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If you spent Wednesday night camped in front of the television – or out and about, as I was, enjoying the action on your phone thanks to MLS LIVE and the MLS app – you were treated to two marquee matchups featuring four of the top five teams in the league.
Sebastian Giovinco scored twice, further reinforcing his status as the best player in MLS. Kaká returned to the starting lineup for Orlando and bagged a goal for the second straight game. Dom Dwyer made it three right-footed goals in two games, a veritable MLS miracle if there ever was one.
The stars were, as they say, on display – and I expect the same to be true this weekend and just about every matchday through early December. Just don’t let all that wattage blind you to MLS’s greater truth: The Giovincos, Kakas, Dwyers and the rest of the league’s upper crust can’t do it alone. In a salary cap league like MLS, star power does not a playoff team make.
Teams must identify, sign and develop role players who occasionally – and, for those who want to contend for MLS Cup, consistently – exhibit game-breaking qualities. To channel baseball’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) stat, let’s call it Quality Above Replacement (QAR), in which players are awarded for performances that outstrip reputation, roster designation and cap hit.
It should come as no surprise that each of the four teams in action on Wednesday night -- all of whom can credibly claim to be in the league’s top tier right now -- can point to at least one player whose QAR is off the charts. Their acquisitions may have flown under the radar this winter, but as spring turns to summer these four and many others – just like Giovinco, Kaka, Dwyer and the rest of MLS’s DP and TAM class – will have a significant impact on their team’s seasons.
Raheem Edwards (Toronto FC)
Are you watching the games? Or at you looking at the stats? In Raheem Edwards’ case, both the qualitative and quantitative jump off the page. If you’re an ExtraTime Radio subscriber or MLS Matchday Live viewer, you know the #hypetrain has been chugging along for weeks now.
The 21-year-old wingback is dynamic and fearless on the ball, a terror for opposing midfielders and fullbacks hoping to contain Toronto FC’s explosive attack, which often coalesces on the left flank as Giovinco drifts into space. Edwards, who played more than 40 games for TFC II before making the jump to the first team, already has two assists in just six games (five starts).
You may not have noticed when Toronto signed the academy product to a first-team deal in March, but that anonymity won’t last long as Edwards further establishes himself in MLS and eventually pushes his way into the full Canadian national team.
Donny Toia (Orlando City)
The modern game emphasizes fullback play, and Orlando City have Donny Toia (and Scott Sutter) partly to thank for their hot start. Toia’s route to Central Florida has been a bit circuitous – first-ever Real Salt Lake Homegrown, USL stint, Chivas USA death march, Montreal for a few years thanks to the Dispersal Draft, Atlanta United Expansion Draft pick then immediately traded to the Lions – but he’s quickly removed any guesswork at left back for Orlando head coach Jason Kreis.
He may not be spectacular in the open field like Edwards, but there’s a reason why Orlando’s defense went from allowing 60 goals in 2016, most in MLS, to behind only Sporting KC (more on that in a second) and FC Dallas at the 2017 quarter mark. Toia is consistent, he’s dogged and he understands the unique vagaries MLS throws at players on a weekly basis.
If Orlando make their first MLS Cup Playoffs appearance this season – I’m putting a Ben Baer-esque 100 percent guarantee on that one, assuming they hold on to Cyle Larin – Toia will deservedly stand out as some of the best low-key transfer business of 2017.
Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls)
The first three players on this list spent significant time in the USL. Chew on that. The developmental pyramid matters, and it’s only going to get more important.
Long wasn’t exactly flying under the radar in the lower divisions – he won USL Defender of the Year on a dominant Red Bulls II team in 2016 – but very few outside New York expected his jump to the first team to go so swimmingly. He’s become the latest success story for the New York Red Bulls' developmental pathway, a 24-year-old who found the right environment and thrived.
Sacha Kljestan and Felipe are the only Red Bulls with more touches and time on the ball this season, and Long’s preemptive, cerebral style of defending fits in well with Jesse Marsch’s high-pressure system. Good luck getting him out of the starting lineup, no matter who’s healthy or who arrives in the summer window.
Ilie Sanchez (Sporting Kansas City)
When Sporting Kansas City has been among MLS’s elite teams during the Peter Vermes era – to be fair, that’s been more often than not – they’ve had a metronome-like holding midfielder adept at reading and routing the play in front of him, recovering second balls and errant passes and bridging the gap between the backline and attack.
Remember Uri Rosell? Well, Vermes and assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin found the second coming in Ilie Sanchez, another Catalan midfielder who is quietly among the league’s top possession players, fourth in MLS in completed passes and touches.
Ilie, his preferred moniker, bounced around the Spanish and German second divisions after coming up through Barcelona’s La Masia, but he simply belongs in Sporting’s tactical setup. He’s a cultural and sporting fit, he’s squarely in his prime at 26 years old and Sporting KC didn’t have to spent a dime of Targeted Allocation Money to sign a game-changer in their midfield. In other words, he’s bursting with Quality Above Replacement.
Who’d I miss? Join the conversation and highlight your own under-the-radar, high-QAR offseason signing in the comment section below.