Voices: Joseph Lowery

MLS 2021 All-Star XI according to the stats

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, I’m not talking about Christmas or even Christmas in July. I’m talking about voting season for the 2021 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target.

When else do we get to dream of pairing together top players from across a host of different teams and watching those players combine on the field? Not at Christmas time, I’ll tell you that much.

Voting opened last week and closes at 11:59 PM Pacific Time on Wednesday, July 21, so it's the perfect day for me to put together my All-Star ballot. This isn’t going to be just any All-Star ballot, though.

With Second Spectrum’s data in hand, I’m setting out to craft a starting lineup that’s informed by the numbers. From goalkeeper to striker to other positions (which include left back, right back, and a defensive midfielder!), only the players with the finest stats in the league have made it onto my ballot.

Which players have the underlying numbers to make the cut on this 4-3-3 formation? Let’s find out.

Brad Stuver has been the man in Austin this season. When Josh Wolff’s team struggled to contain opposing attacks at the beginning of their expansion campaign, Stuver regularly bailed out his teammates and helped Austin FC stay afloat.

According to Second Spectrum’s expected goals model, Stuver has saved more goals above expectation (4.9) than any other goalkeeper in MLS. His shot-stopping numbers haven’t been quite as incredible since the end of June, but Stuver has decidedly earned his spot.

Daniel Lovitz's numbers pretty much leap off the screen. Among fullbacks and wingbacks with at least 50 passes in MLS this year, Lovitz has the most shot assists (60, eight more than the second-ranked player) and bypasses the third-most defenders per pass. A hefty chunk of Lovitz’s chance-creating passes come from crosses and set pieces, but he also has the most open-play, non-crossed shot assists among outside defenders.

Having a left back like Lovitz who can provide quality service from the left wing has boosted Nashville’s attack this season. No team in MLS has more xG from passes that originate from the left wing or the left half-space. Lovitz, in all of his shot-creating glory, is my left back.

This year’s Sporting Kansas City side is MLS’ token possession team. They average the third-most possessions, spend the most time in the buildup and attacking phases, and have the most xG in MLS. The foundation of Peter Vermes’ ball-dominant juggernaut? None other than center back Andreu Fontas.

In 2021, Fontas has completed more passes than any other player in MLS (908) and has more shot assists than any other central defender. He regularly starts attacks for SKC, provides his teammates a safe outlet in the buildup and can find his more advanced teammates with well-weighted forward passes.

Fontas isn’t incredibly mobile at the back, but he’s in the 80th percentile among center backs in terms of pressing efficiency. Between his passing numbers and his ability to win the ball, Fontas belongs on this team.

To complement Fontas’ confident passing, Kamal Miller brings his ball-carrying to this backline. While he spends most of his time playing in a back-three under Wilfried Nancy's CF Montréal side, Miller has shown an ability to play as a center back in a back-four, just like he did for Canada against the United States in last Sunday’s Gold Cup game.

Miller loves to drive forward on the ball; he’s in the 91st percentile among center backs with at least 100 touches in terms of his average forward distance traveled per touch (2.5 meters). He’s also first among center backs with his 1.6 successful dribbles per game. If you’re looking for a center back who can unbalance an opposing defense with his skill on the ball (and I always am), Miller is the player for you.

While Brooks Lennon’s strong 2021 hasn’t exactly been the primary storyline coming out of Atlanta, his performance at right wingback has been stellar. With his strong right foot and comfort when rotating into different spaces, Lennon has become Atlanta’s top chance creator. His 2.7 xA is more than double runner-up Marcelino Moreno’s 1.2 xA figure and puts him tenth in the entire league.

Lennon isn’t a lockdown 1-v-1 defender, but he’s an active presser in the middle and final thirds, sitting in the 76th percentile among outside defenders in terms of pressures in those areas per 90 minutes. Atlanta United’s 2021 has been anything but stellar, but Lennon has been a true bright spot.

This one shouldn’t surprise anybody. Though LAFC struggled out of the gate this year, Eduard Atuesta has shown that no other central midfielder in MLS has his combination of line-breaking passes and defensive pressures.

On the ball, Atuesta has completed more passes to players between the lines (71) than any other central midfielder in MLS. He also bypasses 1.6 defenders per pass, which puts him in the 95th percentile among central midfielders with at least 100 passes this season.

While he isn’t the fastest player, Atuesta is in the 90th percentile in terms of pressing efficiency among central midfielders. Atuesta reads the game extremely well in and out of possession, and his numbers make him a lock for my No. 6 spot.

Cristian Roldan is the Seattle Sounders’ Energizer Bunny. He makes more off-ball runs per game (23.7) than any other Seattle player and is 22nd in the entire league in that same statistic. Defensively, Roldan has logged more pressures in the middle and attacking thirds than any other Sounders player.

But Roldan isn’t just a runner: he creates dangerous goal-scoring opportunities for his teammates, too. Roldan is fourth in MLS in xA (3.6) and frequently plays clever balls into the box from his hybrid right-sided central midfield/right wing role. Between his off-ball energy and on-ball effectiveness, Roldan is a worthy All-Star.

Carles Gil
Attacking midfielder · New England Revolution

No one – and I mean no one – is putting up playmaking numbers like Carles Gil this season. He leads MLS in xA (5.9), shot assists (116) and passes into the box/Zone 14 (137). Whether he’s playing as a number 10 in a 4-2-3-1 (which has been his primary role) or as a 10 in a 4-4-2 diamond or even as a free-roaming outside midfielder in a 4-4-2, Gil makes the Revolution tick.

On the ball, he’s clearly a dangerous passer with his skillful left foot, but Gil is also an accomplished dribbler. He leads MLS with 30 successful dribbles and frequently draws defenders close to him before skating past them. Gil’s MVP-caliber statistical season absolutely earns him a spot on my ballot.

If Fontas is the foundation of SKC’s possession-based system, Salloi is the beautifully decorated house on top of the foundation. His seven goals and 5.1 xG are both fifth in MLS, and his 413 off-ball runs lead the league by more than 50 runs.

Typically starting on the left wing in Vermes’ 4-3-3, Salloi is a real threat to opposing defenses when he cuts inside onto his right foot and drives into the box. Salloi has been the most goal-dangerous wide player in the league, and while MLS’ wingers (in a collective sense) haven’t shined too bright, he still deserves the nod.

Chicharito has been excellent as a center forward under Greg Vanney this season. He leads the Golden Boot presented by Audi race with 10g/1a (ahead on highest goals per 90 minutes), is fourth in xG (5.4) and takes the highest-quality shots in the league (among players with at least 10 shots).

While Chicharito is probably over-performing his xG at an unsustainable level, he’s shown that he can move defenders around with his off-ball movement and get into strong goal-scoring areas. Only Chicago’s Robert Beric has more touches in the central part of the box than Chicharito. High-level off-ball movement makes the Galaxy’s No. 9 a consistent scoring threat and gets him into my XI.

Up to this point, my ballot was shaping up to be a pretty realistic starting XI. The backline might be a bit suspect defensively, but the midfield has solid balance and Chicharito and Salloi fit well as at striker and left winger, respectively.

I’m about to ruin some of my 4-3-3’s structural integrity by giving my “right winger” spot to Raul Ruidiaz, but oh boy is it worth it. Ruidiaz leads MLS in xG with 7.2, co-leads the league in goals scored (10) and rarely loses the ball (1.1 turnovers per game) while playing as the highest point in Brian Schmetzer’s possession shape.

Even without many of Seattle’s best players in the lineup, Ruidiaz has still found ways to cause problems for opposing defenses and, most importantly, score goals. His stats made it impossible to leave him out of this lineup, even at the expense of losing some pressing from the right-wing spot.