A data-driven search for the 2022 MLS mid-season MVPs – data analysis
We’re just over halfway through the MLS season and the All-Stars are less than two weeks away from their mid-season contest with the Liga MX All-Stars.
The league table is also starting to give us a glimpse of the favourites, playoff hopefuls and the teams already planning for next season.
With half a season of data to look at, this data analysis will look at the most valuable players from the first half of the MLS season. While the common trend is to prioritize goal scorers, possibly extending the search to the top-rated goal contributors, this analysis is looking for the players with the most complete data profiles. Using statistics from each positional group, we have identified the five most valuable players from the first half of the MLS season.
While a great player can elevate a bad team to the middle of the table, and there are a few who have in the 2022 MLS season, this data analysis intends to find early candidates for the league’s Most Valuable Player award. Typically, the award goes to the best player from one of the top teams or another candidate who has produced obscene stats, generally focusing on goals scored.
To narrow the player pool, this analysis focuses on players from the top eight teams in each conference. Seven teams from both the Eastern and Western conferences make the playoffs, giving us 14 in total. Our search was limited to the top 14 clubs, plus the first team out to have a look at players one spot outside of that threshold.
Since an MVP candidate gains that status through consistent performances on the pitch, we’ve also reduced the player pool to those with a minimum of 1,500 minutes played.
With the reduced player pool, all players were sorted by position and their statistics were converted into a positional percentile ranking. Identifying top performers in targeted metrics relative to the position was the next step. This brought our pool down to 44 players.
Further parsing was needed. To get the list down to a top 20, data profiles were created to give a direct comparison of the selected players. Again, the first step was to narrow the list by positional comparisons. With only the top few players at each positional group available, the next step was to identify the most complete profiles.
In the end, five players were selected based on their statistics, as well as five honourable mentions. Let’s have a look at the top five performers to emerge from the data analysis.
Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union
Andre Blake is a 31-year-old goalkeeper for the Philadelphia Union. Arguably the most complete goalie in the league, he leads the league’s top defensive team as Philadelphia has only conceded 15 goals over 22 games.
The Jamaican international is the league’s leader in prevented goals this season with a mark of 11. The nearest competitor, Brad Stuver, has a 6.7 rating in this category. Keep in mind that the one blemish in Blake’s goalkeeper actions category, conceded goals and conceded goals p90, are actually showing that he is near the top of the league in both categories. A top shot-stopper and an incredible leader on the pitch, Blake is not only the top goalkeeper in the league but perhaps the best overall player.
Philadelphia leans heavily on him during the build-up as well. He rates among the top players at the position in long passes P90 (6.97) and accuracy (74.56), progressive passes P90 (5.73) and accuracy (82%) and average pass length (34.18m). The Union like to play out of the back and dictate tempo through possession. His steady feet and exceptional passing range are essential to Philadelphia’s game model.
Jose Cifuentes, Los Angles FC
Cifuentes is the Ecuadorian international midfielder running the show for Los Angeles FC. He may have the most complete data profile of any field player in this analysis.
His six goals amount to 0.34 goals p90. He’s among the top MLS attacking midfielders in terms of his xG P90 (0.25) and the number of shots P90 (2.11). His attacking and creativity don’t rely strictly on his positioning. Cifuentes is a dynamic midfielder who’s also among the league leaders at the position in dribbles p90 (2.93) and successful dribbles (60%).
From a playmaking standpoint, his numbers are a bit more modest, but still largely rating in the top half of the league. Though his heat map shows high involvement as LAFC enter the final third, Cifuentes comes alive as the table toppers look to make a move towards the goal.
He’s also a highly committed defender. His defensive duels p90 rates in the 83rd percentile while his success rate is in the 55th. The Ecuadorian has an excellent motor in midfield and fits perfectly into the LAFC tactics. They’re a team with a few players who could very easily have made this list, but Cifuentes gets the nod because of his well-rounded profile.
Hany Mukhtar, Nashville SC
Hany Mukhtar is not only Nashville SC’s top goal scorer, but he’s one of the top in the category league-wide. With 12 goals in 21 games, he has been the driving force behind Nashville’s final third production. With just 28 goals to their name, Mukhtar’s production has been the difference in earning points and walking away empty-handed.
But he’s not just a goal scorer. Muktar is an exceptional passer with high usage and efficiency statistics across the board. He is a creative presence who can not only play high up the pitch as a true nine but also drop into midfield to collect the ball and facilitate play from deep.
Though his defensive contribution is below par for the position, Nashville’s dependence on the German’s attacking proficiency is undeniable. He has been especially effective in xG P90 (0.59), shots P90 (3.85) and progressive runs P90 (2.28).
With a veteran squad and a blue-collar mentality, Nashville looks primed to make the playoffs. They sit in the fifth position at the time of writing, but with their solid defensive tactics and Mukhtar up top, only a calamitous end to the season will keep them from postseason play.
Sebastian Druissi, Austin FC
In some MLS analysis circles, Sebastián Driussi is the MVP favourite. The Austin FC attacking midfielder and designated player has his side competing for the top spot in the Western Conference, trailing LAFC by four points. With 13 goals and 5 assists in 22 games, he has contributed to 44% of Austin FC’s goals this season.
Looking at his profile, Driussi is at his best in the box, leading the MLS in many critical categories including goals (0.59), non-penalty goals (0.48), xG (0.34) and touches in the box (2.71), all on a p90 basis.
Once in the penalty area, he has shown himself capable of picking out teammates. He rates at the top of the league in xA (0.11), key passes (0.52), and passes to the penalty area (2.84), again p90.
His goal contribution percentage is an impressive tally, but, as mentioned at the beginning of this data analysis, we’re looking for well-rounded data profiles. Of the five players on the list, his statistics are the most heavily concentrated in one specific area. Had Taty Castellanos not transferred to Girona, the former NYCFC star would have gotten the nod, and likely the top vote. Still, despite replacement status for Driussi, his effectiveness in the box has Austin FC in second place in the Western Conference, already exceeding their inaugural season’s point total by 10 points with 12 matches in hand.
Emanuel Reynoso, Minnesota United FC
Emmanuel Reynoso is an Argentinian winger playing for Minnesota United. An electric player on the wings, Reynoso is the creative spark for the Loons.
An exceptional dribbler, he averages 9.88 dribbles p90 with a 57% success rate, a very good rate given his high usage. Once he wins his duel, he has shown the knack to produce in the final third, both as a goal scorer (9) or through his playmaking capabilities.
On the season, he has played as an attacking midfielder, be it right, left or centre. He has been especially proficient with his play in the final third. Among his top statistical categories are goals (0.41), xG (0.29) and shots (2.44).
Minnesota United is enjoying another excellent campaign in their young history. Currently, in season six, the Loons sit third in the Western conference table and feature a well-balanced group of players. With 34 points, their likelihood of reaching the playoffs is very high and Reynoso’s contributions are a key factor in their success.
Reducing the player pool to five from 20 was the most difficult part of the process. The players who reached the final stages of the selection process are all having fantastic seasons but didn’t boast the depth of profile as these five players. To recognize those who fell just short, here are five players worthy of an honourable mention listed in no particular order.
Honourable Mentions: Alexander Callens (NYCFC), Cristian Cásseres (NY Red Bulls), Lewis Morgan (NY Red Bulls), Luciano Acosta (FC Cincinnati) and Cristian Arango (Los Angles FC)
And let’s not forget the former NYCFC star, Castellanos. With his loan from New York City FC to Girona, the Argentinian is effectively staying within the City Football Group. Perhaps the top player in the first half of the season, he’ll now ply his trade in La Liga, lining up against the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona rather than the New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union.
The top five players in this data analysis are in no particular order, but if any one player stood above the others, it’s Andre Blake. Should the goalkeeper win the MVP award, it would mark the first time in league history that a keeper has won the MVP award.a
We are just halfway through the season. Many questions remain and we’ll have more clarity on the MVP race as the season unfolds. Keep an eye on these five though. At the moment, they are the front runners to take home the league’s most coveted individual award.