LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Steph Curry. James Harden. When I think of the NBA, I think of players before teams. When I turn on a game, I tune in to watch individuals rather than the overall matchup. I haven’t turned on a Cleveland Cavaliers game in my entire life. But I watch LeBron every week.
Soccer isn’t basketball, of course. Twenty-two players populate the field instead of 10. It’s much tougher for a single player to dominate a game, even more so for the viewer to notice a single player take over a game.
With that said, it’s not impossible. Every Saturday I tweet outa viewing guide. I attempt to provide a tagline for the games. More and more each week, I find myself wanting to categorize the matchups by a single word: A player’s name.
Even if you don’t care about the teams or really like soccer that much — I don’t watch golf when Tiger isn’t playing — some players give you a reason to care. Every time they touch the ball, something special can happen. Every time they touch the ball, the anticipation rises and you stop looking at your phone and start to notice the world.
As I’ve been watching LeBron and Harden during the NBA playoffs, I started thinking about the MLS players who offer the same individual appeal. Here’s my list of players in MLS I find to be appointment viewing:
Miguel Almiron - Atlanta United
The Paraguayan provides the rare blend of energy, pace, and skill on the ball. He pops up all over the field yet he always looks in control. There are generally two ways players can dominate a soccer game: facilitating the match from the middle third or creating goalscoring chances in the final third. The Michael Essien and the Leo Messi. Rarely do we see a player do both and influence a game across a field as thoroughly as Miguel Almiron. He’s a special player that MLS fans should enjoy while we have him.
Carlos Vela - LAFC
Carlos Vela has been one of the most exciting players in MLS this season | Gary Vazques-USA TODAY Sports
Lefties, man, they always look so cool. Carlos Vela doesn’t provide the pace or power of Almiron, but when the ball gets onto Vela's left foot, anything in the world could happen. He could meg someone after a little feint, or provide an outside-of-the-foot through ball, or curl a shot to the upper corner. More so, he creates plays that other humans can’t see; we think we see the field, and then he makes something happen that we didn’t even envision. He’s the rare player who truly ignites art through imagination.
Ignacio Piatti - Montreal Impact
Nacho Piatti looks like the friendly uncle who brings the perfectly roasted ham every Christmas, but on a soccer field he blows past players like they aren’t there. Where other players would slow down the play to wait for help, Piatti pushes forward and makes opportunities from generally meandering moments.
He’s also at his most dangerous in the moments when he looks like he’s lost control. It looks like he’s touched the ball just a few inches too far and given the defender an opening to swoop in, but at the last second Piatti reaches the ball and cuts back and exposes the off-balance defender. It leaves me taken aback every time it happens.
Tyler Adams - New York Red Bulls
Tyler Adams is one of the most promising young players in MLS | Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Tyler Adams is perhaps the most athletic player in the league. He’s quick over short distances, fast over long distances and can run for days. He doesn’t back down from anyone; he stirs up as much fracas as anyone in MLS. Oh yeah, and he’s also only 19 years old. He has all of the base tools to be a world class player and now it’s about honing his craft. Every week is an opportunity for him to grow and it’s fun tracking the progress.
David Villa - NYCFC
David Villa has more than 400 career goals, including game-winners for Barcelona, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and the Spanish national team, yet he runs on the field like a rookie fighting for his first contract. He can dominate games through sheer will of force. He’s not as flowing or aesthetically pleasing as some of the other names on the list, but he’s good for a few mind-bending goals a season.
Sebastian Giovinco - Toronto FC
Sebastian Giovinco has 98 combined goals and assists in 93 career regular season games. He dribbles by people, drops dimes to teammates, and blasts bangers into the top corner from 25 yards. And in the games he doesn’t provide a match-changing moment, he’s usually mixing it up with an opponent.
Mauro Diaz - FC Dallas
I asked my colleague, Matt Doyle, for a suggestion and he gave a pretty clear opinion:
Jackson Yueill - San Jose Earthquakes
This is my own personal preference. I love watching players with a specific comfort on the ball, specifically in tight spots in the middle of the field. Few things get me juiced like a tight half-turn near midfield.
Michael Bradley, Darlington Nagbe and Ozzie Alonso are the trademark names for it, and I certainly enjoy watching them play, but there’s something particularly enjoyable about watching a young player excel at it. Jackson Yueill is on a Quakes team that has not been good this year, but I like watching the Quakes because Yueill looks like a stable force among the rambling chaos.
Alphonso Davies - Vancouver Whitecaps FC
I like watching Alphonso Davies for the same reason I watch Usain Bolt. It’s not just cool to watch someone run that fast. It’s mind-boggling to watch someone blow by others while appearing to exert so little effort. Davies isn’t nearly as skilled as the other players on the list, but he’s also the age (17) where his friends are still in pre-calc and looking for dates for prom. Like Adams, the sky is the limit for Davies and it’s only a matter of refining his skills. I’m down to watch it every step of the way.