Normally, when an MLS team wins the Supporters’ Shield, they clean up in the awards race come season’s end. But that may not be the case in 2022 for LAFC.
First, who is LAFC’s MVP this year? There are so many good candidates, with no obvious standout, that the MLS award will not be going to a black-and-gold player this year. I think Steve Cherundolo has a solid shot at MLS Coach of the Year in his debut season in the league, but time will tell. MLS Young Player of the Year? Kwadwo Opoku is in the conversation but probably won’t win it. MLS Defender of the Year? Jesus David Murillo has a case, but LAFC’s rotational policy across the backline all season will probably hurt in the awards reckoning, even if it helped the team.
There is no official MLS Midfielder of the Year award, but I think the best case for MLS Best XI, which LAFC should have at least one player on this year, goes to two black-and-gold midfielders, in Ilie Sanchez and Jose Cifuentes.
The 31-year-old Sanchez is LAFC’s outfield minutes leader so far this season in league play, featuring in 32 of 33 regular season games, the game he missed coming as a result of a red card suspension. Effectively drafted in to take Eduard Atuesta’s role in LAFC’s midfield, Sanchez is more defensive-minded than the Colombian and while he has a good passing range for a defensive midfielder, his foremost job is to keep things tidy in midfield and shield the defense.
You can see this in Sanchez’s scouting report graph on FBref.com, comparing his play at his position to other MLS players over the past year.
FBref takes all midfielders as a group, so Sanchez’s graph is rather mixed. He’s been below average in the attacking categories (he has scored one goal in league play so far this year), but he’s specialized as a defensive midfielder/defender in MLS after a couple years at Sporting Kansas City where he was the team’s playmaker and a two-way midfielder. In contrast, his defensive section is quite strong. He doesn’t put in a ton of tackles or pressures — which is fine, there’s more than one way to defend — but he’s among the very best in the league among midfielders at interceptions, clearances and especially aerial duels.
There’s been a case made that in fact, Sanchez should be considered LAFC’s MVP candidate this year, and while his game doesn’t have sexy goals and assists to really run with, it’s clear that his arrival helped bring solidity to the defensive side of the ball for LAFC, and as a leader and “coach on the field” of sorts, LAFC are less apt to fade in big moments. The trickiest thing in evaluating midfielders’ games is sometimes paying attention to what they do, because much of their work comes off the ball, or in making a quick pass in transition, and we don’t appreciate it. But Sanchez has been immense for LAFC this season and he certainly deserves Best XI consideration.
In contrast, while Sanchez commands a subtle eye in evaluation, Cifuentes’ game is built on attacking intent, first and foremost. After a slow start to the season where he was largely a bench player, albeit a productive one, Cifuentes hit his stride midseason and has put up the best numbers to date in MLS, with seven goals and seven assists in 32 league appearances. Only Carlos Vela and Cristian Arango have a higher combined G+A in league play this season for LAFC, and among midfielders, he’s in the top 10 in goals scored in the league.
Cifuentes is not a pure attacking midfielder, however, he’s a No. 8, and what’s impressive is his range, as demonstrated by his Fbref graph:
In attacking production, Cifuentes is elite among midfielders, and his ability to progress the attack is as well. Furthermore, in defense he has been stellar at pressures and tackles, as well as aerials won. You’ll notice combined, he and Sanchez essentially cover all the defensive categories, which speaks to a likely “divide and conquer” strategy in LAFC’s midfield.
For another look at Cifuentes’ value, American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added table for the 2022 season, effectively judging a player’s overall output for their team and relative to other players, puts the Ecuadorian at 3rd overall in MLS among outfield players, eclipsed only by Hany Mukhtar (the likely 2022 MLS MVP) and Carles Gil (the 2021 MLS MVP). Those three players are far and away the leaders in Goals+ this year, and may indicate that in fact, Cifuentes himself could have a case as an MLS MVP candidate.
While it’s possible that the sheer number of teams in MLS these days, the fact that MLS has not expanded to have a 2nd XI to honor deserving players yet, and LAFC somewhat quixotically having a season where with a star-studded roster, “the team is the star,” it’s possible that neither Sanchez or Cifuentes will end up on the Best XI, although I think that would be a mistake. Both players are among the minutes leaders for LAFC this season, they have been given key and distinct roles in the Supporters’ Shield-winning team, and they have been wildly successful. I think most players can console a lack of personal recognition come season’s end with a trophy (hopefully two), but here’s hoping the voters recognize Ilie Sanchez and Jose Cifuentes deserve to be recognized for their role in a stellar season.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.