The 10 Most Surprising MLS Players In 2015 (Part 1)

Part 1 of 2 dissecting the 10 most surprising players of the 2015 MLS season and why their performance this season has left the experts in shock
by Austin Farrow   |   Friday, November 06, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

We’re in the thick of it Major League Soccer fans. The 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs are here. With the most competitive time of the MLS calendar upon us, it’s time we discuss and analyze the 2015 season. What better way to do so than to analyze player performance?

We will do so, in our own special way. A telling and interesting factor in this MLS season was the theme of unexpected players rising to the occasion against much more established players. Whether it be Sebastian Lletget coming from the West Ham U21’s or Darwin Ceren from USL Pro, you have several examples this season of these kind of players going on to compete just as well or better than the likes of Kaka and Steven Gerrard.

With this being stated, who were the biggest surprises in the 2015 season? Where did they come from before and what made them such a surprising player in 2015? Let’s break it down.

Kevin Ellis (Sporting Kansas City)

In April of this year, it was announced Ike Opara’s season would end with an Achilles tendon injury. After six games played in the season, Opara was objectively sensational. He was arguably performing better than any defender in the league up to that point. So, given that, and his injury woes in the past, there was extreme discomfort felt on the part of Sporting Kansas City fans. Who would step up and fill this huge void?

The answer was 24 year old homegrown player, Kevin Ellis. A player who showed flashes at centerback and rightback in 2014 through 21 appearances, Kevin Ellis was about to be depended on heavily. He was also, apparently, up to the challenge. Nearly 30 games later, he finds himself one of the best performing centerbacks of the 2015 MLS season. Besides for scoring more goals than any other defender in the league this year, he has managed to maintain one of the highest interception rates in MLS all year. By season’s end, he had 116 interceptions and a rate of 4.3 per game. To put it in perspective, his interception rate was higher than centerback partner and US Men’s National Team player Matt Besler. Besler only had eight more interceptions, yet he played five more games than Ellis.

Ellis’ knack for being incredibly intelligent with his positioning led him to having the 11th highest interception rate in the league this year. It’s also a higher rate than the rates of Damien Perquis and Kendall Waston, and several other impressive players. One of those players, by the way, is now Costa Rica’s starting centerback and the other last played for Real Betis in the Spanish La Liga. Those are just two immediate, small examples. That’s pretty good for a player who only appeared for Sporting KC twice in 2013, huh?

Kemar Lawrence (New York Red Bulls)

From being without a club in early 2015, to trialing with the New York Red Bulls in the preseason, to arguably one of the best leftbacks in CONCACAF, in not even one full year, Kemar Lawrence has had a massive year.

With Kemar, there’s a discussion to be had about his 2015 success with national team, Jamaica. Lawrence played every single minute of Jamaica’s 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup campaign. Not only did he play every minute, but the so-called Reggae Boyz finished in second place of the tournament, dismantling the United States in the semi-finals.

Lawrence played plenty times before this for Jamaica but it seems Jamaican National Team manager, Winfried Schafer, placed this immense faith in Kemar Lawrence because of his form displayed with the New York Red Bulls. Sure enough, his MLS season has been spectacular. Many would argue he was the best leftback in MLS this season. At 23, the future is bright for Mr. Lawrence.

Mike Grella (New York Red Bulls)

Perhaps he didn’t quite have as good of a season as the likes of Kemar Lawrence and Kevin Ellis but it’s his background that makes Grella such a surprising player in MLS this season. The Newcomer of the Year nominee started his true ventures as a professional with Leeds United. Their acquisition of the Duke attendee at an inferior time for soccer in this country, says a lot about the potential they saw in him. Well, it’s taken us six years to discover it but we’re okay with that.

Nutmegging Frank Lampard, scoring the fastest goal in MLS history, and scoring a few world-class goals are just a part of Mike Grella’s newfound success. Bouncing from struggling English lower-division sides like Brentford to Scunthorpe, to his short stint with Danish club Viborg, Mike Grella is an absolute revelation for the Red Bulls.

Unlike players we’ve mentioned so far, he’s 28. Some say that’s a player’s prime. Well, it’s certainly the case for Mike Grella. We salute this player’s 2015 season and the beautiful moments that have come with it. We’d like to thank you Mike, on behalf of the internet and anyone who follows MLS. Hey, did we mention he starts over an ex-EPL star now?

Take that England. We think you missed one here.

Fabinho (Philadelphia Union)

We know what you’re thinking, and if we’re correct, you’re repeating the name Fabinho in a questioning manner, either out loud or in your head, with a silly face. You aren’t unjustified there either. Fabinho is a player, like Grella, who bounced around at lower quality leagues, for even longer than Grella did, whether it be in Brazil or Australia. Fabinho was signed by Philadelphia in 2013 after trialing with the club.

His play this year however, seemed like that of a leftback the Union acquired from a top four European league. Fabinho has been a contributor for the Union ever since joining in 2013 but this year, as we mentioned with Mike Grella, seemed to be prime Fabinho. Like Grella, Fabinho was also considered a promising prospect at one point. In fact, he may have been a bigger prospect than Grella, having played a few times for the U20 Brazilian National Team.



How good was Fabinho’s season exactly? Well, statistically he was rated very highly this year. One example would be within his interception rate. It’s a rate higher than even Kevin Ellis’, at 4.6 interceptions a game. Fabinho’s interception rate ended as the seventh highest in the league, beating out countless high profile players.

Combine his interception ability with his 2.6 tackles per game rate and a relatively low 1.2 fouls per game rate, and you have the best performing leftback in 2015, according to some.

Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps)

We mentioned this guy previously. Having bounced around mostly in Costa Rica but also briefly to Uruguay and Puerto Rico, it perhaps comes as quite a surprise that Kendall Waston has had such an incredible season in Major League Soccer. He is a product of the fine Costa Rican club, Deportivo Saprissa however, known for producing some of Costa Rica’s best talent.

We’re talking about a player who could possibly pick up the Defender of the Year award. Waston was picked as a nominee alongside Belgian international Laurent Ciman, and established MLS centerback, Matt Hedges. Thanks to this fine season from Kendall, we are also now talking about a Costa Rican international. Waston, in fact, got the start against the United States in a 1-0 shutout win in New Jersey last month. He also played 90 minutes and we could now potentially see him be Costa Rica’s starting centerback in their upcoming World Cup Qualifying games this month. Quite possibly, Kendall Waston could be rewarded even further, as the Vancouver Whitecaps look to advance in the MLS Cup Playoffs.


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Bringing you news on soccer players across MLS and American players playing in top leagues around the world, Austin is a journalism major who enjoys the fine arts. He doesn't favor one club over another, but just enjoys all MLS play.