If you score your first professional hat trick and it isn’t plastered all over the front page of MLSsoccer.com, I think it’s fair to say you’re living your soccer life under the radar.
Consider this column a mea culpa to striker Dominique Badji, who deserved better after his three goals fueled the Colorado Rapids first win of the season, a 3-0 romp against the Philadelphia Union. By now, you know some guy named Zlatan stole the show in Week 5. In any other week, Badji would be the shoo-in MLS Player of the Week – you can guess how that turned out – and we’d all collectively be singing his praises.
Yet, as so many of you have pointed out to me on Twitter, relative crickets.
No more. I present to you my All-Underrated (and Overlooked) Best XI, also known as the Dom Badji All-Stars. You’ll undoubtedly be rankled by my picks and have suggestions of your own. Feel free to hash that out in the comments section or @ me.
GK: Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
It’s tough to find a starting ‘keeper who hasn’t had their turn in the spotlight, so we go to a relative unknown in the 23-year-old Turner, who signed with the Revs ahead of the 2016 season after going undrafted. Most figured it’d be either Cody Cropper (last year’s starter and US national team hopeful) or Brad Knighton (10-year veteran with 57 MLS starts) who won Brad Friedel’s trust. Instead, Turner’s got four starts, two wins, a massive penalty save and a hold on the job (for now).
LB: Ben Sweat (New York City FC)
I assumed Ronald Matarrita, a Costa Rican international finally healthy after a year out recovering from a broken foot, would be the starting left back on opening day for NYCFC. In assuming, I overlooked how good Sweat was in 2017 (25 starts, six assists), and how much Patrick Vieira valued a player who earned his place via trial and hasn’t let go of his starting spot. Sweat’s a two-way player, he’s comfortable in possession and he absolutely deserves more love.
CB: Francisco Calvo (Minnesota United)
Not a troll job, I swear! In no way is this about the Loons captain calling for more respect for his squad. It’s about the fact that Calvo doesn’t get enough love for being one of the most versatile, physically gifted defenders in MLS. The Costa Rican was Top 10 among defenders in headed clearances and interceptions last year, one to forget for the Minnesota defense, and he’ll be the rock Adrian Heath continues to build around in 2018, most likely with a trip to Russia sandwiched in the middle of the year.
CB: Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls)
This was a toss-up between the Red Bulls man and NYCFC’s Alex Callens, who has near zero name recognition despite being arguably MLS’s best defender a year ago. Long’s career is basically defined by being overlooked and underrated. He was drafted in the second-round by the Timbers in 2014 and never played a minute for the first team. He moved to Seattle, same story. Long did play for Sounders 2, however, and the Red Bulls saw promised. After a year with RBII (USL Defender of the Year), he earned a move to the first-team contract and immediately became first-choice for Jesse Marsch.
RB: Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes)
Shout out to Real Salt Lake’s Tony Beltran, who has been on this team for the better part of a decade. Nick Lima may be the next in the line of domestic outside backs that hold it down for years and never truly get the respect they deserve. Last season was a good start for the Quakes Homegrown (22 games played, 20 starts, two goals and an assist), and now it’s about consistency, longevity and helping San Jose become a regular playoff team again.
CM: Ilie (Sporting KC)
Callum is right.
So many holding midfielder across the world get no where near the amount of credit they deserve. If someone's underrated, its usually a defensive midfielder.— Callum Williams (@CalWilliamsComm) April 3, 2018
Ilie gets the nod here because I watch and talk about this league so much that the likes of Wil Trapp, Alex Ring, Diego Chara, Jeff Larentowicz and others I don’t have time to name generally feel properly appreciated in my book. They are very good and important to their team’s success, for various collective and individual reasons.
That leaves me with Ilie, who must be both the metronome and conscience in Sporting’s midfield. That’s not easy with Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez marauding ahead of you and the fullbacks pushing high. When you try to explain why Kansas City had the league’s best defense a year ago, you’d be wise to widen your scope beyond the backline and goalkeeper Tim Melia.
CM: Ibson (Minnesota United)
**Violins in the background** You can hate me now, but I won't stop now…
I bet you didn’t know Ibson finished last season with the following stat line among his fellow MLS midfielders. All courtesy of Opta.
- Third in tackles (84) trailing Cristian Roldan and Alex Ring
- Fourth in successful passes (1,883) behind Wil Trapp, Michael Bradley and Ilie
- Third in successful passes in the opposing half (1,101) behind Nicolas Lodeiro and Sacha Kljestan
- 10th in successful passes ending in the final third (445) behind Lodeiro, Victor Vazquez, Yamil Asad, Roger Espinoza, Felipe, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Fagundez and Benny Feilhaber
So Ibson and … a who’s who of MLS’s best midfielders. Since I am guessing you don’t know much of anything about the Minnesota midfielder unless you live in Minnesota, that makes him overlooked, for sure, and underrated, in my opinion.
AM: Federico Higuain (Columbus Crew SC)
Here are profiles for two Argentine No. 10s in MLS. Both played their first full MLS season in 2013. One is Higuain, and the other shall remain unnamed for now.
Player A: 12,574 minutes played (152 GP, 146 GS), 59 goals, 53 assists
Player B: 13,101 minutes played (154 GP, 149 GS), 50 goals, 51 assists
Player A has three MLS Best XIs, three All-Star appearances and an MVP award to his name. Player B has received none of those individual plaudits. Player B lost to Player A in MLS Cup 2015, a game that cemented Player A’s legacy.
Player B is Pipa, Columbus’ quiet genius. Player A is Portland’s Diego Valeri, near universally and rightfully revered. My point? With a few different bounces in 2015 and a little more national publicity, Higuain’s profile would be a lot different. He’s underrated, don’t @ me on this one.
WING: Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact)
This pick is more of a “Bradley Wright-Phillips Lack-of-Appreciation Team” selection than underrated or overlooked. Piatti is the name every single defender who visits the MLSsoccer.com studios mentions as the toughest 1v1 matchup in the league. He’s got back-to-back years of 17 goals and six assists. That’s best in show stuff, but I never hear his name mentioned among the league’s best players. He’s earned that recognition, and if Montreal make a run this year, it’ll largely be because their talisman willed them there.
WING: Alphonso Davies (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Yeah, Davies has a hype train chugging along behind him already, and yet he’s still underrated and overlooked. If Davies was American, the whole country would be salivating at the combination of potential and production the 17-year-old wunderkind has already shown in his young career. He’d be the Next Great Hope, a player to help us forget about the disappointment of Russia 2018. But he’s not ours, and he’ll likely help our northern neighbors eventually reach the promised land along with a raft of other young players. Congrats to Canada and Vancouver. I am jealous. Davies is that good, and he’s just scratching the surface.
CF: Dominique Badji (Colorado Rapids)
Finally, our namesake finishes out the squad. Every single offseason, this one included, we talk about the Rapids needing a game-changing forward. Meanwhile, Badji’s just out here quietly producing. He bagged nine goals and six assists last year without a ton of help, six and four the year before and already has four goals in three games this season. Maybe Colorado doesn’t need more strikers. Maybe they need to feed the beast they already have. Congrats on the hatty, Dom!