Franchise tag: The Eastern Conference's most indispensable players

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Who is the one player your team can least afford to lose? We walk through the Eastern Conference.

Every team in Major League Soccer has core pieces of their team – players that are essential to what the club is building. But within that core, there is a player who is elevated to an even more advanced level.

In the NFL, the “franchise tag” is put on a free agent to essentially keep the player on the team with a one-year contract that pays him among the top five players at his position. Taking that same idea but expanding it to the next level, we’ve looked at every MLS team and designated their “franchise player.” In this case, it’s the most irreplaceable player on a team; the person each team would least like to lose in a trade or sale. Essentially the most important player to a team’s short- and long-term success.

Some teams may have multiple candidates. On other teams, the choice is clear. We looked at the Western Conference already. Here are our picks for the franchise player in the Eastern Conference.

Atlanta United – Miguel Almirón

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

There is a reason Atlanta paid a hefty $8.5 million transfer fee for the Paraguayan playmaker. Almirón is capable of playing on the wing or in the No. 10 spot, but wherever he lines up on the field, he will be Atlanta’s most important player. This is a team that wants to get out and attack, and most of what it do will go through Almirón. Take him out of the lineup and Atlanta will have less punch and less versatility.

Chicago Fire – Dax McCarty

The Fire has been at the bottom of the league for the last two years, so there were plenty of problems to address. The biggest issue on the field was a hole in midfield, and the biggest off the field was a lack of leadership in the locker room.

The Fire traded $400,000 in allocation money for McCarty in order to address both of those problems. McCarty will run the Fire midfield. He’ll also be charged with inspiring the locker room as the undisputed leader of the team. If there is a turnaround in Chicago, it starts with the Ginger Ninja.

Columbus Crew – Ola Kamara

The Crew has a number of important players that make up the core, most notably Federico Higuain and Wil Trapp, but Gregg Berhalter’s system is aimed at getting the ball to a target striker as often as possible. It led Kei Kamara to a Golden Boot runner-up season in 2015 (and an MLS Cup appearance for Columbus), and last year Ola Kamara showed he can score at that same type of clip.

Columbus needs someone in that role, and if Ola Kamara goes down the Crew are in trouble. Right now, he’s the most important player in the lineup.

D.C. United – Luciano Acosta

Over the past few seasons, D.C. has been largely a system-first team. It was plug-and-play, essentially, with Ben Olsen able to move the pieces around as needed.

That changed when D.C. added Luciano Acosta from Boca Juniors. The Argentinian playmaker worked his way into the team over time and soon the system changed around him. Playing from a deeper role in midfield, Acosta became a spark for United and had the team playing some of the best soccer in MLS down the stretch. Acosta remains the most important piece for United, and the system will revolve around him as long as he’s in the team. 

Montreal Impact – Ignacio Piatti

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to the Impact and whether they can contend in MLS, it boils down to this one line: ‘Well, they’ve got Piatti.’

As long as the Argentinian is in the midfield for Montreal, the team is a contender in the East. Take him out of the team, and suddenly Montreal looks a bit old and slow in some important areas of the field. With Piatti hovering on the left wing, though, and Dom Oduro’s speed on the opposite side, opposing teams are trapped.

Piatti is just too dangerous, and some believe he’s the best player in the league outside of Sebastian Giovinco. Without Piatti, it’s no sure bet the Impact would contend in the East.

New England Revolution – Lee Nguyen

The Revs have plenty of attacking talent, but it works around Nguyen in the middle of the park. If you take out his vision and passing, things get a lot more difficult, even with talent like Kei Kamara and Juan Agudelo up top. Nguyen’s presence in central midfield opens up space on the wings for the likes of Kelyn Rowe, who had a fantastic 2016 season.

If the Revs stick with the diamond midfield, Nguyen’s value increases even more, as he becomes the main facilitator for the strikers up top.

New York City F.C. – David Villa

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

There are certain players in this league that drive teams forward, and Villa has proven to be everything New York hoped he would be when the club brought him to MLS.

The reigning league MVP makes NYCFC dangerous at all times, and even as it struggled defensively the past two seasons, the club was in almost every game because Villa is so deadly in front of goal. If you take Villa out of this lineup, it’s hard to say they are a playoff team. That’s how good he is. One of the most irreplaceable players for a team in MLS.

New York Red Bulls – Sacha Kljestan

This may be the toughest club to nail down a “franchise player,” and it really comes down to last season’s MVP debate. Who is more important for the Red Bulls? Kljestan or Bradley Wright-Phillips. The argument for Wright-Phillips is that when he’s not scoring New York looks lost. But with Dax McCarty now playing for the Chicago Fire, Kljestan’s job in midfield has become that much more important.

If you removed Kljestan from this midfield now, the Red Bulls midfield would start to look shaky – and it’d be a gamble that their wing play could make up for it. Goal scorers are the most important parts of a team, but in this case, Kljestan is the glue that’s keeping the Red Bulls midfield on the right level.

Orlando City SC – Cyle Larin

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This was another tough call. Kaká obviously has been the centerpiece of all that Orlando City does in midfield, but while the Designated Player’s production has been strong, it hasn’t been game-changing very often. He has 18 goals and 17 assists in two seasons, with eight of those goals coming from the penalty spot.

Kaká’s role becomes even more important now that Kevin Molino is gone, but Molino’s absence also means Orlando City is going to be even more reliant on Cyle Larin to score. The Canadian has 31 goals in his first two pro seasons, and there’s not a reliable finisher on the roster behind him.

If you take Larin out of the Lions’ lineup, there will be a big question about how Orlando City puts the ball in the net. For that reason, he’s the franchise player.

Philadelphia Union – Andre Blake

The Union have some important pieces in midfield – Chris Pontius is underrated, and Alejandro Bedoya will no doubt be more comfortable in his first full year in Philadelphia – but the best and most valuable player stands in goal.

Blake had a breakout season last year, and behind a back line that again has some question marks, the Union will count on the Jamaican international to keep it in games. Blake has the talent to enter into an upper echelon of goalkeepers, and as long as he stays on the track, he’s the most important player on the roster.

Toronto FC – Sebastian Giovinco

This is an absolute no-brainer. Michael Bradley is the leader of the team, and Jozy Altidore proved his value down the stretch last season, but Giovinco is the player that makes this Toronto FC team one of the best in MLS. Giovinco is the best player in MLS and it’s not close, and he’s the one player every team in MLS would take given the opportunity. He’s a difference-maker in so many ways. There is no replacing him.

More: The franchise players in MLS' Western Conference

Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.

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