We’re just over a month into the 2022 MLS season, which means that we're slowly gathering more information on players, teams and a bunch of other on-field aspects of this league. We can do some pretty useful things with that information, like learning about how new coaches in both conferences are changing their teams. I wrote about that very thing over the last couple of weeks.
We can also perform another important and useful exercise with early-season data: we can look at who belongs on my Very, Very Early Season MLS Analytics Best XI. I mean, why save all the fun for awards season at the end of the year? Let’s get on this Best XI train early before anyone else thinks of it.
This week, I’m building a starting XI out of players who have had really strong starts to the year in one statistical way or another. They’re arranged in a 4-3-3 formation.
Here we go!
I’ll admit, it’s weird to put a goalkeeper who’s in the top third in MLS in goals allowed (seven) on my best XI. Still, Kahlina’s shot-stopping numbers look very good through five games. Per FBref, he’s second in the league in post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed on a per-90 minute basis with 0.54, which means that Kahlina is saving Charlotte around half a goal per game.
For a Charlotte team that’s been allowing a hefty number of chances, Kahlina’s shot-stopping is extremely valuable. Add his calming presence on the ball in the buildup – Kahlina has the sixth most completed ground passes per 90 minutes among goalkeepers – and you have yourself a top goalkeeper.
The numbers have a deep, lasting love for Julian Gressel. It makes sense, given Gressel is a phenomenal player who shapes his crosses better than almost anyone in MLS. Through the first month of the season, he’s in the 96th percentile for expected assists (xA). That's not just for fullbacks/wingbacks, but for any player in the league.
Gressel’s delivery on set pieces and his right-footed passing in open play make him difficult for opposing teams to deal with. With his creativity, aggression, and skill on the ball, the 28-year-old German is a natural fit for Hernan Losada’s heavy metal soccer and he’s a natural pick for this team.
Mamadou Fall is legit. Like, 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR top five kind of legit. At just 19 years old, Fall has already become a starter for one of the most ambitious teams in MLS and he’s done that at center back, a position where managers heavily value experience over many other things.
Fall is a threat on the ball, he’s a threat on set pieces and he can cover ground. Zooming in on his on-ball ability, Fall is first among CBs with at least 200 minutes in progressive passes per 90 minutes and third among CBs with at least 200 minutes in passes that break the backline per 90.
Those numbers are inflated a bit because of how possession dominant LAFC have been through the first month of the season, but still: he’s a ball progression machine.
Nashville SC and Walker Zimmerman are a match made in heaven. Yes, Nashville need to sort out their work on defensive set pieces, but Zimmerman is a force for them in defensive open-play moments and on attacking set pieces.
Among center backs with at least 200 minutes, Zimmerman is in the 85th percentile for pressing efficiency, meaning that he wins the ball quickly when he steps to press. He’s also won 87.5% of his aerials so far this season, which puts him in the 82nd percentile across all players in the league.
That aerial ability makes the US international a monster on attacking set pieces, where he’s already scored once this season and often sets up his teammates for second balls.
Just in case it’s slipped past you so far this season, Pedro Santos is a left back now! He played there some last season, but he’s now the full-time starter at left back for Caleb Porter after Milton Valenzuela departed.
Using Santos, a former winger and No. 10, as a left back makes some sense for a team like Columbus that wants to control the ball. Santos can do things in possession that most fullbacks in MLS can’t do, as shown by some of his truly impressive stats over the Crew’s first four games of the year: Santos is in the 91st percentile or higher among outside defenders with at least 200 minutes in progressive passes per 90, backline breaking passes per 90, and defenders bypassed per 90.
Get yourself a left back who can play passes like this one:
After all of his years with Sporting Kansas City, we know how good Ilie is on the ball. He’s incredibly technical and regularly bypasses defenders to cut them out of plays. So far this season, LAFC have gotten that same SKC Ilie – he’s seventh among midfielders who have played at least 200 minutes in average defenders bypassed per pass.
But there’s been another development with Ilie playing as the No. 6 in LAFC’s midfield: the Black & Gold have been better in defensive transition through four games with Ilie on the field than they were last year with Eduard Atuesta (now at Brazil’s Palmeiras). With Ilie in 2022, LAFC are allowing fewer shots and expected goals per 90 and are forcing their opponents into lower-quality shots in defensive transition than last year with Atuesta in that same phase.
Now, there are a host of possible reasons for LAFC’s improvement in transition – a new manager in Steve Cherundolo with a renewed emphasis on pressing being chief among them. But I still think Ilie deserves a ton of credit for how he helps LAFC control the field.
It’s nearly an all-Los Angeles midfield in this stats-based Best XI. Since joining the Galaxy over the offseason from Toronto FC, Delgado has been an extremely valuable, steady central midfield presence for Greg Vanney. He’s fit in as the most defensive-minded midfielder in Vanney’s 4-2-3-1 formation, with a well-above-average ability to break things up in the middle of the field.
Through a month, Delgado is running more than anyone else in MLS, averaging the most distance traveled per game in the league. He’s also putting up great interrupting numbers, only behind two other central midfielders – Portland’s Diego Chara and Cristhian Paredes – per American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric. Using his mobility, defensive work, and his very solid progressive passing, Delgado has earned a spot on this team.
FC Cincinnati have been kinda fun this year, huh? A big part of Cincinnati looking more competitive in the Eastern Conference is their regime change, complete with a tactical overhaul. But another part of it is Luciano Acosta being so, so good.
Acosta leads the league in total xA and is in the 98th percentile for xA per 90 among players with at least 200 minutes played. Acosta creates chances with his passing – and he creates chances with his dribbling, too. The Argentine playmaker is in the 94th percentile for successful dribbles per 90 among players with at least 200 minutes and regularly draws defenders in, creating space for his teammates.
If Acosta continues to perform at this level, Cincinnati might end up being a lot better than we all thought.
The centerpiece of the biggest intra-league trade in MLS history, Paul Arriola has been great for FC Dallas through their first four games of the year. One of his primary skills, running at the backline, has been on full display in 2022: Arriola is third in the league in runs per game.
With Jesus Ferriera’s tendency to drop into midfield, the stage is often set for Arriola to run in behind and play a ball into the box for a late-arriving runner (often Ferreira). You can see that exact sequence play out in this clip from Dallas’ game against the New England Revolution earlier this season.
With his role in those types of attacking moments, Arriola leads all wingers who have played at least 200 minutes in xA per 90, averaging 0.40. Keep your eyes peeled for more runs and clever passes from Arriola as the year continues.
Remember that Luciano Acosta guy that I talked about up above? Well, he has a partner in crime in FC Cincinnati’s attack. Striker Brandon Vazquez, who is playing as part of a front two with Acosta underneath this season, is getting into some extremely dangerous shooting positions for Cincinnati. Through the first month of the season, Vazquez is fifth in the league in open-play xG per 90 minutes.
He’s hit at least 0.27 xG in each game this season and his average shot quality has improved considerably. His frame, strength, and off-ball movement in the box make Vazquez a nightmare for opposing center backs to deal with – to the tune of 4g/1a.
Derrick Etienne has had himself quite the first month of the season. Playing on the left side of Porter’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Etienne has been a force for Columbus. He’s been one of the most active off-ball runners in the league and makes more runs that “challenge the opposition’s backline” (to use Second Spectrum’s language) than all but three players in MLS.
Etienne is active off the ball and is currently atop the winger xG rankings (inflated by a pair of shots that he took against the Red Bulls last Sunday), fifth among wingers in successful dribbles per 90, and eighth among wingers in xA per 90.
Etienne’s combination of on and off-ball skills has made him invaluable for the Crew so far this year.