James Nalton takes a look at TransferLab’s Best XI from the recently-concluded Major League Soccer regular season to see what the data shows up.
Awards season has arrived in Major League Soccer (MLS) after the conclusion of the 2021 regular season. It’s a time when individuals are recognised for their achievements throughout the year. It’s also a time for the ever-popular and often controversial Best XI.
Deciding who deserves such awards is difficult. As MLS is now a 27-team league after the introduction of Austin FC for the 2021 season, some standout players or fan favourites will always miss out.
But what does the data say? In this article, I crunched the numbers and ran the data through TransferLab’s Best XI tool to see who it highlighted as the standout players in MLS for the 2021 season.
Here are the criteria used to build this Best XI:
- More than 800 minutes played.
- A realistic 4-1-4-1 formation facilitating the inclusion of full backs and at least one defensive midfielder.
- Roles chosen: goalkeeper (ball player), two central defenders (ball playing), two full-backs (attacking), a holding midfielder, a ball-winning midfielder, an attacking playmaker, two wingers (all round), and a striker (all round).
- One right-sided and one left-sided centre back.
- All graphics used show players compared to others in MLS.
- “Runners up” in each position are also shown.
In its own way, this TransferLab XI may be no less controversial than the official XI chosen by MLS or those picked by fans of the various clubs across the league. But it’s an interesting experiment and by the end of it you will want to see this team in action!
The Final XI
GK: Brad Guzan – Atlanta United
RB: Julian Gressel – DC United
CB: Ilie Sánchez – Sporting KC
CB: Andreu Fontàs – Sporting KC
LB: Gudmundur Thórarinsson – New York City
DM: Federico Navarro – Chicago Fire
RW: Jonathan Menéndez – Real Salt Lake
CM: Judson – San Jose Earthquakes
AM: Carles Gil – New England Revolution
LW: Dániel Sallói – Sporting KC
CF: Romell Quioto – CF Montréal (Impact)
This latest edition of the league that spans the United States and Canada saw New England Revolution crowned champions after a convincing campaign.
The Revolution, led by 70-year-old head coach Bruce Arena, were the best side in the Eastern Conference by some distance, breaking league records for points and finishing 19 ahead of their nearest challengers, Philadelphia Union and Nashville SC.
In the overall standings, Robin Fraser’s Colorado Rapids were New England’s closest challengers. Though they finished 12 points behind the Revolution, Colorado were one of the stories of the season, topping the Western Conference despite having one of the lowest wage bills in MLS.
Seeing as the Rapids’ remarkable season was down to teamwork and organisation rather than any individual stars, it will come as no real surprise to see none of their players represented in teams of the season or receiving individual honours.
Fraser would deserve the Coach of the Year award, though, and while there were notable performances from English midfielder Jack Price, who finished the season with 12 assists, and 20-year-old Cole Bassett emerged as a potential future star, no Rapids players made this team.
Carles Gil – MVP
Predictably, the same cannot be said for the Revolution. Their attacking midfielder Carles Gil is included in the primary playmaking position in our Best XI and will likely be named the Most Valuable Player in MLS for 2021 when it comes to the official awards.
Incidentally, if the role of our attacking midfielder was set to “support striker” rather than “attacking playmaker”, Portland Timbers’ Sebastian Blanco and Ryan Gauld of the Vancouver Whitecaps are the top two. Both deserve recognition with Gauld having a good case for the league’s Newcomer of the Year award and Blanco hitting form again, somewhat under the radar, after recovering from a serious knee injury.
As our team will include players in a number of different roles rather than shoehorning all the best playmakers and strikers into an unrealistically attacking formation, there can be no arguments against Gil being given the playmaking responsibility. His creative talents were evident to anyone who watched the Revolution during this 2021 and he topped the MLS assist charts per the league’s own definition with 18.
Gustavo Bou is the other Revolution player to appear, and though he is behind Montréal’s Romell Quioto for a place in this XI, the Argentine’s name isn’t out of place on a list of the league’s best forwards.
Gil registered more assists and teammate Adam Buksa managed one more goal (16) than Bou. However, the Argentine led the Revolution for goals and assists combined with 24, made up of 15 goals and nine assists so his appearance is no surprise.
What is a surprise, though, is to see Quioto’s name not only on the shortlist but claiming the centre-forward spot in our team.
The obvious choices would be one of Ola Kamara and Valentin Castellanos who topped the 2021 goalscoring charts with 19 each. Castellanos was awarded the Golden Boot due to having more assists, while Kamara had the best goals per 90 minute record in the league. Kamara scored nine of his goals from the penalty spot and Castellanos four, which could count against them and in Quioto’s favour. But even for non-penalty goals per 90 minutes, Quioto doesn’t rank highly.
If the role were set to simply “goalscorer”, Kamara and Buksa would be the choices but we want a bit more from our guy. We find that in the fairly specific but useful non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes category, where Quioto ranks in the league’s top five.
To go even more in-depth, taking into account the previous 12 months of data compared to other MLS forwards in this “all round” role, the Honduran’s TransferLab profile shows how highly he ranks in terms of creativity and link-up play. He also has an impressive xG score, no doubt partly thanks to Montréal’s American creator-in-chief, Djordje Mihailovic.
Put Quioto in our team with Gil et al. and he would surely increase his output.
We might not even need Quioto to bag the goals, though, given who we have in the left-sided attacking role — Sporting KC’s Dániel Sallói.
The Hungarian is very much an inside forward rather than a winger and finished the season with 16 goals putting him level with Buska, Hany Mukhtar and Damir Kreilach — two behind the Golden Boot winner.
Kreilach and Mukhtar have strong cases to be in any team of the season but don’t quite make the cut. Sallói, along with Mukhtar and arguably Kreilach, would be in with a shout for MVP were it not for Gil’s extraordinary season. Of the three, Sallói is the best fit for our team.
Though we have a good mix of teams in this XI, Sporting KC are the most-represented thanks to Sallói’s inclusion and their two central defenders making the cut.
If our team were to take to the pitch, it would be good to have a defensive pairing who are familiar with each other and luckily the data throws up SKC duo Andreu Fontàs and Ilie Sánchez.
Fontàs is listed as the best defender in the league in the “ball playing” role per TransferLab, and should at least have been on the shortlist for the MLS Defender of the Year award. Matt Besler of Austin FC is rated as the second-best centre-back using these parameters but he plays on the same side as Fontás.
Sánchez may not be included in anyone else’s best XI, especially as he played a handful of games in midfield, but he’s ideal for ours and the pair offer ideal left-foot and right-foot balance to the heart of the back line.
Gudmundur and Gressel
Voting for the official MLS team of the season restricted the choices to a 3-4-3 formation, presumably to get in the array of attacking and playmaking talent across the league. The problem with this is it becomes less a team and more just a list of good players.
The omission of full backs in the official XI is a shame as some of these players are among the most outstanding in the league.
One of the more underrated is New York City’s Icelandic attacking left-back, Gudmundur Thórarinsson, who makes our TransferLab XI.
Anyone with their eyes on the data during the season may be tipping NYCFC for a good run in the playoffs as their underlying numbers have been good throughout 2021.
These being the MLS playoffs, there is always the potential to throw any team off course, whether they be New England or New York City (who could face each other if City defeat Atlanta in the first round). NYC have the potential to be the best team in MLS if things click for them in the next four games but getting past Atlanta won’t be easy.
On the other side of the field, we have a player who has become one of the most consistent in MLS — Julian Gressel.
The German, who won an MLS Cup with Atlanta United in 2018, is in his second season with DC United, and despite their failure to qualify for the playoffs, this was one of Gressel’s best seasons. He was third in the league for assists with 13 per the official MLS tally and his role as a wing back in a back five meant he was able to get forward regularly down the right.
Not only do they make the team but Gressel and Thórarinsson do so as the highest-rated players relative to their role with a TransferLab score of 93. Gressel also leads the league for expected assists in 2021.
Major League Surprises
Beyond Quioto, the other interesting inclusions in this TransferLab team are at right wing and goalkeeper.
Matt Turner is likely to be most people’s pick between the posts, especially as his profile has risen since getting deserved starts for the United States this year, while Andre Blake remains one of the best goalkeepers in the region. However, Atlanta United’s Brad Guzan is the No. 1 for the TransferLab team.
Guzan’s passing stats hold up well in the ball-player goalkeeper role. Atlanta’s style will play a big part in this, just as Sporting KC’s possession game helped their centre backs make the team in ball-playing roles. Atlanta have made the third-most short passes in the 2021 season with SKC topping that particular table (via Whoscored.) LA Galaxy are second.
Perhaps the most intriguing selection in the line-up is that of Real Salt Lake’s Jonathan Menéndez. Jony, as he is often known, was a mid-season signing from Argentine side Independiente who has struggled to break into the RSL team on a regular basis. Finding a way into the side seemed especially unlikely after Pablo Mastroeni took over from Freddy Juarez and implemented a 3-5-2 formation (which has benefitted Maikel Chang — our second-choice left back), but it may surprise some that Jony has racked up 890 minutes in MLS.
Despite uncertainty around his place in the team, there is huge potential there. The Transferlab data has picked this up. The screenshot below takes into account games from the last 12 months, so includes appearances for Independiente in the 2021 Copa de la Liga Profesional.
It shows why RSL signed him and even his MLS-only data in areas such as progressive passing, key passes and crossing is among the highest in the league despite limited minutes. He will be one to look out for next season and may even be RSL’s secret weapon in the playoffs.
Fire and Skill
There are two more positions to fill in the centre of the park and a couple of decisions to make in terms of the style of player required for both. Even though we have tried to balance our team, it is still on the attacking side, so we will go with a ball winner for the No. 8 and a holding player in the defensive midfield position.
In the deep role, we find 21-year-old Federico Navarro. He is similar to Jony in that he arrived in MLS in the middle of the season from Argentina. The former Talleres man moved to Chicago Fire in September and has become a regular in their line-up playing the full 90 minutes in 9 of his 12 appearances.
His contributions in defensive areas and his possession statistics in this run of games throw him into our team just as quickly as he was thrown into the Fire XI. However, he is also one to look out for next season, especially as Chicago haven’t made the playoffs this time around.
If we’d have gone with a box-to-box role in midfield, Atlanta United’s Marcelino Moreno would have been the pick and would have given us a very creative version of this role. Think “ball winner” in modern-day MLS, though, and the name that springs to mind straight away is Judson of San Jose.
When you combine Judson’s attributes with San Jose Earthquakes’ tactics under Matías Almeyda, you get a form of defending that can be as entertaining as attacking play. The Brazilian is one of the most active pressers in the league from his position in front of the back four and he epitomises the Earthquakes’ high-risk approach which is very proactive in and out of possession. This leads to a lot of engagement with the opposition in midfield and Judson racks up big numbers for pressing, tackling, interceptions and pretty much anything else to do with ground combat.
Having Judson and Navarro in the same line-up would give the opposition no peace at all. They would act as an insurance policy for the attacking full backs and forward players, while also working to win the ball back and help provide opportunities on the counter.
For all the attacking talent in this team, the midfield pair behind Gil and in front of the back four may just be the best thing about it!