Steve Zakuani: The Top 5 MLS players at each position during the 2020 season

Just days removed from the end of the 2020 regular season, and just days before the start of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, we take a look back at the best performers from a year no one will soon forget.

Below are my Top 5 players in every position based on 2020 performance.


Goalkeepers

  1. Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union)
  2. Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders)
  3. Pedro Gallese (Orlando City SC)
  4. Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
  5. Eloy Room (Columbus Crew SC)

I’ve had my questions about Blake in the past — capable of making the most impressive save on one play and then making a mistake on the very next play. He’s largely put that inconsistency behind him and was a big reason for the Union's solid defense in 2020. He’s improved his command on crosses and high balls which have only added to his impressive shot-stopping and acrobatic style.

Frei comes next on my list because he has been playing at a high level for five years now. While he’s certainly capable of making the spectacular save, what impresses me most about Frei is how assured he always looks in the goal. He’s rarely out of position and he is rarely guilty of bad timing. He puts in above-average performances every week and when he’s needed, he’s more than capable of making the big save.

Gallese, Turner and Room fill out my Top 5 'keepers. All three had good seasons and helped their teams to solid defensive records.

Right backs

  1. Anton Tinneholm (NYCFC)
  2. Romain Metanire (Minnesota United)
  3. Auro (Toronto FC)
  4. Kelvin Leerdam (Seattle Sounders)
  5. Ruan (Orlando City SC)

Tinnerholm was an easy choice for me. Defensively sound, good going forward and very consistent — he’s at least a 7 out of 10 every game, sometimes better. The fact he also got four goals and five assists as a right back only bolsters his case.

Metanire is next on my list as every time I’ve seen him play I’ve walked away really impressed. He’s super athletic and has a great engine that allows him to get up and down the line. He’s also very composed on the ball and never seems to panic even under pressure.

Rounding out my top five are Auro, Leerdam, and Ruan. Auro’s value to Toronto was obvious in the games he missed, while Leerdam, although he isn’t flashy, is very effective. He goes about his work quietly, but does a great job at both ends of the pitch and is very sound technically. Ruan had a monster season for Orlando and has a fantastic delivery once he gets into the attacking third.

Left backs

  1. Ryan Hollingshead (FC Dallas)
  2. Kai Wagner (Philadelphia Union)
  3. Jorge Villafana (Portland Timbers)
  4. Milton Valenzuela (Columbus Crew SC)
  5. Nouhou Tolo (Seattle Sounders)

Hollingshead had a brilliant season for FC Dallas, even chipping in with four goals. He’s a really good two-way option on the left side and made several game-saving plays this season. He has been consistently good for a while now, so it’s hard to place anyone above him at the moment.

Wagner is a close second as he was an integral piece in the Union back line and on any given day he can look like the best left back in the league.

Villafana maybe doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but he rarely puts a foot wrong and at his best, he offers a lot defensively — he hardly gets beat — and also offensively, combining well with the winger and knowing when to overlap.

Valenzuela and Nouhou round out my list. Valenzuela has a high IQ and doesn’t waste possession easily, while Nouhou has made giant strides this season. He still has to improve in the attack, but defensively, he’s the best lockdown left back in the league because he simply doesn’t get beat — no one dribbles past him 1-v-1.

Center backs

  1. Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
  2. Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew SC)
  3. Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union)
  4. Yeimar Gomez Andrade (Seattle Sounders)
  5. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (Inter Miami CF)

Zimmerman had a significant impact on two teams this season — LAFC and Nashville SC. LAFC went from having the best defensive record to a team that couldn’t stop conceding, while Nashville had a ridiculously good defensive record for an expansion team. Zimmerman was head and shoulders the best defender this season.

Second to Zimmerman is Mensah who did what few players of his age can do — improve and get better. By age 30, players usually are what they will be, but Mensah got better on the ball, his awareness to track runners also improved and he became even more of a leader on the back line.

McKenzie was fantastic all year for the Union and even though their attacking players get a lot of attention (and rightly so), it’s a testament to McKenzie that he is also widely mentioned as a reason for this special season the Union are having.

Yeimar helped Seattle fill the void left by Chad Marshall, Kim Keehee and Roman Torres by bringing a stability to a back line in dire need of it.

And Gonzalez Pirez was a great signing for Miami, helping them to a postseason appearance in their first season. In many ways, he’s the emotional leader in that team as he wears his heart on his sleeve and leaves everything on the pitch in every game.

Center mids/Holding mids

  1. Darlington Nagbe (Columbus Crew SC)
  2. Eduard Atuesta (LAFC)
  3. Diego Chara (Portland Timbers)
  4. Jonathan Dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
  5. Jose "El Brujo" Martinez (Philadelphia Union)

For a long time, Osvaldo Alonso was by far the best player in this position — he’s also the best in MLS history, but that’s a convo for another day — but now that he has had a few injuries and is a bit older, I have to go with Nagbe at the top of my list. He instantly improves any team he joins in very tangible ways. Their possession gets better, their ability to dribble through the lines, their passing combinations improve and they also get better in transition. His first touch is absurd, he can dribble past anyone and no one can connect passes like he can. He can do everything that needs to be done on a football pitch.

I love Atuesta and have him as a close second to Nagbe. The main difference between the two is Nagbe’s ability to drive at the back line and commit defenders.

Chara is still doing it at a very high level, so I have him in third place followed by Dos Santos who is a very special player when healthy.

Rounding out my top five is Martinez from the Union. He’s had a monster year anchoring one of the most important positions for the best team in the league and he was key to the Union's ball retention in midfield and transitions from defense to attack.

Left Wingers

  1. Diego Rossi (LAFC) 
  2. Cristian Pavon (LA Galaxy)
  3. Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
  4. Sebastian Blanco (Portland Timbers)
  5. Nani (Orlando City)

At this point Rossi has elevated his game to a level that easily places him at the top of this list. As a former left winger myself, I always felt that being goal dangerous was how I could separate myself from other wingers and that’s exactly what Rossi has done. To score as many goals as he has, in the way he has, without Carlos Vela speaks volumes about his quality.

Right behind Rossi, I have to go with Pavon. I can only imagine what he would do on one of the better teams in the league where he’d be surrounded by players of a higher caliber. He’s the only reason the Galaxy were somewhat competitive at times this season.

Morris continues to get better in front of goal. He’s added a composure in 1-v-1 situations that wasn’t there previously and this has drastically raised his importance to the Sounders. I think he’s the most dangerous winger in the league just because his pace cannot be contained.

Blanco and Nani round out my Top 5. Blanco very easily could have been in the MVP conversation had he not been injured — he was playing on a different level at MLS is Back Tournament. Nani can’t do it for 90 minutes every three days anymore, but when he does turn it on, he can still pull off plays that very few in this league can and I love that he cares. He’s not here on vacation or for an early retirement, he’s hungry to win and that has inspired his teammates.

Attacking Midfielders

  1. Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto FC)
  2. Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle Sounders)
  3. Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)
  4. Carles Gil (New England Revolution)
  5. Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union)

This is the hardest position to rank because it’s the spot most teams heavily invest in when looking for that special difference maker.

At the top of the list is Pozuelo — he’s genuinely two-footed, extremely crafty in tight spaces, can thread a pass through the tightest defenses and he also shows up on the stat sheet. He’s an absolute joy to watch.

Right behind him is Lodeiro. The story of the Seattle Sounders cannot be written without mentioning Lodeiro such has been his impact since he arrived. He’s a winner and a super hard worker. Many special players rely on their skill alone, but Lodeiro covers more ground than anyone, he wants to play in every game and he usually always makes his mark in the big games with a goal, a great pass, or a key set piece.

Valeri comes in next and there really isn’t much to say about him that hasn’t already been said. He’s the best scoring playmaker we’ve ever seen in the league and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down too much as he’s still behind much of the good that the Timbers offense produces.

Gil and Aaronson round out my Top 5. Gil — yes, he was injured for much of the year, but I cannot make a list that doesn’t include him, he’s that good — a magician with the ball and his close control is one of the best I’ve seen, whereas Aaronson brought me off my seat more than almost anyone in the entire league — he’s so exciting to watch. Aaronson is also very durable as he performed well all year despite facing physical markers every few days and being man-marked at times.

Right Wingers

  1. Johnny Russell (Sporting Kansas City)
  2. Pedro Santos (Columbus Crew SC)
  3. Romell Quioto (Montreal Impact)
  4. Cristian Espinoza (San Jose Earthquakes)
  5. Teal Bunbury (New England Revolution)

Russell remains one of the most exciting players in the league. His willingness to always push the issue and drive at left backs is refreshing, and very often he gets the better of them. He can score, assist, dribble down the outside or come inside and he’s also incredibly strong. He’s a real talent we are lucky to watch in this league.

Although he spent more time on the left towards the end of the season, Santos is capable of playing anywhere across the attack and did some really good work at right wing when called upon. His skill set is that of a true playmaker and he has great vision that allows him to find his teammates.

Thierry Henry mainly used him as a forward this season, but there were still moments when Quioto was pushed out wide and he often delivered. After losing his way in Houston, his confidence is back and so is his finishing touch in front of goal as he produced some really good numbers this season.

Espinoza didn’t deliver the best numbers in 2020, but there’s no denying how important he is to what San Jose want to do in attack. He has really good technical ability and a good cross once he gets into really wide areas.

Bunbury surprised a lot of people with just how good a season he had. He was deadly in front of goal and came up with some big plays for Bruce Arena’s men. He spent a lot of time up top and on the left, but in the early part of the year he was deployed on the right where he offered a real goal-scoring threat that not many wide players can on a consistent basis.

Forwards

  1. Carlos Vela (LAFC)
  2. Josef Martinez (Atlanta United)
  3. Raul Ruidiaz (Seattle Sounders)
  4. Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew SC)
  5. Robert Beric (Chicago Fire FC)

Vela is not only the best forward in the league, he’s the best player overall. We mustn’t take for granted what this man has been doing since he arrived in Los Angeles. From his trademark goal of cutting in from the right and curling a left-footed shot into the top corner, to the mazy solo dribbles past three or four defenders and the goalkeeper, he has produced at an outrageously high level at a consistent basis. He may play on the right at times, but he is a forward through and through.

Martinez may be the best pure striker we have in the league. He cares about one thing only — scoring goals. Every time I think teams have figured him out, he goes on a multi-game scoring spree that includes every type of goal you can imagine.

Ruidiaz is next and he’s very similar to Martinez: He does his very best work in and around the 18-yard box. He doesn’t miss many chances and always shows up in the big playoff and rivalry games.

At this very moment, Zardes is fourth on my list because you can’t argue with the facts. He scores goals for fun as long as you provide him service, and he has also shown that he can do it for more than just one season. He essentially guarantees you double-digit goals every season which is not an easy thing to do.

Rounding out the Top 5 is Beric. He finished his debut season really well and I think he’s a player that will continue to get better even though he’s already very accomplished in front of goal.

A fully fit and in-form Altidore would have made my list, but in this case I just haven’t seen enough of him over the last two years to justify placing him here.


Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization

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