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The Most Underrated MLS Signings This Past Year

The 2023 MLS season is nearing its end, with plenty of big-money transfers and high-profile players grabbing headlines throughout the campaign. But several lower-key acquisitions this year have become hugely influential for their clubs, even if they went under the radar.

Let’s highlight some of the most underrated and overlooked MLS signings from the past transfer windows who are making a major yet unheralded impact.

Shutout Specialist – Roman Celentano

Roman CelentanoBefore this season began, FC Cincinnati spent a decent amount of allocation money to acquire goalkeeper Roman Celentano as the potential starter. The local homegrown product and University of Cincinnati star drew some buzz, but many expected veteran Bobby Edwards to win the job instead.

Nobody is doubting Celentano now after his incredible rookie season seeing regular playing time. With 13 clean sheets, the young American shot-stopper trails only Andre Blake for the league lead. His save percentage of 79% also leads all goalkeepers with at least 15 appearances.

Celentano’s Poise and consistency in net has been a huge part of Cincinnati’s defensive turnaround under coach Pat Noonan. The local fanbase has quickly embraced Celentano as a new hero in the Steel City.

Two-Way Threat – Derrick Etienne Jr.

Derrick Etienne JrWhile all the talk in Columbus focuses on the star trio of Cucho HernándezLucas Zelarayán and Darlington Nagbe, Derrick Etienne Jr. maintains his all-action influence. The Haitian international returned to Columbus after a year with the LA Galaxy and stepped right back into the starting lineup.

Deployed on the right wing, Etienne leads Crew SC with six assists while chipping in three goals. He adds relentless industry tracking up and down the flank, creating space for teammates by stretching defenses. Etienne also provides vital defensive cover and transition speed to quickly turn defense to attack.

Few wingers in MLS offer the well-rounded package of passing, dribbling, crossing, scoring and defending that Etienne does. He deserves enormous credit for enabling Columbus to compete despite injuries to key stars.

Defensive Dynamo – José Carlos van Rankin

Josecarlos Van RankinWhen Portland Timbers acquired José Carlos van Rankin prior to this season, expectations were modest for the Mexican fullback. But van Rankin has excelled at right back thanks to tireless energy and tenacity to smother opposing wingers.

According to FBref, van Rankin averages 3.4 tackles and 2.3 interceptions per 90 minutes, among the most for defenders leaguewide. His forward forays provide attacking width to balance the inverted runs of Yimmi Chara and Dairon Asprilla.

With van Rankin locking down the right defensive flank, Portland’s backline has conceded the third-fewest goals in the Western Conference this year. The Timbers uncovered a gem in the former Chivas defender who has been a standout in his first MLS season.

Versatile Speedster – Bressan

BressanWhen Brazilian veteran Bressan joined the Houston Dynamo this past offseason, most expected him to slot in as a starter in central defense. But Bressan’s versatility and pace allowed coach Paulo Nagamura to utilize him all over the field.

Bressan has lined up at center back, right back, and defensive midfield this campaign. His ability to cover ground and break lines helps Houston’s counterattacking game. Bressan averages the most passes per 90 for the Dynamo while completing 84% of them.

Whether defending in transition, carrying the ball forward, or facilitating play from deep areas, Bressan quickly adapted to MLS with his all-around game. His composure and positioning provides a steadying presence across multiple roles.

Close-Range Finisher – Jeremy Ebobisse

Jeremy EbobisseThe San Jose Earthquakes took an under-the-radar flier on Jeremy Ebobisse last offseason after he scored only 8 goals across two years with the Dynamo. But the French-American striker regained his scoring form in a big way for San Jose this season.

Ebobisse’s 17 goals ranks in the top five leaguewide, already a career high. Dangerous on set pieces with his aerial ability, Ebobisse does his best work converting chances inside the box. His positioning keeps center backs occupied while his quick reactions pounce on loose balls.

Signed for just $400,000 in General Allocation Money, Ebobisse became an absolute steal up front. His breakout year helped San Jose stay firmly in the playoff race after missing out last campaign.

Creative Hub – Dániel Gazdag

Daniel GazdagSince arriving from Hungary midway through 2021, Dániel Gazdag quickly adjusted to MLS as one of the Philadelphia Union’s most influential attackers. But 2022 saw the crafty midfielder take his game to new heights after transitioning into a central playmaking role.

Gazdag leads Philly with 16 goals while topping the charts in chances created. His vision in the final third unlocks the Union’s prolific offense with incisive passing and set pieces. Gazdag can also take on defenders off the dribble or unleash long-range strikes.

While forwards Julián Carranza and Mikael Uhre earn more plaudits, Gazdag’s stellar campaign pulled the strings behind their success. His MVP-caliber emergence as the Union’s creative fulcrum fueled their Supporters’ Shield chase.

Defensive Anchor – João Paulo

Joao PauloAfter successive playoff disappointments, the Seattle Sounders knew they needed a rock-solid defensive midfielder to protect their backline. The emergence of Joao Paulo over the past three seasons solved that need in spades. The sturdy Brazilian provides Seattle’s ideal balance between offense and defense.

With 2.8 tackles and 2 interceptions per 90 minutes this year, Joao Paulo is a wrecking ball in front of the back four. He covers acres of space to disrupt attacks before facilitating smooth transitions to Seattle’s dynamic front four in possession.

Joao Paulo’s contributions often get overlooked on a star-studded Sounders team. But make no mistake – his hybrid skill set of ball-winning, distribution, positioning and reading the game proved absolutely vital for Seattle’s playoff success.

Box-to-Box Workhorse – José Cifuentes

Jose CifuentesOne of the big reasons for LAFC’s dominance over the past two seasons was their midfield balance provided by José Cifuentes. The Ecuadorian dynamo in central midfield covers ground in all directions to support attacks and track back defensively.

Cifuentes averaged 4.5 tackles per 90 minutes this season, exemplifying his commitment to ball recovery. He also chips in offensively with 4 assists as LAFC’s main connections between defense and their potent attack. Cifuentes rarely loses physical duels despite his smaller frame.

On a team featuring Carlos Vela and Gareth Bale, Cifuentes operates as the under-the-radar engine making the whole squad function. His box-to-box running and two-way impact is a coach’s dream, enabling LAFC’s overall system to thrive.

While the big Designated Player names grab the headlines year after year in MLS, plenty of lesser-known signings go on to hugely influence their teams. Savvy scouting and tactical fits allow players without massive hype or price tags to make major marks in MLS. The league’s parity means overlooked acquisitions can rise up and shape playoff races in ways few see coming.