Warshaw: My list of the top 5 MLS players at every position

At the end of last year, I put together my list of the Top 5 performers at every position for the 2018 season. It’s important to note the “performers” part, as it denotes who had the best season, not necessarily who are the best players. Sometimes top players have down seasons, or good players have great years.

This version is my interpretation of the “best players” in MLS, based on overall talent. It factors in maximum ability, team fit and probability of consistency.

Goalkeeper

Tim Melia | USA Today Sports Images

  1. Tim Melia
  2. Luis Robles
  3. Stefan Frei
  4. Zack Steffen
  5. Brad Guzan

Not much sexy about this list, and I suspect that’s exactly how all of them would like it. The wild part about this group? The two players vying for the US men’s national team’s starting spot are behind three other players eligible for the USMNT. Yet…would you put up a fight over either side of those selections?

Doyle’s Note: Did you notice Melia’s distribution against Toluca last week? Looks like he’s being asked to do even more “modern goalkeeper” stuff. I think he’s the best ‘keeper in the USMNT pool, and hope Gregg Berhalter was watching.

Right back and right wingback

Harrison Afful | USA Today Sports Images

  1. Harrison Afful
  2. Graham Zusi
  3. Julian Gressel
  4. Michael Murillo
  5. Nick Lima

I struggled to narrow this list down to five, and that makes me very happy. For years, outside back had been the weakest position in the league by a wide margin. While teams around the world had recognized the value of outside backs, MLS teams lagged behind.

Now I have to leave a potential USMNT player (Reggie Cannon) and a possible All-Star (Anton Tinnerholm) off the list. At the top, Afful moves head of Zusi from the 2018 end-of-year rankings because Zusi might play a slightly more conservative role this year, while Afful might take on a more adventurous assignment under Caleb Porter.

Doyle’s Note: No arguments here, though I probably would’ve included Cannon and Keegan Rosenberry over Lima before USMNT camp. It’ll be interesting to see if his US form pays forward for his club.

Left back and left wingback

Kemar Lawrence | USA Today Sports Images

  1. Kemar Lawrence
  2. Greg Garza
  3. Daniel Lovitz
  4. Brad Smith
  5. Marcos Lopez

The left back spot isn’t quite as enticing as the right side, but it’s on the rise thanks to the addition of three recent signings. Brad Smith enters the top five after a few dazzling performances in the second half of 2018; new Earthquakes left back Marcos Lopez steps straight in, mostly because I’m excited to see if he lives up to the hype I’ve seen from South American outlets.

And the first name off the list, recently reacquired Timbers defender Jorge Villafaña, wouldn’t have any problem stepping in. Garza could be the big variable in the list, as he’s struggled to remain healthy, but has been phenomenal when on the field.

Doyle’s Note: Garza should always come with an “if healthy” asterisk, unfortunately. Also, I’m buying some Danny Acosta stock for this list now. Get in while it’s low.

Center back

Aaron Long (in front) | USA Today Sports Images

  1. Aaron Long
  2. Chad Marshall
  3. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez
  4. Walker Zimmerman
  5. Matt Besler/Ike Opara

Long, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, is still hitting his prime as a center back. Marshall is getting older but I’ll include him on the list until he shows he can’t walk anymore. LGP steps up to No. 3 (although his recent CCL performance isn’t making me feel great about this!) while his teammate, Michael Parkhurst, drops off the list from the 2018 rankings. I don’t have a great reason to exclude Parkhurst; I’m using his age, 35, as the excuse, but honestly it’s mostly so I can write this sentence (sorry, Michael)…

Now that the top defensive pairing over the last three years, Opara and Besler, has broken up, we get to see who lifted who.

Doyle’s Note: I almost want to drop LGP just based on how terrible he was in Costa Rica. But the dude was a monster in the playoffs, so he’ll likely bounce back.

Defensive midfielder

Diego Chara | USA Today Sports Images

  1. Diego Chara
  2. Ilie Sanchez
  3. Ozzie Alonso
  4. Russell Canouse
  5. Bastian Schweinsteiger/Dax McCarty

You’ll notice a trend among the group: There are some elder statesmen. Chara, Alonso and Schweinsteiger are all 32 or older. It puts a level of doubt on their status at the top. But none showed signs of slowing down throughout 2018.

The Schweinsteiger/McCarty combo was the toughest inclusion, but only because I’m nervous that Schweinsteiger will split time between center back and defensive mid this season (god willing he won’t). Alex Ring, Michael Bradley or Eric Remedi would gladly step into his spot.

Doyle’s Note: So the Q about Chara is “does he count as a d-mid, or box-to-box?” I’d argue his primary function is still winning the ball and breaking up play, so d-mid it is. But it’s worth a debate. Also, Ilie was freaking outstanding vs. Toluca.

Box-to-box midfielder

Felipe Gutierrez | USA Today Sports Images

  1. Felipe Gutierrez
  2. Alejandro Bedoya
  3. Artur
  4. Jonathan dos Santos/Sebastian Lletget
  5. Benny Feilhaber

At the end of 2018, I wrote this: “Box-to-box midfielder is the toughest position to stand out in soccer today. Good teams play the game so methodically that the marauding, do-everything midfielders don’t have as much of an impact.”

That’s likely to change in 2019, however, as more teams around the league look set to use systems that emphasize do-everything midfielders. Sporting don’t play with a natural No. 10, leaving Gutierrez, who had a wonderful first season in in MLS aside from an injury that put him out for 14 games, as a key source of goals.

Philadelphia and Colorado look set to play with a diamond midfield, making Bedoya and Feilhaber the center of attention. And the Galaxy have used a 4-4-2 throughout preseason, asking JDS and Lletget to act as both destroyers and facilitators.

Doyle’s Note: Gutierrez is a No. 10 from where I sit – a modern, energetic version of one. But I get why he’s listed here given that Vermes’ system asks so much from a defensive perspective.

Also, the Cristian Roldan fans are going to flay you alive.

Attacking midfielder

Nicolas Lodeiro | USA Today Sports Images

  1. Nico Lodeiro
  2. Pity Martinez
  3. Darwin Quintero
  4. Lucho Acosta
  5. Diego Valeri

We are in the second Golden Age of MLS No. 10s. Marco Etcheverry, Carlos Valderrama, Preki, Mauricio Cienfuegos et al made up the first Golden Generation from 1996-2000. We are presently in the second iteration (though I’d listen to an argument that Javi Morales, David Ferreira, Dwayne De Rosario, Christian Gomez and Guillermo Barros Schelotto 2005-2011 made up the second).

The top player from the 2018 rankings (Miguel Almiron) departed for the Premier League for somewhere around $27 million, and there’s barely a dropoff in 2019. Maxi Moralez, who could be an MVP candidate, can’t even crack the top five.

Doyle’s Note: Lodeiro is the system in Seattle, so no gripes there. The question with regard to Pity is “is he a winger, or an attacking midfielder?” Based upon a one-game sample size, it might make more sense to play him as a true No. 10 underneath a two-forward lineup (Josef and Tito) in a 3-4-1-2 rather than the janky 5-2-2-1 they tried at Herediano.

Winger

Ignacio Piatti | USA Today Sports Images

  1. Ignacio Piatti
  2. Carlos Vela
  3. Sebastian Blanco
  4. Romain Alessandrini
  5. Alberth Elis

The wingers create a conundrum for picking the top five. They weren’t that difficult to choose based on overall talent, but it’s also the group that’s the least likely to remain the same at the end of the year. So much of their performance depends on confidence and their form can dip quickly.

Johnny Russell doesn’t have as much overall talent as Elis or Alessandrini, but I’d guess he’ll make the list over one of them at the end of the year. I included Vela on the wingers list because he looks set to start on the right side for LAFC, even though he may function as their primary playmaker.

Doyle’s Note: Lots of good wingers in this league. Diego Rossi’s gonna get sold for $10 million sometime in the next 12 months and he’s not even on this list.

Striker

Josef Martinez | USA Today Sports Images

  1. Josef Martinez
  2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
  3. Jozy Altidore
  4. Wayne Rooney
  5. Bradley Wright-Phillips

Four of the five are no brainers (or I don’t have the guts to pick anyone else). The one change from 2018: Giovinco out and Jozy in.

Apologies to Mauro Manotas, Raul Ruidiaz, Nemanja Nikolic and Fanendo Adi, who are all deserving, but I’m expecting a big year from Jozy. He’s got a giant chip on his shoulder, both to make amends for a lost 2018 and to show he can thrive without the Atomic Ant, and I’ll always take Jozy when he’s got a chip on his shoulder.

Doyle’s Note: Zlatan’s comin’ for you, Bobby.

Now time for a quiz. Which team had the most players listed?

……………………………………………………………………….…………………………………………………………………….…………………………………………………………………….…………………………………………………………………….…………………………………………………………………….…………………………………………………………………….

  • Atlanta: 5
  • Red Bulls: 5
  • SKC: 4.5
  • Seattle: 4
  • Galaxy: 3
  • D.C. United: 3
  • Portland: 3
  • Columbus: 3
  • Minnesota: 2.5
  • LAFC: 2
  • Montreal: 2
Series: 
Topics: