Warshaw: Crowning each team's best player through first half of 2019

Carlos Vela - LAFC - Reto Ziegler - FC Dallas

It’s just about the halfway point of the season and only 12 teams played over the weekend, so it’s a good chance to do something different. This week, our 24 Takeaways will take a look at the 24 Top erformers of 2019 so far — one for every team around the league.

The “Top Performer” isn’t just the “best player,” or the “player who has played the best.” There are multiple variables:

  • Absolute quality of performances
  • Value to the team
  • Warshaw “contribution over expected contribution” (™) metric

The weight of the variables depends on the team and the needs of the team.

With that in mind, let’s dive in...

Atlanta United - Miles Robinson

Because soccer is a wild, wonderful sport, Atlanta’s top performer this year has not been the reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP, the most expensive incoming transfer in league history, the second most expensive incoming transfer in league history, the 2018 Defender of the Year finalist… or anyone else from the starting lineup who won 2018 MLS Cup. It’s been third-year pro, first-year starter Miles Robinson. While just about everything else about Atlanta United has been a roller coaster this year, Robinson has been consistently excellent. He has been proactive about reading the game, timely about making crucial tackles in vital moments, and nearly flawless in his passing from the back.

Chicago Fire - Aleksandar Katai

Katai is third in the league in expected assists (after Alejandro Pozuelo and Carlos Vela), tied for fifth in Big Chances Created (behind Vela, Pozuelo, Alberth Elis, and Sebastian Blanco), and third in the league in successful Take Ons (behind Vela and Darwin Quintero). Most of Katai’s chance-creation numbers compare to the league’s elite playmakers. If the Fire were scoring more of the chances that he’s been creating, Katai would be in the conversation for the 2019 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target.  

FC Cincinnati - Victor Ulloa

There hasn’t been a standout performer for FCC, but Ulloa has been the most consistently steady. He’s been tidy in possession and smart with his positioning. Ulloa doesn’t have the ability to individually lift a team, but he rarely has a poor game. Frankie Amaya, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 SuperDraft, has made a strong push lately, too; he’s been excellent in his five starts in the last month. Amaya is the front-runner to finish the season as the club’s top performer.

Colorado Rapids - Kei Kamara

Even when the team got off to the LOL 0-9-2 start to the season, the Rapids' attack was pretty good. That was largely because Kamara is always a handful. He can still jump over just about any defender in the league or bully them with his back to goal. His eight goals put him tied for fourth in the league.   

Columbus Crew SC - Gyasi Zardes

Zardes has six goals and one assist this year. I almost picked Pedro Santos — he’s probably had the most good games — but didn’t want to raise Matt Doyle’s blood pressure today. The Crew are 1-8-1 in their last 10, so there aren’t many bright spots.

FC Dallas - Ryan Hollingshead

How can you not give props to someone who has played five different positions in 15 games? Hollingshead started the season at left back, and has since played left wing, right back, center back, and defensive midfield. At none of those spots has he looked out of place. FC Dallas have been hit hard by international call ups and injuries, and Hollingshead has helped them keep their heads above water. With that said, FCD need to get Paxton Pomykal back into the team ASAP if they want to finish above the playoff line.

D.C. United - Chris Odoi-Atsem

Warshaw: Crowning each team's best player through first half of 2019 -

Odoi-Atsem (right) in his first MLS appearance of 2019. | USA Today Images

Odoi-Atsem made his first appearance of the season two weeks ago… 18 months after getting diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As Wayne Rooney said after his teammate's return to MLS: “It’s all about character and courage. We’ve seen him putting in all of the hard work on the training pitch and in the gym to get back to play. To do so, so quick after going through his treatment, is a testament to him as a person.”

Houston Dynamo - Maynor Figueroa

Am I being too cute with this one? Maybe. Mauro Manotas has six goals and four assists; Alberth Elis has five goals and six assists; and Boniek Garcia has been a beast in the middle. But Figueroa has the highest “contribution over expected” (™) score in the league. Every conversation about Houston during the offseason started with “man those attackers are good” and ended with “the defenders, tho.” Signing Figeuroa, 36 years old now, to be a starter seemed like a head scratcher, because he struggled in his last year and a half with Dallas. But he’s been good, Houston have given up the second-fewest goals in the West, and the Dynamo are 2nd in MLS on points per game.

LAFC - Carlos Vela

You could take 10 players from LAFC this year and put them on this list for other teams. Most teams would die to have one player put in the level of weekly performances that Jordan Harvey, Eduard Atuesta, Diego Rossi, Tyler Miller, Walker Zimmerman, etc., have given Bob Bradley. That’s how incredible LAFC have been. But it’s also an easy choice for the best of the best. Vela has 16 goals and 10 assists in 16 games. So, yeah, it’s Vela.

LA Galaxy - Jonathan dos Santos

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Dos Santos in action with the Galaxy. | USA Today Images

Here we have the biggest distinction between “best player” and “top performer.” Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been the team’s best player — he’s Zlatan. The Swede has 11 goals and three assists in 12 games. But JdS has been the driving force behind the Galaxy’s resurrection this year. His improved performances this year compared to the last season and a half, including his relentless defensive work and quick ball rotation, have been the main reason the Galaxy have worked back toward the top of the standings.

Minnesota United FC - Romain Metanire

I was on the fence for who to pick, so I asked former Loons player and current analyst Jamie Waston:

“Very rarely do teams have to game plan for an outside back, but Metanire’s ability to constantly attack provides a real threat and an extra attacking number from a deeper position. He leads all MLS defenders with six assists and the team has five shutouts in the 14 games he’s played.”

Montreal Impact - Saphir Taider

This was one of the toughest choices. Zakaria Diallo and Samuel Piette are both in the conversation. Montreal have secured the second most shutouts in the East, and the defense gives the Impact an “it” that plenty of other teams don’t have. But they’ve also conceded the third-most goals in the East and given up three or more in a game four times. I think those numbers disqualify the defenders. As a result, Taider, the team’s do-everything center mid with seven goals and one assist, gets the nod.

New England Revolution - Carles Gil

We’re just going to ignore the first 12 games of the season and pick someone from the new Revs era. Gil has been good in the last four games. In the most recent win over the Galaxy, he was particularly excellent. He looks like he’s stepping in his role as a leader within the team, too. The Revs have desperately needed an alpha to hold others accountable; it seems like Gil is assuming that role.

NYCFC - Anton Tinnerholm

Heber has probably been the team’s most valuable player — NYCFC are 5-0-3 in games Heber has started vs. 0-1-5 in the games he has not — and Maxi Moralez has had a monster two months, but Tinnerholm has been the best player over the course of the year. He’s played every minute of the season, and just about all of them at a high level. He’s been able to shut down wingers in the defensive third — NYCFC have conceded the second-fewest goals in the East — and also provide the main wide attacking threat for the team.

New York Red Bulls - Amro Tarek

Warshaw: Crowning each team's best player through first half of 2019 -

Tarek has emerged to be a vital player for the Red Bulls. | USA Today Images

It’s strange to think that the Red Bulls had the best defense in the league last year, and probably a top-five player in every spot, but their top performer this year is a defender who struggled to get on the field in 2018 for one of the worst defenses in league history. There’s a strong argument to be made for Luis Robles or Kemar Lawrence here, but I think the “contribution over expected” matters here; the center back position is so important to the way the Red Bulls play, and if Tarek had played like the Orlando iteration of himself, the Red Bulls could have been in trouble this year.

Orlando City SC - Ruan

The first time I watched Ruan play this year, I texted a friend, “Orlando has to be kidding with this guy, right?” Ruan looked like he had never trapped a soccer ball before. I’ll take the L on that statement. Once Ruan settled into his role it became obvious why Orlando made the bet on him. Ruan is Marvell Wynne-fast, a pain to play against, and sneaky clean when he gets into the 18.

Philadelphia Union - Haris Medunjanin

The Union have more potential answers to this topic than anyone else in the league. You could go with Jack Elliott, Kai Wagner, Alejandro Bedoya, Jamiro Monteiro or Professor Ilsinho. I’m going with the “contribution over expected” option here. Medunjanin is a lovely player; we probably don’t acknowledge that enough. His composure, vision, and passing technique is wonderful to watch. He does things in midfield that not many players in the league can do. But there were serious concerns about his ability to play in Philly’s new system. Medunjanin has adjusted, with some help from Jim Curtin's tactical tweaks, and the Union have been flying.

Portland Timber - Diego Chara

Here’s how the conversation went in my head (and with a couple coworkers):

“Hmmm..who has been Portland’s standout player?”

“It doesn’t feel like anyone has really stood out. Valeri has been pretty good (three goals and seven assists) and Blanco has been pretty good (two goals and six assists), but I can’t say anyone has been great.”

“But this team found a way to get 14 points despite 12 straight away games. They won at Philly, at RSL, at Toronto and got a draw at Houston in the last six weeks.”

“Oh yeah, Diego Chara.”

Real Salt Lake - Justen Glad

Glad is RSL’s most talented defender. But Glad had fallen out of RSL’s starting XI to end last season and missed the start of 2019 due to injury. It was an abrupt halt to what seemed like an upward trajectory of Glad’s career — rumors suggested that European clubs were sniffing around. I don’t blame Mike Petke for benching Glad last year — his form had started to dip — but it’s pretty obvious that RSL really need Glad on the field. It’s been a welcome sign around Sandy to see Glad close to his best again.  (The Homegrown didn’t start the first six games of 2019; RSL went 1-4-1. Glad has played eight of the last nine games; RSL are 5-3-0 with him in the starting lineup.)

San Jose Earthquakes - Jackson Yueill

Warshaw: Crowning each team's best player through first half of 2019 -

Yueill has made the most of his opportunity with the Quakes this year. | USA Today Images

Yueill might be the only player on the list who has been the team’s best player and also the highest “contribution over expected.” Before Yueill entered the starting lineup, the Quakes were 0-0-4 with a minus-12 goal difference; since Yueill entered the lineup, the Quakes have gone 5-2-4 and pushed back into the playoff race. Yueill has been a driving force in the midfield, winning his defensive duels and providing smart passing in possession.

Seattle Sounders - Nico Lodeiro

The Sounders are another team with multiple shouts here. Kelvin Leerdam is having his best season in MLS; Cristian Roldan has taken his club form to another level; Matt Doyle suggested I put Chad Marshall, because his contributions become even more obvious in his absence. But the obvious choice feels like the right choice here. Lodeiro is the team’s best player and has played like the team’s best player. His ability to both drive possession and provide killer passes is still the best in MLS at the moment (though Mark-Anthony Kaye, Paxton Pomykal, and Maxi Moralez come close), and his non-stop running sets the tone for the rest of the team.

Sporting KC -  Krisztian Nemeth

Nemeth hasn’t been the team’s best player, but he achieved the biggest thing that SKC needed from him: He answered the striker question. Do SKC have a striker who can help them win MLS Cup? Yes, they do. Nemeth has shown that he can be that guy. He provides the little bit of extra finishing quality that Sporting haven’t had in the past. Nemeth gives SKC some peace of mind (though now that I write it, it’s 100% guaranteed that misses a big chance in a big game…).

Toronto FC - Alejandro Pozuelo    

In some ways, Pozuelo is the obvious and only answer. He has five goals and eight assists in 12 games, and has been nothing short of "holy-crap good" in a few games. At the same time, nine of those goals/assists came in his first four games, and he only has one goal and two assists in TFC’s recent seven game winless streak. On the whole of the season, Justin Morrow may have been Toronto’s biggest contributor.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC - Doneil Henry

Ali Adnan has been the Whitecaps' most exciting player. Inbeom Hwang seems to pretty clearly be the team’s most talented player. Henry has been the team’s best player and most important player. He has barely made a mistake all year, and he’s been a monster in the box. Marc dos Santos put an emphasis early in his tenure on defensive stability. Vancouver have become one of the more difficult teams to break down, and Henry has been the cornerstone of the fort.