Our favorite players may reveal subtle or obvious values and biases we have. In the 2018 edition of the MLS, there is a wealth of worthy candidates that could be our ideal philosophical match. Here are some great options.
The way that a team is a reflection of its manager, a fan’s favourite player is a reflection of the fan itself.
It’s a revealing choice that is often not a choice at all: Sometimes, we are magnetically pulled in by a player. We have no say in the matter.
What is it that draws us in? What obvious or subtle traits uncloak our biases?
Maybe it’s a player who is a lefty, like us. Maybe it’s a player who’s successful yet slow, like us. Maybe it’s a player who looks like us. Or maybe it’s a player who fights with a tenacity that we might show should we ever be given the chance to represent our favourite club.
Sometimes, it doesn’t have all that much to do with precisely how good that player is, though the typical standard for a favourite player is at least being important to his club. It’s no fun to take up residency on their island if they’ll be on the bench more often than not.
Loyalty to a specific club and football in general keep us coming back, but the individuals bring the game to life. These are the faces we see, the main characters we follow on our stage at our theatre.
We fall in love with what they are or the philosophical idea of what they represent. We love midfielders with endless passing range and vision; we love the “everyman” defender; we love the goal-scoring forward or the tricky winger.
In 2018, MLS has more talent than ever. The league continues to ascend, its growth exponentially raised with David Beckham’s arrival in 2007, then taken forward with the proliferation of young stars coming from South America, and, previously unheard of, the move from Europe to America by the players still in their prime years.
There is no shortage of brilliant individuals this year. But, if the choice hasn’t been made by fate yet, it is important to find a favourite player.
Here are some solid options to choose from.
There simply are no words to encapsulate Zlatan’s perfect MLS debut other than maybe one: predictable.
Ibrahimovic enters a game with his team down 3-1, some 36 hours after getting off a plane from Europe, coming off a major knee injury. Because it’s Zlatan, of course he is involved in the goal to make it 3-2 then of course scores with his only two shots for a 4-3 win. Of course his first goal is from 45 yards.
The logic for why it was predictable consists of this: not thinking. There’s no reason to have rationally expected that, but, it’s Zlatan, so, don’t think.
For more on the #ZlatanEffect: his debut was the most-watched regular season MLS game on FOX and all four “top stories” on MLSSoccer.com have the word “Zlatan” in the title.
There are a million reasons why he should be your favourite MLS player this season. The ability, the fact that he’s liable to produce something incredible with every touch and his Mars-sized personality.
You could fill a book with Ibrahimovic’s best quotes and you’d need your entire room to hold all of the trophies he’s earned, both individual and team.
As far as I see, the only counterargument against making Zlat no. 1 is such: Every non-MLS fan will call him their favourite player and you’ll get lost in the crowded bandwagon.
Since Beckham signed, there have been a few additions big enough to ripple the MLS waters. Thierry Henry was a great one, as was Robbie Keane and others. But, since Beckham, there had been no single tide-shifting signing, signifying impending change quite like Giovinco’s.
Giovinco was in the prime of his career when he swapped Italy for Toronto, which was a path no player from Europe took. At just below the threshold to play for the Serie A titans, he could have easily stuck around at midtable Italian clubs. Since, players like Carlos Vela, Romain Alessandrini and Saphir Tadir have left middling European clubs for the glamour of being a top star in the MLS.
But when Giovinco first came, it was unheard of and he was the subject of money-grabbing accusations. Now, as we’ve seen Oscar and Yannick Carrasco leave even more promising European careers to grab cash in China, Giovinco is a trailblazer.
The Italian is the best player for reigning champions Toronto FC, echoing his individual and club success. His quality is unmatched and he has been an emphatic success for his club and the league. He is a walking highlight reel and has scored more goals direct from free kicks than any other player since 2015 in Europe’s top five leagues and MLS.
One of the shortest players in the MLS, Giovinco could be a favorite among others vertically challenged. When he’s constantly running circles around big defenders, it’s a victory for us short people everywhere.
Both Giovinco and Altidore earn solo credit, but not nearly as much as they should. Sure, their partnership is mutually beneficial which helps each perform than alone, but, like a couple whose friends fail to see them as individuals, Altidore and Giovinco are too often mentioned together.
The partnership is wonderful, of course. They seem to genuinely enjoy each other on the pitch and this remains my favorite moment from the 2017 MLS season.
Jozy Altidore scores, tries to head a beer thrown at him, Giovinco picks up the beer and drinks out of it. Amazing https://t.co/lM8l0sYPJU
— Planet Fútbol (@si_soccer) October 22, 2017
But separate, they are great, too. And there’d never be a dull moment should you hook your unconditional support to Altidore. His name is one in the long list of young kings anointed, promised and expected, without his consent, to be the saviour of US Soccer.
Altidore has always been lamented for what he is not rather than what he is, which is a perfect metaphor for critics of the MLS.
The big striker has scored goals, but not enough goals. He was an unequivocal success at AZ Alkmaar, but an unequivocal failure at Sunderland. He’s been one of the best players in the MLS since his return to the league, but could be better.
That’s Altidore’s career simplified in a few sentences: plagued by the unfair burden of expectation, consistently deflating our valuation of him for what he hasn’t done, as if it was fair to assume he would be America’s Robert Lewandowski.
At Toronto, Altidore expresses himself like someone who doesn’t care what anyone says, or thinks, anymore. And it must be liberating. He’s a fun player; the expressions he wears on his face range from a resting scowl, incredulence at the referee, swing-first-I-dare-you defiance to defenders and in-your-face confidence when one of his strikes hits the back of the net.
The Jozy Altidore Experience is one entertaining ride.
In Atlanta United’s expansion season, the Five Stripes reached out and gripped the league. And it was with Almiron doing the squeezing.
Almiron has not been shy about his desire to go to Europe; AC Milan reportedly bid for him this offseason, but he’ll stay at Atlanta at least until the European summer transfer window opens. He’s a shooting star in the MLS that will soon disappear. Don’t miss out.
For now, Almiron is the reigning MLS Newcomer of the Year award winner and will look to build upon a 2017 season in which he scored nine goals and had 14 assists.
Almiron is the best and most important player for an attacking side, managed by former Barcelona manager Tata Martino, in one of the league’s best-supported clubs. The ethos surrounding Almiron is perfect, an easy cause to believe in. His face represents the positive changes in the league that Atlanta are at the forefront of.
When Almiron is playing in the Serie A or elsewhere in Europe next season, you can say you’ve been riding his wave since he was in the MLS.
For fans looking for a younger player, and to dabble in contrarianism by taking up the philosophical cause of a defensive midfielder over a striker, Adams is your man. He is legally a man and not a boy, but still two years away from legally consuming alcohol in the United States.
Adams’ reputation at the start of 2017 was of an unknown New York Red Bulls academy graduate. By the end of the season, his name had been loaded into a rocketship and launched into the stratosphere just below Christian Pulisic and Weston McKinnie as pillars for US Soccer to build around for the 2022 World Cup.
The midfielder falls into the evolution of athletic central midfielders, such as N’Golo Kante, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and McKinnie. He’s more Kante in attack, which is a nice way of saying he’s not expected to score many goals. Like Oxlade-Chamberlain, he has showed the ability to play wingback quite well.
Just as all the other players highlighted around Adams, 2019 is likely to bring great change. But it won’t be Father Time’s slow erosion of athletic and playing ability, it will be overtures from Europe. It may be a minor miracle should the Red Bulls be able to hang onto their man for much longer than a season.
Sustained, classy excellence.
That’s Villa, though his drinking-wine-with-a-pinky-out aesthetic is sullied a bit by playing his home matches in a baseball stadium. He deserves one of the other beautiful arenas MLS has to offer, just as the aforementioned wine deserves to be consumed in front of a tame fireplace.
Villa’s appeal, before uttering a word about his current ability, is widespread: loved with Barcelona, the Spanish national team, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Australia’s Melbourne City. He was never a divisive figure; eternally beloved, like Andrea Pirlo.
Not to patronize the striker by massaging his past, for Villa still has goals in his present boots. Those kicks may not be as nostalgic as the Adidas F-50s he used to wear, but, they produce all the same.
The 36-year-old scored 18 goals in his debut MLS season, then 23 in 2016 and 22 last season. His goals are vital for his club, however, NYCFC have finally begun to lessen their reliance on the legend, by signing Jesus Medina and Jo Inge Berget this offseason.
Vela is the best player on the upstart, first-season-in-existence LAFC. He leads the team that wears sleek, fashionable black and gold kits.
Vela’s style matches the kits quite well. His dribbling ability is much more black and gold than it is gray; his cultured left foot is a factory for YouTube highlights, matching the sponsor on the front of the shirt; the way he makes what he’s doing look easy with the ‘LA’ badge over his heart suits the easygoing Los Angeles lifestyle.
The deeper allure for Vela is the little-brother vibe LAFC will be stuck with for a while. Having just come into existence, it’ll be difficult to unperch LA’s first team, MLS’ most-successful franchise, LA Galaxy. But they’ll give it a proper go and Vela will be the impetus behind any success they may find.
And, just as he has started to show America up close just how great he is, Ibrahimovic arrives crosstown and overshadows him.
Over Dempsey’s career, he’s always had a flair for the dramatic, played with panache and a don’t-take-shit swagger that one would expect out of a player from Texas.
All things considered, Dempsey likely doesn’t stack up to the others players here on ability alone.
But what makes the best and favourite player are two different concoctions. In evaluating best players, antics and style don’t count for much at all. But, in the favourite category, they hold weight. Such as when he mocked a fake tough-guy in an international match against Jamaica.
Earlier in his career, Dempsey had been a brilliant American ambassador for European football. He was the bridge that brought the country from producing a few good keepers, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard, to today where America has a real starlet, Christian Pulisic.
In between, Dempsey carried the torch. Fulham bought him from the MLS in December 2006, the third American in that team. After improving every season, he stayed with the club through 2011/12, where he scored 17 goals in the league. Dempsey moved to Tottenham for a season before returning to MLS.
For all his highs at Tottenham, nothing will ever top his game-winning goal for Fulham against Juventus in the Europa League semi-final 2009/10, though.
Dempsey entered the match off the bench with Fulham needing a goal. He received a pass at the corner of the 18-yard box with his back to goal and turned towards the touchline. He then swiveled his hips after another touch and lifted the most audacious back-post chip into the top corner.
Today, aged 35, Dempsey is still clowning fools in the MLS, still being underappreciated.
“If he was a Brazilian named Clintu, he would have earned more respect,” Men in Blazers, popular British expats in America who host a podcast and television show, tweeted. “We raise our beer to you, Clinton Drew Dempsey, the greatest American Premier League player ever.”
That tweet came on April 16, the day after a Sounders game in which Dempsey didn’t participate. It wasn’t after a goal nor a solid performance. It came out of nothing, which is what Dempsey made a career of: something out of nothing.
Football and Platonic Love
As a Red Bulls supporter, there have been some great players to pass through the shirt in recent years.
First and foremost, Thierry Henry. He was brilliant – we all knew that and appreciated him accordingly. There have been some others, too, that gripped us – Dane Richards, a diminutive, lightning-quick Jamaican winger and Matt Miazga, a homegrown centre-back who would later be bought by Chelsea.
Every fan is sure to have their own random player that they loved. Every fan’s experience is different. In my own, no one quite spoke to me like Sacha Kljestan did. His intelligent movement, silk passing and surprising grittiness ticked all my boxes.
It was something subconscious, too: perhaps I saw some of my own qualities in him. He was slow, nonathletic (compared to the other professional athletes), heavily one-footed, wasn’t great at shooting, had a slight temper and a funky mustache. Yet, despite all of these handicaps, he was great. Rooting for him felt like rooting for a part of myself, somehow.
In a perfect world, being matched with our favourite player is an organic process that happens without our knowledge or direction. Perhaps you flick on an MLS game or highlights and think you’ve already fallen in love with David Villa, but his teammate Jesus Medina steals your heart.
The good news is, unlike love, unless you’re a Mormon, you need not be monogamous. You get to enjoy multiple stars’ brilliance, the same way Tottenham fans can admire the work of PFA Player of the Year winner Mo Salah from afar- as long as he’s not doing it against their club.
Football’s characters are what makes this game such a magnetic force pulling pulls boys and girls and keeping them there through adulthood. Us football junkies all remember our first favourite player the same way we remember our first kiss and first love.
They make the game that much more enjoyable, that much more real, that much more addictive.