The preseason is just a couple of weeks away, which means it's time once again to update our pecking order of the best American players Major League Soccer has to offer.
Instead of coming up with a new way to describe the method to the hierarchy madness, I'm just going to crib the explanation from last year's top 10 verbatim.
"Often times, rankings such as these have a complicated, even nebulous judging criteria. This one doesn't. It's not about the volume of MLS or international achievements, about past accomplishments or future potential. It's about who stands as the best American players working on home shores, right now, plain and simple."
Whereas the boys at the back dominated the 2020 list, this year's reads like the central midfielders are plotting a takeover. Due to slumps, injuries, European departures and unexplained lay-off, six players, including each of the top four, have fallen out of the revised ranking. On the other hand, all four guys who kept a place in the list were able to improve upon last year's station.
Before we begin the new countdown, let's check in with the honorable mentions. This year's group fell just short of the top 10, with several youngsters certainly capable of crashing next year's list: Ayo Akinola, Jozy Altidore, Frankie Amaya, Cole Bassett, Gianluca Busio, Jesus Ferreira, Stefan Frei, Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, Ryan Hollingshead, Sean Johnson, Henry Kessler, Nick Lima, Sebastian Lletget, Aaron Long, Paxton Pomykal and Miles Robinson.
For those included below, last year’s ranking can also be found in parentheses.
No. 10: Marky Delgado, Toronto FC (-)
This pick will likely shock many, but it really shouldn't. Delgado has become like a carpool Prius, oh-so-quietly driving a Toronto FC side that was best in the league for long stretches of 2020. With Michael Bradley out most of the year, it was the 25-year-old that unleashed Alejandro Pozuelo and TFC's wrecking crew attack. He was one of the leaders in passes into the final third last season, and when Delgado couldn't find a lane he just wheeled it there himself.
No. 9: Jackson Yueill, San Jose Earthquakes (-)
Jackson Yueill during this whole damn sequence... guy's 100% legit. pic.twitter.com/M9T642e8fA— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 18, 2019
And so officially begins our run of multi-function central parkers that make their teams run properly. The Earthquakes can seem lost without their skipper, who had the fourth-best net plus-minus per 90 (the team's goal differential while he's on the field vs. when he's not). Yueill's distribution is deadly – he may now be the league's preeminent source of pinpoint diagonals to the flank – and other areas of his game are slowly catching up. The 23-year-old is primed to climb up this list if he can sprinkle in just a little more final third playmaking and fortitude in the tackle.
No. 8: Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders FC (-)
What a player Cristian Roldan is. Watch how he recognizes the loose ball 2 steps before anybody else, and then watch how his run opens up the perfect spot for Lodeiro. pic.twitter.com/i8FfZE8I0E— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) November 25, 2020
Seattle’s version of an Energizer Bunny just missed the list last year, but there was no keeping him off this time. Like the guy that follows directly below, Roldan has the knack for turning up at the right place, enough skill to make a large menu of plays and more than enough bull-headed gumption to derail any foe. While it may seem like Roldan has been in Rave Green forever, he's still only 25.
No. 7: Jeremy Ebobisse, Portland Timbers (-)
It may have escaped wide notice, but only three MLS players (Ayo Akinola, Raul Ruidiaz and Diego Rossi) scored at a higher-goals-per 90 rate than the Portland forward in 2020. Ebobisse bagged four during the club's MLS is Back Tournament title run, and even set up their late winner in the final. The 24-year-old can score in a variety of ways, and his ability to clear lanes for Portland's underneath threats by occupying defenders is underrated.
No. 6: Alejandro Bedoya, Philadelphia Union (7)
We end this run of midfield Swiss Army knives with the most experienced one. Bedoya enjoyed arguably his finest MLS season to date in 2020, making all the right plays at all the right times in all the right spots on the field. The 33-year-old's indispensable play helped Philadelphia win the Supporters’ Shield, so the least we could do was bump him up a spot from last year's ranking.
No. 5: Matt Turner, New England Revolution (10)
Though he lost out on Goalkeeper of the Year due to Andre Blake's super-human 2020 season, Turner is now continuing New England’s rich tradition in goal with weekly shot-stopping clinics. Turner was third in the league in saves last season, and it certainly wasn't just about the quantity. He also had the bacon-saving quality, leading MLS in GA-xGA (goals allowed minus expected goals allowed) for the second year in a row.
No. 4: Darlington Nagbe, Columbus Crew SC (5)
Some things never change. Nagbe's brand of ball-hogging link play helped Columbus take MLS Cup last season, making it now three different clubs in six years to win it all with him steering the transition ship. More impossible to dispossess than ever, the offseason pick-up topped the league in passing percentage (for the second time in the last four seasons) and also finished among the leaders in successful dribbles and positive ball carries among midfielders. Every so often, he even weaves a little Goal of the Year magic...
No. 3: Chris Mueller, Orlando City SC (-)
While numerous MLS clubs seem to be searching for the fabled "goal-dangerous winger" each transfer window, Orlando are actually fortunate (or is it shrewd?) enough to have three. Mueller no longer simply balances Nani with his box-raiding, he has now surpassed his veteran teammate. The new US international has attacking verve to spare, pinning opponents back to the tune of 10 goals and seven assists in a shortened 2020 season. That sort of production shouldn't be overlooked, as he was but one helper shy of becoming the 16th MLS player to finish top five in the league in both goals and assists in the same year.
No. 2: Gyasi Zardes, Columbus Crew (-)
Even Zardes’ most ardent critics have to admit that he's worked hard to become a textbook No. 9 for Columbus. It’s not just about his increasingly deadly finishing; Zardes scored on nearly one of every three shot attempts last season, an efficiency only bested by platoon players Jaroslaw Niezgoda and Benji Michel. He cleverly runs opposing defenses ragged, then he gets bonus points for being among the best forwards at set-piece defending. Even his previously derided hold-up game is now on point.
No. 1: Walker Zimmerman, Nashville SC (9)
From my view, no American MLS player was as dominant last season as the Nashville center back. Although the 2020 season saw numerous defenders put in award-worthy work, Zimmerman comfortably took the MLS Defender of the Year prize. His measured aggressiveness and aerial prowess at both ends of the pitch practically willed the expansion side to the Eastern Conference Semifinal. He's the primary reason Nashville finished second in clean sheets with 11, and routinely stepped it up a notch for the biggest moments and the biggest games.