Thursday, May 13, 2021

MLS maestros: The No. 10s lighting up MLS and bucking the global trend

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Some have proclaimed the death of the traditional playmaker. A look around MLS tells a very different story.

“Until you bring a player, the No. 10 if you want, the playmaker, in a position where he can make the decision for a genius pass or not, so you have to play a few passes, you have channel balls, whatever. The counter-pressing makes it exactly the same – so you win the ball back high on the pitch and you are close to the goal, so it’s only one pass away from a really good opportunity most of the time. That’s why I said ‘No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.’”

Jurgen Klopp uttered those words back in 2016, one year into his time in charge of Liverpool FC and two and a half seasons before he led the Reds to the UEFA Champions League trophy.

Though it’s certainly not a universal conclusion, the German manager’s distillation of his gegenpressing philosophy reflected a global trend that has only grown in the ensuing years. From Klopp’s “heavy metal football” to the “energy drink soccer” of the Red Bull network of clubs to the full-throttle pressing game of Marcelo Bielsa and his legions of apostles – including MLS-based spiritual heirs like San Jose’s Matias Almeyda and new D.C. United boss Hernan Losada – the idea of a collective approach trumping the old-school maestro has become a force to be reckoned with.

“The situation of the playmaker or No. 10 doesn’t really exist anymore and hasn’t done for a long time,” German national team manager Joachim Low said in 2018 as he explained the dwindling role of Mesut Ozil in his system.

Well, not quite.

MLS has become a prominent outlier on this front, even as a good chunk of its member clubs embrace pressing and counterpressing principles. That genre of “genius” playmaker Klopp referred to is alive and well in this league. Thriving, in fact.

Take a glance at the business end of last year’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs bracket or a list of recent MLS Cup finalists, and you’ll find plenty of game-changing No. 10s, most of them Designated Players. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that not only is an elite attacking midfielder a good idea for teams with title ambitions, it’s practically mandatory.

Why? In a salary-budget league, impact 10s can be the proverbial rug that “really ties the room together” – force multipliers that can not only make big plays on their own, but also maximize the output of those around them. In modern MLS DPs are called upon to produce in decisive moments, and the most valuable are those that can pace an overarching tactical system as well.

The following are the best of the best as we enter the 2021 campaign: Maestros who lead top contenders and are destination viewing in their own right.

Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle’s Mr. Everything

The Sounders’ Uruguayan ace is both workhorse and show pony, graced with brilliant vision and technique but also a relentless engine that routinely makes him his team’s most active and involved player on both sides of the ball.

He’s racked up 33 goals and 58 assists in 121 career MLS regular-season matches and 8g/10a in 21 playoff games. And as Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle wrote during last year’s postseason, Lodeiro is “the league leader in basically everything that screams ‘work rate’ — touches, touches per 90, usage rate, centrality and just simple distance covered. Lodeiro runs a lot, and running a lot if you’re the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 that’s designed to just be the structure built for you is an unambiguously good thing.”

Most importantly of all, his arrival on Puget Sound vaulted Seattle from consistent contenders to downright dynasty, in the form of two MLS Cup triumphs and two other trips to the cup final. In December the Rave Green inked him to a new contract that runs through 2023.

“For me, Lodeiro is the best No. 10 in the league for a couple of years now, ever since he’s been here,” Real Salt Lake legend Kyle Beckerman said last year. “The guy is just a champion. Everywhere he goes – you check the stats and everywhere he’s gone he’s been a champion. It’s just amazing. This guy doesn’t stop running. Constantly. He’s pulling the strings for their team.”

Lucas Zelarayan, the capstone in Columbus

When Crew SC splashed out a reported $7-plus million to acquire “El Pirata” from Tigres UANL last winter, it didn’t just break the club’s transfer record, it smashed it – tripling their previous high fee and underlining the new intent of the previously frugal Ohio side. And questions were asked about the wisdom of the move, especially as it went hand in hand with the departure of club legend and incumbent No. 10 Federico Higuain.

A year later the decision was vindicated and then some as the Argentine dazzled in MLS Cup 2020, producing a man-of-the-match performance to put the defending champions from Seattle to the sword 3-0. Even with key starters Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos sidelined by COVID-19, the Crew were worthy winners as Zelarayan put his stamp on the occasion, running his 2020 output to 8g/3a across 20 combined regular-season and playoff matches.

With his passing range, sharp finishing, guile on the ball and capacity to press aggressively on the defensive side, the 28-year-old is the complete package and enters 2021 as a firm MLS MVP contender.

“For our system to work . . .

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