We’re all here because someone on Twitter started a discussion pertaining to ranking MLS wingers. I’m certain that my rankings won’t satisfactorily answer that question to everybody’s liking, but hopefully it adds something useful to the conversation. First of all, let’s establish some rules.
1) The definition of a winger for this context is going to be super vague. Essentially a wide player lined up in the midfield according to the team lineup provided at the start of a match. Argue that however you wish. This just seems easiest.
2) The player has to have played 500 minutes in the position his season. We’re not doing this “well--he’s been a winger in the past” or “he’s been really good when played out on the wing in a few games”. I’m not playing this game. It’s 500 minutes, meet it or beat it.
3) If you’ve met the criteria above you get a mention in this.
4) I’m going to provide some data with these thoughts. That will of course come from American Soccer Analysis. I could have broken things down far enough to where we only consider the advanced metrics, but we have to draw the line somewhere so we’re using numbers agnostic of the position played.
5) Look. This is a rankings list. We’re not going to agree on all of these. It’s perfectly reasonable for you to think that I am in fact, wrong. That is fine. I might be.
Let’s get on with it.
According to Whoscored, there are 164 players who have accrued minutes in the wide attacking midfield role. Of those 54 met the threshold for this exercise of 500 minutes.
Of those 54, I compared those players’ expected goal, expected assists, expected build-up and expected goal chains to each other. I’m calling it a “peer score” so as to not make it too complicated. This is just their difference above or below the average p96 total for their position.
This is comparing them against each other and not against the position as a whole. That way you get an understanding of where I placed players and maybe why. Additionally, I took factors into account such as p100 xPassing score, dribbles inside the attacking third and defensive actions.
Someone had to be last and Campos just hasn’t been anywhere near the same quality as others on this list... let’s keep moving we got a lot of ground to cover.
Gomez and Garza are both primarily full backs and being such we are mostly missing out on any attacking contributions and as a result they really don’t rank well on this sort of list.
Simply below average in most every attacking category and doesn’t really make up for it through possession, passing or defensive actions.
He’s an individual that will do his own dirty work, but loses out in all the other rounded areas of the attack such as passing and providing for others.
He’s got talent but injuries have derailed his season and the underlying numbers show it.
Chicago acquired him in the hopes that he’d be able to be the solution to the missing Accam. Thus far the talent hasn’t really manifested itself just yet, but he still remains a player to keep an eye on in the future.
The high octane Red Bull philosophy has been a great fit for Valot. The young man has the engine but still lacks the end production.
The Party Boy has dropped off a bit, but he's still a solid option off the bench.
Another interesting Philadelphia youngster who has the talent but unlike many of the others pushing forward, he isn’t there just yet.
Thus far, his speed hasn’t been leveraged into anything super useful, but he’s been a solid attacking option for SKC.
Santos seemingly has the tools to be much higher. Unfortunately for both him and the Crew, he’s been unable to summon it this year.
A young dynamic, very talented player who is terribly inconsistent from game to game... he should be higher and yet... there isn’t a lot to justify that.
Shipp is basically your league average starter with a bit extra. I think his skillsets don’t fit being measured by this crowd and I think it undervalues what he brings overall to the team. Sure he has some below average tools but he also has some above average tools too. He’s a classic tale of trying to exploit what he’s good at and try hide everything else.
Another young dynamic winger, he’s got the talent to be towards the top of this list in the coming years and he’s starting to show it.
Wallace exploded on the scene at NYC last spring and since then he’s been a solid regular that’s been inconsistent.
Penilla was kind of a breath of fresh air early on in the season with his work rate and ability to create for himself and others too. But as the season has gotten on his end production has kind of dropped off. He has the talent to be a slightly above average attacker but overall his numbers are pretty average looking winger.
Much like some of the other names Accam could be much higher on this list but he’s just been a mix of unlucky and bad this year. Which is disappointing, even more so for Philadelphia after spending so much to get him.
Both Silva and Picault have the ability to beat players 1-v-1 in the final third with hugely underrated technical skills added to their pace. But as good as they both can be in those moments they lack the ability to create for others or help build through passing in the attack.
Hansen hasn’t had much time but what he has shown so far is some positive framework to build off of for the future. Couple that with physical tools and you have a solid MLS winger.
Mueller’s been one of the few bright spots in Orlando. His 1v1 ability and creativity in the open field has the potential to be more than just a regular but someone that can be a real difference maker.
It’s hard to say what Finlay is as his highs are high and his lows are low. He’s out for the rest of the year right now but he's shown the ability to be an above average winger.
Eriksson doesn't seem to be a great direct attacker, but what he lacks in creating his own shots he makes up in the ability both in possession build-up and creation for others. At times he’s been excellent and others he’s been very off.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Kamara isn’t a winger but he’s been useful out wide and maybe even above average. He’s still a near elite striker which just speaks to the wealth of riches in the LA Galaxy's attack
I’m surprised at what Agudelo has become as a winger. He’s not been a great attacker but he’s been great at both aiding in the build-up and supplying creative shot opportunities for his teammates.
Techera is a player that I both love and hate. He’s a surprising player when he’s running at his opponents in open space and working his way at goal, but in a more creative role his passing ability is... less polished. It’s kind of about which version of Techera shows up.
This year with Orlando, he was less direct and in more of a creative role. Now that he's heading back to Columbus, I’d imagine he’s probably going to get back to being a little bit more selfish in the attack and that’s a good thing.
Gresselmania has all the tools to be a force out wide but despite his creativity and ability in possession, he lacks the ability to go at goal. That could be partly due to the team he plays for or it could be something he’s not comfortable with. It’s a bit hard to speculate and all I have is the numbers in front of me.
Asad is a bit jumbled between a bunch of guys which he has a higher quality of talent than. However, they are consistently average or above average. Asad is great to bad to great. He has the ability to be much higher but his underlying numbers betray him.
Stieber is quietly a solid winger and partly responsible for the resurgence of Darren Mattocks this season. While he has a lot of great attributes, he may lack that ability to go at goal that he needs to reach that next level or plateau.
Ibarra's placement this far up the list is surprising, because only one of his p96 attacking metrics showed below average compared to his peers. He lacks the ability, just like Steiber, to get at goal in the final third but he’s quietly a dynamic player out on the wing and while he doesn’t regularly do it he also has the skillset to create space.
It may have taken Katai a little time to adjust to the league (and his underlying numbers reflect that), but in the last few months he's been a solid winger for a struggling Chicago. If he carries his midseason form through to next season he could very well be a top 10 winger.
Lamah hasn't struck me as an elite player, but he’s had games that are just mind boggling. He’s consistently posting average to above average numbers and while he might not be the same ball of energy and pace that Castillo was, he's shown he has the capabilities to change a match in an instant. Realistically the most frequent performance you’re going to get out of him is a league average winger and that’s not a bad thing.
Muyl is still quietly floating under most radars, but is another promising young player that has come through the Red Bulls academy. While most eyeballs are understandably trained on Tyler Adams, Muyl is also deserving of attention and could be a critical difference maker for his team.
Vako has shown the ability to be a difference maker in the attack but question marks still hang ominously over some of his decision making. That comes out in the numbers as he’s been less apt at effectively enabling his teammates. It doesn’t help he’s on the Quakes and thus easily overlooked, but his numbers are there and above many of his peers.
Russell is a flashy and exciting player. He's had some ups and downs, but we've seen far more of the ups. At his best he's an outstanding player and that’s why his numbers have him ranked this highly.
Barrios gets a bit knocked around for lacking creativity and being unable to break teams down but at the same time his xA his high above his peers and his goal chain is also above average. This is mostly due to the fact he’s very good at opening space by cutting and slashing into the box. However, he lacks the ability and precision to play a ball into the box against a team that is playing compact and bunkering. It’s a skill that is often hidden by the counter attacking style and fast break approach that Dallas often leverage.
I did not expect this and I imagine that FC Dallas folks may not have either. When out on the wing Mosquera has put up good solid numbers just about every time. It’s hard to argue against consistently above average performances.
To those of you who aren't fans of the Red Bulls, Royer might strike you as being not very polished on the ball. Indeed, there are times where he lacks any type of aesthetics. However, he’s clearly a hard worker with an incredible engine and the numbers to back-up the end product. He doesn’t do everything well but what he does is consistently create high leverage shots with his high energy.
There's a lot to love about Alessandrini's game. His movement, his skill on the ball, and the way he can either play out wide or tuck inside and create on his own. The numbers this season aren’t as eye popping as they were in his last campaign. With LA having an attack that is so spectacular he also hasn’t done much in the passive build-up of the game which probably speaks more to the team’s issues in possession and defense than in the attack.
Consistently underrated, Bob Bradley has gotten a special season from Blessing. With his new team, Blessing has taken a huge step forward in creating high leverage opportunities both by himself and with his teammates.
Salloi has been solid and well rounded this whole season and he doesn’t have much missing in his game. Sure, there are games he goes missing and he’s not the top goal scorer that SKC fans so desperately desire, but he’s exactly the type of player that Peter Vermes wants him to be on most game days.
That his numbers speak this loudly at the age of 17 shows why he's deserving of all of the attention he's gotten. Off to Bayern Munich, the future is bright for the young Canadian who has made a huge leap forward in his production this year.
His opening goal to start the season got his name out there but a lot of people think he’s disappeared just because his name hasn't shown up a lot of the scoresheet. Instead, he’s been a huge part of stretching the field and creating opportunities for his teammates.
He’s got big potential and at the same time he doesn’t have to be great or have the ball to be a difference maker.
Plata has kind of regressed this season which is partly due to seeing less playing time, but even with all the off the field nonsense happening, he’s still one of the best wingers in this league and his presence in the top 10 is deserved.
Piatti might be reaching the point in his career where's he started to slow down but he’s still a great player with the ball at his feet. His numbers for supplying opportunities for his attackers mainly suffer because they’ve been subpar. This season, even in creating for himself he’s not creating great chances and has to rely on his exceptional finishing skills. Yes, I just said that.
Sure, he’s suspended by his own team and has been a bit lackluster at times but he’s also been good at fitting in and being a third option on a team that is stacked in the attack.
I know a lot of people want to see him be amazing and worth the transfer fee paid for him, and that will very likely come--but right now he’s been very good where Atlanta has needed him to be and has also shown flashes of the dynamic attacker we expect to see in the future.
Despite being a huge part of LAFC’s fast start and even scoring their first ever goal, Rossi has kind of drifted to being under the radar. Don’t let the lack of publicity deter you from thinking he doesn’t deserve to be here though. He’s been solid 1v1, great at passing, and excellent at creating chances for himself.
Generally overshadowed by his teammate Alberth Elis, Quioto is more than just Elis' sidekick. Sure he’s an exceptional provider-- but he’s equally skilled at creating opportunities for himself.
Tajouri-Shradi has barely put a foot wrong over his 1,100 minutes. He’s stepped up big with NYC losing Villa for a big chunk of this season, and his production has earned this position in these rankings. His p100 passing score is really good and if there was one defect to his game it lies in his lack of consistent successful dribbles in the final third. With David Villa announcing he won't be returning next season, NYCFC fans can expect Tajouri-Shradi to be an even bigger asset in attack.
Villalba often plays third or fourth fiddle to Martinez, Almiron, and occasionally Barco but regardless of what he’s asked to do he’s a difference maker. There aren't many players in MLS who have both his quality and are surrounded by teammates that complement each others skillsets so seamlessly. That’s both a credit to Tito and his coach Tata Martino.
While Elis has certainly dropped off from what he was doing for the first few months of the season, let's not forget that what he was doing during that time was basically unheard of in our dataset. He’s regressed back towards the mean, but his overall numbers are still outstanding and he remains arguably the best 1v1 attacker in Major League Soccer.
No prizes for guessing this one. There isn’t a more complete attacking player in his position and possibly all of Major League Soccer. He has tremendous ability and a skill set that can absolutely wreck teams through multiple avenues. Vela can do it all with the ball at this feet and does so with regularity.
So there you have it. This is mostly an objective look at the discussion through the lens of data with a slightly subjective twist of how I see things from tactical perspective. A lot of this would match my own personal eye test, but a few certainly surprised me.
Rather than looking at these rankings individually, I think it is probably more instructive to divide them into tiers of sorts and ask why some of these players are in the areas (not the rank, the areas) that they are?
Rankings can frustrate people, but writers enjoy creating them and readers enjoy reading them because they're a great jumping off point for discussion. If we’re going to have a conversation about these sorts of things we have to be realistic in how we view the game. For me, I tend to see the game more clearly through data and numbers and I'm willing to acknowledge that bias. If you value players differently, we're obviously going to disagree on their relative worth. This is my list, but I'm looking forward to continuing this discussion!