The answer is Mexico.
I tried to talk myself into Peru or Egypt.
Some might make an argument for Costa Rica.
The correct choice most definitely isn’t Panama.
When it comes to the question of which MLS player's team could advance the farthest at this 2018 World Cup, the gimme answer would be Belgium, but we aren’t sure if LAFC defender Laurent Ciman is actually on the Belgian roster – he’s the injury replacement in case Vincent Kompany isn’t ready to play, and Belgium won’t announce until 24 hours before their Monday opener – so, Alex, I'll go with:
“Who is Mexico?”
I’ll begin with the part that made me balk at picking Mexico: They have have Germany, Sweden, and South Korea in their group; they play Germany first. You generally don’t want to play the top team first. Teams are always at their most focused and energized in the first game. You’d rather catch the top team in the group in the 2nd or 3rd game when they don’t feel as much urgency. (Though it doesn’t always work out like that; See: Spain 2010.)
I might pick this Mexico team to surprise this Germany team in a given game, but not in the first game of the tournament. Additionally, goal differential comes into play. With Germany at their best, it could turn into a two- or three-goal margin. Mexico’s 4-1 loss to Germany in last summer’s Confederations Cup and the 7-0 loss to Chile in 2016's Copa América Centenario come to mind.
While Mexico should be the favorites to beat Sweden and South Korea, if El Tri slip up in either game, qualification to the Round of 16 would come down to goal differential. And Germany might not have the urgency to rack up goals in the later games against Sweden and South Korea if/when their qualification is guaranteed.
That said, I don’t think it will matter. Mexico is good enough to beat Sweden and South Korea and should be able to move on.
What other teams with MLS players might join Carlos Vela and the dos Santi in the knockout rounds?
Omar Gaber and Egypt face the lowest amount of total talent in its group; they are slotted with Uruguay, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Russia received a top seed as the host.
Uruguay are the favorites to advance. I’d love to pick Egypt to go through, as well, but only once in World Cup history, South Africa in 2010, has the host nation not made it out of the group stage. This Russia team didn't have a lot of buzz heading in but there’s a magic to being the host country in a World Cup, and they made a statement of intent by dropping five on Saudi Arabia in the tournament opener. Plus Mo Salah hasn’t played in any of Egypt’s recent friendlies and his status is unclear after picking up an injury in the UEFA Champions League final (though looking more likely) and I’m not about to pick a Salah-less Egypt.
Yoshi Yotun, Andy Polo, and Peru also have a manageable group. They are with France, Denmark, and Australia. Assuming France wins the group, it’ll be a fight for the second spot. Denmark boasts a few big names such as Christian Eriksen and Kasper Schmeichel, plus the team is in good form having just beaten Mexico, 2-0, in a friendly. But Peru has consistently surprised opponents over the last couple years, including two draws with Argentina and a win over Uruguay in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. The safer bet would be on Mexico to advance, though Peru certainly has a shot.
On the topic of Peru, Orlando City midfielder Yotun might stand to have the best individual performance of any MLS attendee. Vela would be the other shout, while Giovani dos Santos (LA), Marco Urena (LAFC), and Michael Murillo (RBNY) are the darkhorse candidates.
Peru’s main advantage will be their collective spirit. It was already a trademark of the squad, but it’s been heightened after the since-rescinded suspension of captain and star forward Paolo Guerrero. Peru seem to be a team – and country – on a mission. And as one of the two deep center midfielders, Yotun is often tasked with setting the emotional tone of the team. A sharp Yotun could propel Peru through the knockout rounds.
As for Vela, if you’ve tuned into any of LAFC’s games this year, I don’t need to provide much explanation. If not, there's this:
My reservation with Vela is not knowing what head coach Juan Carlos Osorio will do with him. Osorio is known for tinkering. It wouldn’t be the biggest shock if he sits Vela for a game.
I’m more interested to see teammate Giovani dos Santos. Gio remains one of my favorite players to watch in the league: When he’s on, he’s damn near unstoppable. There's a reason the likes of Barcelona and Tottenham signed him. The problem has always been that he often seems to be disinterested. But one could expect him to be focused for a World Cup game. Gio probably won’t start for Mexico, but he makes for a nice substitute option.
One truth to the World Cup is that winners generally have a scare at some point and need to get bailed out. Italy needed an injury-time penalty to get past Australia in 2006; Spain had to wait until the 83rd minute to beat Paraguay in 2010; Germany needed extra time against Algeria in 2014. It helps to have a Francesco Totti or Andre Schurrle-type player to bring off the bench. Gio isn’t Totti but – for whatever you think of him – you’d struggle to find a player anywhere in the world who’s better suited to create attacking chances late in a game. If Mexico advances beyond the quarters, it probably needs a Gio moment of magic like, say, one of these:
The World Cup is here! How would you answer? Which team with an MLS player will advance the farthest? Which MLS player will have the best tournament? Arguments for Urena stealing the show are welcome.