Every team has their guy, the player the team revolves around and relies upon. While we often think of the guy as a chance creator or a goalscorer, there’s another way to think about that player. We can think about them as the player who touches the ball the most for any given team.
If you’re on the ball more than the rest of your teammates, you’re going to have additional chances to impact the game. You might not have as many touches in key attacking areas, but you can certainly impact how your team gets into those attacking areas.
Of course, as we learned last week in our look at each Western Conference’s team’s most involved player, there are teams whose highest-volume player is also a key attacking player who scores goals and creates chances. Minnesota United and Emanuel Reynoso and the Portland Timbers and Sebastian Blanco are both great examples.
Now, we’re going to look at the Second Spectrum data for each team in the Eastern Conference. Who is the guy for each team out East? And what does that player’s identity tell us about them and their team?
Let’s dive in, sorted by position in the standings.
The 2021 Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunner, Carles Gil is one of the league’s highest-volume attacking players. Looking at other No. 10s across the league, only Alejandro Pozuelo, Andres Ricaurte (although you can quibble with him being labeled as a 10), Reynoso, and Nicolas Lodeiro (who has barely played this season) have more touches per 90 than Gil.
As the Supporters’ Shield-winning Revolution continue their impressive season, expect to see plenty more of Gil on the ball.
Jim Curtin’s Philadelphia Union don’t spend much time dilly-dallying on the ball in central spaces. The Union average the third-fewest touches per 90 in the central channel of the field. Because Philadelphia don’t prioritize possession or offensive actions in the central channel, both of their most regular on-ball players are fullbacks Kai Wagner (57.1 touches per 90) and Olivier Mbaizo (52.9).
Looking at outside defenders in MLS, it’s no wonder the Union work the ball through Wagner on the left side. Wagner is fourth among fullbacks and wingbacks in expected assists this season. Providing width on the left, the German creates chances for his teammates with well-placed set pieces and crosses, like this one:
While Nashville don’t tend to keep hold of the ball for long periods of time – they average the third-lowest possession percentage in MLS (45.9%) – Anibal Godoy is their possession hub. Godoy, a true central midfielder, averages 52.5 touches per 90 which is even more than his midfield teammate Dax McCarty.
Godoy doesn’t do much ball progression, ranking in the 46th percentile among midfielders in progressive passing frequency and in the 17th percentile among midfielders in forward distance traveled per touch. But the Panama international serves as a safe outlet for Nashville’s backline.
Ranking just ahead of teammate Joao Moutinho in terms of touches per 90, Mendez is an absolutely essential part of Orlando City's possession setup. Often operating as part of a double pivot, Mendez gets on the ball a lot – only eight other players in MLS average more touches per 90 than the Ecuadorian international.
Why does Oscar Pareja use Mendez as such a high-volume player? Because he’s excellent on the ball. Among midfielders, Mendez is in the 89th percentile in terms of progressive passing frequency. He likes to play quickly, which helps Orlando City build rhythm in their possessions. You can see exactly that play out in this clip from Orlando’s 2-2 draw with the Revs:
With his speed of play and quality on the ball, Mendez is effective in his role as Pareja’s guy.
Maxi Moralez may be getting longer in the tooth, but he’s still getting plenty of touches on the ball for NYCFC. Operating as an attacking midfielder in Ronny Deila’s 4-2-3-1, Moralez has the freedom to shift vertically and horizontally to find pockets of space. When he does find the ball, the Argentine is incredibly dangerous. So far this season, he’s third in the league in xA per 90 minutes (among players with at least 200 minutes played).
So few players in MLS can create chances like this one, where Moralez chipped a ball for Thiago Andrade to run onto behind Nashville’s backline.
When you have a chance creator operating at Moralez’s level, you should feed him. And that’s exactly what NYCFC have done in 2021.
Despite finishing just outside this year’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR rankings, John Tolkin has been a true breakout player for the New York Red Bulls in 2021. Defensively, Tolkin’s pressing ability from left back has helped the Red Bulls shut down opposition possessions.
But in their own possessions, RBNY have relied on Tolkin as well. Much like the Union, New York’s most regular on-ball players are fullbacks: Tolkin, Andrew Gutman and Kyle Duncan get on the ball more than any of their teammates.
Tolkin is still developing his work on the ball (he doesn’t bypass many defenders on the dribble and he’s not an overly ambitious passer), but given the importance of fullbacks in vertical, direct systems, the youngster will have plenty of chances to improve that side of his game.
During his first year in MLS, Santiago Sosa has done some magical things on the ball. He’s in the 81st percentile among midfielders in terms of progressive passing frequency, ninth among midfielders in total progressive passes completed and completes his passes at a higher-than-expected rate.
With his dominant right foot, Sosa can break lines and use at least a portion of his 64.1 touches per 90 to find his attacking teammates in advantageous positions. Sosa is a great example of a player who rarely has a direct influence on goal-scoring situations, but who contributes to those sequences in a slightly more removed way. In this clip, notice Sosa’s line-breaking pass to Luiz Araujo eventually leads to a shot for George Bello on the backside of the box.
Getting a chance to watch Sosa next season in Atlanta when he has a more established possession structure around him could be a lot of fun.
Though Kamal Miller is close behind him, central midfielder Emanuel Maciel holds the title for most touches per 90 minutes on Wilfried Nancy’s Montréal squad. The 24-year-old Argentine serves as half of Nancy’s double pivot, usually alongside Samuel Piette.
Because of how Nancy has structured his team, Maciel is often one of just a few fixed points (a player with more rigid positional responsibility) for Montréal in possession. Largely tasked to hold his position, Maciel doesn’t advance the ball very far on the dribble (in the first percentile for forward distance per touch among midfielders), but he can string some progressive passes together (70th percentile for progressive passing frequency among midfielders).
Maciel doesn’t have to be fancy to be Nancy’s possession hub.
Julian Gressel’s name doesn’t get tossed around much in the MVP conversation, but it really should: he’s been the best player on one of the most improved teams in the entire league. Playing as a right-sided wingback in Hernan Losada’s possession setup, Gressel leads MLS in xA (10) and is fourth in MLS in xA per 90 among players with at least 200 minutes (0.34).
Zooming in on outside defenders, Gressel blows his positional counterparts out of the water when it comes to chance creation. Gressel averages nearly double the amount of xA per 90 as the next most creative outside defender (Brooks Lennon) and has nearly double the amount of total xA as well.
Though he doesn’t average an overwhelmingly high number of touches compared to some of the league’s central players, Gressel has been excellent when on the ball for D.C. United this season.
If Federico Higuain had a little bit more left in his legs, it’s possible Inter Miami would be an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs team this season. Of course, there’s still a mathematical possibility Miami could sneak into the Eastern Conference playoff field between now and Decision Day on November 7, but it feels unlikely given the five-point gap between them and seventh place.
Miami have tried to rely on the elder Higuain brother to do much of the heavy lifting in possession, which isn’t a bad idea on paper. Having a creative No. 10 who works magic in the attack has gotten a number of different MLS teams a long way over the years.
The challenge with Higuain, though, is that he’s only played 729 minutes this year. And when the 37-year-old is on the field, Higuain does create chances, but he doesn’t have the speed to drive forward on the dribble (he’s below even the 1st percentile in forward distance traveled per touch) or to threaten defenses in other ways.
The Columbus Crew's highest-volume player isn’t Darlington Nagbe. It’s not a center back. It’s right back Harrison Afful. The 35-year-old was a key piece of Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus teams and now he’s a key piece of Caleb Porter’s as well.
Only four outside defenders see more of the ball on a per 90-minute basis than Afful. While all four of those players (Graham Zusi, Joao Moutinho, Luis Martins and Hector Jimenez) create more danger for opposing defenses on the dribble than Afful does, the Ghanaian is second in that group in terms of progressive passing frequency.
Afful is confident under pressure and helps his team build attacks from deeper areas, which makes him a prime member of the second category of the guy.
I’ll just go ahead and admit it: I have a soft spot for Alvaro Medran. I didn’t cook up this idea for a column solely to have an excuse to write about him, but it is a very nice side-effect.
Medran is an elite passer and is flat-out phenomenal on the ball. According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, Medran is fifth in the entire league in the value he’s added with his passing in 2021 on both a season-wide level and a per 96-minute level.
With his top-level passing, Frank Klopas, Raphael Wicky and anyone who has been in or near the Chicago Fire organization over the last year and a half knows Medran should get the lion’s share of his team’s touches in possession.
Among midfielders, Medran is in the 96th percentile in defenders bypassed per pass, the 95th percentile in progressive passes per 90, the 90th percentile in through balls, and the 87th percentile in passes to a teammate between the lines per 90. While Chicago have certainly struggled this season, Medran has been a joy to watch.
Unsurprisingly, Michael Bradley is Toronto FC's highest-volume possession player. There’s a reason Bradley led Greg Vanney’s midfield group during much of the now-Galaxy manager’s time in charge of Toronto. And there’s a reason Bradley spent time with the US men's national team during the beginning of Berhalter’s tenure.
It’s because Bradley knows how to play in a tactical setup that prioritizes possession. Even though Toronto’s tactical approach has changed this year, Bradley is still finding the ball a ton; only three players in MLS average more touches per 90 minutes. When he gets on the ball, Bradley can still do some impressive things with it, too. Among midfielders, Bradley is in the 96th percentile in terms of defenders bypassed per pass and the 90th percentile in terms of progressive passing frequency.
Bradley certainly doesn’t have the same energy he used to, but his passing numbers are some of the best in MLS.
Like Medran and Bradley, Haris Medunjanin is another ball-dominant central midfielder. When he first moved from the Union to FC Cincinnati before last season, it felt like Medunjanin could be a strong addition to their midfield, if surrounded by the right pieces in the right way. Those two things haven’t ever fully fallen into place for FC Cincinnati and Medunjanin in a high-functioning possession setup.
Still, as a fan of pass-first defensive midfielders, it’s a treat to watch Medunjanin play soccer. The 36-year-old bypasses a ton of defenders (94th percentile among midfielders), has a high progressive passing frequency (87th among midfielders) and can string together simple effective passes like this one:
Given his age, Medunjanin’s MLS career may be winding down. But his work on the ball is a joy to watch.