The 2022 Concacaf Champions League starts Feb. 15 and folks, call me crazy, but I think this just might be the year.
OK, fine. I’m smart enough to not start feeling optimistic. But I’ll allow myself to be hopeful and you should too. This group of MLS teams is good. Really good. Before they can win it all, they have to make it past the Round of 16. So let’s look at three players on each team that may play a crucial part in a potential run to history.
In a concerted effort to not just tell you which three players are the best at soccer, I’ve separated this into three categories:
- The “Uhhh, yeah. We know, already?” category because some players are obvious choices but that shouldn’t take away from their importance.
- “The Cornerstone” because some players will simply need to be steady so that the rest of the team can be too.
- The “Wild Card” because some players may change everything or just lay low.
Hopefully, all of those will make more sense as we go along. Also: Games will be broadcast on FS2, TUDN and OneSoccer.
Uhhh, yeah. We know, already?: Jack Price
It was almost hard to select someone on a team that STILL DOESN’T HAVE A DESIGNATED PLAYER DESPITE MAKING IT INTO CCL AND CLEARLY MISSING A MATCH-WINNER DURING THE PLAYOFFS LAST SEASON. I’m not mad, I just hope for more. Because the Colorado Rapids are a really good team that still have a lot of headroom before they reach their ceiling.
Did I mention they’re still very good? Jack Price is a big reason why. He led the team in goals added last season. He finished second on the team with 12 goal contributions despite not scoring a goal. He’s one of the better creative forces in the league (87th percentile in xA/90th among midfielders last season). And for a team that doesn’t have that big-time match-winner we talked about, they’ll likely need him to make something happen in the final third against Comunicaciones.
The Cornerstone: Bryan Acosta
Kellyn Acosta is off to LAFC in what basically ended up being a near-straight swap (two separate trades) for Mark-Anthony Kaye. That means the midfield as a whole will have to do a little extra to make up for the absence of Kellyn’s ball-winning ability. The Rapids may put extra weight on Bryan Acosta after picking him up in the Re-Entry Draft from FC Dallas.
Bryan is less likely than Kellyn to win the ball back (59th percentile in tackles and interceptions per 90 for Bryan compared to 83rd percentile for Kellyn) but he can affect the game in different ways. The Honduran international is a little more likely to spray the ball around and help create chances. He doesn’t have to be Kellyn, but he will have to be a consistently solid version of himself while adapting to a new team quickly.
Well, if he’s asked to. There’s a potential wrinkle here which brings us to…
Wild Card: Max Alves
Colorado may not have a DP, but they did bring in Max Alves on a U22 Initiative deal this offseason. The young Brazillian offers an attacking presence in midfield and an option to let Kaye and Price take on a little more defensive responsibility and leave Acosta on the bench. It’s an option if Colorado decide they really want to put their foot to the floor. We obviously don’t know a ton about Max’s ability at this point but the Flamengo product could come in and make an immediate, tournament-changing impact.
Yes, I did pick three separate midfielders here. In my defense, they all seem pretty important now that Cole Bassett is at Feyenoord and the attacking group is the good but not world-beating collection that it is. I’m just saying, a DP forward sure would look good in burgundy.
Uhhh, yeah. We know, already?: Djordje Mihailovic
Djordje Mihailovic did the dang thing his first year with CF Montréal. He quietly put up a four-goal, 16-assist season while helping push CFM to the brink of a playoff appearance. Among attacking midfielders and wingers, he finished in the 94th percentile in xA/90 and in the 85th percentile in shot-creating actions per 90. He’s the most effective and maybe the most important player on the team, and he’s just 23 years old. If Montréal go on a surprise run here, he’ll be a big reason why.
The Cornerstone: Rudy Camacho
You probably could have guessed this pick. Although you might have gone a different direction considering it took a second for CFM to re-sign French center back Rudy Camacho. It seems pretty fortunate that they did, because even in his age-30 season last year, Camacho led CFM in goals added. If he’s effective, then Montreal’s back three can hold on long enough for Mihailovic or Romell Quioto to do some damage. Which, hey, speaking of…
Wild Card: Romell Quioto
Sometimes good. Sometimes very good. Sometimes but not often, not so much. Sometimes hurt. Quioto is kind of the perpetual wild card with this team. When he’s on though, my goodness. To steal a couple of numbers from Joe Lowery … Among players with at least 1,000 minutes, Quioto finished second in the league in xG per 90 minutes and landed in the 94th percentile among forwards in goals per 90.
He’s not only good. When Quioto scores, it seems like he really scores. He can make your jaw drop quickly with his movement and his ability to smack the ever-living hell out of a ball from a tight angle and into the net. Among all the players on this list, the Honduran international might be the one most likely to power or hobble his team’s CCL run.
Uhhh, yeah. We know, already?: Matt Turner
Matt Turner is staying around until the summer before he joins Arsenal, almost specifically for a run at winning this whole thing. His world-class shot-stopping ability alone gives the New England Revolution a chance. Do I really need to say more than “keeping the ball out of the net is good?”
The Cornerstone: DeJuan Jones
Look, with New England it really comes down to their match-winning guys. And it should. If we were cheating, we’d go ahead and put them in the obvious choice category and the cornerstone category. But sometimes their excellence means guys like DeJuan Jones get passed over. And Jones is really dang good. So I’m going to use it as an excuse to point out that the left back finished third on the team in goals added last season and ohmygoodness look at this bright green FBref chart.
You have to love a player that’s better than 80% of his peers at…well, nearly everything. Jones isn’t going to define this CCL run for New England. But he will put in the kind of excellent performance we should notice more often.
Wild Card: Sebastian Lletget
I think we can say this about the whole season too, right? Barring a midseason transfer for Adam Buksa, Sebastian Lletget is going to be the fourth attacking option and a guy who could potentially offer the same or greater kind of dynamic presence Tajon Buchanan did.
Obviously, their skill sets are different and it won’t look quite the same if it happens, but Lletget’s ability to impact games might be the difference between an incredibly good attacking unit or a CCL-winning unit. If not, I’m not sure they’re too worried about having to rely on Buksa, Bou and Gil to get the job done. It’s just nice to have a backup plan or three.
Uhhh, yeah. We know, already?: Maxi Moralez
Taty Castellanos is still on this team. I triple-checked, but yep. Still there right now. That’s despite interest from multiple South American teams and Pep (!) Guardiola (!!!) saying Taty is ready for Europe already. I’m genuinely shocked. And that’s why I couldn’t pick him here even though I think he’s truly the deciding factor in whether New York City FC thrive or fail depending on his finishing ability. But I just can’t reliably say the 2021 Golden Boot winner will be a Cityzen for the entirety of this competition.
So it seems like NYCFC may have to turn to Maxi Moralez to be their go-to match-winner. Oh no? He only led the team in goals added last season while finishing with three goals and 11 assists while creating at a Best XI level. He’ll be 35 by the time the 2022 season comes around and it’s not going to matter one bit.
The Cornerstone: Keaton Parks
Keaton Parks has some overlap with the Wild Card category too. I don’t know what level he’ll be able to perform at after undergoing leg surgery near the end of last season, but he’s involved with NYCFC’s preseason and working his way back. If NYCFC can stay alive in the competition long enough for Parks to regain full fitness, it will be a massive boost to their chances. Parks is a bit of an analytics darling and does nearly everything well in midfield. Basically, that just means bloggers get to throw words around like “underrated” every time we talk about him and act appalled when someone doesn’t have him in their “Top 10 Midfielders of MLS” list. It’s pretty fun.
Anyway, Parks can play a critical part of NYCFC’s buildup and help steady NYCFC defensively as they move into a James Sands-less future. He just makes everything easier. I mean, they clearly didn’t need to do things the easy way to win MLS Cup, but CCL is a taller task. If Parks is there and playing up to his ability, their chances of conquering that task are much improved.
Wild Card: Thiago Martins
It feels weird having a new DP signing in the Wild Card spot, but it would be asking a lot of Thiago Martins to feature immediately and replace everything James Sands brought to the table. But it sure would be nice for NYCFC if he could do that and more as quickly as possible.
If Martins can settle in as a partner for Alexander Callens or Maxime Chanot, then NYCFC should have one of the best center back pairings in the entire competition. The Brazilian defender could start out as a third option, but they could be CCL Champion good with the version of him that adapts to his new team as soon as possible.
Uhhh, yeah. We know, already?: The…Sounders? Fine, Raul Ruidiaz
It’s pretty much the whole Seattle Sounders FC team. This starting XI on paper is absurd. I could have picked out any one of Raul Ruidiaz, Albert Rusnak, Jordan Morris, Nouhou, Yeimar, the Roldans, Joao Paulo and Nico Lodeiro and said, “Yeah. That’s The Guy.” If I had to pick though, the player shouldering the most weight is Ruidiaz.
With Lodeiro and Morris out for most of last year and Rusnak on a different team entirely, the Sounders had trouble at times finding another option besides Ruidiaz. There are worse things, though, than having to rely on a player who scored 17 times last season to help get the job done. If he’s finishing opportunities, Seattle have a chance. If he’s finishing opportunities and one of the six or seven other Best XI-caliber players are also making things happen, then they have a really, really good chance.
The Cornerstone: Joao Paulo
Joao Paulo deservedly got MVP votes last season because he’s literally better than almost every midfielder in the league at almost everything. I could have gone a few ways here, but generally, if JP is on his game (and he normally is) Seattle are going to be fine no matter what.
Wild Card: Nicolas Lodeiro’s knee
A healthy Lodeiro? This is the team most likely to break the MLS drought. A not-so-healthy Lodeiro? They’re still maybe the most likely team but not quite as much and there’s maybe an argument for New England or NYCFC. He reportedly has no lingering issues after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last year, so we’ll see. Hopefully he’ll be good to go by the time the quarterfinals come around.