Diego Valeri - Diego Chara - Walking
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Warshaw: While other players steal spotlight, these guys are the real MVPs

There’s a phenomenon in sports that I always find interesting. Sometimes a player can win league MVP, but we aren’t even sure if he or she is the most important player on his own team. The recognized MVP makes the outstanding plays, but the team would fall apart without the other guy.

In world soccer, we could consider it the Makelele Principle. During the three years that Claude Makelele played for Real Madrid, three other players – club teammates Luis Figo, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane – won the FIFA World Player of the Year award, yet most players on the team would have recognized Makelele as the most important player in the squad. When Makelele was sold to Chelsea in 2004, Zidane famously bemoaned that the team full of stars was losing its “entire engine.”

The most interesting case in American sports right now would be the Golden State Warriors of the NBA. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have each won MVP awards, and yet Draymond Green might be the most indispensable player on the team. In MLS, the most memorable case may have come in 2001, when Alex Pineda Chacon won MVP, but Preki or Diego Serna may have actually been more important to the team.

I’m all for recognizing the underappreciated guys that make teams go, so let’s take a look at the players around MLS who should probably be MVP of their own team, even though a teammate would be MVP of the league.

Diego Chara

Diego Chara has been in Portland since 2011 | USA Today Images

If the MLS MVP trophy is named after Landon Donovan, I’m naming a separate award after Diego Chara

There isn’t a player in Major League Soccer who has a bigger imprint on games yet receives as little credit as Chara. And the thing is, most people acknowledge how good Chara is, but even with the praise he receives, he’s still underrated. He does the job of multiple people – covering ground and also shielding the back four, facilitating possession and also driving forward into the opposition's penalty box – all at a high level. In doing so many things well, he makes the game easier for his teammates.

Diego Valeri, Chara’s teammate on the Portland Timbers, won the 2017 MLS MVP award for his ridiculous season that included 21 goals, a record for midfielders in a single season. Yet Chara may have been more vital to the Timbers success.

Abe Asher over at the Portland Mercury wrote a fantastic breakdown of Chara’s importance to the Timbers, and he pretty much sums it up:

“The stat has become ubiquitous over the last year, but any discussion of the midfielder has to start with it: In their last 17 games without Chara, the Portland Timbers are winless. 0-11-6. They've been outscored in those matches — six of which have been at home — by a whopping 21 goals.”

Zero wins in 17 tries without Chara. 

“Similarly, in Diego Valeri's last 17 missed starts,” Asher continues, “the Timbers are a very respectable 7-4-6.”

It takes nothing away from Valeri and what he accomplished in 2017 to say that Chara may be the Timbers’ most important player. But it’s also safe to bet Chara would never win LD’s award.

So I made him his own.

Michael Parkhurst

Michael Parkhurst has been vital to Atlanta's success since coming over from Columbus | USA Today Images

If you look at the MLS All-Star voting right now, you’ll see a member of Atlanta United at the top of every position. The Five Stripes have no shortage of stars. Miguel Almiron was a finalist for the 2017 MVP, Josef Martinez finished fourth in the 2017 Golden Boot race, Darlington Nagbe was a fixture for the U.S. national team during qualifying, and Ezequiel Barco’s expectations match his price tag. Yet their most important player is the 34-year-old in the back that probably hasn’t attempted a stepover since before Italy won their last World Cup. 

If Atlanta are the Ninja Turtles, Michael Parkhurst is Master Splinter. He’s not going to make the front of the Wheaties box, but the rock stars wouldn’t be nearly as effective without him.

Atlanta are the Atlanta we love to watch because of the energy and freedom the attackers play with. Attackers can only play with that much exuberance if they know business is handled behind them and everything will be okay if they lose the ball. Parkhurst blends his organizational skills, always ensuring the people around him are in the right spots, with his unique ability to read the game to stop trouble before it gets a chance to build. In the one game Parkhurst hasn’t started this year, Atlanta lost 4-0.

Almiron might win the 2018 MVP award, but I hope he takes Parkhurst out for a nice dinner.

Harrison Afful

Harrison Afful is the defender that makes Crew SC tick | USA Today Images

If you watch MatchDay Central or listen to ExtraTime Radio, you hear us talk about “the system” in Columbus. The system is the thing that allows a team with one of the lowest salary totals in the league to compete for trophies. For Crew SC, the system is a set of pre-rehearsed coordinations that promote controlled passing over the field.

Right back Harrison Afful is the most important player in making the system work. Afful’s comfort on the ball and ability to play in different spaces on the field allows Columbus to play the way they do.

For possession teams, it’s natural to think that center midfielders play the biggest role, but it’s often the outside backs. When teams play out from the back, the outside backs generally get put under the most pressure, as opposing presses generally cue their pressure on the outside back near the sideline. If the outside back can’t play under pressure, the whole buildout fails.

Additionally, the outside backs can provide variance within the game. Whereas center mids often need to stay within a certain sphere, outside backs can adjust to the moment. And Afful provides a skill set for every situation. He can attack down the wing, a vital part of Crew SC’s attacking patterns, and also charge forward through the central channels. Here is a chart of his successful passes in a recent game against Toronto FC:

How many outside backs can do this?

Afful provides the width at times, checks inward to help with possession at times, or acts as the playmaker in the final third, depending on what Crew SC need in that moment. Playing the type of possession system that coach Gregg Berhalter prefers puts huge demands on the players, and Afful assumes several of those duties within the team.

He probably won’t get the plaudits of Pipa Higuain or Gyasi Zardes this year – former Crew SC striker Kei Kamara was an MVP finalist in 2015 – but he’s the guy that holds the system together.

Alex Ring

Alex Ring has started 42 games for NYCFC since the start of last season | USA Today Images

We all know David Villa is NYCFC’s team. Here is my question for NYCFC fans, though: Who would you be more concerned about losing right now, Villa or center midfielder Alex Ring? I ask the question while acknowledging that Villa is one of the best players in MLS history and still one of the best attackers in the league. It speaks to Ring’s influence.

Ring has the passing ability to help facilitate the Cityzens’ free-flowing style, an impressive feat in and of itself, but it’s his defensive awareness that makes him so valuable. When NYC are at their best, their outside backs fly forward. As the outside backs attack, it’s up to the defensive midfielder, Ring, to protect the vulnerable channels.

If the defensive mid can’t protect the vulnerable backline, the team would give up easy goals; they would either have to change their system or just lose. But NYCFC are the attacking powerhouse they are – third in goals scored since Ring arrived at the start of 2017 – because of Ring’s presence both with and without the ball.

Matt Turner

Matt Turner has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 campaign | USA Today Images

The New Englannd Revolution have put together a nice start to the season, including wins over Toronto, Sporting Kansas City and the Red Bulls, and Matt Turner has been a big reason. The first-year starter has been amazing. He’s currently second in the league for goalkeepers in exceeding expected goals against (the number of goals a team has actually conceded vs. the number they would be expected to concede based on the quality of chances allowed), according to American Soccer Analysis, behind only Nick Rimando.

It’s cheating to include Turner on this because he doesn’t have a teammate who gets the limelight – New England don’t have the big stars of the other teams mentioned on this list. So in the off chance that the Revs win the Supporters’ Shield, Turner might have the best chance of anyone this list at actually winning MVP. But there is one pretty important note working against him: Only one goalie has won the MVP in league history — Tony Meola, back in 2000.

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