Extratime continued its preseason positional rankings with one of its toughest debates yet, as hosts Matt Doyle, David Gass and Andrew Wiebe discussed their lists for the top five central midfielders in MLS.
It was Doyle who took the lead this time, offering up his picks for the league's best at a position where there are plenty of worthy candidates. Notable names all three agreed easily could argue for a spot, but instead settled for honorable mentions included Seattle's Cristian Roldan, Columbus Crew SC's Darlington Nagbe, Chicago's Alvaro Medran, Toronto's Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio and San Jose's Jackson Yueill.
Check out Doyle's full rankings below.
1. Mark-Anthony Kaye (LAFC)
Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi have rightfully garnered much of the attention during LAFC's rapid ascent into the Western Conference elite, but Kaye's value as the glue the holds it all together in the midfield can't be overlooked when assessing what makes Bob Bradley's group tick. The only knock on Kaye, Doyle said, would be a couple of letdown performances in big games. But the 26-year-old Canadian quieted some of those concerns with his standout play during LAFC's Concacaf Champions League matches in December.
"I would've gone in a different direction up until his performance in CCL," Doyle said. "Because Mark-Anthony Kaye has looked great at times, but he has routinely come up short in big games, but then I thought he was awesome in all three of those games in December and maybe he was able to sort of turn the page."
2. Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union)
The Philly captain is one of the club's most respected voices in the locker room, and has earned that pedigree through his play on the field that has solidified him as an indispensable cog for the Supporters' Shield champs. While Doyle acknowledged Bedoya's contributions might not always show up in terms of goals and assists, the two-way skillset he brings remains a big part of the team's success, even as he heads into his age-34 season.
"Ale Bedoya was the best central midfielder in the league last year, except he wasn't actually a central midfielder," Doyle said. "He was a shuttler because Philly play the 4-4-2 diamond so it's kind of a different skillset. But we've also seen Ale be that guy in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. And I know this is going to drive a lot of people nuts because he doesn't show up in the box score at all, almost at all. But he does so much for that team on both sides of the ball. He is a net positive for a good team every single week. That is exactly what you want in the middle of the pitch."
3. Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)
Portland Timbers midfielder Eryk Williamson was one of the breakout performers in MLS in 2020 | USA Today Sports
Few outside of Portland likely knew who Williamson was before last season, but the extent of just how impressive his 2020 breakout was can be seen in his inclusion at No. 3 on Doyle's list. The 23-year-old was nothing short of a revelation for Portland's midfield, as he proved invaluable on both sides of the ball with his willingness to do the dirty work on defense and his contributions in the attack that saw him put up three goals and five assists in 1,417 minutes. All that had Doyle scratching his head as to how Williamson was left off the roster for the US U-23s upcoming Olympic qualifying slate.
"Brave about getting out on the ball in the toughest spots," Doyle said of Williamson. "Super dynamic on the ball, less so off the ball. He still needs to refine some of his off the ball [qualities], like creating penetration, delayed runs — the sort of stuff that Bedoya does, Williamson doesn't do that, which I think is a function of not having enough reps. He's a net positive defensively every single week. I thought this kid should have been the center piece of the US U-23 Olympic qualifying midfield. I can't believe he didn't make that roster."
4. Jan Gregus (Minnesota United)
The Loons' stalwart is often overlooked, but has had as crucial a role as anybody in Minnesota United's rise from Western Conference cellar dweller to making it one game from MLS Cup in 2020.
"Maybe the most underrated player in the league right now," Doyle said. "Can switch the field with either foot, gets forward to provide just scorchers from the top of the box and is able to use the space that the front line and Bebelo [Reynoso] creates by pinning defenders back. Smart about timing his runs. Not super dynamic on the ball in terms of his ball carrying and needs a little bit of protection defensively, but I'm okay with that given how much he adds to that team."
5. Keaton Parks (New York City FC)
Lots of names got thrown around as the crew debated the final spot on the list, but Doyle ultimately went with the NYCFC man, who has emerged as a crucial cog for the Cityzens since his debut MLS season in 2019. Like Williamson, Parks is just 23, and another candidate Doyle felt should have been selected for Olympic qualifying.
"Just smooth," Doyle said. "He's press-resistant, he does pass the ball forward, he has gotten better defensively, though I don't think you want him stuck in a one-v-one situation, but that's why you have James Sands. Parks is another one like Williamson, I'm shocked he's not part of this U-23 team, it doesn't make any sense from a US Soccer perspective. But I would take him over Nagbe."