Parchman: Five teams most reliant on their star to carry them to MLS Cup

Ignacio Piatti - Montreal Impact - close-up

Bradley Wright-Phillips and David Villa traded blows like weary, if determined, pugilists on Sunday.

Wright-Phillips poured in two quick goals to erase Villa’s first and flip the scoreline in favor of the New York Red Bulls. Not to be outdone, Villa ducked under the punch and delivered a haymaker of his own. Two goals later and New York City FC walked out of the Bronx with all three points.

Just north, across the border, Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti and Orlando City’s Cyle Larin traded early goals in a bout that ultimately went to the Impact. On the opposite coast, Diego Valeri put in an impossibly efficient shift, scoring the second goal in Portland’s 3-1 triumph over the LA Galaxy.

MLS is beginning to arrive at a unique point in its evolution; it’s exceedingly difficult now to even compete for, let alone win, an MLS Cup without a fiercely-burning, MVP-level star spearheading the effort. Every cup winner since 2011 has had a bonafide league star depressing the accelerator, and with each passing season it gets increasingly difficult to make deep postseason runs without one.

To put it plainly, you avoid gathering up a star player at your own cup-winning peril. And these are the difference-makers who most desperately need to produce individually for their respective teams to make something of their season.

Mauro Diaz, FC Dallas

Here’s a fun number for you. Since Mauro Diaz joined Dallas in 2015, FCD are 38W-17L-15D with the Argentinian creative engine in the starting lineup. In a league as hard to predict and parity-driven as MLS, those are not trifling numbers. And it’s no surprise that when Diaz went out with an injury for the rest of the year at the tail end of the 2016 season, FCD backed into the playoffs and bowed out meekly.

FCD’s lineup is an intricate dance number with a good many moving parts, but nothing runs the way it should without Diaz. Kellyn Acosta is invariably forced higher upfield than he’s entirely comfortable, possession tends to cling to the flanks more than it should, and in general the creative impetus is off its axis. 

When Diaz is firing there are few – if any – pure No. 10s as incisive and terrifying with the ball at their feet. And since coming back from injury on May 28, Diaz has four assists in 399 minutes. He’ll need to keep up that pace for FCD to reverse their postseason woes after two ripping regular seasons.

Federico Higuain, Columbus Crew SC

In 2015, Federico Higuain played the most minutes of his MLS career, put in his most consistently efficient season (if not his most points-driven) and Columbus were a win away from an MLS Cup title.

In 2016, Higuain missed 16 starts, registered his fewest goals and assists since joining MLS – including his half-season in 2011 – and Crew SC finished in the Eastern Conference basement. There were extenuating circumstances beyond Higuain’s performance last year, but certainly none bigger.

This is simply life in Columbus with Higuain. If he’s pulling the strings, diving into space and setting up chances, Crew SC and their wildly entertaining style can claim MLS Cup status. If not, they’re a sort of mongrel attack lacking in definition.

Higuain’s already just two goals off his best-ever total in MLS, and his five assists are two better than his 2016 tally in fewer minutes. Once he returns from injury, Crew SC will be in desperate need of a late-season push as owners of the last playoff slot in the East. There will be no single force more important to that effort than the inimitable Higuain, who most definitely has another MLS Cup run in his legs.

Chris Wondolowski, San Jose Earthquakes

Nobody’s more pleased to see San Jose’s uptick in tempo and style on the attacking end than Chris Wondolowski. What he’s done with limited resources since 2010 – double-digit goals and at least 2,300 minutes every year – is maybe the most remarkable stretch of scoring in league history. And he now has arguably his most stocked attacking larder ever, and yet it’s never been more critical to San Jose’s success that Wondo continue his scoring tear.

San Jose are currently clinging to the final playoff spot in the West, and Wondolowski’s scoring pace is still on par with a mid-range season by his own admittedly lofty terms. At Wondolowski’s best, in 2012, he scored at a pace of a goal every 1.1 games, a patently ridiculous rate of return. His least productive year, the next one, was a goal every 2.6 games (still not bad). Right now he’s snugly underneath the latter figure at 2.5, a number that’ll likely have to come down to assure the Earthquakes make the playoffs and do some damage therein.

But the fact remains that no scorer is more singularly critical to his team’s stretch run that Wondolowski. He does everything.

David Villa, NYCFC

Let this sink in for a minute. Since David Villa joined on with NYCFC for the 2015 season, City’s scored 154 goals through their wildly entertaining 3-2 win over the Red Bulls on Sunday. Villa, by himself, has 58 of those, which means he’s scored 37 percent of every goal scored in club history. That might’ve been even halfway normal 20 years ago, when the league was more prone to runaway stars bossing games by their lonesome, but numbers like that simply don’t happen now. Or at least they shouldn’t, statistically.

The secret to Villa’s success isn’t any one thing – he’s shockingly active in the final third – but the variety of ways in which he involves himself make him uniquely indispensable. To the point that I don’t think NYCFC would function in in their current construct in any recognizable way without him.

Luckily they haven’t had to worry; his longevity is among the reasons NYCFC can so ill afford his absence. They simply haven’t had to deal without him. He hasn’t missed back-to-back games in more than two years, and he went the full 90 minutes in 68 of his 82 starts. To put a finer point on it, he’s missed just six games in two and a half years. NYCFC are all or nothing with Villa; they need him firing with both barrels to win a cup this year.

Ignacio Piatti, Montreal Impact

The true measure of Nacho Piatti isn’t quite as evident until you remove him from the equation. And when that happens, the Impact are, well, it’s not pretty.

Since joining the team in 2014, Montreal are a miserable 4W-16L-8D when Piatti doesn’t play. It could be worse, since that’s just 28 games stretching back to the midpoint of the 2014 season, but in a league with margins this tight, those things matter. And if the Impact plan on making another postseason run like it did in 2016, Piatti has to have a major role to play.

At his zenith Piatti’s influence is enormous. In bursts, he’s about as important to his side’s success as any one player in the league. He more or less strapped the Impact to his back in the 2016 playoffs, scoring four goals and assisting on two more to take direct part in half of the goals Montreal scored in the postseason.

And that doesn’t include the myriad little things he does to kickstart breaks, keep possession alive and harry ball-carriers with his mastery of body positioning.

Montreal aren’t like a Toronto or a Chicago; they don’t have more than one mainline star carrying the load. The club needs Piatti to be as sharp as possible to blast through to an MLS Cup. Luckily for Montreal, he’s actually bettering his scoring pace from a year ago.