By James Nalton.
The end of Major League Soccer’s regular season can be viewed as the start of the business end of the campaign — the MLS Cup Playoffs — but in terms of judging overall, consistent performance, the regular season is the most accurate measure.
This is why the Supporters’ Shield should be considered the most prestigious award in MLS, and also why the regular season comes into its own when using data to measure performance. The variables and variety of opposition allow players to show their quality over long periods and in different scenarios.
That’s not to discount the importance of the playoffs and the intrigue and entertainment they provide, but the end of the regular season feels like a good time to look at the standout performers in this unique year of league football.
This particular XI will look at those who have set off alarms in the stats bunkers across the world of football — those who have excelled in certain areas of the game, posting good numbers in key metrics for their position.
A lot of this comes down to what you want, or expect, from each position, and this will vary depending on the system being played, the tactics, and, especially in such a fragmented season, the opposition.
An XI based on data could be seen as objective, but the prioritising of certain stats for certain positions, and choosing which data points are more useful than others, is in itself subjective. Nevertheless, it could still be an interesting exercise.
One thing we’re looking for from all players is a decent amount of minutes on the field — ie availability. It’s no use being brilliant if you aren’t available for selection.
The main source used to compile this team, FBref, gives useful indications of availability, including minutes played, 90s played, and percentage of minutes played, all of which will provide a basis for these selections.
Much of this could be considered personal preference — part of what makes football the beautiful game — but few could argue that the best teams in the world during the past couple of years have been Liverpool and Bayern Munich. Their shape and systems, with four defenders, three midfielders, and three attackers, will provide a rough base for this idealistic MLS stats-based XI.
With these teams in mind, and the pressing side of their game becoming an increasingly important part of modern football, the pressing data of attackers and midfielders has been taken into account here.
Another issue to point out is that MLS is awash with creative attacking midfield talents, and it’s always tempting to add as many as possible to a best XI, sacrificing balance along with any sense of realism. But a best XI shouldn’t be a list of the league’s most outstanding 11 players regardless of position, it should be a team that could operate effectively were these players assembled to play a game. As a result, there will be some good players who don’t make the cut.
It’s always pleasing when the stats line up what we see on the pitch, and that is the case in the goalkeeping department.
The two standout players in this position are Matt Turner of New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union’s Andre Blake.
Their post-shot expected goals (PSxG) minus goals allowed, both totals and per 90, stand up. The higher the number in this stat, the more often the player saves difficult shots or the more luck they have.
Luck will only take you so far, however, and with the pair having played 24 and 22 matches respectively this season, it’s more good shot-stopping than good luck.
Goalkeeping isn’t just about shot-stopping, and neither player is quite active enough to be considered a sweeper-keeper, but Turner does have the most throws attempted in the league with 114 and an average throw-length of 40 yards, which suggests he would be good at launching counter-attacks. He also has the second-most actions outside the penalty area in the league behind Toronto FC’s Quentin Westberg.
Few would argue against the selection of Turner or Blake in any 2020 MLS team of the year. Blake was hugely important to Philadelphia Union’s Supporters’ Shield win, and the stats show they might not have won it without him, but judging from the data alone, Turner is the standout player.
Matt Turner – GK – New England Revolution
PSxG +/-: +8.2 (1st)
PSxG +/- per 90′: +0.37 (1st)
Save %: 75
Throws: 114 (1st)
One of the key positions in modern football, so any best XI needs to include them. Different systems can require different things of full-backs, but the best modern-day players in this position are attacking, direct and/or creative players with enough pace to hurry back into the defensive line when needed.
These traits are epitomised by the likes of Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, or former Vancouver Whitecaps winger Alphonso Davies, now an outstanding left-back with Bayern Munich.
With this in mind, we looked at a number of stats, but focused on creativity, dribbling, and expected assists (xA) of MLS full-backs. There is no public data available on speed, which hampers us slightly, though if the player is both a good dribbler and a regular creator, they are unlikely to be slow.
You probably don’t need to look at the stats to choose Anton Tinnerholm at right-back, but those creative stats back us up for good measure (the dribbling ones not so much).
Aaron Herrera of Real Salt Lake is the best dribbling full-back in the league, averaging 2.76 take-ons per 90 minutes, completing a very impressive 82% of them, but plays on the same side as Tinnerholm.
Tinnerholm’s teammate Rónald Matarrita also bothers the expected assists column on the other side of the pitch, but Vancouver Whitecaps’ Ali Adnan does similar while also offering some dribbling numbers as well as a good aerial duel win percentage as a bonus, so gets the nod.
— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) November 15, 2020
Anton Tinnerholm – RB – New York City
xA: 4.1 (1st among defenders)
Shots Assisted: 39 (1st among defenders)
Ali Adnan – LB – Vancouver Whitecaps
xA: 3.5 (3rd among defenders)
Take-ons: 49 (63% success)
Aerial Duels Won: 74%
Blocks: 52 (2nd in MLS)
Availability, aerial success, passing ability, positioning, and composure are the priorities here, but the latter two elements can be difficult to measure statistically.
It would also be a bonus to have a right-footer on the right and a left-footer on the left, and it would be good to have at least one player with good recovery speed.
It should be easy for a central defender comfortable on the ball to approach 90% pass accuracy, regardless of the types of passes they attempt.
Maxime Chanot of New York City FC does a lot of aerial duelling and is very effective, winning an impressive 73% of his duels. He is also a decent enough passer, but given a lack of recovery speed and the occasional error, he would need someone reasonably quick alongside him.
Columbus Crew’s Jonathan Mensah has been one of the best players in the league this season and fares well in the air and on the ground. Mark McKenzie has been excellent on the left side of defence for Philadelphia Union, while Walker Zimmerman has impressed for expansion side Nashville SC.
But DC United’s Donovan Pines offers great aerial ability in both boxes and is also a regular passer with both feet, allowing him to slot into the left centre-back berth with ease.
Despite his 6-foot-5 frame, he also has good recovery speed, fitting the bill alongside Chanot, and though he is the player in our XI with the lowest percentage of his team’s minutes played this season (65%), he has been available for much of the season even if not selected, and racked up a respectable 1,354 minutes.
We could have gone more down the possession and passing route with these selections, but instead have gone for a combination of right/left balance, aerial presence, and pace, while still having a good enough passing ability to get the ball forward.
Maxime Chanot – RCB – New York City
Aerial Duels Won: 78 (1st among CBs)
Aerials Won Percentage: 73%
Pass Success: 87%
Tackle Success: 61%
Donovan Pines – LCB – DC United
Aerial Duels Won: 61
Aerials Won Percentage: 73%
Ambipedality % R-L (Passing): 66-44
One of the most important positions on the pitch and one which can also provide an indication of how a team want to play. Do they use a double pivot or a lone defensive midfielder? Are they a playmaker, a destroyer, or all-round presence?
For this team, we looked for a dynamic player who wins the ball a lot but is also able to keep it themselves and recycle possession for their team. Being an aerial presence would be a bonus.
Thiago Santos of FC Dallas is impressive aerially, but not enough in the other areas, while Diego Chara of Portland Timbers and Chicago Fire’s Álvaro Medrán rank well for progressive passing, but don’t quite tike all the other boxes, at least not statistically.
Nashville SC’s Anibal Godoy ranks well for a number of our metrics and wins a good percentage of his aerial duels even if he’s not involved in lots.
San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Judson seems to tick the boxes most emphatically. He played a big part in his side’s revival towards the end of the season and their subsequent playoff qualification.
He’s a regular ball-winner, partly due to San Jose’s aggressive, pro-active style of defending, but on the flip side, this man-to-man marking also means he is often dribbled past. In our side, Judson’s defending will be more zonal, providing insurance behind an advanced full-back or midfield ahead of the centre-backs. His recovery speed will be important, and he has a pass success of 89%.
Judson – DM – San Jose Earthquakes
Middle 3rd Pressures: 291 (1st in MLS)
Defensive 3rd Pressures: 267 (1st in MLS)
Successful Pressures: 186 (1st in MLS)
Pass Success: 89%
Long Pass Success: 86%
In the middle of the park, we want a good balance of work rate, ball retention, pressing, and creativity. One of these can be a No. 8, supporting Judson when needed but also breaking to the opposition box. The other can have more licence to roam as a more direct and creative presence behind the forwards.
When looking at pressing data we will look at the total numbers for pressures in the final and middle thirds. A high number in this area is also an indication or a players’ endurance and tenacity so we will use totals rather than the per 90′ option.
As shown above, the midfielder with the most pressures in the middle third just so happens to be Judson, so another tick in the box for him. The next in line is a more attack-minded central midfielder — Brenden Aaronson, with his Philadelphia Union team-mate Jamiro Monteiro just behind. Incidentally, if we wanted a direct dribbler in midfield, Monteiro would be the man for that.
20-year-old American Aaronson is heading to Jesse Marsch’s RB Salzburg in January, and his pressing stats — he also leads the way among midfielders for pressing in the final third — show why the Austrian club’s scouts were alerted to his talents. The pressing of Aaronson and Judson combined in this team would be something to behold.
Aaronson has seven assists and four goals this season, so he’s not just a potential star, he already is one in MLS, and will soon be one in Europe.
Moving slightly further forward in our midfield formation, you would hope the more attacking midfielder picks itself and, thankfully, the stats agree that Alejandro Pozuelo is the best player in the league.
He ranks highest for expected assists, as well as being the joint leader for actual assists alongside Darwin Quintero and Nicolás Lodeiro on 10. Pozuelo also leads the league for passes into the penalty area, with 82, ahead of Lodeiro’s 61.
Lodeiro ranks much higher than Pozuelo when it comes to pressing, and that would fit well with what we’re trying to build here, but it’s impossible to leave the Spaniard’s creativity out of this side, and his nine goals to go with those assists make him the most productive player in the league.
Sometimes you just need someone to pick a lock or produce something from nothing, and Pozuelo is the man for the job.
Brenden Aaronson – CM – Philadelphia Union
Final 3rd Pressures: 173 (2nd in MLS)
Middle 3rd Pressures: 268 (2nd in MLS)
Alejandro Pozuelo – AM – Toronto FC
Assists: 10 (1st in MLS)
Goal Contributions: 19 (1st)
xA: 8.1 (1st)
Passes Into Penalty Area: 82 (1st)
Shot Assists: 66 (1st)
Carries: 1378 (1st)
Carries (Distance): 8055 yards (1st)
Nutmegs: 6 (2nd)
Pressing, dribbling, creativity, and raw output in terms of goals and assists are the order of the day when it comes to our wide players.
One of the standout dribblers in the league is Colorado Rapids’ Younes Namli, who has played a good number of games when taking into account that the Rapids missed much of October due to positive Covid tests within their ranks.
He has a take-on success of 71%, winning 51 of the 72 he attempted. We lack a bit of dribbling down the right, with Tinnerholm more of a midfielder at right-back than a winger, so the two should complement each other well.
For sheer volume combined with success, the Dane makes the team and will be dangerous in our XI cutting in from the right onto his stronger left foot.
When it comes to combined goals and assists totals, Seattle Sounders Jordan Morris is second only to Pozuelo’s 19, with 10 goals and eight assists, putting him level with Diego Rossi of LAFC.
Rossi is the league’s leading scorer, playing mostly from the left, and it’s difficult to leave the Uruguayan out of our forward line. He’s stepped into Carlos Vela’s place as the star of LAFC, and even though they haven’t been able to repeat their record-breaking 2019 season, the Uruguayan has still stood out. But he doesn’t quite make the cut for our team.
Neither Rossi nor Morris are prolific dribblers, but Morris is very good at picking his moments, winning 25 of his 32 attempted take-ons, giving him an impressive 78% success rate.
We already have our left-back, Adnan, dribbling down the left, so as is the case with Tinnerholm and Namli on the right, this pair should offer good balance.
Morris’s pressing data isn’t the best, but Seattle are 16th in the league for pressures in the final third, suggesting it’s not something he’s being asked to do, while Namli is the best presser on another side not known for this side of their game.
Younes Namli – RW – Colorado Rapids
Successful Take-ons: 71 (4th in MLS)
Take-on Success: 71%
Jordan Morris – LW – Seattle Sounders
NPxG: 9.2 (2nd in MLS)
Take-on Success: 78%
The most active individual final-third presser in MLS is Chicago Fire’s Robert Berić. This on its own wouldn’t be enough to get in our team, but the Slovenian is also joint-second in the goalscoring charts with 12.
Not too shabby when playing for a team sitting 22nd in the overall standings, and the ideal player to lead the line in this team. A goalscorer and a presser.
Striker – Robert Berić – Chicago Fire
Goals: 12 (2nd in MLS)
Final 3rd Pressures: 186 (1st)
All data from FBref except goals and assists (MLS)
My non-stats-based team of the season, for what it’s worth.
GK: Andre Blake – Philadelphia Union
RB: Anton Tinnerholm – NYC
CB: Jonathan Mensah – Columbus Crew
CB: Mark McKenzie – Philadelphia Union
LB: Ryan Hollingshead – FC Dallas
DM: Diego Chara – Portland Timbers
CM: Jamiro Monteiro – Philadelphia Union
CM: Alejandro Pozuelo – Toronto FC
RW: Lewis Morgan – Inter Miami
LW: Diego Rossi – LAFC
CF: Robert Berić – Chicago Fire