Analysis

8 MLS players who we aren't talking about enough right now

ISI Photos-Andrew Katsampes

It's easy to rattle off a list of MLS' biggest stars, but a few lesser-known players are quietly having bright starts to 2018.

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Dominique Badji, Colorado Rapids forward

Sometimes a player’s skill set and a manager’s tactical preferences just line up beautifully. Or maybe it’s just that Badji, whose goal total will probably rise for a third consecutive year in 2018, was just ready for a breakout season.

Either way, the Rapids’ striker is doing good things under new manager Anthony Hudson (five goals and an assist in seven matches). Honestly, his most impressive feat may be in holding off the competition for as long as he has. Rapids management spent significantly or otherwise endeavored in the offseason to bolster the position, adding the likes of Niki Jackson, Jack McBean and internationals Joe Mason and Yannick Boli. So far, none have come anywhere close to matching Badji’s impact.

Sebastian Blanco, Portland Timbers midfielder

Blanco was pretty good last year for the Timbers, especially in the season’s second half. It’s just that commenting on Blanco was sometimes difficult, what with Diego Valeri’s sensational, MVP season sucking all the oxygen from the room. But Blanco became increasingly effective through the 2017 season, finishing with eight goals and eight assists after that initial adjustment period.

And he is managing to kick it up a notch this year. Not asked to play out wide as often – aligned more central now when new manager Giovanni Savarese deploys an interesting and useful 4-3-2-1 – Blanco is impacting games not just with goals and assists, but also in drawing fouls and appearing from less predictable places. The team’s “other” Argentina veteran has four goals and an assist this year.

Alphonso Davies, Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder

Considering this guy’s inspiring potential, having started his first MLS match two years ago at age 15, perhaps this was always part of the progression. Perhaps the rise from “teen phenom with tons of potential” to something like “valuable, probably underrated contributor” was inevitable. It seems that we have arrived; the speedy Canadian international has a goal and three assists for Vancouver, which somewhat surprisingly sits near the top of the Western Conference. With just nine starts last season but already seven this year, he’s clearly a big part of manager Carl Robinson’s 2018 plans.

Jacori Hayes, FC Dallas midfielder

It’s easy to forget that Jacori Hayes (pictured above) isn’t among FC Dallas’ impressive stable of homegrown signings. Rather, he’s a reminder that while academies may have chipped away at the MLS draft’s relevance, the annual January selection process can still reap rewards.

Hayes got into just two matches last year, but he’s been a revelation this season at Toyota Stadium – and quite possibly FC Dallas’ best player. (Best, at least, this side of solid-once-again Matt Hedges.) Hayes had a down game against NYCFC, but he has otherwise done it all for FC Dallas: covering ground, gobbling up the defensive actions and even providing an important goal and assist.

Chris Mueller, Orlando City forward

Jason Kreis & Co. assembled quite an attacking front six over the last few months. With Sacha Kljestan, Yoshi Yotun, Dom Dwyer and Justin Meram already in place, Orlando then dipped significantly into the Targeted Allocation Money pot to secure Oriol “Uri” Rosell. With that, the club seemingly snapped in the final piece to its midfield and attacking puzzle. Or so it seemed.

Who knew rookie Chris “Cash” Mueller would bust up the guest list around Orlando City Stadium? The No. 6 selection in this year’s draft has been sensational along the right side; he has three goals and an assist in five starts (plus three appearances off the bench.) Orlando City has won five in a row and do take note, for most MLS clubs will go the full season (or seasons) without such a stretch. Mueller’s direct play and ability to stretch defenses vertically is among the reasons.

Johnny Russell, Sporting KC winger

A lot of things are going right for Sporting Kansas City in 2018 – this Felipe Gutierrez long-term injury as the exception. Head coach Peter Vermes has patched the holes in a defense that had gone inexplicably leaky early in season, Roger Espinoza is playing with the energy of a man 10 years younger and Sporting is generally passing most of the tests now. But the best part of 2018 so far can be seen up and down the right wing – or heard through a thick Scottish lilt. Russell has certainly gotten the attention of opposition defenders thanks to five goals and a lot of direct, hard-charging runs right at defenders.

Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, NYCFC forward

Talk about your flying starts; Tajouri-Shradi had four goals in his first four starts for NYCFC. In his fifth, he left after 35 minutes with a hamstring injury and then missed two subsequent contests for Patrick Vieira’s top-of-the-East club. The Swiss-born Libyan attacker has been creative and ruthlessly effective inside the penalty area (four goals on just seven shots). Can he make it back from the injury this week? It would be a great time with the Hudson River Derby on the schedule.

You could probably name teammates Jesus Medina and Jo Inge Berget to this list; both have been quite on top of things in their debut Yankee Stadium seasons. Throw in David Villa and everything he does and that’s an awful lot for opposition defenders to deal with. Tajouri-Shradi might be the most surprising of the bunch.

Matt Turner, New England Goalkeeper

New England’s impressive start under first-year manager Brad Friedel has been full of surprises – like the fact that it happened with Lee Nguyen stuck forever in management’s doghouse before finally being shipped out West to LAFC.

At the other end of the field, we see another revelation in Turner, who came into preseason camp as the Revs’ third-string goalkeeper. Never mind that; Turner leapfrogged incumbent Cody Cropper as well as trusted backup Brad Knighton and hasn’t disappointed since. The 23-year-old, who was always a good athlete but a relative late-comer to soccer, is third in MLS goals-against average (1.00) and fourth in saves (29).

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