As we enter the MLS offseason, I decided to look back on 2016 — and 2016 only — and rank the top 10 best MLS players of the year. This is not based on past performance, talent level, potential, or any factors other than their performance this season and how they were able to help their team win. Think of this as sort of an extended MVP list.
10. Jelle Van Damme (LA Galaxy)
One of two defenders you will see on this list, Van Damme was a finalist for Newcomer of the Year and Defender of the Year after a very good season at center back for the LA Galaxy. He is a tall, athletic defender who is good in the air and can step into passing lanes as well as anyone in the league. His ability to join the attack and get on the overlap became of a signature of playing style.
9. Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders)
The best defensive midfielder in the league deserves some individual recognition. An integral part of the Sounders MLS Cup run, Alonso is an elite ball-winner and distributor from the back. He was imperative for Seattle throughout the season and provided defensive coverage behind Nicolas Lodeiro in the second half of the season. There’s no question he should have made the league best XI.
8. Matt Hedges (FC Dallas)
It’s impossible not to include the 2016 MLS Defender of the Year in a league top ten list. Hedges was part of an almost flawless trophy-winning FC Dallas club, and he has become, arguably, the best center back in MLS over the past two seasons. The only bad moment, it seems, of his season was his disastrous own goal in mid-March.
7. Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle Sounders)
Seattle’s midseason savior and MLS Newcomer of the Year checks in at number seven, although he is likely the second-best overall player in the league. Lodeiro’s effect on the Sounders was undeniable, and his role in getting them an MLS Cup trophy was pronounced, making him an easy choice at this spot.
6. Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas)
The best player on the best team in the league, Diaz had an incredible season in Frisco. He isn’t the box score-filler like the next five players, but he is a huge contributor for FCD. A pure chance-creating No. 10, Diaz builds a house in Zone 14 every time out, and he can hit an absolutely killer ball to every corner of the field. The Argentine is a truly impressive player, and it is an unfortunate stroke of bad luck that he will be out for months with a torn ACL suffered in October.
5. Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact)
Piatti slots in just above Diaz after a 17-goal, six-assist campaign that saw him elevate Montreal to the Eastern Conference finals. He is one of the best players in the league on the ball, he can put the ball in the net with the best of them, and he became MLS’s best creator from the wing. A flashier Landon Donovan, if you will, Piatti kept the Impact afloat through the disaster of Didier Drogba and came inches from leading them to an MLS Cup Final appearance.
4. Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls)
It was a banner year for the Red Bulls playmaker. He came incredibly close to compiling 20 assists, he was an MVP finalist, and he managed to parlay his club success into a series of national team call-ups. Kljestan is the third No. 10 on this list, and he was the best of them this season, playing a major role in a certain teammate’s Golden Boot-winning campaign.
3. Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
Kljestan’s partner in crime was Bradley Wright-Phillips, MLS’s top scorer with 24 goals and the MVP runner-up. BWP had a snakebitten start to the season, but started to regain his goal-scoring form as the weeks went by, and eventually, he climbed to the top of the Golden Boot leaderboard for the second time in his career. Pretty clearly, he is the best finisher and the best goal-scorer in the league.
2. Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)
Giovinco — last year’s MVP and, by consensus, MLS’s best overall player — somehow was not one of this year’s MVP finalists, a snub for the ages against a clearly deserving player. The Italian, like Wright-Phillips, had a bit of a drought at one point, but he ended up with 17 goals and 15 assists on the season. There is no question he deserved to have been, at the very least, in serious MVP consideration.
1. David Villa (NYCFC)
MLS’s MVP, Villa finished one goal behind BWP for the Golden Boot while leading NYCFC near the top of the Eastern Conference, earning the right to get demolished by Giovinco and TFC in the postseason. Villa works hard off the ball, finds constant creative runs to free space for himself and others, and he set the blueprint for the type of player teams should look for in their Designated Players, if maybe seven years younger.