Roger Espinoza - Sporting Kansas City - closeup
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Best of 2016: The top five unsung heroes of the 2016 season

They don’t score many goals, rack up many assists or directly prevent opponents from finding the back of the net with last-ditch tackles, so it’s no real surprise that defensive midfielders typically don’t get the love they deserve.

We’re here to change that.

Holding midfielders are very well represented on our list of the top five unsung heroes of the 2016 MLS season, claiming four of the five spots in our ranking.

Which players most deserve more dap? Here’s our list:

Sam Cronin, Colorado Rapids

Now in his second year with the Rapids, Sam Cronin has been perhaps the most important piece of Colorado’s league-best defense, teaming with fellow center mid Michael Azira to form an excellent shield in front of the back four. The 29-year-old has started all but one game in Colorado’s regular season and playoff runs, complementing his excellent defensive work with one goal and three assists. He’ll begin one of his toughest – and most important – tasks of the season next Tuesday, when he’ll face star midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro and the Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship.

Carlos Gruezo, FC Dallas

One of the most astute yet unheralded signings of the entire offseason, Carlos Gruezo was rock solid in his first season with FC Dallas. The Young Designated Player – he’s just 21 – appeared in 27 of Dallas’ regular season matches this year, helping the club to their first-ever Supporters’ Shield. The Ecuadoran international doesn’t get the same love as teammates Mauro Diaz or Defender of the Year Matt Hedges, but Gruezo was every bit as important to Dallas’ 2016 double.

Justin Meram, Columbus Crew SC

The lone player on this list without some experience playing as a defensive mid, Justin Meram’s stellar 2016 was lost amidst Columbus Crew SC’s unexpected struggles. The Iraqi international has always been able to find the back of the net (he scored eight times in 2014 and six goals last year) but he added a new element to his game this year, smashing his previous career high of five assists with 13 in 2016. That total put him among the MLS elite, tying Meram for third in the league with Mauro Diaz and Benny Feilhaber and putting him ahead of players like Giovani dos Santos, Kaka and Andrea Pirlo.

Osvaldo Alonso, Seattle Sounders

Osvaldo Alonso gets a decent amount of attention already, but the Sounders stalwart probably deserves more. After an offseason of trade and transfer rumors, Alonso has been excellent for Seattle in 2016, returning to the form that saw him earn MLS All-Star honors in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 and make the league’s Best XI in 2012. Perhaps the best defensive midfielder in MLS this year, Alonso recorded career highs with three goals and four assists and has a chance to lead the Sounders to their first-ever MLS Cup. We can’t imagine a sweeter reward for a player who has been with the team for the entirety of its MLS existence.

Roger Espinoza, Sporting Kansas City

He finished the year playing as a left winger, but Roger Espinoza’s best, most natural position – and the one he’s expected to move back to for Sporting Kansas City – is at d-mid. Still, he showed his versatility this year, proving his value with one goal and five assists across 30 regular season appearances. Sporting’s captain doesn’t get the same amount of publicity as his teammates Matt Besler, Benny Feilhaber or Graham Zusi, but the Honduran international is equally – if not more – important to Sporting’s success as any of the high-profile American trio.