It's time for what has become one of my favorite traditions: The Top 5 Positional Rankings. This marks the third iteration of this list.
To refresh your memory, the season-ending list reflects the performances from the season – "Who were the top performers from 2019?" – not overall quality. For example, Player A might not be as good overall as Player B, but Player A might have had a better season. The Preseason Top 5 Rankings reflect overall quality.
These lists include consideration of postseason performances, which regular MLS awards do not. Matt Doyle offered up his assessment of each list as well.
It was, by my estimation, the second straight year without a standout goalkeeper. Clark and Turner had the most exemplary performances (which is interesting given neither started the season as their team's No. 1); Frei had another steady year and gained bonus points for his stellar play throughout the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
For overall contribution to his team through the entire season, though, Johnson earned the highest aggregate score. He put together a solid shot-stopping campaign, and his ability to play with his feet afforded NYCFC the tactical flexibility that put them at the top of the East in the regular season.
Matt Doyle's note: NYCFC ask more of Johnson than any other team asks of any other ‘keeper in the league, so I get it. Even though he’s had some spectacular mistakes, you live with it because of the other stuff he brings to the table.
But in terms of pure shot-stopping, what Matt Turner’s done these past couple of years is remarkable. Dude is a wall.
Right back and right wingback
It was a good year for right-sided defenders, and you could make a case for any of the top four deserving the No. 1 spot. Metanire led the group in expected assists and chances created; Leerdam is the best defender of the four. I opted for Tinnerholm, however, because he played in the most complex, finely-tuned system; a lot of NYCFC's success can be attributed to that approach; and Tinnerholm's ability to get and up down the right side was the key variable to the style.
Doyle's Note: If we’re going to consider Gressel to be a right back (which is probably correct, since he spent most of the year as a right wingback, which is closer to a modern fullback position than anything else), I think he should be higher – No. 2, as a matter of fact, despite his faceplant in the Eastern Conference Final.
Left back and left wingback
Old reliables Hollingshead and Harvey in the top three? Yeah, that was a thing this year. Hollingshead was a do-everything (he proved so versatile that he even got a start at defensive mid this year), run-everywhere left back. Harvey was a calm, always-thinking-a-step-ahead passer in LAFC's steamroller.
My question: Is the fact that reliable-but-not-dominant, smart-rather-than-flashy players like Hollingshead and Harvey were at the top of the class a suggestion that it was a down year for elite outside backs, or a hint of the future demands (tactically smart and more comfortable in the middle third than the final third) of the position?
Doyle's Note: Remember back in preseason when I held onto my Danny Acosta stock for this list? I was so innocent then...
The first two here were easy. Opara has become latest embodiment of the Chad Marshall Theorem – he's so individually dominant that could probably get any team to the playoffs. Robinson was The Leap Player of the Year, going from reserve to "watch me put these millionaires on my back."
After that... you could go a bunch of ways. I went Abubakar because the pre-Abubakar Colorado Rapids gave up 2.7 goals per game; with Abubukar, the Rapids gave up only 1.5 goals per game. Jungwirth grabs the last spot because he had the toughest individual task in the league as the decision-making, find-the-free-man defender in San Jose's man-marking system.
Doyle's Note: I am happy to see you’ve joined me on #TeamLalas. He was monumental for the Rapids this year, enough for Colorado to part with $400,000 in 2020 General Allocation Money and a 2020 international roster spot to acquire him from the Crew permanently.
Only a blurb for defensive midfielders? Hell no. They got a full column.
Doyle's Note: Zero gripes about this list. What a shame for Atuesta that an otherwise wire-to-wire spectacular season ended with his worst performance of the year – by far.
If he learns and applies Ring or Chara or Ozzie or Kyle Beckerman-style dark arts next season, he has a chance to be the best d-mid this league has ever seen and an eight-figure transfer out.
After the 2018 season, I wrote, "Good teams play the game so methodically that the marauding, do-everything midfielders don’t have as much of an impact." Man, has that been turned on its head in the last 12 months. Almost every team emphasizes their box-to-box midfielders now, often called Free 8s. Instead of being the player tasked with bouncing around the field doing the selfless tasks, they are often the ones given the most specific, and usually most important, tasks.
Bedoya was, for the second straight year, the best of the best. After him, it was an interesting assortment of talent. Blessing converted from winger to a dominant center mid (via right back!); Kaye turned from USL winger to MLS Best XI-candidate in 24 months; Pomykal emerged as the brightest young American talent in the league; and JDS switched from "defensive midfielder" to "actually, I'm just going to do everything because that's what we need" for the Galaxy.
Doyle's Note: I think I’d have Dos Santos higher, but I’m not willing to die on that hill.
Bedoya was an absolute G this year. I’ll say it once again, for old times’ sake: If he’d started that game in Couva the US would’ve cruised to a 2-0 win and we’d have avoided the past two years of searing existential dread.
Moralez provided 20 assists for the top seed in the East. You won't get a fight from me if you think the Argentine deserves the top spot. I gave it to Lodeiro because the Sounders No. 10 has a larger footprint on the field and his team. Lodeiro wasn't as decisive or sharp on the ball as Moralez this year, largely because Lodeiro has more on his mind.
He's the engine, the playmaker, the problem solver, and the defensive organizer. He didn't score 10/10 in any single category this year, but nobody in the league had to lead his team in all of them. Lodeiro and the Sounders navigated another season of ups and downs to finish the regular season second in the West for the third straight year and grab their second MLS Cup in four years.
Of note: Prior to the season, I said that we were in the second Golden Generation of MLS 10s. It did not hold up. Overall, it was a down year for attacking midfielders. Lucho Acosta, Pity Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Pipa Higuain, Darwin Quintero, Kaku and Marco Fabian all had mediocre years, for one reason or another. Last season, neither Valeri 2019 nor Pozuelo 2019 would have cracked the Top 5.
Doyle's Note: I initially recoiled at Maxi not being No. 1 – his numbers were eye-popping and his on/off splits were telling – but Lodeiro just continues to do so, so much on both sides of the ball for a Sounders team that keeps churning out 55 points and a deep playoff run almost every single season.
In a lot of ways he’s the most irreplaceable player in the league.
Vela and Rossi combined for 50 goals; it's the most combined goals from an attacking duo in league history. After them, Jordan Morris was the story. He returned from a season-ending injury in 2018 with a more rounded game, combining his speed with enhanced comfort on the ball.
Mitrita and Espinoza flew under the radar this year. They both provide the Anticipation Factor – when they start running at defender, you get the feeling something cool is going to happen. Don't be surprised if they become mainstream MLS names in 2020.
Doyle's Note: Espinoza was good, but I struggle with putting him here. He only had two goals all season, and he disappeared down the stretch when the Quakes desperately needed production from someone other than Wondo. A top 5 winger would've won them a game or two in late summer, and Espinoza didn't.
Josef won the 2018 Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award; the Venezuelan was even more valuable to Atlanta United in 2019. He took on a larger role in the attack and helped navigate the start of the post-Tata Martino era to two trophies and the Eastern Conference Final... not to mention those 27 goals he banged home.
Zlatan scored more goals than Josef, 30, but didn't have the same level of overall impact on his team. Ruidiaz makes this list entirely on the back of his playoff performance: four goals and four assists. We expect star players to step up in the biggest moments, and Ruidiaz has done that.
Doyle's Note: Zero issues with this list at all. I just feel bad for poor Przybylko, who'd been so good for so long and then got injured at the worst possible time.
We added a new category this year to accommodate the players who deserve to be somewhere on this list but don't quite have a specific spot. Ilsinho, for example, is a winger, but he's not just a winger. (Gods don't have positions.) Likewise, Bou might have been listed on the lineup sheet as a forward, but he had the freedom to do what he wanted. (I think the league is still sleeping on Bou and he could have a 20/10 season in 2020.)
And though Castellanos wasn't necessary given the freedom of Ilsinho or Bou – his positional flexibility was mostly due to team needs – he established himself as a stud, earning a call-up to Argentina's Under-23 team.
Doyle's Note: I'll straight-up admit that I don't understand Ilsinho's presence here, as he's the archetype of a winger in my mind. But this is your column, so...
Bou's a classic second forward, something we don't see much of anymore. His numbers were spectacular this year, but those underlying metrics should provide at least a little bit of pause. Same with Castellanos, though the gap wasn't quite so huge.