Voices: Joseph Lowery

Who's enjoying a breakout season? 5 MLS players you should be watching

One of the great things about data analysis is that you can sort through data on a year-by-year basis, which helps identify players who have improved from one year to the next.

Today, we’re diving into a handful of breakout players through MLS Week 9: those who are having the best season of their MLS career. Before I get some angry tweets, I’m leaving some of the higher-profile breakouts like Jesus Ferreira and Brandon Vazquez off this list. They certainly fit the criteria, but plenty has been written about them already. Let’s give other folks a bit of love.

So, who does the data like more in 2022 than ever before? Let’s dive into the breakouts.

It felt like Talles Magno should’ve been a bigger deal last year. Not because he thrived on the field, but because NYCFC paid a reported $8 million transfer fee (that could rise to $12 million) to sign the Brazilian teenager from Vasco de Gama. That’s real money! And so far in 2022, NYCFC are seeing some real returns on that money.

In his 506 minutes last year, Magno had some solid xG numbers, but wasn’t a threat with his passing or with his dribbling. Simply put, it took the 19-year-old Young Designated Player some time to find his way while playing for a new team in a new league in a new country.

This year, though, Magno looks like he’s totally adapted to his new surroundings. His xA per 90 minutes has jumped from 0.05 to 0.19, which puts him in the 88th percentile among players with at least 500 minutes this year. Look at the composure and technical quality on this assist, where Magno receives the ball between the lines and plays a simple ball forward for Keaton Parks:

His touches on the ball are much more aggressive this season too. Magno is bypassing 3.4 more defenders per 90 minutes in 2022 than in 2021. Along with his chance creation and ball progression numbers, the teenager’s xG per 90 has risen ever-so-slightly.

When Magno gets on the ball, he’s been almost impossible to stop this season. As NYCFC prepare to potentially finish the season without Taty Castellanos, who could be transferred in the summer, Magno looks ready to pick up some of the attacking slack for the defending MLS Cup champions.

Diego Rubio has been in MLS since 2016, but he’s never had a year like this one. In his previous seasons with Sporting Kansas City and the last few years with the Colorado Rapids, Rubio has generally been an average MLS attacker. This year, though, he’s looking like a top-tier MLS attacker, doing stuff like this…

And the 28-year-old Chilean is doing some sustainable, underlying stuff too.

Per FBref, Rubio is currently fifth in non-penalty xG+xA per 90 minutes. Fifth! According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, Rubio is adding more value to his team on a per 90-minute basis than any player in the league with at least 500 minutes outside of Patryk Klimala (more on him later). In 2022, Rubio has played a few different positions. Most of his minutes have come as a false nine, although in the last two games he’s played on the wing against Charlotte and as a No. 8/No. 10 against Portland.

Rubio’s on-ball skill mixed with his improved ability to find space and receive the ball in that space makes him a dangerous attacker. As the season goes on, if Rubio and newly-acquired Gyasi Zardes can figure out how to play together in Robin Fraser’s frontline, Colorado’s attack won’t be easy for opposing defenses to deal with.

If you’re looking to throw an MLS players’ highlight reel up on your TV to entertain yourself during dinner (am I the only one who does this?), Pablo Ruiz is always a good choice. Ruiz, a deep-lying midfielder with an incredible left foot and great range, can do stuff like this even in the snow.

Ruiz has been dropping dimes for a few years in MLS and he’s still at it this year. In 2022, though, he’s become a more well-rounded player. For my money, the 23-year-old Argentine is having something of a breakout season in Salt Lake.

For one, Ruiz is releasing the ball quicker. He touches the ball more than any of his outfield teammates – and this season, Ruiz is getting the ball off his foot quicker than ever. Per Second Spectrum, Ruiz only takes 1.17 seconds per touch, which is lower than either of the previous two seasons in 2S’s dataset. Ruiz’s 1.17 seconds also makes him one of the quickest ball-moving central midfielders in MLS.

Ruiz is helping with RSL’s tempo in possession and he’s also helping them put pressure on the ball. The hard-nosed defensive midfielder is averaging 44 pressures per 90 this year, which is seven more than last year and five more than in 2020.

By improving other parts of his game, Ruiz has really come good on his 2018 arrival after developing in San Lorenzo’s youth system.

I told you we’d get to Patryk Klimala, and here we are. The stats are in love with Klimala right now. According to FBref, the Red Bulls’ striker is 9th in the league in non-penalty xG+xA. That puts him above Lucas Zelarayan, Luciano Acosta and Jesus Ferreira.

Using ASA’s goals added metric, it’s pretty easy to see Klimala’s improvement over last year. Per g+, the Polish forward hurt his team’s goal probability in 2021. In 2022, though, he is boosting it more than any outfield player with 200 minutes or more. He’s changed some games for RBNY this season with aggressive forward dribbles and solid off-ball movement.

Now, it’s important to note most of Klimala’s best underlying statistical moments came at the beginning of the season. Over the last month-and-a-half, Klimala has scored goals, but both his xG and xA have taken a hit. Part of that is due to Gerhard Struber moving him to the bench for the last three games, which makes me think that starting Klimala is absolutely the right play for the Red Bulls.

Still, even with the Designated Player’s starting spot in question, I’m comfortable labeling this as a breakout season for the 22-year-old former Celtic striker.

For Diego Palacios and LAFC, things aren’t drastically different this year under Steve Cherundolo. However, there are some subtle differences for Palacios at left back – and they’re ones that have helped him find even more success.

In 2022, Palacios is staying deeper on the left side than in either of his previous two full seasons with the club. With that slightly deeper positioning has come more aggressive passing from Palacios. The left back now has more passes leading to a shot per 90 minutes compared to the last two years, is bypassing more defenders with his passing, is breaking lines more often, and is generally doing more with the ball.

The 22-year-old Ecuadorian international is playing plenty of passes like this one from out wide into a central position for one of LAFC’s attackers:

Palacios has grown into the left back spot and is adding more value with his passing, dribbling, and defensive interrupting this season than ever before with LAFC, per ASA.

If that’s not a breakout season, I don’t know what is.