In one episode of ESPN's new deep dive documentary on the Chicago Bulls' title-rich Michael Jordan-era, “The Last Dance,” a considerable amount of focus is used to illustrate how underappreciated Scottie Pippen often was.
The small forward was a star in his own right, but was always doomed to having the distant second brightest shine as long as Jordan was wearing Bulls colors. This is not a dynamic exclusive to that team. Every league is blessed with terrific players who never draw deserved acclaim simply because bigger names are on the same team sheet.
With Pippen in mind, we decided to right that type of slight by honoring some MLS players who had both the on-field fortune and glare share misfortune to team up with American soccer's biggest superstars. These are the league's Robins — extremely talented guys who played big roles in club success. but were under-heralded because they lined up next the Batmans.
Before we pay tribute to five of the most successful deputies in league history, let's tip a cap to some honorable mentions: Edson Buddle, Brad Davis, Ronnie Ekelund, Alejandro Moreno and Andy Williams.
Since 2013, the Portland Timbers have enjoyed a fairly enviable amount of success. Twice they've ended a regular season tops in the West and in two other years they reached MLS Cup, winning one of them. If you wanted to give their story of the last seven seasons a title, "The Tale of the Two Diegos" would more than suffice.
The first Diego everyone thinks of is Valeri, who has loaded his personal trophy case with an array of awards while becoming well known as the city's adopted son. The other Diego is Chara, who never received any such individual honor until making last year's MLS All-Star Game presented by Target. Since 2016, Valeri has made Team of the Week 16 times. Chara has made it just six times.
Regardless of the fanfare disparity, Valeri, and the Timbers as a whole, simply wouldn't be the same without Chara's tireless destroying behind him. If Valeri is the team's celebrated artist, Chará is the blue-collar guy who mixes all the paint.
It may be easy to understand why Noonan was so often overlooked during the first five years of his MLS career. After all, he was only third most famous player from St. Louis on those Revs sides behind strike partner Taylor Twellman and ace set-up man Steve Ralston. He also had to fight for attention with the likes of Shalrie Joseph, Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhurst.
The latter two players won Rookie of the Year right after Noonan finished second in 2003. After his second season, he wasn't even named to the Best XI despite sharing the league scoring crown with MVP winner Amado Guevara. The point is, observers often fell short of giving the New England attacker his due.
Excluding an injury-ravaged 2006 season, Noonan averaged nine goals and 6.5 assists per regular season in Foxborough and also habitually came up big in tournament play for the Revs. He scored five playoff goals (including two tie-winners and one that pushed the team toward a penalty kicks triumph), and basically undid FC Dallas in the 2007 U.S. Open Cup final with a goal and two clever assists.
Here's a fun fact: Over the past two full seasons, only three clubs have had a player score more goals than the 32 chalked up by Rossi. Of course, one of those teams was LAFC, which is precisely what makes the young Uruguayan winger the preeminent "Pippen" in today's MLS.
The fact Rossi has also supplied 17 assists certainly does not hurt this comparison to the multi-talented NBA Hall of Famer. Just like it was hard for Pippen to grab a share of the spotlight playing on a team with Jordan, it's quite easy to get overlooked in the shadow of record-breaking running mate Carlos Vela.
Believe it or not, Rossi has only managed three Team of the Week mentions thus far. And the truth is, he may never get his proper MLS due before some European club snaps him up. Thus is the life of a second banana, no matter how prolific he is.
Even so, Wolff consistently drove play, produced and helped some rather good teams win without a great deal of fanfare. The new Austin FC boss was a proper glue guy on offense, often swooping in from the wide channels to overload defenders.
Toronto FC had already become contenders with the captures of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco, and the construction of a dependable veteran backline. Those players got most of the press and individual accolades, but it wasn't until Vazquez came on board in 2017 that they scored a historic hat trick of trophies.
In their MLS Cup revenge win over Seattle, Váaquez was a danger activator all night long. He eventually helped send Altidore through for the winner, and then put the title champagne on ice with the stoppage time insurance tally.
In all, he notched 18 goals and 26 assists in 57 total MLS contests (or 0.93 G+A per 90 minutes), numbers typically associated with players in MVP conversations. Actually though, his ace sidekick tag may not be permanent; Vazquez has revealed he's interested in a BMO Field return.