web analytics
MLS Midseason Superlatives: Best signing, surprise team & more | MLSSoccer.com

MLS Midseason Superlatives: Best signing, surprise team & more | MLSSoccer.com

We’re – Bon Jovi starts playing in the background – halfway there, folks.

Almost every team in MLS has played 17 games, which means we’re halfway through the 34-game regular season. To digest some of the things we’ve learned so far this year, we’re dishing out some MLS midseason superlatives, ranging from the biggest breakout star to the biggest dark-horse team and everything in between.

Let’s get to it.

Most surprising team: St. Louis CITY SC

I was a doubter. I’m happy to admit it. If you’d told me before the season started that St. Louis CITY SC would be on top of the Western Conference at the halfway point of the regular season, I genuinely would not have believed you.

And yet, here we are.

St. Louis have a clear and effective style of play under manager Bradley Carnell. They’ve identified and added depth. And they hit on most of their initial top-end signings, especially Eduard Löwen. Löwen, a big-bodied DP central midfielder, has been dominant in MLS. He’s scored goals (five, though only two come from open play), he’s creating chances for his teammates (he’s in the 97th percentile in shot-creating actions per 90 among midfielders this year, per FBref), and he’s a fantastic ball progresser (he’s in the 90th percentile or higher in progressive passes and carries per 90, per FBref).

It will be difficult for St. Louis to carry this momentum through the summer, but they’re clearly the surprise package of the season so far.

Most disappointing team: LA Galaxy

Coming into 2023, the LA Galaxy had enough talent to finish the year close to the top of the West…if several things went right. They needed:

  • One of their new winger signings to perform at a high level, or…
  • Greg Vanney to ditch his team’s 4-2-3-1 possession shape and adopt a shape that takes the creative attacking burden away from those wingers
  • Their center backs to perform at an average level

Those things were all possible, but none of them have panned out in 2023. The new wingers (Memo Rodríguez and Tyler Boyd) haven’t been successful, Vanney hasn’t found solutions in possession, and their center backs have struggled to control space in defensive transition. Oh, and star striker Chicharito is now out for the year with a torn ACL. Great.

Riqui Puig is a truly elite MLS player, though he’s not free from blame in all of this either with his lack of defensive effort. But the Galaxy’s structure around him has crumbled this season – and so too has their trophy window in 2023.

Most impactful signing: Giorgos Giakoumakis (Atlanta United)

Giorgos Giakoumakis is direct, both on and off the field.

You can see the on-field directness when he slashes behind opposing defenses to finish attacks for Atlanta United. With 10 goals and 6.7 non-penalty xG in less than 900 minutes this year, per FBref, the new DP has been utterly fantastic in his first season after moving from Celtic.

And you can see Giakoumakis’ off-field directness in this answer to a question from Bradley Wright-Phililps about whether his eye is on the Golden Boot.

“Every year…let’s be honest, I’m a striker. It has to be in my mind.”

With his speed and movement inside the box, Giakoumakis gets straight to the point. He’s here to score goals.

Best trade: Inter Miami’s Kamal Miller, GAM acquisition from Montréal

Let’s be honest: this trade was weird when it dropped back in April. Here are the details, in case you’ve forgotten:

  • Miami receive: Kamal Miller, $1.3 million GAM
  • Montréal receive: Bryce Duke, Ariel Lassiter

As you first glance at the trade, you think Miami received the best player in the deal and a boatload of allocation money in exchange for two capable, but not standout, MLS players. Then as you glance at it once more, you’re sure that’s what happened.

Miller’s impact in Miami has been overshadowed by their larger roster problems – and by the fact Lionel Messi has stated he’s coming! – but he’s one of the best modern, versatile defenders MLS has to offer. Plus, Miami’s GAM haul will be incredibly useful as they eye additional moves this summer to improve their roster.

Duke and Lassiter have both been solid contributors for Hernan Losada and CF Montréal, but Miami’s return in this trade is the real prize.

Biggest breakout star: Dénis Bouanga

At age 28, Dénis Bouanga is hardly an unknown quantity at this point in his career. He’d had some success in Ligue 1 before making a move to MLS in August 2022. But it’s impossible to argue his performances this year, especially relative to last year, don’t put him at the top of 2023’s breakout stars category.

After a mixed bag of end product at the end of LAFC’s Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup-winning season, Bouanga has been out for blood in 2023.

He already has 10 league goals this season, building off the Shield-clinching goal in 2022 and an El Trafico playoff brace vs. LA Galaxy. Bouanga has gone from massively underperforming to massively overperforming his xG numbers from last year to this one, but it’s become very clear he’s a difference-maker in MLS. He can rotate into any position in LAFC’s fluid front three, he can knife past defenders in transition, and he can help break down compact blocks in possession (which is something LAFC sorely needed).

While LAFC couldn’t turn Bouanga’s breakout season into a Concacaf Champions League trophy, he’s set up to have some big moments as the year continues.

WATCH: MVP-level Denis Bouanga scores hat trick for LAFC!

Top homegrown player: Jack McGlynn

You can make a strong argument for a bunch of homegrown players across MLS – Chris Brady (Chicago), Brian Gutiérrez (Chicago), Caleb Wiley (Atlanta) and Aidan Morris (Columbus) deserve special attention here – but I’m giving this year’s top homegrown spot, thus far, to Jack McGlynn.

McGlynn, who joined the Philadelphia Union Academy in 2019, has had a big year. Before shining for the US at the U-20 World Cup in Argentina, the 19-year-old wrestled a starting spot away from Leon Flach in Jim Curtin’s midfield. He doesn’t just eat up minutes for the Union and give them average production in central midfield. No, McGlynn brings real value to Philadelphia. I’m going to throw to myself from last week on this one:

In MLS, McGlynn has continued to show elite vision and passing from deep midfield areas. According to American Soccer Analysis, he’s added more value with his passing per 96 minutes than all but four deep midfielders who start regularly in MLS.

McGlynn has been a game-changer at times this year. Enjoy him while he’s here, Philly fans.

Biggest dark horse team: New York City FC

I’ll be honest, this pick is totally predicated on NYCFC signing a quality striker in the Secondary Transfer Window, because boy-oh-boy do they need one. There’s a ton of talent in New York City’s midfield and defense (though not as much talent in the back as in years past). But the top spot on the No. 9 depth chart has been left empty by NYCFC’s higher-ups so far this year – and they’ve struggled without that key attacking focal point, going winless since April 22 (0W-5L-3D run).

Head coach Nick Cushing discussed his team’s on-field issues after NYCFC’s 0-0 draw at Real Salt Lake over the weekend.

Cushing on #NYCFC attack’s struggles: “We need someone who’s going to be a focal point. Our buildup play is good because Talles & Santi are so good with the ball, but we need to improve in the final third. We’re trying to improve the squad which we hope will accelerate that.”

— Hudson River Blue (@hudsonriverblue) June 11, 2023

Per TruMedia, NYCFC are averaging 19 fewer touches in the final third per 90 this year than last year. They’re also averaging more than 15 fewer forward passes per game. Without a reference point to stretch opposing defenses and provide an outlet for their star half-space players, New York City have underwhelmed. But with a true striker? They should shoot back above the East’s playoff line and cause teams major problems in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

Best team to watch: Columbus Crew

Wilfried Nancy’s Columbus Crew team is just good, plain fun. 

They play pretty soccer, averaging more possession than any team in MLS with 58.2%. They clearly like to keep the ball, playing out of a fluid 3-4-3 shape and landing in the top five of Opta’s passes per sequence and average sequence time metrics. But they’re also not plodding in the attack: they rank above most of the league’s other committed possession teams in direct attacking speed.

With Lucas Zelarayán banging in game-winners from behind the midfield stripe in between long, flowing passing sequences, the Crew’s attack is must-see TV.

WATCH: Lucas Zelarayán unleashes Goal of the Year contender for Columbus Crew

Columbus’ defense is good, but not quite elite (which also describes the team as a whole in Year 1 under Nancy), so you might catch a goal or two going the other way when you watch the Crew. If you have a free Saturday evening over the next few weeks, do yourself a favor and spend a couple of hours with a Columbus game on MLS Season Pass. You won’t regret it.

Most fun tactical tweak: Julian Gressel as an 8

Vanni Sartini pulled out a surprise tactical tweak this year when he moved Julian Gressel, who has had most of his MLS success playing as a right outside back, into central midfield for the Vancouver Whitecaps

Gressel’s best asset has always been his pinpoint crosses from the right wing, so moving him into a No. 8 role in a 4-3-2-1 shape was a risk. What if he can’t impact attacks in quite the same way? What if Vancouver’s right side doesn’t function as well? What if you lose something defensively with Gressel in midfield?

Sartini’s decision wasn’t without pitfalls, but it’s worked marvelously in 2023. The Caps are second in MLS in non-penalty xG per 90, according to FBref (1.51), and they have the third-best xG differential per 90 in the West (+0.40). Gressel is in the 90th percentile or higher in a host of attacking metrics and has only improved as a No. 8 since his brief time playing that role in Atlanta.

Credit to both Sartini and Gressel for pulling off this tactical tweak to near perfection.

Read More

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *