MLS is Back with a bang: 7 star performers analysed

To European audiences, Major League Soccer has always been a strange sort of hinterland where ageing greats and up-and-coming domestic prospects meet.

And never more so than in its current guise with the MLS is Back tournament taking place at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World resort near Orlando, FL.

The group stage, comprised of 24 of the 26 MLS franchises – FC Dallas and Nashville SC withdrew after several of their players tested positive for COVID-19 – will count towards regular-season standings. The winners will qualify for the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.

Following the conclusion of the round of 16, we’ve analysed seven of the highest performers so far.

Diego Rossi – LAFC

No Carlos Vela? No problem for Bob Bradley’s side who reached the quarter-finals with a resounding 4-1 win over Seattle Sounders. The star of the show for The Black and Gold in the absence of their Mexican maestro? Diego Rossi.

The 22-year-old Uruguayan has top-scored at the MLS is Back Tournament with seven goals, putting him clear of breakout sensation Ayo Akinola (more on him later). Rossi’s sensational form won’t come as a surprise to anyone. The Montevideo native has 29 goals in the last two seasons at Banc of California Stadium and is one of the stars of an increasingly strong roster.

A hat-trick in the 6-2 El Tráfico annihilation of rivals LA Galaxy sent LAFC through behind group winners Portland Timbers. It’s hard to read too much into anyone’s form given the small sample size – even the regular MLS season was only two games old when coronavirus struck – but with the help of Twenty3’s Content Toolbox, we can delve deeper.

Third for shots per 90 with 4.65, Rossi also ranks fourth for touches in the opposition box on 6.51. It’s no surprise to see he is the second-most advanced member of this LAFC on average, per the graphic below.

In fact, that visualisation shows us that along with Brian Rodríguez, he is virtually playing as a central forward with off-season acquisition Bradley Wright-Phillips dropping in between the two, almost as a No.10. The upshot? Rossi has enjoyed plenty of high-value opportunities in good areas, as we can see below in his open-play post-shot xG map.

Ayo Akinola – Toronto FC

Prior to the start of the MLS is Back Tournament, Akinola had scored just once in Major League Soccer and was a relative unknown. Even though Toronto crashed out, losing 3-1 to NYCFC in the last-16, he has been the tournament’s breakout star with five goals from just three outings.

A brace in the 2-2 draw against D.C. United, the Detroit, MI. native bagged an unforgettable hat-trick in the 401 Derby win over Montreal Impact. The third of those goals was the pick of the bunch and illustrated perfectly all of his qualities. Timing his run to perfection, he bullied Jukka Raiala before sitting keeper Clément Diop down and finishing with a deft dink.

What’s incredible about Akinola’s showing in Orlando is he took 15 touches in the opposition penalty area across three appearances, 14 of which resulted in a shot. Looking at his open-play post-shot xG map (below) we can see that all bar one of his efforts during this tournament came from inside the penalty area with the majority on the ‘easy’ end of the scale.

Born to Nigerian parents, Akinola moved to Brampton aged one and has the USMNT, CanMNT and Nigerian national team all chasing him internationally. It’s little wonder. His combination of searing pace, strength and an uncanny knack for going undetected by opposing defenders – Raiala was left red-faced for all three of his goals against Montreal – make him an ever-present threat.

The visualisation below shows Akinola’s average position when receiving the ball and where he moves to collect possession (dotted red lines). Akinola already operates very centrally and high up the field but we can also see his penchant for lurking on the shoulder of the last defender.

Even prior to breaking his duck, Akinola passed up several good opportunities in the goalless Group C tie with New England Revolution. Having shone in the absence of 113-cap USMNT forward Jozy Altidore, the prospect of the pair starting together will set pulses racing at BMO Field.

Diego Chará – Portland Timbers

It’s not just offensive players we’re paying homage to here. Portland’s defensive linchpin Chará – a 2019 MLS All-Star no less – has enjoyed a fine tournament screening the Timbers’ backline.

The 2018 MLS Cup runners-up are through to the quarter-finals, where they will face NYCFC who can count themselves fortunate to qualify for the knockouts at all after nicking the final third-place qualifying spot.

With 2.3 defensive duels won (per 90), Chará ranks tenth among all players at the MLS is Back Tournament and although his 4.59 interceptions per 90 are some way behind leader Sebastian Berhalter of Columbus, he has played significantly more minutes.

In the visualisation above, created using Twenty3’s Content Toolbox, we can see the sheer volume of defensive work Chará gets through in the middle third of the field, regularly dropping deep in his own half.

Returning to the average team positions visualisation, it’s clear why Chará gets through so many defensive actions so deep. Not only is he the deepest member of Portland’s midfield, he regularly drops in to allow central defender Bill Tuiloma to step up and makes interceptions. Only one player at this tournament can better the Kiwi’s 10.19 per 90.

Jonathan Mensah – Columbus Crew

The Crew had looked imperious before their last-16 shoot-out defeat to Minnesota United, breezing through Group E with maximum points and three clean sheets picked up against Atlanta United, NY Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati.

Central to those shut-outs was the form of central defensive colossus, Jonathan. The 30-year-old ranks third for interceptions per 90 with 9.52 across his four appearances in Orlando. Only Columbus team-mate Josh Williams (13.71 – though in far fewer minutes) and the aforementioned Tuioma (10.19) can top that figure.

Jonathan’s impeccable reading of the game and timing in the challenge is underlined in his heat map, above, which shows a higher volume of activity further up the field than one might usually associate with a central defender.

Another impressive facet to the 60-cap Ghanaian international’s game is his passing. No-one at the MLS is Back Tournament can eclipse his average of 68.46 completed passes per 90.

As we can see in the passing radar above, Jonathan is not limited to simple sideways and backwards passes. He tries to be progressive with white indicating completed passes. With 19.27 forward passes (per 90) only four other central defenders have completed more at this tournament.

Alejandro Pozuelo – Toronto FC

If anyone can claim a share of the credit for Akinola’s explosion at the MLS is Back Tournament, it’s TFC team-mate Pozuelo. The silky Spanish playmaker bagged three assists in four games. The beneficiary on each occasion? You guessed it – Akinola.

Premier League observers may remember Pozuelo from the ‘Swanselona’ spell in Swansea City’s history but, since March 2019, the 5ft7in midfielder has called Toronto home. He finished as TFC’s top scorer with 12 goals and the same number of assists in his maiden MLS campaign and shows no sign of slowing.

The graphic above highlights each of Pozuelo’s 14 assisted shots during the MLS is Back Tournament – a figure no-one can better. Indeed, the former Real Betis playmaker is actually one of the best in MLS when it comes to shots assisted and completed final-third passes, per his Dynamic Radar – below.

Since the start of the 2019 MLS season, Pozuelo ranks third for shots assisted per 90 with 2.41 and has the second-highest average for completed through passes (1.26). With service like that, it’s little wonder Akinola is thriving.

Chris Mueller – Orlando City

The fifth overall pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, Mueller only netted five goals in the entire 2019 season as Orlando City flattered to deceive once more. Yet at Disneyland, the Schaumburg, IL, native has flourished with three strikes in four outings – all from open play.

According to team-mate Tesho Akindele, Mueller’s biggest strength is his finishing. The Canadian midfielder once said of the 23-year-old: “…one-v-one, one of the best players I’ve played with.”

Mueller underlined those credentials with two ice-cool finishes inside the first ten minutes of The Lions’ 3-1 win over NYCFC. The first was pure poacher’s instinct, diverting João Moutinho’s wicked delivery past Sean Johnson before popping up in acres of space to fire home a second shortly after.

If we take a closer look at Mueller’s shot placement map, we can see he has been clinical at the MLS is Back Tournament. From just ten efforts on goal, he’s hit the target five times, resulting in three goals for Óscar Pareja’s side.

Most impressive, though, is the way he’s adding value to his strikes. Mueller’s xG for those four matches stands at just 1.86 yet with smart finishing, outlined above in his shot placement map, his post-shot xG rose to 2.57. If Orlando can maintain this level of service, they could finally go to the post-season for the first time in their five-season history.

Memo Rodríguez – Houston Dynamo

It’s been a long and winding route to where he is now but Memo Rodríguez has gradually made good on the talent Houston always felt he had. Signed through their academy, he struggled on loan at USL affiliate side Charleston Battery before being released. Linking up with Rio Grande Valley in the States’ second tier, he impressed and rejoined Houston a year later.

Even so, it’s taken the appointment of former USMNT star Tab Ramos to unleash his full potential. Moved infield from the wing, Rodríguez has always seen himself as a central midfielder, and he’s been proven right.

Rodríguez, who qualifies for the US and Mexico, has already scored twice at the MLS is Back Tournament and his 4.07 shots per 90 put him seventh. No other midfielder gets close to the Wharton, TX, native.

In the passes received and movements made network above, we can see Rodríguez regularly collects the ball in quite advanced areas, signified by the red dotted line. He’s even been likened to Chelsea’s all-time leading scorer Frank Lampard by Armchair Analyst Matthew Doyle.

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.

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