranza argument, which is “you know what you’re getting from the rest of the Union players; but if Carranza can be the 15-20 goalscorer they seem to think he is, then he elevates the whole team and makes them even more dangerous in the playoffs. Except that’s “most important variable” rather than “most important player,” isn’t it? Anyway…).

There’s only one Andre Blake. He’s hit a level of consistent excellence that very few MLS goalkeepers have ever achieved, and is a true match-winner. He’s the backbone of this team’s rise to prominence over the past five years.

What kind of season they need from him

His usual kind.

Very simply: In 2021 the Timbers picked up 1.9 (Supporters’ Shield contention) points per game in which Blanco appeared, and 0.9 points per game (Wooden Spoon contention) in games he didn’t. When he started, they picked up 2.1 points per game.

There is no like-for-like replacement on this roster, and there is no Diego Valeri to cushion the fall. Blanco is irreplaceable.

What kind of season they need from him

Portland got 1400 healthy-ish minutes out of him last year across all competitions. I think they’ll need at least that in 2022, and they’ll need him to look himself.

I’m just going to reprise last year’s column and offer some very basic numbers: Since 2016 with Glad in the lineup, RSL are 63-55-38 with 237 goals allowed. That’s good for 1.46 ppg with a goals-against average of 1.52.

Since 2016 with Glad not in the lineup, they’re 11-22-9 with 93 goals allowed. That’s good for 1.0 ppg with a goals-against average of 2.21.

It’s pretty straightforward.

What kind of season they need from him

His typical season would probably be fine, but he’s soon 25 and fully into his prime. It’d be nice to see him start delivering on the promise of a few years ago and start putting in Best XI-caliber years.

As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, Judson was the most effective pressing player in the league – San Jose won the ball back more often over the course of 90 minutes, and at a higher rate, within five seconds of Judson pressing an opponent than any other team won the ball back within five seconds of one of their players having pressed an opponent. He is a one-man wrecking crew.

But that’s not his most important function. His most important function is releasing early upfield in anticipation of his own team’s turnovers in order to get pressure to the opposing distributors. This isn’t to win the ball back, necessarily; rather, it’s to slow down opposing transition opportunities.

Without Judson playing that role the Quakes are helpless in Matias Almeyda’s scheme; they just get absolutely gashed. With him in that role, they at least have a fighting chance.

What kind of season they need from him

I honestly think they need 3000 healthy minutes from him if they’re to have any chance of making the playoffs.

Is he a defensive midfielder? Central midfielder? Both? Whatever the answer is, JP was on the verge of winning my MVP vote before the Sounders went into the tank down the stretch. Irrespective of that unhappy October, he put in a truly elite 2021 season as a ball-winner and ball-progressor. He even scored one of the best individual goals this league has ever seen:

Beyond that, though, he proved the Sounders can survive even without Nico Lodeiro. I didn’t think they would, but JP had other ideas.

What kind of season they need from him

Given that Lodeiro and Jordan Morris are back and that Cristian Roldan is going to move back to central midfield, they probably only need JP to be 80% as good as last year. But if they can get 3000 minutes across all competitions at his 2021 level, they’ll probably be in the hunt for multiple trophies.

The Argentine midfielder got his feet under him in Year 1, playing 600 minutes – some at the No. 8, some as a No. 6 – and adjusting to the different sorts of challenges MLS provides.

In Year 2, there’s no safety net. Ilie Sanchez is gone, off to LAFC in free agency, and the No. 6 is Mauri’s job to lose. He’s got to show that he can do the things that made Ilie so good, like reading the game, dictating tempo and getting SKC into their attacking patterns. He also has to show that he can do the things that Ilie struggled at, like field coverage and straight-up winning the ball out of scrums.

What kind of season they need from him

The type of season that has Andrew Wiebe on Extratime talking about how he wants to get a Jose Mauri kit for his kid.

Two years ago Mavinga had a very, very good season, and Toronto damn near won the Shield despite a surfeit of injuries. Last year Mavinga had a very, very bad season, and Toronto damn near won the Spoon after suffering a surfeit of injuries.

He’s not a one-man show, but for the duration of his stay in Toronto, Mavinga has been the only guy on that backline capable of putting out fires in the open field. And TFC, for the past eight years, have always played a type of soccer that calls for a center back who can put out fires in the open field. If Mavinga’s not doing it, it’s not going to get done.

And that won’t change under Bob Bradley, whose teams play the most consistently front-foot soccer in the league.

What kind of season they need from him

The way he performed in 2017, ‘19 or ‘20 would work. And he could certainly use a dose of luck with regard to his health as well.

There were a number of fun storylines around Vancouver’s midseason turnaround and surge. The one given the most prominence was probably the presence of Vanni Sartini, who gave some of the league’s most memorable halftime talks and postgame quotes, while switching the team’s formation and principles of play. If it wasn’t Sartini as the above-the-fold headline, then it was most likely Brian White, the no-frills center forward the ‘Caps stole from RBNY who spent the second half of the year as one of the hottest goalscorers in MLS.

Lost in the churn was not just Gauld’s arrival, but how damn good he was. The Scot performed at a Best XI level once he got up to speed in late August, and basically stayed at that level through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.

What kind of season they need from him

The attack will not be playoff-caliber if he does not replicate that over the course of 2500 minutes in 2022. They probably need 20ish goal contributions from him.