Player rankings are a major content staple in most major North American sports leagues. The NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL all have yearly— even midseason—hierarchies that are wildly popular and assembled across many different platforms and all types of mediums (print, digital, TV, etc.).
Major league soccer is different. Player rankings are done, but not with the same volume or fervor. Lists come out from a couple of websites, roughly once a year, and then that’s it.
Such is the nature of soccer in the United States. For one, MLS is starkly different from the European leagues, the latter of which are much more popular. That accounts for some of the discrepancy in demand. Mostly, though, soccer rankings just hit differently.
We’re talking about the ultimate team sport, one that may emphasize the entire squad more so than any of the four other major leagues. Singular players, on their own, seldom make all the difference. You need a collection—or rather, a collective—of talent that’s operating in concert, which marginalizes the importance of any one individual.
Sure, the NFL, NHL and MLB specifically all sell some semblance of the same model. But a top-tier quarterback can make an entire NFL team, an ace pitcher can significantly drive up the chances at a victory once every five days and both centers and goalies wield more influence on the ice, in the NHL, than they ever would on a soccer pitch.
Make no mistake: Megastars in the MLS and other leagues have serious control. But the number of them who operate at that level are fewer and further between. And that’s why, in our opinion, this ultra-exclusive club deserves to be recognized for their unique talents and, most critically, the impact they’re able to have.
With this in mind, here are the best current MLS players—who also just so happen to be, relative to the rest of the MLS field, the only players of their kind.
1. Caros Vela, Los Angeles FC
Injuries have muted both Carlos Vela’s availability and impact this season, but we’re hardly ready to knock him off the top of MLS’ mountain.
Last year, he put in a league-record 34 goals, and on the occasions in which he’s taken the field during the 2020 campaign, he’s commanded the same type of respect. Defenses develop entire gameplans around him, and their margin for error is nil. He can handle the ball through tight spaces, make multiple defenders miss and hit teammates with precise passes.
In other words, even when Vela isn’t scoring, the idea of him is still incredibly dangerous. That’s the peak of superstardom.
2. Caros Vela, Atlanta United FC
You want evidence of how bad a year 2020 has been? Look no further than this list. Our No. 2 player is yet another suffering from injury.
Josef Martinez missed pretty much the entire season with a torn ACL, but that’s not enough to vault him out of the top five. He is only 27, has already started posting encouraging videos of his rehab and is a high-volume, high-efficiency goal-getter.
This isn’t purely objective, either. The 27 goals he scored last season across 29 appearances speak for themselves—as does the fact that Atlanta missed the playoffs without him this year.
3. Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders
While the current field for MLS MVP is rather wide, Nicolas Lodeiro is among the three most serious candidates. It isn’t hard to see why.
Indeed, his scoring doesn’t jump off the page. He has just seven goals this year. But he pairs those with 10 assists and one of the highest on-ball usage rates in the league.
To say he’s Seattle’s primary setup man would be an understatement. He is the engine of their entire offense.
4. Maxi Moralez, New York City FC
Some will be inclined to move Maxi Moralez off this list given how New York City’s most recent playoff run ended—with his missing a penalty pick. Whatever. Penalty scoring has never been his game.
Setting up teammates is a different story. He is the best passer currently in the MLS. Injuries and the global pandemic diminished his impact this year, but he’s coming off a season in which he doled out 20 assists—the most ever in a single MLS campaign.
5. Diego Rossi, Los Angeles FC
Is it fair Los Angeles has two of the five best players currently alive? Most definitely not.
Most try to discredit Diego Rossi’s superstar case by citing his lack of self-creation. He capitalizes on passes from other teammates and one-timers at large. But that’s hardly a bad thing.
Rossi is so good off the ball because he’s so damn fast. He bends defenses with the distances he travels away from the action. That, in turn, opens up the field for everyone else. His top-five case is relatively new, but as someone who has that type of impact while currently leading MLS in goals, his candidacy is totally legitimate.
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