Voices: Joseph Lowery

The best under-the-radar signings in MLS this year

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but some pretty big names have made their way to MLS in recent transfer windows. Xherdan Shaqiri, Douglas Costa, Lorenzo Insigne, Hector Herrera, Giorgio Chiellini and now Gareth Bale have all joined MLS clubs over the last few months.

As fun as those players are, transfer season isn’t all about the big names. It’s also about the players who more subtly improve their teams. Today, we’re looking at some of the best under-the-radar signings across MLS in 2022 – both internally and from abroad.

Now, I don’t really want to quibble about the definition of “under-the-radar," so just think of it as the non-superstar types who have helped improve an MLS team in 2022. Sounds good? Sounds good.

Let’s get to it.

SIGNED: Jan. 4, trade from LAFC to Inter Miami

Don’t look now, but Bryce Duke is having himself a nice little year at Inter Miami. After being traded from LAFC to south Florida in the offseason, Duke found a place for himself in manager Phil Neville’s midfield – and he’s producing some dangerous moments on a new-look roster.

According to American Soccer Analysis, Duke is 19th among central and attacking midfielders in MLS – who have played at least 500 minutes – in combined xG+xA per 96 minutes. 19th! That puts him ahead of Luquinhas (New York Red Bulls), Jose Cifuentes (LAFC), Jamiro Monteiro (San Jose) and a host of others.

Duke isn’t a complete player at this point, but he’s getting consistent minutes and impacting games when he’s on the field. You can’t ask much more than that from a 21-year-old who’s never played more than 500 MLS minutes in a single season until this year.

SIGNED: April 13, transfer from Göztepe in Turkish Süper Lig

I have a ton of love for players who have their thing – that one thing they do more or better than pretty much anybody else. Obinna Nwobodo is one of those players. He’ll bring a number of different qualities over the course of a game, but really, he’s just out there to press and win the ball.

Per Second Spectrum, Nwobodo is in the 95th percentile among MLS midfielders in pressures per 90 minutes. Then, per FBref, he’s also in the 99th percentile for tackles, the 99th for blocks, the 93rd for interceptions and the 96th for aerials won per 90.

FC Cincinnati needed some defensive solidity and mobility to properly execute Pat Noonan’s style, and now they have it in their new regime’s first Designated Player signing.

SIGNED: March 21, loan from Chivas

Ronaldo Cisneros, on loan from Liga MX’s Chivas, also has his thing. That thing is running very, very fast towards the goal many times every game.

According to Second Spectrum, Cisneros has the 13th-fastest recorded speed in MLS this year at 9.95 meters per second. Using his speed, Cisneros makes a bunch of runs in behind to create space for Atlanta United’s playmakers. Right now, he’s averaging 27.4 runs per 90 and 0.28 runs per possession, which respectively put him in the 91st and 92nd percentiles among MLS players with at least 500 minutes this year.

Cisneros provides some much-needed attacking balance for Atlanta United, helping lead the line before Josef Martinez returned from a minor knee operation. ATLUTD also just extended Cisneros' loan through the end of the 2022 season and hold a purchase option.

SIGNED: Jan. 12, free agency (last with Sporting Kansas City)

As far as Eduard Atuesta replacements go, you could do far, far worse than former Sporting Kansas City man Ilie Sanchez.

The Spaniard has seamlessly slipped into the No. 6 role in LAFC’s midfield and is putting up some of the best passing numbers in the league. Among defensive and central midfielders with at least 500 minutes, Sanchez is in the 90th percentile for average defenders bypassed per pass and the 89th percentile for progressive passing frequency.

Sanchez doesn’t pressure or win the ball as much as Atuesta did in midfield, but he reads the game well and adds real value in possession. As much star-power as the Supporters’ Shield leaders have, and are soon getting, shrewd moves like securing Ilie are hugely impactful too.

SIGNED: Dec. 22, free agency (last with Portland Timbers)

Steve Clark is having one of the top seasons of his nine-year MLS career right now. Since signing for the Houston Dynamo in free agency, Clark has been one of the absolute best goalkeepers in the league.

Per American Soccer Analysis, Clark has been the second-best shot-stopper in MLS this year only behind Minnesota United’s Dayne St. Clair. He’s also third in their goals added metric among goalkeepers with at least 500 minutes in 2022. Clark has saved goals – and points – for the Dynamo en masse.

Not a bad move from general manager Pat Onstead and Co. as they launched Houston’s new era, landing the ex-Portland Timbers backstop.

SIGNED: Jan. 7, free agency (last with LAFC)

Raheem Edwards moved from one LA club (LAFC) to the other (the LA Galaxy) during the offseason. In terms of his on-field performances, that move has completely paid off for him. Edwards has been the guy for manager Greg Vanney at left back this year and is putting up some phenomenal numbers from that spot.

Per FBref, Edwards is in the 90th percentile or higher among fullbacks in non-penalty xG, shots, non-penalty xG+xA, shot-creating actions, successful dribbles, pressures and tackles. Those are all on a per-90-minute basis. He’s a machine out there, drifting inside, finding teammates, finding shots for himself and generally helping the Galaxy’s attack.

There’s no doubt about it: Edwards has been one of the best left backs in MLS this year, even sparking a recent Canada call-up as the World Cup nears.

SIGNED: Feb. 7, transfer from Polish Ekstraklasa side Górnik Zabrze

I don’t think Jesus Jimenez is the long-term answer up top for Toronto FC, but he’s provided a nice little boost for them in 2022. Coming over from Poland, Jimenez has scored seven goals for Toronto this season on 5.7 xG, according to American Soccer Analysis. He’s over-performing his underlying numbers, but even that 5.7 xG number puts him 11th among all players in MLS this year.

Jimenez’s numbers don’t look quite as good when you average them out per 90 minutes, but he’s added a necessary level of stability for Toronto FC this year as Ayo Akinola came back from injury and before Insigne joins this summer.

SIGNED: May 3, trade from Colorado to Charlotte

This move got lost in the shuffle of Charlotte FC’s at-times-jumbled expansion season, but trading for Andre Shinyashiki was a savvy deal by their front office. Shinyashiki has put up some strong underlying numbers before in MLS with the Colorado Rapids, and now he’s doing the same thing with Charlotte.

Since joining the team in May, the 25-year-old has three goals to go along with some promising expected statistics. According to American Soccer Analysis, Shinyashiki is averaging 0.39 xG+xA per 96 minutes. That puts him 75th out of 406 outfield MLS players who have hit the 500-minutes threshold this year. Those aren’t mind-blowing figures, but they are valuable ones for an expansion team that’s still looking to find its way in MLS.