Voices: Joseph Lowery

Who the analytics say should be the MLS All-Star starting XI

I get frustrated by All-Star roster selections. I know that’s a ridiculous thing to get frustrated by, but I can’t help it. Too often deserving players get snubbed because they don’t have enough name recognition to make the cut.

Well, today I’m taking matters into my own hands.

We’re still a little ways away, but the 2022 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target will be here before we know it. With that in mind, my column this week is all about which players actually deserve to make the All-Star game if it was held tomorrow. Tons of stuff can and will change between now and August, but this at least gives us an idea of which players are building their cases after the first stretch of the season. And it’s going to help me find some peace while thinking about All-Star rosters, which is really the most important thing.

Let’s get into this analytics All-Star starting XI!

Shot-stopping is king when you’re evaluating goalkeepers – and so far in 2022, Dayne St. Clair is the king of shot-stopping. After seeing the bench for the first two games of the season, St. Clair has become an every-game starter for Minnesota United FC. The Canadian has made some truly impressive saves during his time in goal, standing on his head in a 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls and putting in another shift in a 3-1 win over the Colorado Rapids on Saturday.

Per FBref, St. Clair leads the league in post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed per 90 minutes with +1.03. That means that he’s saving Minnesota just over one goal per game over the expected rate, which is absolutely insane. Expect that number to drop to a more normal figure over the next few months, but even then: St. Clair is proving that he’s a real force in goal.

NYCFC have gotten off to a bit of a slow start in 2022 (although you wouldn’t know it based on their 6-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Sunday), but Alexander Callens is putting up some wonderful on-ball numbers this year. According to Second Spectrum, Callens is in the 80th percentile or higher among center backs with at least 300 minutes in backline breaking passes per 90, progressive passes per 90, progressive passing frequency, and average forward distance traveled per touch.

With his comfort on the ball, Callens can contribute to NYCFC attackers from deep areas. You can see that exact thing in the sequence that led to New York City’s fourth goal against RSL.

There aren’t many center backs who are better on the ball or more well-rounded than Callens.

There are a bunch of contenders for the two center back spots on this XI, but I’m pairing Callens with Austin Trusty. Why? Well, Trusty has put in some defensive shifts in 2022.

According to American Soccer Analysis, Trusty is third among center backs with at least 300 minutes in the “interrupting” category of their Goals Added metric. With his top-level speed (Trusty is in the 90th percentile in top sustained speed in the league this year) and athleticism, the Rapids’ defender is a force to be reckoned with in the back. Trusty is also effective in the air, especially with his offensive aerials, getting pressure to the ball more than almost any other center back in MLS.

Trusty’s defensive ability makes him a very valuable player and deserving of a spot on this team. The only downside? He's heading to Arsenal on July 17.

Look, I don’t really know what to say about Julian Gressel at this point: he’s a dominant force in MLS, just like every other time that I build any sort of analytics Best XI. He leads all fullbacks and wingbacks with at least 300 minutes in open-play primary shot assists per 90 minutes with 2.06 and averages 0.22 expected assists per 90 while playing as a wingback. Gressel doesn’t bring a ton of defensive value and he doesn’t get outside of his comfort zone in possession very often either, but he’s so incredibly good when he’s on the ball on the right wing. In fact, both his primary shot assists per 90 and his xA per 90 have gone up from 2021 to 2022.

D.C. United don’t have a whole lot to be happy about right now, but Gressel’s performance on the right is certainly a plus for them.

It’s early days, but the Pedro Santos left back experiment is becoming more than just an experiment and has been one of my favorite storylines of the 2022 season. Santos, a former winger, has been lighting games up from his left back spot this year. He leads all fullbacks and wingbacks with at least 300 minutes in defenders bypassed per pass and is in the 90th percentile or higher in a whole bunch of other passing and ball progression stats. Week after week, Santos is hitting passes like this one:

The Columbus Crew are struggling at the moment, but Santos has been a consistent and extremely effective presence for them this season.

Mark Delgado
Central Defensive Midfielder · LA Galaxy

The LA Galaxy have a ton of attacking firepower. When you have a ton of attacking firepower, you need something – a specific tactical principle, a specific player, or some combination of those two things – to help balance your team. Mark Delgado is the Galaxy’s balance.

According to ASA, Delgado is third among all central midfielders and central defensive midfielders in interrupting value per 96 minutes (their version of per 90 minutes) in 2022. He covers a ton of ground for the Galaxy and functions as a simple, but effective, ball progressor as well.

In 2022, Delgado is helping LA become a much more defensively sound team than they were in 2021.

Coco Carrasquilla is a brilliant central midfielder. Playing in Paulo Nagamura’s 4-2-3-1, Carrasquilla’s job is to advance the ball and to help the Houston Dynamo attack in transition. As Dynamo fans have seen very clearly over the last month or so, the Panamanian is excellent at doing just that…like maybe the best in the league at doing just that. According to 2S’s numbers, Carrasquilla is in the 85th percentile or higher among No. 6s/8s who have played at least 300 minutes in passes leading to a shot per 90, shot assists per 90, and progressive passes per 90.

Will he still be in the league come the ASG, though? If I'm the Dynamo, I'm definitely extending his stay from Spain's FC Cartagena (loan expires in summer).

Carrasquilla's silky smooth quality on the ball makes him a lovely player to watch, a key player for Houston, and gets him into this team.

Luciano Acosta
Central Attacking Midfielder · FC Cincinnati

Averaging just one point per game in 2022, Cincinnati are still trying to find their way under Pat Noonan. That said, Lucho Acosta certainly looks to have found his own way in Cincy’s attack. Acosta’s chance creation numbers have been great this year: he leads the league in xA and is second in the league in xA per 90. Playing as a No. 10 behind two pure strikers and in front of two defensive midfielders who aren’t excellent passers, Acosta does a ton of the heavy lifting for his team in possession.

But, oh boy, is he good at it. There aren’t very many players in MLS who can 1) beat three guys in a space this tight and 2) create a shot for a teammate after beating those three guys in a tight space.

Watching Djordje Mihailovic run the show for CF Montréal is fun, isn’t it? Matt Doyle had a section on Mihailovic in his column a few days ago, describing the 23-year-old’s space-exploiting skill set. He is really good at finding and exploiting space – per FBref, Mihailovic is well above average in progressive passes received per 90 minutes when compared to both central midfielders and more attacking players.

Mihailovic understands space and he’s also pretty darn good at causing problems for defenders after receiving the ball in a pocket of space.

He’s 11th in MLS in xG, in the 97th percentile in xA per 90 minutes, and regularly breaks the opposition’s backline with his forward passing. With those well-rounded numbers, Mihailovic definitely belongs in this All-Star XI.

I’m cheating a bit here, I admit, because Talles Magno plays as a left winger for Ronny Deila and NYCFC. But I promise that I’m cheating for a worthy cause. Magno is good enough that he’s worth shoe-horning into this lineup. Per ASA, the 19-year-old has been the most valuable winger in the league this year, increasing his team’s probability of scoring by 0.2 goals every 96 minutes. That’s a lot of goal-adding value! Magno is a clever passer, ranking at or near the top of the winger list across a bunch of Second Spectrum’s passing metrics. Magno also finds space on the left side of NYCFC’s possession shape and loves to dribble. He’s first among wingers in successful dribbles per 90, with 4.6 so far in 2022.

Magno has been wonderful to watch so far in 2022 and I’m really looking forward to seeing how he continues to develop over the rest of this season.

There are a few viable options for this striker spot, including Chicharito and Brandon Vazquez, who both have lovely xG numbers through the first eight weeks of the season. Still, I’m giving the nod to Jesus Ferreira. Ferreira has the xG numbers: he’s first in the league in xG per 90 among players with at least 400 minutes played in 2022. He’s also taking really high-quality shots, averaging 0.21 xG per shot, which puts him in the 93rd percentile in the league, and brings value when FC Dallas are in possession deeper down the field.

I think this clip from Dallas’ game against the Revolution earlier this year is a useful encapsulation of Ferreira’s game. He drops in and connects a pass before making a great run into valuable space in the box.

Dallas haven’t been creating many high-level chances, but Ferreira has found moments to impact the game in possession and in transition this year at an elite level.