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MLS Stats Zone: Who stands out near 2024 regular season's halfway point?

Most of the 29 MLS teams have played either 16 or 17 matches in the 2024 season, meaning it's a good time to look at the most impressive and important numbers in American soccer's top league.

Inter Miami, led by Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, is unsurprisingly at the top of the table, but other teams have began to catch up as the South Beach team deals with the wear and tear of the season.

It's been a while since our last Stats Zone so we have a larger sample size, and with the season already almost halfway over, it's a great time to look at which players and teams deserve recognition.

LA Galaxy crack the code

Let's, for one second, take a look at the positions of the top 10 players in MLS in terms of progressive passing distance: goalkeeper, goalkeeper, goalkeeper, goalkeeper, goalkeeper, center back, goalkeeper, goalkeeper, central midfielder and goalkeeper.

The one central midfielder? That would be Riqui Puig, the field general of the LA Galaxy. He has pulled the strings of this team to the point that it has the joint-third-shortest MLS Cup odds at +1000.

Puig leads MLS in progressive carrying distance, passes into the final third, progressive passes, and touches. He also ranks in the top 10 in assists, goal contributions, total shots, passes into the penalty area, through balls, shot-creating actions, goal-creating actions and successful take-ons.

Simply put, Puig is a great MLS playmaker who carries tons of responsibility for his team's attacking production. The Galaxy are fourth in the Western Conference with seven wins, seven draws and three losses from 17 matches, but they lost their last match thanks in part to starting winger Joseph Paintsil missing out with a hamstring injury.

Paintsil, signed in the offseason from Belgian club Genk, has been elite on the wing for the Galaxy. He has four goals and four assists in 13 appearances.

Paintsil ranks in the top 15 percent of MLS wingers in the following per-90 minute stats: assists, expected goals plus expected assists, passes into the penalty area, shot-creating actions, goal-creating actions, touches in the final third and attacking penalty area and fouls drawn.

Along with the Galaxy's other starting winger Gabriel Pec, Puig and Paintsil open things up for striker Dejan Joveljic, who has nine goals in 15 matches so far. If they all can stay on the pitch, LA could make a deep playoff run.

The Galaxy system is relatively simple and yet extremely hard to stop: two talented wingers spread the field to open things up for the elite playmaker to feed the ball to a solid striker who receives more than enough chances to find the back of the net regularly.

Timmy Tillman deserves your attention

On the other side of California's biggest city, Los Angeles FC midfielder Timmy Tillman has flown somewhat under the radar this season, particularly after his younger brother Malik's impressive campaign for PSV in the Netherlands.

Well, all Timmy has done is score four goals and provide two assists in 16 matches while leading MLS in tackles attempted and won. He's a big reason why his team is level in the odds with its crosstown rivals at +1000 to win MLS Cup.

Tillman wins 2.36 tackles per game while averaging 3.7 shot-creating actions, 1.7 successful take-ons and 1.47 key passes per 90 minutes. All of those numbers rank within the top 15 percent of MLS attacking midfielders and wingers.

Denis Bouanga's double-digit goals, World Cup-winner Hugo Lloris being in goal with the joint-most clean sheets in MLS (seven), and the imminent arrival of Olivier Giroud have gained all the headlines in this part of Hollywood, but Tillman's effective two-way play deserves recognition.

No wonder United States Men's National Team head coach Gregg Berhalter called him up for the Copa America.

Can Toronto FC hold onto a playoff place?

Late in the 2023 season, as a bottom-of-the-league finish became closer and closer to reality, Toronto FC announced it had hired then-Canada Men's National Team head coach John Herdman to lead the team starting in 2024.

After 17 matches in 2024, Toronto FC is sixth in the East with seven wins, three draws and seven losses. They certainly have benefitted from Herdman's arrival and the fact that the four teams below them all have drawn at least six matches.

In general, Toronto FC have improved from last year to this year. The club's joint-leading scorers in 2023 each had five goals, but they already have two players who have beaten that total this year.

Plus, the designated players are producing at a better rate: Federico Bernardeschi leads the team with 11 goal contributions split between seven goals and four assists, and Lorenzo Insigne has three goals and two assists in 519 minutes.

Toronto's opponents are out-creating Toronto by an average of 0.05 expected goals per 90 minutes, but that's a huge improvement considering opponents created 0.67 more xG than Toronto per game in 2023.

If Toronto continues to find the net and turn draws into wins while seeing young players such as Tyrese Spicer, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Deandre Kerr improve, they may surprise fans and experts by the end of the season.

Is Minnesota United for real?

Minnesota United finished 11th in the West in 2023, outside of the playoff places by just three points.

In 2024, they sit third in the West through 15 matches, and they have at least one game in hand on each of the two teams above them in the standings. They have the ninth-shortest odds to win MLS Cup at +2000.

Finnish playmaker Robin Lod's five goals and eight assists have driven the Loons' success, but the question is whether or not he can sustain it. He has already matched his career high of 13 goal contributions in a season after just 957 minutes of play.

The other question is about Minnesota's top goalscorer, Tani Oluwaseyi. Can he sustain anything close to his present rate of 1.01 goals per 90 minutes for the rest of the season?

Oluwaseyi was a first-round pick in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft and he netted 16 goals plus seven assists in 25 matches while out on loan in the USL Championship - US Soccer's second tier of club competition - in 2023.

Even if Oluwaseyi and Lod's production rates slow, Minnesota stands to get some more help from Teemu Pukki, Jeong Sangbin, Hassani Dotson, Bongokuhle Hlongwane, and Caden Clark.

MUFC's xG differential of -0.05 per 90 minutes is identical to that of an aforementioned club that's also in a precarious position: Toronto FC.

Minnesota has similarly done well to avoid draws with its 8-4-3 win-draw-loss record, but time will tell if they can keep it up for the full season as the LA Galaxy, Vancouver Whitecaps and Colorado Rapids chase them in the standings.

Zack Steffen's struggles

The Colorado Rapids are owned by Arsenal FC, Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke, and clearly, he and his Rapids front office wanted to rebuild the team ahead of the 2024 offseason.

The centerpieces of that rebuild - which came after a last-place finish in the Western Conference - were new head coach Chris Armas and new players with USMNT pedigrees in Sam Vines, Djordje Mihailovic, and Zack Steffen.

Mihailovic has been an unequivocal early success with five goals and four assists in 16 games, Vines has been solid, but Steffen has been a disaster.

Post-shot expected goals faced minus goals allowed is a metric that explains how many goals a goalkeeper has allowed compared to how an average keeper would fare. Steffen ranks last in MLS among 51 goalies to play at least 90 minutes.

Steffen has allowed 7.8 more goals than expected. When breaking it down to per-90 minutes, he still ranks second to last with 0.46 goals allowed above expected per game.

Ahead of the Copa America and Olympics, Steffen is not in the picture either as a backup for the USMNT's Copa squad or as an over-age player for the Olympic team.

For his own career and for the Rapids - sitting on the edge of the playoff spots in eighth place in the West with the conference's joint-third-worst defense by goals allowed - Steffen needs to step it up.

Somehow, Orlando City can't score

Orlando City finished tied for sixth in the league in goals scored with 54 in the 2023 season, thanks mainly to young designated player Facundo Torres' 14 and 2023 MLS draft pick Duncan McGuire's 13.

When Orlando signed former Atalanta star Luis Muriel while McGuire's proposed transfer to Blackburn Rovers broke down, fans started to imagine possibilities with the new-look Orlando City attack in 2024.

Thus far, those hopes have failed to materialize. Orlando has four wins, five draws and seven losses and sits 11th out of 15 Eastern Conference teams.

McGuire is the team's leading scorer, but his tally of five goals is far of that of the league's best finishers. Meanwhile, Torres and Muriel have four goals combined.

Orlando ranks 21st in MLS in xG with 20.1, meaning the team is struggling to create chances for its goalscorers. Nico Lodeiro, the team's leading assist provider with five, has a decent tally, except for the fact that he got those assists from a two-assist game and a three-assist game.

That's the story with Orlando City: They started slowly, they found form in front of goal in a pair of 3-2 wins over DC United and the Philadelphia Union, but they haven't been able to string together multi-goal games, not to mention wins.

This team looks to be far away from the one that reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals just last season.

Odds displayed within this article were correct at the time of writing and are subject to change.

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