The talent level in Major League Soccer has never been higher than it is right now. That’s evident by payroll in 2018, which topped $250 million league wide — the most that’s ever been spent on players in MLS history.
The wisest investments are proving to be in dual threats: the exceedingly rare player as comfortable creating for others as he is finishing himself. Just 10 players in 2018 recorded double digits in both goals and assists.
Within that exclusive list are two of the past four MVP award winners, MLS’ most expensive export and its highest-paid player in history. In fact, after the offseason sales of Sebastian Giovinco and Miguel Almiron, that list is now down to eight.
Diego Valeri, Alberth Elis and Sebastian Blanco are three of the remaining eight dual threats in the league, and ESPN FC spoke to the teammates, coaches and front-office members of the other five to shed some light on what makes them the most electrifying players in MLS.
Goals in 2018: 11 Assists in 2018: 15
Next game: Saturday, March 16 at LA Galaxy; 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Supporters may have gathered at the airport in anticipation of his late-night arrival in 2018, but outside the Twin Cities, Minnesota United’s signing of Darwin Quintero created little fanfare.
In his final weeks at Club America, Quintero struggled to find his place in Miguel Herrera’s plans. His most noteworthy act in that time was being suspended for allegedly kicking a ball at a reporter — a claim he has denied.
What excitement that was generated for Quintero’s capture was quickly overshadowed by headlines elsewhere in the league. Mere hours after the Loons announced him as their first ever designated player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his debut for the LA Galaxy … in the first ever Los Angeles derby … where he scored that goal.
Nearly a year later, it’s Quintero writing the headlines. Minnesota’s talisman has begun 2019 with two goals and three assists, leading the league in both categories.
It’s no fluke, either. Last year he was one of just 10 players to register double-digit goals and assists, despite not making his debut until six weeks into the season. And this year, Quintero is leading that pack of MLS’ dual threats.
“He’s an MVP candidate, that’s his ceiling,” Minnesota director of player personnel Amos Magee told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview. “For us around here, we see him as a guy who can be one of the best players in the league and is one of the best players in the league.
“I think he’s a much better creator than people give him credit for, certainly than I did prior to him coming here. I think one year Giovinco had 20 [goals] and 10 [assists], something like that; I don’t think those numbers are impossible for Darwin to reach at all.”
It’s easy to understand why. Quintero’s 11 goals and 15 assists in 27 appearances last year pace him at 14 goals and 19 assists over the course of a full campaign. Now with nearly a full season of MLS service under his belt and free of the calf injury that sidelined him for the better part of a month last term, the 31-year-old is primed for an MVP-caliber 2019.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic | LA Galaxy
Goals in 2018: 22 Assists in 2018: 10
Next game: Saturday, March 16 vs. Minnesota United; 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Twenty-two goals and 10 assists in 27 appearances for Ibrahimovic in his maiden season in Los Angeles. Joining the Galaxy without match fitness and coming off a torn ACL, that’s an impressive return. What’s his secret? Intelligence, vision and ability, according to Romain Alessandrini.
“He is a very, very intelligent player to play with,” he told ESPN FC. “He sees things that a lot of other players can’t, and he is able to do things that a lot of other players can’t.”
Goals in 2018: 16 Assists in 2018: 13
Next game: Saturday, March 16 at Orlando City; 4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Piatti has routinely been one of Major League Soccer’s unsung stars, but 2018 saw him raise his game to a level he’d never before realized in North America. His 16 goals last year were one less than his career high with the Impact, but his 13 assists more than doubled his totals in 2017 and 2016 combined.
“A lot of the things that people are familiar with about him and his game are dribbling related and breaking guys down one on one and making plays,” Impact left-back and U.S. international Daniel Lovitz told ESPN FC. “But a lot of the things we do are one and two touch, and to just see the way that he thinks the game, it’s just at a very high level. People don’t ever attribute him as being a good passer or a smart combination player, but we see that every day and it’s pretty amazing to watch.”
Goals in 2018: 14 Assists in 2018: 13
Next game: Sunday, March 17 at New York City FC; 3:00 p.m. ET
With 14 goals and 13 assists in a World Cup-interrupted debut campaign with the expansion franchise, Vela directly contributed to a goal every 93 minutes. With production like that, it’s little wonder Barcelona were credited with interest in the 30-year-old Mexico international, who left Spain little more than a year ago.
“The kind of football we played in the first year certainly speaks to the fact that when Carlos left Spain and came here, his motivation, his play in the World Cup, the kind of season that he had, that all those things were noticed around the world,” LAFC manager Bob Bradley said.
“You can see that his commitment to the team in every situation, chasing back, finding the right moments to come underneath and get the ball, and making runs. He’s very motivated for what this team can accomplish in our second season.”
Goals in 2018: 10 Assists in 2018: 17
Next game: Saturday, March 16 vs. Real Salt Lake; 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN+
At 24, Acosta is the second-youngest player on this list, and his 17 assists in 2018 were second most in the league, to go along with his 10 goals. That sort of production attracted the attention of Paris Saint-Germain, who came oh-so close to signing D.C.’s creator-in-chief on transfer deadline day.
“I think a lot of guys would’ve been so frustrated and upset that it didn’t go through that it would’ve taken them a while to bounce back from,” D.C. assistant coach Chad Ashton said. “I think Ben [Olsen] even offered to give him some days off if he wanted some days off, and he immediately wanted to get back to camp, be with his team and get back to work.”
“The one thing that hasn’t changed from [Acosta] since I arrived is that when it comes to handling the ball in the final third, he’s not a selfish player at all,” Paul Arriola told ESPN FC. “He believes in his teammates, and I think that’s the reason why he has so many assists.
“A player like him, in the past when he hasn’t had the best forwards in front of him, it could’ve been very easy for him to not give the ball to them and take shots on his own and have a lot more goals than he has.”