There’s comfort and confidence in the known, isn’t there?
When putting together a competitive soccer team, having clear ideas about what specific players can do and knowing (or getting pretty darn close to knowing) you’ll get production from specific players is important. You want reliable effectiveness.
With the 2022 MLS season just weeks away, we’re using data to look at each team’s Mr. Reliable heading into this new campaign. After looking through the numbers and film from 2021, which returning players are poised to have another effective year? Let’s dig into the Eastern Conference and find out.
There aren’t many players in MLS who fit the “Mr. Reliable” description better than Miles Robinson. He’s a well-rounded center back with plenty of athleticism, aerial ability and technical skill (although there’s room for him to be more aggressive with his passing in 2022).
Zooming in on his aerial ability, among players who entered into at least 20 aerial duels in 2021, Robinson finished in the 91st percentile in defensive aerial win percentage. Add his speed (Robinson was the 26th fastest player among 243 eligible center backs in 2021) into the equation and you get a more complete picture of why Atlanta United rely on Robinson so heavily.
He’s certainly not the biggest name on Chicago’s roster, but Sekulic had a quietly excellent creative season for the Fire last year. In 2021, he finished in the 92nd percentile among right backs and right wingbacks in total xA and xA per 90 minutes.
Really high-level crosses like this one against the Philadelphia Union are a regular fixture of Sekulic’s game:
Lowery: Boris Sekulic - Chicago Fire FC
With his skillful right foot, the 30-year-old should be an important piece of Chicago’s right side under Ezra Hendrickson in 2022.
While there weren’t many options for FC Cincinnati’s Mr. Reliable, Acosta fits the bill. He was a positive force for Cincinnati last season, finishing seventh in the league in total xA, landing in the 95th percentile of MLS players in xA per 90 minutes, and ranking 10th in MLS in successful dribbles per 90 minutes among players with at least 1,000 minutes.
If Pat Noonan can harness the Argentine playmaker's creativity, Acosta could thrive this year.
You know it. I know it. Everybody in MLS knows what Nagbe brings to the table. He’s been a rhythm-building, press-resistant central midfielder for the Crew for the past two seasons, and that’s exactly what he’s going to be in 2022.
Looking at Second Spectrum’s data for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Nagbe has the fourth-highest and seventh-highest passing completion percentages in the dataset. He doesn’t take many risks with his passing (which means Columbus needs to find other players to progress the ball with their passing), but Nagbe is a known, reliable quantity in Porter’s midfield.
Julian Gressel was the king of expected assists in MLS last year: He led the league in total xA and finished third in xA per 90 minutes, just behind Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou. That’s right, a wingback finished above every No. 10 in MLS – outside of Gil – in xA last season. Let that sink in.
With his set-piece deliveries and his quality in open play, Gressel was a genuine star in 2021 and should be a key player on the right wing for D.C. United in 2022.
Inter Miami CF are in full rebuild mode. Nicolas Figal? Gone. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez? Gone. Lewis Morgan? Gone. Christian Makoun? Gone. Those were four of their seven highest minutes-earners last season.
One reliable player who is back for 2022 is Gregore. Though the Brazilian midfielder wasn’t a particularly effective on-ball presence during his first year in Miami, his defensive pressure numbers were top-tier. Gregore finished 2021 in the 93rd percentile in pressures per 90 minutes. For a Miami team without a clear offensive identity (yet), Gregore’s disruptive ability could be extremely important.
This one might be a bit of a stretch, given that he missed a chunk of last season to injury, but I still want to give the Honduran his due. Quioto was an elite attacking player for Montréal last year. Among players with at least 1,000 minutes, Quioto finished second in the league in xG per 90 minutes and landed in the 94th percentile among forwards in goals per 90.
If Quioto can stay healthy, we could see a whole lot more of this in 2022:
Lowery: Romell Quioto - CF Montréal
It feels fitting that a Bruce Arena-led team should have several great candidates for a Mr. Reliable type of player. It could be Carles Gil. It could be Matt Polster. It could be one of the fullbacks, DeJuan Jones or Brandon Bye. Or it could be my choice, Adam Buksa.
Buksa, who consistently moves into high-value attacking areas, is a truly effective No. 9. He doesn’t have Quioto’s pace, but he operates well inside the box and put up the most xG per 90 in MLS last season. Opposing center backs beware.
I wanted to continue the striker trend here and pick Taty Castellanos as NYCFC’s Mr. Reliable, but given that the transfer window is still open in both Argentina and Brazil, Castellanos could still make a move before the MLS season starts. With that uncertainty still hanging over NYCFC, the honor goes to Keaton Parks.
Parks, who missed the end of last season after undergoing leg surgery to remove a blood clot, is a ball progression machine. Among midfielders with at least 1,000 minutes, Parks finished 2021 in the 93rd percentile for progressive passes per 90 and in the 84th percentile for opponents bypassed per touch. Once he’s back in Ronny Deila’s lineup, expect to see Parks moving the ball past defenders in central midfield.
Quality shot-stoppers are an extremely valuable commodity all over the world – and it looks like the Red Bulls have one in Carlos Coronel. In his first full season in MLS, Coronel saved four goals more than expected based on FBref’s post-shot xG metric, which put him fifth in the league in that statistic.
With his quick reflexes and mobility in goal, Coronel can win games for the New York Red Bulls and could help them climb up the Eastern Conference table in 2022.
Ruan can run. Only one player, Niko Hansen, recorded a faster sustained speed than Ruan’s 10.16 meters per second in 2021. With his speed, Ruan gives Orlando City a certain level of control on the right side of the field.
The Brazilian finished in the 90th percentile in xA per 90 minutes and in the 88th percentile in average forward distance per touch among right backs and right wingbacks in MLS last year. In Ruan, Oscar Pareja has a real threat out wide.
You know what I said up above about Coronel and the value of a really good shot-stopper? Take that and double it for Andre Blake. Why double it? Well, because Blake saved almost twice as many goals over his expected numbers as Coronel did in 2021.
Per FBref, Blake’s post-shot xG numbers were second in MLS last season on an overall and a per 90-minute basis, just behind Maxime Crepeau (now at LAFC). The Jamaican international is a phenomenal defensive goalkeeper and will be a huge part of Jim Curtin’s team in 2022.
Though things are changing in Toronto on both a tactical and personnel level, Jonathan Osorio should fit quite well into Bob Bradley’s team. If Bradley wants to press as much with TFC as he did with LAFC, Osorio’s mobility and physicality could provide value in midfield.
In 2021, Osorio finished in the 97th percentile in pressures per 90 minutes among midfielders with at least 1,000 minutes. Entering into his 10th season in Toronto, expect to see Osorio covering ground in central midfield.