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Opinion: Tito Villalba was a top five winger in MLS TAM era

Replacing his production will be a tall task.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Like many of you, I was saddened by the news of Tito Villalba’s transfer to Paraguay and I’ve seen some good discussion about Villalba’s legacy at Atlanta United, as the first Designated Player, the scorer of the most important and subjectively “the best” goals in the club’s history, the deep affection many fans have for him, and other topics, (Rob Usry’s post here summarizes this very well), so while I have a few points to add to that discussion, in this post I just want to make the case for Tito as objectively one of the best wingers in the league over the last five years.

Scoring and Assisting Goals

The detailed role of a winger or “wide forward” or “inside forward” or “wide attacker” (henceforth in this post “winger”) undoubtedly varies by team due to different managers having different preferred tactics, principles, philosophies and styles of play. But I would hope it’s not controversial to say that for most teams, wingers are on the field to create in attack- to create chances by assisting shots and taking shots, assisting goals and scoring goals. They have duties in buildup and defensive responsibilities, but by and large a winger who is creating and converting good chances for his team is a desirable one.

I wanted to frame up Tito’s place in modern MLS, so I started by pulling up the goals and assists created from open play in the TAM era (2015-2019) by players designated as attacking midfielders or wingers in American Soccer Analysis’ database. I’m taking out penalties and set pieces (although he did get on the end of a corner or two) mainly because these numbers are biased by things like “who takes the PKs, and who takes the corners etc” and I want to see who has created the most in MLS from the normal run of play (“open play”). After all, if a player is good in attack than he gets on the ball and creates chances. Next, because I’m looking at 2015-2019 and Tito began play in 2017 my first cut is to look at players’ output per 90 minutes as a way to normalize things to see who was creating when they were on the field. Next, to filter out players with very little in the way of sample size, I’m going to only look at players with at least 3,000 minutes over the 5 year period. Here are the results:

I also included the xStats (and Villalba’s are great!), but you can take them or leave them here. After all over a three year period, if you’re putting up goals and assists like the players above, that speaks for itself.

Like the best attacking players, Villalba created a goal for his team every other game, but if I were trying to make the case that the player is the best MLS winger in the TAM era, I would have to admit I’ve run into a roadblock. It appears that three other wingers and Miguel Almiron bested him in this period. To be clear, Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi and Ignacio Piatti (I’m willing to entertain Landon Donovan from the olden days as well) pose real threats to the argument I would love to make that Tito Villalba is the best winger of all time, and to be honest, I’m tired of fighting. I’m calling it quits in the face of this evidence. Tito Villalba is not the greatest winger of all time. Maybe fifth best.

The best or nothing. This must be why when Villalba reportedly asked for a guarantee of more playing time this season, the manager could not afford to offer it. Probably the best solution for all parties if I’m honest. Club Libertad gets an elite MLS attacking threat. Villalba gets the minutes he needs to earn a call-up to the Copa America this summer. Atlanta United saves those minutes for... someone that’s not Julian Gressel — because he plays for DC United — that can now step up. Let’s hope that the replacement will be one of the absolute best players in the league because anything short of this will not match what Tito Villalba accomplished in his three years in MLS.