Your MLS guide to the ultimate people's players of 2021 | J. Sam Jones

Nouhou Tolo - Seattle Sounders - kick can

This isn’t a Best XI, but it is a collection of players that, in some form, understand that soccer is a sport for the masses. And the masses wish to be entertained by any means necessary. 

This is a group that I’m begging you to watch so that we can truly understand the depth of the human condition. Oh, and also watch Nouhou do Nouhou things. It’s actually mostly just watching Nouhou.


An all-time member of the People’s Team. The captain of the People’s Team, really.

Why? Because Ilsinho hates you.

Lewis Morgan

The best player last season on a team with names like Gonzalo Higuain, Rodolfo Pizzaro and Blaise Matuidi was this guy. And when you’re a This Guy going out there and outperforming internationally famous dudes while doing this…’re going to make the Team of the People. 

Morgan also dished out eight assists, good for fifth (tied) in the league. He just goes out and deals each and every game. I’m happy to continue trying to force you to love him until you see it for yourself.

Jose Martinez

I’ll never forget the moment Jose Martinez leapt into our hearts and decided to set up a nice open floor plan residence with an office space, hardwood floors and a healthy amount of natural lighting.

After that moment, Martinez went on to be one of the signings of 2020 in MLS, playing a key role in Philadelphia’s run to the Supporters’ Shield. He picked up a solid seven yellow cards along the way while cementing himself as a top-five defensive midfielder in the league. Martinez does enough to make you think that he’s the crazy guy in the fight without ever actually being the crazy guy in the fight. And that makes him a perfect defensive midfielder and a player of the people. 

You’ll notice we’re already at two Union players. Pretty much every time I do something like this, I just have to put a disclaimer that I wanted to include pretty much the entire team. I’m having to refrain and pick from limited spaces and I really and truly hope Jack Elliott forgives me and we can still play canasta and have unique and slightly disorienting body types together one day.

Tanner Tessmann

There is a hole in the heart of this team. We’ve lost Big Bad Bryan, an instrumental piece of the team’s culture and identity. He’s moved onto other things, but we’ll always have this:

So now we look to the horizon for a new FC Dallas meme to carry the banner. And it just so happens that he’s very large, can kick 60-yard field goals with both feet, just made his first US men’s national team appearance and has a famous godfather in Dabo Swinney. This is the year of Tanner The Tank. Because it has to be. Because it needs to be. Because we so desperately want it to be.

Julian Araujo

Not only is Araujo one of the league’s most talented up-and-coming outside backs, not only is he doing phenomenal humanitarian work with California’s farmworkers, but he tied for the league lead in red cards last season (2) and added six yellows for his trouble. THAT is putting in work for the masses on and off the field. It’s a trifecta of likability. 

Araujo has a chance to take another leap forward this year under Greg Vanney and you should 100% be rooting for him at all times.

Michael Baldisimo

A preferred choice of the good folks at Extratime and a Vancouver academy kid with high upside who does flips when he scores. A top-tier passer with decent defensive ability in midfield, he’ll be an MLS nerd favorite for years to come ... if he’s around that long anyway.

Sometimes I just sit in my house passing time until herd immunity by saying “Baldisimo” over and over.  

Chris Mueller

A nickname like “Money Badger” AND a book club? That alone might put you on this list. But Mueller is also explosive, likable, highly productive and somehow makes #MotivationMonday content endearing. Along with Daryl Dike and Ruan (who gets honorable mention status on this list), Mueller is a major reason for Orlando’s unexpected transformation into one of the league’s most exciting and enjoyable teams. Mueller averaged a goal contribution every 86 minutes last season and has a chance to confirm his status as one of, if not the best winger in the league this year. 

Did I mention he has a book club?

Steve Clark

Remember that thing about Jose Martinez excelling by appearing as the crazy guy in the fight? Clark is actually that guy. At times his goalkeeping takes on a strategy that says “they won’t be able to know what I’m about to do if I don’t.” And it’s frankly beautiful. Especially when he gets away with it.

Once every few games Clark has a moment that makes alternate screaming “yes” and “no” over and over. MLS, as an entertainment product, is better for it. 

Cade Cowell

Large. Soccer. Human. 

Cowell is 17 now and is on the end of regular praise from his coaches and teammates. He may figure into Matias Almeyda’s plans a little more this season and that should have you excited. He can do things like this: 

Cowell took part in the US U-23 camp in January and is reportedly being tracked by FC Barcelona. Just the other day, Chris Wondolowski said, “I’ve gotten to train [with him] just a couple times, that's because I could barely keep up with him. I definitely pride myself on my work ethic, but the amount of work that he put in this offseason, I’m extremely proud of him."

Cowell is set for a breakout sooner rather than later, and when you’re a large soccer human with big potential, you’ll have people’s attention more often than not. 

Nouhou Tolo

With this, I defer to Nouhou’s greatest champion, Sam Stejskal of The Athletic

With every action of every game, players are faced with a set of choices. Should they maintain possession with a square ball or attempt a low-percentage killer pass? Should they sit back and block a passing lane or fly into a challenge? Should they simply dodge the beer can thrown at them by a rival fan? Or should they volley that Heineken all the way back to Holland? 

More often than most, Nouhou chooses to volley that tallboy.

He doesn’t always make the safe choice, instead playing in a way that suggests his main motivation is maximum enjoyment in every individual moment. It’s not that he doesn’t want to win — he’s often demonstrably intense — it’s more that he’s unafraid to choose the unconventional path in his attempt to get there. There’s an authenticity to that approach that I find admirable. Nouhou might not always make the right choice, but he hardly ever makes the wrong one, either.

The true heroes of the people inspire poetry. 

Dax McCarty

Some days you’re this Dax.

Some days you’re this Dax. 

Some days you’re this Dax.

And some days you’re this Dax. 

But we’re all some kind of Dax each day. And that’s what makes us human. 

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