Voices: Joseph Lowery

How MLS' top 5 playmakers create chances

Some teams have one. Every team wants one. At least a handful of teams just went out and spent seven figures to get one in the transfer window.

Wow, that sounded a lot more like a really mediocre riddle and less like a direct segway into the focus of my column this week than I intended. I’m talking about chance creators, to be totally clear. That’s the answer to the weird soccer riddle: chance creators.

If you want to score goals, you need players who can exploit space, play exploratory passes and help set up their teammates for dangerous shooting opportunities. Classically, the No. 10 is the player responsible for creating the lion’s share of the chances. The No. 10 still reigns supreme in MLS, with players like Carles Gil pulling the strings in New England and Alejandro Pozuelo getting back up to speed in Toronto.

But high-level chance creators can also set up out wide or deeper in midfield. Looking at Second Spectrum’s expected assists tab, four of the top 10 xA-ers are No. 10s, two of them are outside backs, three of them are forwards and one plays a hybrid midfielder/attacker role. Chances can come from anywhere.

Where MLS’ best playmakers operate is an interesting thing. But, after watching last weekend’s games, I wanted to think bigger. I was curious about how MLS’ top playmakers are creating chances. What kind of phases of play do they thrive in? How do they break down defenses? And yes, where do they pick up the ball?

Taking the top five players in Second Spectrum’s xA rankings, let’s find out, shall we?

Carles Gil is the league's dead-ball king. Well, OK, technically that’s not true because he’s currently second in the “xA created from set pieces” category, just barely behind Alvaro Medran. But hey, New England’s No. 10, who is currently out with a muscle injury, is my pick for the Landon Donovan MLS MVP and I’m giving him a slight boost here.

Semantics aside, Gil has been excellent with his set-piece delivery this year, using his left foot to play well-weighted balls into the box. 2.2 of his 7.2 xA comes from dead-ball situations and he leads the league with six set-piece assists.

In open play, Gil is most effective when the Revolution are driving forward against a scattered defense. Deployed as No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 or in a 4-4-2 diamond, Gil’s xA in counter-attacking moments and directly after New England win the ball high upfield is second in MLS, just behind his teammate Gustavo Bou.

Now, Gil isn’t exclusively effective against scrambling defenses. He checks the boxes as a valuable defensive block breaker, too: the Spaniard is in the 96th percentile for passes completed to players between the lines and his 1.89 xA from crosses puts him in the 98th percentile. However, because the Revs prefer quick attacks to long possession sequences (they average the eighth-shortest possessions in MLS), Gil has more chances to impact the game in transition.

Between his work on set pieces, transition attacks and his ability to thread passes between defenders when New England settle into a possession rhythm, there’s no doubt that Gil is MLS’ top playmaker this year.

5.66 xA

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Julian Gressel is a phenomenal right wingback. Defensively, he’s an above-average presser (which is an important part of Hernan Losada’s tactical approach). And offensively, well, Gressel creates a host of chances: he’s second in MLS in expected assists (5.66xA) this season!

Like Gil, Gressel is a strong set-piece taker. Using his right foot, he can whip balls into the box and onto his teammates’ heads. D.C. United's first goal from their 2-1 win over CF Montréal on Sunday came from a Gressel free kick – and so far this year, 1.4 of Gressel’s xA has come from dead-ball situations.

In transition, which is D.C.’s preferred open-play attacking method, Gressel can provide a number of different types of incisive passes. He can play a low ball along the floor to an attacking teammate who’s crashing the box, he can play an early cross, or he can burst forward on the overlap and find a late-arriving runner with a well-timed cutback. You can see all three of those passes in this mini-compilation:

With license to spring forward from his right wingback position and players to combine with like Andy Najar and Paul Arriola, Gressel is D.C. United’s wide attacking hub.

Ronny Deila has NYCFC firing on all cylinders this season. Yes, they just dropped points to Toronto FC after taking a 2-0 lead, but the Cityzens are still having a phenomenal statistical year. Despite being third in the Eastern Conference, they lead MLS in xG and xG per 90, and they’re second in xG allowed and xG allowed per 90.

Deila’s No. 10, Maxi Moralez, has been key to NYCFC’s attacking play. Because Deila loves to push his wingers inside out of a base 4-2-3-1 shape, Moralez has plenty of opportunities to combine and create in the final third. In this clip, winger Thiago Andrade starts to tuck inside before shifting out wide to allow left back Malte Amundsen to move inside. Moralez then plays a lovely chipped ball over the backline for Amundsen to finish.

Moralez is one of the most well-rounded chance creators in MLS. He’s in the 98th percentile for xA created from one-touch passes and 96th for xA created from through balls. He provides quality service from set pieces and crosses, and he likes to make off-ball runs into the outer channels of the box to play little cutbacks towards the six-yard box.

He’s squarely on the wrong side of 30, but as long as Moralez keeps producing like he has this season, he’ll be a real asset to NYCFC’s attack.

In a lot of ways, Emanuel Reynoso and Gil have had very similar seasons. They both occupy a comparable area of the field, they both play for teams that don’t dilly-dally on the ball, they both have the same number of completed dribbles (32) and they both have the same number of completed through balls (23). Gil has the better of Reynoso when it comes to overall xA and the sheer volume of passes that lead to shots, but generally speaking, the two have some pretty parallel numbers.

Reynoso can create from anywhere on the field – of his 35 shot assists, eight have come from the wing in the final third, seven have come from the half-spaces and eight have come from Zone 14 (the central area right outside the box). Reynoso’s eight shot assists from Zone 14 give him the highest percentage of shot assists from that area (23%) out of any of the top 10 xA-ers in MLS this season.

Interestingly enough, despite the Argentine midfielder’s love for Zone 14, he doesn’t create many high-level chances from that space. Instead, a much larger chunk of his playmaking comes in the form of crosses from wide areas (1.16 xA) and set pieces (1.17).

In Adrian Heath’s somewhat free-flowing, improvisation-based attack, the former Boca Juniors No. 10’s ability to disorganize defenses on the dribble and drift wide to provide Minnesota with service from the wing is critical.

While he exists in Gil’s playmaking shadow, Gustavo Bou is having quite the year chance creation-wise: He’s second in MLS in open-play xA with 4.27, only behind Gil.

Most (70%) of Bou’s open-play xA comes while the Revs are counter-attacking or attacking quickly after winning the ball high upfield. With his dominant right foot, Bou can receive the ball and take a quick look to pick out a forward passing option. After New England win the ball back with their high press in this clip, Arnor Traustason finds Bou, who spins away from a defender and plays Tajon Buchanan into the box for a shot.

Favoring the right side of the attack as the Revolution get out on the break, there are few players in MLS who cause as much damage in transition as Bou. With Gil’s recovery timeline still unknown, Bou is going to have to carry the attacking load for the Revs for the foreseeable future. The good news for New England fans is that he’s looked up to that task this season. Bou’s playmaking ability and his league-leading 11 non-penalty goals are giving opposing defenses all they can handle.