We’re two weeks into the MLS season, which means we’re starting to get a very, very rough idea of who’s good and who’s…not so good. It’s far too early to make any definitive judgments on individual performers, but we can still use data and film to discuss how various players have started 2022.
That’s exactly what I’m here to do in my column this week.
Which players have surprised in one way or another to start the new season? And which ones have disappointed? With Second Spectrum’s data in hand, let’s dive in.
To be totally clear, DeJuan Jones was good last year. He was a dangerous presence for the New England Revolution, patrolling the left wing and driving forward in possession and transition. But he wasn’t the Revs’ most eye-catching vertical threat as they won the Supporters' Shield: That title belonged to Tajon Buchanan. Coming into 2022 with Buchanan now playing in Belgium at Club Brugge, Jones had a real chance to become an even more important player for New England than he was in 2021.
Through two games, the 24-year-old has done exactly that. He’s been more active out wide on the left than ever before, making 22.5 off-ball runs per game, compared to his 15 per game from last season. So far this year, D.C. United’s Brad Smith is the only left back/left wingback who has more off-ball runs than Jones. With his movement, Jones helps destabilize the opposing backline and opens space for his teammates.
Jones can improve his 1-v-1 dribbling and his creative passing from that left side, but his aggressive, vertical movement appears to be helping New England in their new life without Buchanan.
Douglas Costa has been dangerous for the LA Galaxy to start 2022. Playing as an inverted winger on the right side of Greg Vanney’s 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 shape, Costa regularly cuts inside and creates chaos for opposition defenses.
Against Charlotte FC in Week 2, Costa played a similar pass. Charlotte’s defensive setup was vastly different from NYCFC’s (in that the Cityzens managed to apply pressure on the ball), but Costa’s movement, his pass and his teammate’s off-ball movement all look very similar to the play shown above. This time, it’s Chicharito who breaks into the box for a shot.
Through two games, Costa is seventh in the league in open-play passes that have led to a shot in the five seconds after the ball leaves his foot. Some of that volume boils down to sharing a wing with fullback Julian Araujo, who loves to get crosses into the box. But much of it boils down to Costa’s own playmaking ability and his gravitational pull.
It remains to be seen if the offseason signing can continue his effectiveness on the right flank for the Galaxy. But for right now, it looks like opposing defenses should be scared of the Brazilian Designated Player’s left foot.
For this last surprisingly positive player, I went for a deep, deep cut. You might not know the name Tsiki Ntsabeleng, but I think you should. Ntsabeleng, FC Dallas’ third selection (not the third overall pick in the draft – Dallas’ third pick) in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft, is a 24-year-old South African central midfielder who has come off the bench for Nico Estevez in both of Dallas’ games this year.
He’s played a grand total of 38 minutes in 2022, so we need to be eating entire chunks of salt and guzzling saltwater while thinking about Ntsabeleng’s future. But man, he looked smooth against Toronto FC and against New England.
With stats adjusted to a per-90 minute basis, Ntsabeleng is in the 98th percentile for defenders bypassed and the 95th percentile for average forward distance traveled with his touches. Passing-wise, Ntsabeleng is in the 95th percentile for progressive passes per 90 and the 97th percentile for backline-breaking passes per 90.
In the two plays included in this video, you can see Ntsabeleng’s ball progressing ability. He was so fun to watch against the Revolution over the weekend:
Ntsabeleng isn’t likely to start much this season, but he has a lot of the tools to be an extremely useful midfield option for Dallas in spot starts and minutes off the bench.
Let’s check back in on the Oregon State product in a month to see how he’s doing after more on-field action.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: It’s way too early to make any real judgments on players and it’s especially way too early to do that for a player who is new to MLS.
Facundo Torres may be an excellent player in a year, a month, or heck, even next week. But he hasn’t been very good through two games for Orlando City. So far, the Uruguayan attacker is fifth in MLS in turnovers with 27. It’s not necessarily bad to be high on the turnover list (Emanuel Reynoso and Carles Gil are both in the top five in the league in turnovers so far in 2022 and we know what they’re capable of). Torres’ issue, though, is he hasn’t had the attacking production to justify the turnovers that come with being a ball-dominant attacker.
In terms of touches, Torres has been Orlando’s attacking centerpiece, averaging more touches per game than any of his attacking teammates, but he's yet to play a key pass this season. He’s also taken three shots – all were from outside the box and were either blocked or off target.
Torres has tons of skill, there’s no question about that. When will we start seeing the 21-year-old’s talent turn into production for Orlando? Now that’s a question worth asking about their club-record signing from Uruguay’s Penarol.
Atlanta United are missing a ton of pieces right now. They played against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday without Luiz Araujo, Thiago Almada, Santiago Sosa, Ozzie Alonso and Franco Ibarra – making them far from the finished product.
That said, Josef Martinez hasn’t been thriving under Gonzalo Pineda to start 2022. Through two games and 175 minutes, Martinez has two shots that amount to 0.2 xG. It took until the 83rd minute of Atlanta’s 3-0 loss to the Rapids for the star No. 9 to get a shot. Part of the blame for Martinez’s slow start should go to the pieces (or lack of pieces) around him. You’d like to think Atlanta United’s attack will look much different when all of their big-money players are healthy and have been integrated into the team.
But another part of the reason behind the lack of production is Martinez isn’t moving all that much inside the box. In his 165 minutes, Martinez has only registered nine total open-play off-ball runs that ended in the box. That number puts him 28th in MLS among forwards. As a point of comparison, Jesus Ferreira (Dallas) has 26 open-play off-ball runs that ended in the box, Adam Buksa (New England) has 24, and Miguel Berry (Columbus Crew) has 24. Movement doesn’t guarantee chances, but it can help.
Whether Martinez needs to move more or Atlanta need to find better ways to create shooting moments for him in possession (which they decidedly did not do against Colorado), ATLUTD need to take action to ensure that they get the most out of their stars.