MLS Positional Rankings: Lodeiro and Piatti dominate the flanks

By Ridge Mahoney

The importance of a strong spine is just as vital in soccer as any other team sport, yet there’s also no doubt wide play is crucial, particularly in the attack.

Not many MLS teams field a truly dominant winger or wide midfielder; two that did, Seattle and Montreal, reaped the benefits. Midseason arrival Nicolas Lodeiro led the Sounders to their first league title and won the Newcomer of the Year Award, and Ignacio Piatti propelled the Impact to its first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals.

Since they normally start from opposite sides of the field yet can wreak havoc just about anywhere in the attacking third, they are included in these categories though Lodeiro is very much an attacking midfielder and Piatti often plays like a second forward.

In any case they are prime examples of how teams willing do to their homework and spend considerable sums – by MLS standards – raise the level of attacking play in MLS. The 2016 season featured a very good array of wide players, with return from injury of Kevin Molino aiding Orlando City’s attack and another newcomer, Shkelzen Gashi, powering Colorado to the best regular season in its history.
SA's Top 10
1. Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle Sounders)
2. Kevin Molino (Orlando City)
3. Arturo Alvarez (Chicago Fire)
4. Juan Martinez (Real Salt Lake)
5. Dominic Oduro (Montreal Impact)
6. Michael Barrios (FC Dallas)
7. Cristian Bolanos (Vancouver Whitecaps)
8. Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution)
9. Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew)
10. Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers)

Lodeiro helped transform an underachieving Sounders team that rode his talent and spirit all the way to the summit. Seattle hit the jackpot with a Designated Player of tremendous talent and complete commitment to the club.

A torn ACL limited Molino to seven games in Orlando’s first MLS season; he rebounded to score 11 goals and log eight assists in 2016, and at 26 has several good seasons ahead. Playing for the fifth team in his MLS career, Alvarez rewarded the faith of Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic. His nine assists more than doubled his previous best and with five goals he tied his top figure. Still, the demands on him and the Fire will increase next season.

Martinez dazzled on the field but couldn’t handle the cultural adjustments and so he and RSL mutually agreed to terminate his contract. There’s not much subtlety to Oduro’s game; he can blaze past just about anybody in the league and has a good sense of which foot to use and which angle to take for a pass or shot. In his second MLS season, Barrios scored nine goals but only one in the last nine games, including playoffs, as defenses shifted more to his side after Fabian Castillo’s move to Turkey.

Rowe found himself at right back for a few games as the Revs battled with injuries and inconsistency. He scored five goals and assisted on seven others while playing the most games (33) and minutes (2,787) of his five-year pro career. Finlay’s numbers dropped from his outstanding 2015 season yet he finished second amongst Crew players in goals (6) and assists (9). Deployed wide late in the season, Nagbe posted just five assists yet posted a remarkable 89.9 passing percentage and contributed 1.4 key passes per game.

SA's Top 10
1. Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact)
2. Joao Plata (Real Salt Lake)
3. Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union)
4. David Accam (Chicago Fire)
5. Shkelzen Gashi (Colorado Rapids)
6. Justin Meram (Columbus Crew)
7. Mike Grella (New York Red Bulls)
8. Gyasi Zardes (L.A. Galaxy)
9. Diego Fagundez (New England)
10. Thomas McNamara (New York City)
A vital cog in Montreal’s return to the playoffs in 2015, Piatti emerged as a genuine star by scoring 17 goals in the regular season and four more in the playoffs. He also earned eight assists and in a more settled environment -- one without Didier Drogba -- will probably be even more productive in 2017.

Plata set a career-best with 12 assists while also scoring nine goals. He still tends to mystify his teammates along with opponents, which presents RSL head coach Jeff Cassar with critical questions regarding where and how he plays. Pontius responded well to a trade from D.C. United and by staying healthy as well matched his career high of 12 goals.

Accam is powerful and fast if not always reliable. With an upgraded midfield in 2017 he should better his nine goals of last season, and perhaps fine-tune his passing as well. As noted, Gashi elevated the Rapids and one of his spectacular strikes was chosen Goal of the Year. Only two players tallied more than Meram’s 13 assists and he reached career highs by playing in 33 games and starting 31. Playing with the league’s top scorer and assist leader, Grella took advantage to score seven goals and provide six assists while also grinding it out defensively.

A broken foot cut short the season for Zardes, who played only 19 games yet scored six goals and produced five assists. For the first time in his six-year pro career, Fagundez played in every game; though his stats (six goals, six assists) were modest, he’s electrifying when on his game. In only his third pro season, McNamara earned regular time in NYCFC’s star-studded lineup. He started 28 of 30 games, scored five goals and logged nine assists.
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