Every team has their guy, the player the team revolves around and relies upon. Most of the time, we think about the guy as being an attacking threat – a goalscorer or a primary chance creator. There’s another way to think about the guy, though: the one who touches the ball the most.
After all, 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 may not have as many touches in key attacking areas, but you can certainly impact how your team gets into those attacking areas.
As I thought about expanding the definition of key players beyond just difference-making attackers, I became curious. Who is each MLS team’s hub? Who’s their guy, at least in terms of volume? And what does that player’s identity tell us about them and their team?
Let’s dive into the Second Spectrum data for each team in the Western Conference (we’ll tackle the Eastern Conference next week) and learn some things, shall we? We’re going in order of the standings before MLS Week 31.
Starting out with the current Western Conference leaders, Joao Paulo has been among the best players in MLS this season. He’s currently averaging 67.7 touches per 90, which is four more touches per 90 than any of his teammates (limited to players who have taken at least 200 touches this season).
A truly versatile midfielder, Paulo is a key piece to Brian Schmetzer’s offensive puzzle, regularly linking defense to attack as either a lone No. 6, half of a double pivot, or as a No. 8 in a three-man midfield. When the 30-year-old Brazilian gets on the ball, he’s excellent at progressing play and finding teammates between the lines. He’s in the 92nd percentile among midfielders in terms of progressive passing frequency.
With his positional flexibility and his inclination to play forward in possession, which is something Schmetzer clearly values given that the Sounders are eighth in average directness in possession, Paulo is a logical fit for the role of the guy in Seattle.
No one in MLS gets on the ball as much as Andreu Fontas. Averaging 78.2 touches per 90 minutes, Fontas starts on the right side of Sporting's center back pairing in their 4-3-3 formation and is a key part of the possession approach.
Why has Peter Vermes used Fontas as his team’s most regular on-ball presence? Well, because Fontas is comfortable under pressure, smooth on the ball and very capable of starting attacks from deep. So far this season, Fontas is in the 97th percentile among CBs in terms of average defenders bypassed per touch and the 76th percentile in terms of defenders bypassed per pass.
When you have a center back who can help you progress into the final third like this, you give him lots of touches:
Jack Price isn’t just Colorado’s set-piece maestro. He’s also their safety blanket in possession. Price’s 61.4 touches per 90 minutes don’t label him as a ball-dominant player within MLS as a whole, but on his team, no one is particularly close to his touches per 90 figure.
Much like Joao Paulo, Price’s positioning changes slightly depending on how Robin Fraser constructs his midfield. Regardless of where he is in central midfield, Price can be dangerous on the ball. He’s a strong ball progressor on the dribble (93rd percentile among central midfielders in terms of average defenders bypassed per touch) and he’s shown some open-play creativity this year, too. Last year, Price accumulated just 0.7 expected assists in open-play. This year, he’s doubled that figure and improved his chance creation numbers on a per 90-minute basis.
Having a player like Price who can be relied upon in a number of different phases of play is of huge value to Fraser.
The Portland Timbers are a fascinating team right now. They’re fourth in the Western Conference standings, but they’re also squarely over-performing their expected points per game.
To add another layer, the Timbers' highest-volume player in possession isn’t a defender or a central midfielder. It’s attacker Sebastian Blanco. Blanco, who just edged out teammates Claudio Bravo and Diego Chara for the most touches on Portland’s roster, hasn’t played many minutes this year (just 942), but the Argentine’s importance to the Timbers is obvious whenever he’s on the field.
Among players with at least 500 minutes in MLS this season, Blanco is ninth in terms of expected assists per 90 minutes. Plays like this incredible assist to Felipe Mora make it pretty clear why Blanco’s downfield teammates choose to find him so often:
Much like Portland, Real Salt Lake have a bit of a fight for their most consistently ball-dominant player. For RSL, Aaron Herrera holds that distinction while Pablo Ruiz and Justen Glad trail right behind. Playing as a right back in a back four or as a right-sided center back in a back three, Herrera is 27th in MLS in xA (4.3) and is the third-highest outside back on the xA charts.
On a per-game basis, RSL average 98.7 possessions – 66.3 of those possessions, or 67% of them, go down the right side of the field. With his right-footed crossing ability, it’s no wonder why Herrera gets so many touches. Crosses like this one put real pressure on defenders and make life much harder for the opposition:
Amid Greg Vanney’s stylistic overhaul in LA, Jonathan dos Santos has seen a massive uptick in his touches. In 2020, the Mexican international averaged 54.3 touches per 90. This year, that number is up to 65 touches per 90.
When you watch dos Santos play, it’s easy to see his value. He keeps possession of the ball better than most other high-volume players, he can stride forward on the dribble (78th percentile among central midfielders in defenders bypassed per touch), and he can progress the ball with his passing (85th percentile among central midfielders in progressive passing frequency).
Despite his somewhat limited availability this season, dos Santos is an outlet in possession and he helps move the ball forward into high-value attacking areas. You can’t ask for much more than that from one of your central midfielders.
Minnesota United revolve around Emanuel Reynoso. When the Argentine midfielder is on the field, he’s the center of almost everything his team does in possession. More than half of Reynoso’s 62.2 touches per 90 minutes come in the middle third of the field, which helps show just how involved Reynoso is even outside of the final third.
While Reynoso’s ball dominance can come at a cost to Minnesota’s general attacking structure, it’s hard to argue with his effectiveness. In 2021, Reynoso’s in the 98th percentile in terms of total xA and the 97th percentile in terms of xA per 90.
The sheer amount of attention Reynoso gets from opposing players when he gets on the ball is both incredible to watch and helpful for his teammates. When he’s in possession, opponents almost can’t stop themselves from paying extra attention – or at least Austin couldn’t over the weekend:
Though Minnesota find themselves at risk of dropping below the playoff line, Reynoso’s on-ball ability makes them impossible to ignore in the West.
Just the second outside back on this list, Cristian Gutierrez has quietly been a very fun – and important – player for the Vancouver Whitecaps this year. Though he’s missed the last two months of the season with a hamstring injury, Gutierrez has been back on the bench for the Whitecaps’ last two games and could make at least one appearance before the end of the regular season.
In possession, Gutierrez is flexible in his positioning. He can stay wide, operate in the halfspace, or tuck inside to act as an additional central midfielder. And looking back at his numbers before the hamstring injury, Gutierrez is in the 88th percentile among left backs in terms of progressive passes per 90 minutes, with 24.6.
Once Gutierrez gets back in the lineup in Vancouver, expect to see more possessions flowing through him.
Eduard Atuesta is a wizard on the ball. Bob Bradley knows that, just like the rest of us do, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise Atuesta gets on the ball a ton. So far this season, only three players have registered more touches per 90 than Atuesta.
Atuesta’s touches are down from last year, in large part because LAFC don’t keep possession as much in 2021 as they did in 2020. Still, there are few players in MLS that are as good on the ball as Atuesta: among midfielders, he’s in the 94th percentile in defenders bypassed per pass and the 98th percentile in progressive passing frequency.
It feels like I’ve been saying this for a while now: Enjoy Atuesta while you can, LAFC and MLS fans, because he should be snatched up by an upper-level European club at some point soon.
Typically deployed as Matias Almeyda’s right-sided center back, Oswaldo Alanis is San Jose’s highest-volume possession player. Alanis has been a relatively effective dribbler this year for the Earthquakes: only fellow center back Nathan bypasses more opponents per touch than Alanis does for San Jose. Zooming out, Alanis is in the 73rd percentile among all MLS center backs with at least 200 touches in that same metric.
Alanis doesn’t have many passing numbers that jump off the page relative to other center backs in the league, but he's been a regular presence for the Quakes in 2021.
While Teenage Hadebe has more touches per 90 than any of his Houston Dynamo teammates, he really doesn’t get on the ball much at all. His 42.2 touches per 90 put him 251st in all of MLS. With those numbers in mind, it’s easy to see just how little Tab Ramos and the Dynamo have prioritized possession this season. Houston have the lowest possession percentage in MLS this year, with just 44.2%.
Hadebe moves the ball forward on the dribble and with his passing, but it’s been challenging for anyone on the Dynamo to have a massive offensive impact this year.
Andres Ricuarte hasn’t been a regular starter for FC Dallas in 2021, but he certainly has been a possession hub when he’s on the field. Only eight players in MLS average more touches per 90 minutes than the Colombian.
Playing a fluid midfield role, Ricaurte generally has the freedom to find the ball, which inflates his touch frequency. Still, despite the number of touches he gets, Ricaurte hasn’t been overly effective this year. Compared to other central midfielders, he’s just above average in his progressive passing frequency, defenders bypassed per pass and average forward distance traveled per touch.
Much like FC Dallas as a whole, Ricuarte has struggled to turn possession into truly threatening chance creation this year.
Operating as the deepest midfielder in Josh Wolff’s possession setup, Alex Ring is the only full-time central midfielder who averages more touches per 90 minutes than Atuesta this season. Ring’s 70.2 touches per game are third in MLS, just behind Fontas and Ilie Sanchez.
Because Wolff has placed such an emphasis on possession play, there’s consistent pressure on Ring to control the ball in tight spaces and help progress play into the attacking half of the field. And while few things have gone right for Austin this year, Ring’s performance in his midfield role has certainly been a net positive. Ring bypasses defenders on the dribble and with his passing at a well-above-average rate.
It hasn’t happened enough for them this season, but in a vacuum, Austin can build their attacks off Ring’s ability on the ball in central spaces.