Voices: Joseph Lowery

Every MLS Western Conference team’s Mr. Reliable and 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.

Last week, we zoomed in on every Eastern Conference team’s most ball-dominant player – their Mr. Reliable – to look at what it says about each team. This week, with help from Second Spectrum, we’re looking at the player on every Western Conference team who racked up the most touches per game in 2022. Let’s get to it.

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

55.1 touches per game

Sebastian Driussi didn’t lead Austin in touches. It wasn’t Alex Ring, either. No, Julio Cascante led the West’s second-place team in touches last season. The Costa Rican center back is a solid passer and regularly helped Austin FC play from the back under manager Josh Wolff in 2022. Expect to see him on the ball a lot this year, too, as Austin attempt to build on their recent success.

What it says about Austin: It says Wolff truly values his center backs in possession and wants to build through them. Cascante and Ruben Gabrielsen, who headed back to Europe earlier this offseason, were the top two touch-getters in Austin last year. Perhaps newcomer Leo Väisänen seamlessly steps in alongside the 29-year-old?

46.3 touches per game

Danny Wilson finished just above Keegan Rosenberry and Jack Price for the top spot on this list. Wilson isn’t a flashy defender, but if you’re head coach Robin Fraser, he’s a logical player to build through. According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, Wilson’s passing was his best value proposition in 2022.

What it says about Colorado: It says they like to use their center backs as a launch platform in possession… but it also says they need to do a better job of getting influential attackers on the ball this year. Their top six “Mr. Reliable” candidates last year were all defenders or defensive midfielders.

61.7 touches per game

Last week, we started off with a No. 10 and two fullbacks. This week, we get three center backs in a row. Dallas like building from the back and circulating the ball in possession, too, which is a big reason why Jose Martinez is their Mr. Reliable. The 30-year-old Spaniard isn’t the most well-rounded center back in MLS, but it’s not a surprise to see him on this list.

What it says about Dallas: They like their structure. Martinez, Matt Hedges and Marco Farfan led the team in touches per game last year, which is a testament to how much head coach Nico Estevez prioritizes a strong shape in attack (transitions to a firm defensive shape to win the ball back).

50.9 touches per game

We’ve read this story before. The Houston Dynamo didn’t do a good enough job at finding their attacking playmakers last year, which led to a bunch of defensive players leading the team in touches per game. Daniel Steres is fine on the ball in the back, but Houston will want to get Coco Carrasquilla and Héctor Herrera more looks in 2023 (or newcomers Amine Bassi and Iván Franco).

What it says about Houston: It says they’re a work in progress in attack, much like the previous few teams we’ve already talked about. If new head coach Ben Olsen gets the Dynamo above the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line this year, it’ll be at least in part because he found ways to get his playmakers more touches in more influential spots.

71.8 touches per game

Riqui Puig, without exaggeration, ran MLS last year. He averaged more touches per game than any player in the league. After arriving in August from FC Barcelona (yes, that one), he improved the LA Galaxy’s attack in just about every way. Puig isn’t a classic No. 10, but he’s absolutely still a playmaker on the left side of central midfield. Everything runs through Puig in Carson, which is exactly how it should be. His close control, spatial awareness and ability to combine and push forward into the attack make him a truly elite MLS player.

What it says about LA: It says they have a trophy window, thanks to Puig. The Galaxy’s roster is still a work in progress, but Puig cracked the window wide open for them. It’s up to the club to help prop it up with some smart signings before the Primary Transfer Window closes on April 24.

57.7 touches per game

It flew a bit under the radar, but Diego Palacios had a really, really good season in 2022. The Ecuadorian international defender was a rock in the back for LAFC, consistently finding progressive passes on the left side of Steve Cherundolo’s 4-3-3 formation. Per FBref, he finished in the 88th percentile among fullbacks last year in shot-creating actions and in the 88th percentile in progressive passes. He’s the kind of fullback who warrants that amount of touches.

What it says about LAFC: It says they have a fantastic complementary piece to help support their star attackers. You need Palacios-level production from your non-stars to be an elite team. And LAFC are coming off MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield titles (read: elite).

60.5 touches per game

There’s no surprise here, is there? Emanuel Reynoso is Minnesota United’s attacking game plan. He is their star. Their center. Their chance-creator. He finished last year in the 99th percentile among MLS attacking midfielders and wingers in successful take-ons per 90 minutes and in the 99th percentile in shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, according to FBref. He’s a game-changing talent in this league and Minnesota are lucky to have him.

What it says about Minnesota: It says they’re in trouble when Reynoso isn’t available. Last week, Reynoso was suspended by MLS for failure to report to preseason training camp. For the Loons’ sake, let’s hope this all gets resolved quickly.

52.7 touches per game

Claudio Bravo is the Portland Timbers’ outlet in possession. Gio Savarese’s team doesn’t love having the ball, but when they do, the Timbers are very comfortable playing through the Argentine left back. Not only did he lead the team in touches per game last year, but he led Portland in touches per game in the middle third. That shows how often he plays a part in their attacks even as they progress up the field.

What it says about Portland: Well, it says they probably need a bit more out of Bravo this year when it comes to his end product. He finished 2022 with two assists and 2.1 expected assisted goals (xAG), per FBref, putting himself in just the 56th and 55th percentiles among MLS fullbacks in those two stats.

47.4 touches per game

Aaron Herrera was Real Salt Lake’s Mr. Reliable… before he was shipped off to CF Montréal earlier this offseason. Herrera was the team’s MVP in so many different ways, so now that he’s gone, even more will fall on Justen Glad’s shoulders. Glad finished five touches per game behind Herrera and generally had a fine season in 2022, but Pablo Mastroeni will want even more out of the homegrown center back in 2023.

What it says about Salt Lake: It says there’s going to be an adjustment period without Herrera. Andrew Brody (projected starter) will have to step up at right back. Jefferson Savarino will have to step up on the right wing. And Glad will have to improve his ability to progress the ball and defend in space from his center back spot.

55.9 touches per game

If we know one thing about Jackson Yueill, it’s he likes to be on the ball. He’s generally a smooth passer in MLS and finished in the 83rd percentile among MLS central midfielders in progressive passes per 90 minutes last season. Yueill can add value on the ball, but he can give chances to the opposition via his lack of off-ball movement and defensive mobility. I’m curious about how Luchi Gonzalez is going to use Yueill this year. Can he find a role that maximizes the midfielder’s strengths?

What it says about San Jose: It says they’re due for a midfield shake-up this year. Yueill can be a useful piece, but since Carlos Gruezo and Gonzalez are in town, and some of the youngsters are coming through San Jose’s academy, Yueill is going to have to fight harder to keep his role as the Quakes’ Mr. Reliable in 2023.

69.4 touches per game

I mean, it was always going to be Nico Lodeiro. Alex Roldan finished second in 2022 on the Sounders in terms of touches per game, but Lodeiro beat him by 14+ touches per game. He’s the guy in Brian Schmetzer’s system and will almost certainly be that guy again this year. Still, we’ll see if Lodeiro can continue to deliver on and off the ball in the middle of Seattle’s attacking midfield line. The Uruguayan playmaker turns 34 in March.

What it says about Seattle: It says while there might be some tactical tweaks this year (we already saw one with a fluid possession shape at the FIFA Club World Cup), their ceiling this year will be installed by their big-time players, including Lodeiro.

63.9 touches per game

History repeats itself on this one. Two years ago, Andreu Fontàs led Sporting Kansas City in touches and he did the same last year, though with 16 fewer touches per game. Without Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda and with their core players (including Fontàs) a year older, SKC struggled to control games in 2022 in the same manner they controlled them in 2021. They’re still light on depth in the back, but expect to see Peter Vermes’ squad dictate games with Fontàs playing out of the back as much as ever this season.

What it says about Kansas City: It says, at their core, they’re the same SKC team we’ve come to know over the years. They like the ball. They want to keep the ball. And they like having the Spanish center back move the ball forward to his more advanced teammates.

45.1 touches per game

St. Louis CITY don’t really have a Mr. Reliable because they, uh, didn’t exist last year. But of the players on their roster, Tim Parker averaged the most touches per game in MLS in 2022 while playing for Houston Dynamo FC. While Parker isn’t a modern, ball-playing center back, he can put his shoulder into an opposing striker and cover ground in behind the backline.

What it says about St. Louis: It says they’re probably going to be better off leaning into an aggressive, on-the-front-foot defensive style this year. It fits Parker’s strengths and could help maximize the rest of their talent.

41.1 touches per game

Julian Gressel is an elite wide creator. He’s a fantastic distributor from the right wing, gets up and down the sideline, and seemingly always ends up leading the league’s outside defenders in a host of statistical categories at the end of each year. The last time Gressel played a full season with one team (2021), he collected nine assists and 11.8 xAG, which is just outrageous. The Whitecaps should keep funneling play through him out on the right wing, because when the ball and Gressel meet, good things happen.

What it says about Vancouver: It says they have something that so few other teams in MLS do: a top-tier wide creator. Plenty of teams in the league, including Vancouver, have a quality No. 10. If the Caps can combine Ryan Gauld, Pedro Vite, and Gressel, they have a creative stew cooking.