When ranking the top No. 10s currently operating in Major League Soccer, it came as no surprise that all the top choices play for teams residing at or near the top of their respective conferences.
Look at almost any trophy-winning side throughout MLS history, and it probably had a mastermind holding the attack keys. We could tick off legendary MLS names that fit the bill for a while (Valderrama, Etcheverry, Nowak, Preki, Schelotto, Morales, De Rosario, Almiron, etc.), and still miss several cracking players.
Never has their influence been more apparent, with this year's Landon Donovan MLS MVP race shaping up to be a battle between at least two No. 10s.
This ranking factors in overall skill and influence, but is also very much a list for the moment. Any ties were broken by comparing the performances produced by the players this season.
Unfortunately, fitness woes have kept top-shelf playmakers like Carles Gil and Maxi Moralez from placing on this year's list. Others have missed out because they've shared the role (is Brenden Aaronson Philly's No. 10 or is Jamiro Monteiro? ) or have been supplanted/been a supplanter too recently to measure up (witness Kevin Molino sliding wide for summer arrival Emanuel Reynoso in Minnesota). Others have seen production dips keep them on the outside looking in (hello Kaku and Albert Rusnak).
What remains is the cream of the 2020 crop for string-pullers, and the guys to watch closest once the postseason silverware chase kicks off.
No. 5: Mauricio Pereyra
If one simply goes by the main counting stats, the Orlando City veteran might seem like the "one of these things" that just doesn't belong. However, Pereyra's value to the 2020 league darlings goes well beyond his two goals and five assists.
It's been previously noted by both yours truly and several MLSsoccer.com colleagues, but Pereyra is the straw that very subtly stirs Orlando City's drink. He pulls in defenders so he can release the team's match-winners with a simple pass. He's not fancy or explosive, but Pereyra's "death by a thousand cuts" orchestration method is a big part of the reason that guys like Chris Mueller, Nani and Ruan eat foes alive from wide positions.
No. 4: Diego Valeri
Just when we thought he was out, an injury to Sebastian Blanco pulls him right back in! Yeah, the veteran Timbers string-puller had very much ceded the main playmaking duties to his good buddy, but was forced back to his old office after Blanco’s ACL tear.
One could hardly tell that Portland have been going without the MLS is Back MVP for over a month. They're now on a season-high five-game win streak, in no small part because Valeri's G+A/90 rate is approaching that of his dominant 2017 MVP season.
Few players in MLS can cap a counter like Valeri, and even fewer can match his dead-ball touch (both direct and indirect). Considering his track record for coming up big when playoff chips are on the table, there's a valid argument that Portland's favorite adopted son is one spot (or perhaps even two?) too low on this list.
No. 3: Lucas Zelarayan
If the prototype No. 10 is a high-usage guy that operates the system, Columbus have more of a ghost in their machine. With the Crew running so much of their game from the flanks, Zelarayan can almost stay out of the way, get lost in plain sight and select the best times to exploit Zone 14 seams.
The Newcomer of the Year contender is extremely efficient with his production, so it's no big deal that he gets about one-third of the touches that Pozuelo does (!!). With so many ways to hurt an opponent and a team that runs like clockwork, Zelarayan can simply wait for the best openings to display his talents.
It's working. The offseason DP catch is the only one on this list with a goal-creating actions/90 minutes rate (0.89) that even approaches Lodeiro's, and Columbus are 5-1-3 when he starts. Injuries have proven troublesome, though.
No. 2: Alejandro Pozuelo
The Toronto FC magician is the best, most irreplaceable player on the best team in the league, which is why some observers are pegging him as the odds-on choice to take home the Landon Donovan MVP Award at season's end.
Pozuelo has posterized opponents with his other-worldly final-third touches, but his impact doesn't end there. Everything the Reds run flows through the Spaniard. He dictates tempo, and then ushers his team to the right approach path for causing trouble.
But a No. 10 is primarily judged via his end product and how it relates to team success. Pozuelo is clicking on all fronts. He's not just the assist title front-runner (10). With seven goals, he has a good chance to finish top-five in the league in both goals and helpers. That's only been done 14 times in MLS history, and just once since 2016.
No. 1: Nicolas Lodeiro
So wait ... if Pozuelo is "the clear MVP favorite" then how can he place second on this list? There isn't a great deal that separates the Toronto FC ace from Lodeiro, but it's just enough to account for Seattle’s quarterback holding the top spot here.
From an on-field standpoint, they're remarkably even. From work rate to game management to chance creation, Lodeiro and Pozuelo each rate near the top of most relevant categories. However, the Seattle star man – who, it must continually be said, has somehow yet to earn the MVP finalist tag – has a solid edge in the physicality and pressure departments. Both players can kill you on the break, but Lodeiro is significantly more likely to force the turnover that initiates it.
While you may consider his longer MLS tenure as an advantage, there's no denying that Pozuelo has to catch up to Lodeiro's 2016 and 2019 MLS Cup victories. Nearly every MLS Cup winner has required a top No. 10, and all other playmakers have paled next to Seattle's ever-reliable maestro since he arrived on our shores.