There are few things in sports that are more exciting than finding under-valued, or at least under-appreciated, talent. I mean, come on, it’s like digging for buried treasure but without the hours of shoveling sand outside in the heat.
With soccer’s slow and steady adoption of analytics, it’s becoming easier to find MLS players who have eye-catching underlying numbers but don’t get the credit they deserve. This week, we’re here to fix that. I looked through some of Second Spectrum’s data and came up with a handful of MLS players who have earned some love.
Let’s dish out some credit.
While he’s only played 432 minutes for Portland so far this year and is currently with Chile at the Copa America, Felipe Mora is racking up chances. He’s sixth in MLS in total xG (3.462) and he’s first in the league in xG per 90 minutes (among players with at least 300 minutes) with 0.721. Like most quality strikers, Mora’s movement inside the box helps him create separation, get into dangerous areas and put shots on goal.
During the 2021 season, there haven’t been many forwards who have gotten into more dangerous shooting areas than Mora. All but two of his shots have come from inside the box. Mora is also in the 95th percentile in terms of shot quality among players with at least 10 shots, averaging 0.22 xG per shot. Though he only has two goals for the Timbers this year, Mora is finding the right spots in the attack.
Brad Stuver was robbed. When the US men's national team announced their preliminary roster for the Concacaf Gold Cup, Stuver wasn’t one of the five goalkeepers listed. Now, I’m not saying that a Gold Cup provisional roster is the end-all-be-all of American soccer, but I am saying that Stuver has been the best goalkeeper in MLS this year.
I wrote last week that Stuver "leads MLS in goals allowed below expectation by more than a goal." That’s still true. In fact, the gap between Stuver and the field is growing. His 6.313 goals allowed below expectation is now nearly two goals ahead of Andre Blake’s 4.449.
What I didn’t write about last week is Stuver’s ability with the ball at his feet. Stuver leads MLS goalkeepers in completed passes and in completed passes on the ground. Plus, his pass completion rate (81.14%) is fifth in MLS among goalkeepers with at least 100 attempted passes. With his shot-stopping and his passing ability, Stuver looks like the type of goalkeeper that Gregg Berhalter would want in his national team, but alas. Maybe he'll get a January camp shot?
If you’ve been sleeping on Michael Baldisimo, don’t feel bad. His own coaching staff has been, too. Baldisimo started Vancouver’s first two games of the year and then rode the bench until their 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake on Friday. When he’s in Marc Dos Santos’ lineup, the 21-year-old Canadian central midfielder brings so much quality on the ball.
Typically playing as the Whitecaps’ deepest central midfielder, Baldisimo bypasses defenders at a truly impressive rate. Per Second Spectrum, Baldisimo bypasses 1.676 defenders per pass, which is seventh in MLS among midfielders and forwards. He loves to drop between or outside Vancouver’s center backs, get on the ball and break lines. The Whitecaps have other talented central midfielders, but none who can pass the ball like Baldisimo.
We’ve all been paying attention to Atlanta United’s Santiago Sosa this year – and for good reason. Sosa is a key part of Gabriel Heinze’s team. But so is another young Argentinian central midfielder that Atlanta United signed over the offseason: Franco Ibarra. Ibarra doesn’t move the ball like Sosa, but he does disrupt play better than almost anybody else in MLS.
Ibarra doesn’t pressure the ball a ton each game (he’s in the 67th percentile for defensive pressures per 90 minutes, which makes sense given that Atlanta’s opponents typically don’t have much of the ball), but he’s incredibly efficient with his pressures. So far this season, Ibarra is the fifth most efficient presser among midfielders and forwards in MLS, forcing a turnover within five seconds on 54% of his pressures. If you bring the ball into Ibarra’s area, you should be prepared to lose it.
Daniel Lovitz is a victim of the curse. Come on, you know the curse. It’s that thing that was placed on a handful of the guys that played under Berhalter for the USMNT in 2019. And it prevents people from praising their accomplishments, even years removed from Berhalter’s first year with the national team. Well, I want to help break that curse – at least for Lovitz.
Through eight games, Lovitz has been having a fantastic season for Nashville. He is first among defenders in terms of xA (2.336) and seventh in all of MLS in that same category.
Most of Lovitz’s shot-creating work comes from crosses, which shouldn’t be a surprise given how much Gary Smith’s team relies on crosses to feed his forwards. Lovitz has created 14 shots from crosses so far this year, which is the fourth-most in MLS. Nashville have a real attacking weapon with Lovitz pushing forward from left back.