Voices: Joseph Lowery

Every Eastern Conference team’s Mr. Reliable & what that indicates


Every team has a player who just seems to be a magnet for the ball. It might be a defender who’s comfortable playing out from the back under pressure. It might be a central midfielder who sets the tempo in possession. Or it might be an attacker who runs the show in the final third.

They all have a Mr. Reliable, somebody who collects more touches than the rest of their teammates.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be zooming in on all 29 MLS clubs to look at every team’s most ball-dominant player – their Mr. Reliable – and what it says about their team. This week, with help from Second Spectrum, we’re looking at the player on every Eastern Conference squad who racked up the most touches per game in 2022. 

All eligible players must be returners who played at least 1,000 minutes during the 2022 MLS season.

60.5 touches per game

Thiago Almada is the guy for Atlanta United.

Playing in a somewhat fluid attacking midfield role for manager Gonzalo Pineda, Almada is the most talented player on the field at basically all times. The historic 2022 FIFA World Cup winner with Argentina can drop into midfield to receive the ball (he finished first in Atlanta last year in touches per game in the middle third) or he can pop up in pockets of space to receive and create problems for the opposing defense. He’s quick, technical and still growing right in front of our eyes. It’s no surprise he’s the one pulling Atlanta’s attacking strings.

What it says about Atlanta: It says they can go farther, if Almada goes farther. He finished with 6g/12a and won MLS Newcomer of the Year honors. But those numbers will need to be even higher in 2023 if Atlanta want to climb up the Eastern Conference table.

48.2 touches per game

Harrison Afful is getting up there in age. At 36, he’s already thinking about what comes next for him after his playing days are over. He signed a new deal with Charlotte FC over the offseason that involves taking on some work with the club's scouting department. When he is on the field, though, he can receive under pressure, tuck inside to get involved in the halfspaces or central midfield, and is a calm presence on the ball.

What it says about Charlotte: It says a couple of things. First, it says Charlotte FC want to use their fullbacks in fun ways. Second, it says Charlotte probably need to funnel their possession through another player in 2023, given Afful’s age and the fact he might be third in Christian Lattanzio’s right back depth chart.

48.1 touches per game

Look, another fullback! Miguel Navarro just edged past Xherdan Shaqiri for the top spot in Chicago.

In the Fire’s mostly north-south attacking system, having Navarro’s elite speed bombing up the field from the left back spot can help stretch the opposing defense and create space for Chicago’s central attackers. Navarro finished 2022 in the 97th percentile among MLS players in top sustained speed. Still, with just one assist and some mediocre xA numbers, the Venezuelan international needs to produce more for the Fire in 2023.

What it says about Chicago: It says the Fire need more playmakers, or at least better performances from their current playmakers. Navarro does some good things, but the ball needs to find Shaqiri earlier and more often. That’s where your goals and assists are going to come from.

48.6 touches per game

Could it ever have been anyone else? Luciano Acosta is FC Cincinnati's connective tissue.

He’s an elite chance creator, he finds the right lanes in transition and he elevates the two No. 9s in front of him in Pat Noonan’s attack. Acosta finished in the 99th percentile in expected assisted goals (xAG) per 90 minutes and assists per 90 among attacking midfielders and wingers in MLS last year. He’s everything you want in a No. 10, deservedly placing on the 2022 MLS Best XI presented by Continental Tire.

What it says about FC Cincinnati: It says FC Cincinnati’s attack is in a good spot heading into 2023. Noonan’s transition-heavy attacking system is built on getting Acosta the ball, which is exactly how it should be.

54.7 touches per game

This one just feels wrong. It should be Lucas Zelarayan, right? But it’s not. Steven Moreira is a solid MLS fullback who started almost every game for the Columbus Crew last season. He collected 1g/8a, which is a strong level for a right back. Still, his xAG lagged behind his counting stats. With a new manager (Wilfried Nancy) taking charge in Columbus, it will be interesting to see how Moreira fares in 2023.

What it says about Columbus: It says the Crew didn’t do a good enough job of finding their best central playmakers in 2022. Darlington Nagbe and Zelarayan should probably have more chances to influence the game than your outside backs.

47.2 touches per game

The first center back on this list makes an appearance. Brendan Hines-Ike played just under 1,700 minutes for D.C. United last year, starting 20 games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. He’s mostly comfortable on the ball and likes to drive forward on the dribble. The 28-year-old can also hit some progressive passes to his teammates between the lines.

What this says about DC: It says D.C. United are still figuring themselves out. Rooney wants his team to control the ball, so expect a center back to keep this Mr. Reliable honor ahead of next season – whether that’s Hines-Ike or somebody else.

54.2 touches per game

Jean Mota is your classic, all-around central midfielder. He tends to pick up the ball slightly deeper and slightly more often than Gregore, his Brazilian midfield partner in Miami.

When Mota has the ball, he can connect, drive forward and even create. When the opposition has the ball, Mota covers ground, breaks up plays and helps Inter Miami regain possession. He’s an extremely useful player for Miami – and with Alejandro Pozuelo reportedly out of the picture for the Turkish Süper Lig, I wouldn’t be surprised if he leads the team in touches again in 2023.

What this says about Miami: It says head coach Phil Neville trusts his workmanlike midfield to provide a platform for his attacking stars. Josef Martinez and Leo Campana will have chances coming their way in part, at least, thanks to Mota’s work deeper down the field.

63.7 touches per game

Wilfried Nancy likes his center backs, doesn’t he? Playing as one-third of Nancy’s back three in Montréal last year, Waterman regularly helped his team build out and break forward into the attack. The Canadian international has excellent speed for a center back and a solid passing range. Even with a different coach coming to Montréal courtesy of Hernan Losada, expect to see Waterman on the ball a lot in 2023.

What it says about Montreal: It says they can find some real diamonds in the rough. Montréal have their ups and downs, but signing Waterman from Canadian Premier League side Cavalry FC in 2020 was a great move.

Oh, look, Nashville SC are back in the Eastern Conference! I, uh, totally didn’t forget that.

Contrary to common belief, Nashville play out of the back at times, which means Walker Zimmerman gets a sizable number of touches in possession every game. Zimmerman isn’t the best progressive passer, but the USMNT veteran is the anchor of Gary Smith’s defensive group and can pick out passes – especially over the top.

What it says about Nashville: It says Zimmerman is integral to what they do. That’s no surprise, but this touches statistic reinforces how Nashville’s DP center back has a big part to play on both sides of the ball.

72.4 touches per game

Carles Gil is a Landon Donovan MLS MVP-level player. Heck, he won the award in 2021. If the players around him can step up to the plate, he can do it again. Gil finished second in all of MLS last year in touches per game, only behind a certain LA Galaxy player (more on him next week). With a fantastic left foot, a great understanding of space and freedom to roam in the attack, Gil can – and does – change games for the Revolution.

What it says about New England: It says they funnel more plays through Gil than any of their Eastern Conference foes do with one of their players. Gil is good enough to warrant that high number of touches, but it makes you wonder how much better the Revs would be with a stronger group of secondary playmakers.

50.1 touches per game

Maxi Moralez? He’s gone for Argentina’s Racing Club. Alexander Callens? He’s gone for LaLiga’s Girona FC.

NYCFC’s top two touch-getters from 2022 both left the club during the offseason. That leaves Thiago Martins as manager Nick Cushing’s Mr. Reliable, which is…an interesting situation. Martins struggled at times last season and is currently tying up one of NYCFC’s DP spots. The Brazilian center back had some encouraging signs, just not consistently.

What it says about New York City: It says the MLS Cup 2021 champions are amid a major re-tooling. There’s talent in the squad, and Martins can be a useful contributor, but NYCFC need a better possession hub to challenge for trophies this year.

The youngest player on this list, John Tolkin has taken on serious responsibility for the New York Red Bulls as a homegrown player. The 20-year-old left back played over 2,700 minutes last year and touched the ball more often than any of his teammates. Tolkin still needs to work on his end-product – he finished in the 53rd percentile in xAG among fullbacks in MLS last year – but he’s a rising US international with a ton of upside.

What it says about New York: It says they’re committed to their high-pressing, vertical scheme. When the Red Bulls sprint up the field, they send a lot of their attacking play out to the wings (or the halfspaces) before moving it back inside. Tolkin is a major beneficiary of that approach on the left side.

50.2 touches per game

With left back Joao Moutinho off to Serie A, Mauricio Pereyra is Orlando City’s returning Mr. Reliable. Pereyra can play as a No. 10 or deeper downfield as a No. 8, where we saw him at the end of last season. He’s not a dynamic creator, but he’s a press-resistant central player. Plus, he provides continuity, which is helpful for Orlando City given all the roster wheeling and dealing they’ve done this winter.

What it says about Orlando: It says it might be time for Pereyra to pass the torch. If Orlando City want to reach their ceiling in 2023, Facundo Torres and Martin Ojeda should be the ones battling it out for the top spot in this list next year. Pereyra still brings quality and donned the captain’s armband, but those younger attackers have DP tags for a reason.

50.8 touches per game

While European teams continue to make a big mistake by not sending a serious transfer offer for Kai Wagner, the German left back continues to do his thing for the Philadelphia Union. He finished 2022 with 7.8 xAG, according to FBref, and landed in the 99th percentile in xAG per 90 minutes among fullbacks in MLS. With his fantastic left foot and key role in Philly’s attack, Wagner is the Union’s Mr. Reliable.

What it says about Philadelphia: You know what I wrote up above about Tolkin and the Red Bulls? That applies here, too. Wagner gets more touches in the final third than any of his teammates, including Daniel Gazdag. He’s the attacking release valve for Philadelphia, posting an MLS defender assists record (15) last year.

55.9 touches per game

I thought Bradley would top this list by a mile for Toronto FC – and he is the team’s top returning player with at least 1,000 minutes when it comes to touches per game. But it was close! If defenders Carlos Salcedo and Domenico Criscito were still in Toronto, they would rank ahead of Bradley. And if Lorenzo Insigne had played a few more minutes, he would be on this list instead of Bradley. Still, Bradley controls the tempo for Toronto from his No. 6 role. Even if their captain doesn’t lead the team in touches this year, he’ll be near the top of the list.

What it says about Toronto: It says TFC head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley is committed to playing with the ball. It also says Toronto need more depth in central midfield. Take some of the burden off the 35-year-old.