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MLS Player Rankings Week 24: Heber muscles into top three

Heber scored his second brace of the season against FC Cincinnati in a 4-1 win at Nippert Stadium Saturday.

Aug 17, 2019; Cincinnati, OH, USA; New York City FC forward Heber (9) celebrates after scoring a goal against FC Cincinnati in the first half at Nippert Stadium. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in a while, the list of candidates to make the latest edition of the Pro Soccer USA Major League Soccer Player Rankings was well beyond the 20 players we put in each week. 

A plethora of in-form players forced their way into the list after Week 24, but there were some who didn’t make the cut due to the amount of consistent performers across the league.

Some returnees and new entrants benefited from playing two games in Week 24. For example, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s back-to-back braces helped in a major way. 

Others like Nemanja Nikolic, Diego Rubio and Pedro Santos have been scoring at a consistent clip for a few weeks and deserve recognition, while two of the top defenders in the league are back in the mix as well. 

Our MLS Player Rankings take into account a player’s form over the last four games, with the most-recent performance carrying more weight. 

20. Lassi Lappalainen, M, Montreal Impact

Previous Ranking: Not Ranked

Aug 17, 2019; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Impact midfielder Lassi Lappalainen (21) plays the ball during the first half of the game against FC Dallas at Stade Saputo. (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

In his first month in MLS, Lassi Lappalainen has picked up a pair of two-goal performances for the Montreal Impact. 

Before things went south for Remi Garde’s side Saturday, the 20-year-old Finnish midfielder put two tallies into the net against FC Dallas. 

In addition to picking up his third and fourth goals of his brief MLS career, Lappalainen recorded his first league assist in the 3-3 draw. 

19. Michael Barrios, M, FC Dallas

Previous Ranking: 12

Aug 3, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; FC Dallas midfielder Michael Barrios (21) looks to kick the ball during the second half against the Orlando City at Exploria Stadium. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

One of Week 23’s top entrants hung on to his spot in the top 20 thanks to an assist in the second of his two matches in Week 24. 

FC Dallas’ Michael Barrios picked up his 12th handout of the campaign in the come-from-behind 3-3 tie at Stade Saputo in which Ryan Hollingshead netted the equalizer. 

Four of Barrios’ 12 assists have come against Eastern Conference clubs — two versus Atlanta United and the other coming against Toronto FC. 

18. Jan Gregus, M, Minnesota United

Previous Ranking: Not Ranked

Aug 17, 2019; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota United midfielder Jan Gregus (8) shoots during the second half against Orlando City SC at Allianz Field. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

Jan Gregus produced a pair of Man of the Match-caliber outings for Minnesota United. 

In Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Colorado, the Slovakian midfielder recorded seven key passes, six shots, three interceptions and two shots on goal.

Gregus followed that up with five key passes, five shots and a 92.8 percent passing accuracy in Saturday’s 1-1 home draw with Orlando City.

17. Jozy Altidore, F, Toronto FC

Previous Ranking: 18

Aug 17, 2019; Columbus, OH, USA; Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) advances past Columbus Crew SC midfielder Luis Diaz (18) in the first half at MAPFRE Stadium. (Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth time in five seasons with Toronto FC, Jozy Altidore has reached double digits in the scoring column. 

The U.S. Men’s National Team forward saved a point for the Reds by nodding in a late equalizer at MAPFRE Stadium in a 2-2 draw against the Columbus Crew Saturday. 

Altidore has scored five of his 10 goals since July 13

16. Latif Blessing, M, Los Angeles FC

Previous Ranking: 

Aug 11, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles FC forward Latif Blessing (7) and New York Red Bulls midfielder Cristian Casseres Jr (23) battle for the ball in the first half at Banc of California Stadium. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Our weekly critiquing of Los Angeles FC comes at a higher standard than how we measure any other club. (Although Atlanta is rapidly approaching that tier of MLS). 

Latif Blessing had an average night in the LAFC midfield at Rio Tinto Stadium, but still made four tackles and distributed a key pass in the final third. 

Typically, we would have Blessing up higher, but with so many big performances in Week 24, we had to knock some players out of the top 10 who may not have fully deserved it.

15. Diego Rossi, F, Los Angeles FC

Previous Ranking: 6

Apr 13, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles FC forward Diego Rossi (9) moves the ball down the field past FC Cinncinati midfielder Allan Cruz (15) during the first half at Banc of California Stadium. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

That last sentence about Blessing relates to Diego Rossi as well. 

Rossi has 13 goals on the campaign, but has failed to strike the net in two weeks, only putting a single shot on goal in that span.

Adama Diomande and Carlos Vela receiving more chances in front of goal is part of the reason for the dried up production.

14. Valentin Castellanos, M, New York City FC

Previous Ranking: 15 

Aug 17, 2019; Cincinnati, OH, USA; New York City FC midfielder Valentin Castellanos (11) celebrates with teammates defender Ronald Matarrita (back) and forward Heber (left) after scoring a goal against FC Cincinnati in the first half at Nippert Stadium. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Two braces in three games to start August have Valentin Castellanos on the verge of a 10-goal season for New York City FC.

The 20-year-old has nine strikes and five assists for the third-place side in the Eastern Conference, and will be relied upon in many other situations to close the season since Dome Torrent’s side still holds two games in hand on most of the East. 

13. Pedro Santos, M, Columbus Crew SC

Previous Ranking: Not Ranked

Aug 17, 2019; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew SC forward Pedro Santos (7) celebrates his second half goal against Toronto FC at MAPFRE Stadium. (Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports)

The breakout stretch we have been waiting for out of Pedro Santos is finally here. 

The 31-year-old winger has four goals in his last quartet of contests for the Columbus Crew, who could be a nuisance to playoff contenders in the East for the rest of the campaign. 

Santos’ nine goals and three assists are a welcome sight after he produced a tally and seven handouts in his first full season in Black and Gold. 

12. Diego Rubio, F, Colorado Rapids

Previous Ranking: Not Ranked

Aug 10, 2019; Commerce City, CO, USA; Colorado Rapids forward Diego Rubio (7) celebrates his goal in the second half against the San Jose Earthquakes at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Diego Rubio is also up to nine goals and three assists after a recent surge for the Colorado Rapids. 

The former Sporting Kansas City striker scored twice against Houston to extend his scoring run to five tallies in five matches dating back to July 27. 

The only match in which the 26-year-old Chilean has not scored during that stretch was Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota United.

11. Nemanja Nikolic, F, Chicago Fire

Previous Ranking: Not Ranked

Aug 17, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic (23) reacts after scoring a goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half at SeatGeek Stadium. (Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports)

Nemanja Nikolic has rediscovered his form at the perfect time with the Chicago Fire in the hunt for a playoff spot. 

Nikolic moved into double digits in goals for the third straight season Saturday by way of a brace versus Philadelphia at SeatGeek Stadium. 

All five of Nikolic’s shots on goal in the previous four matches have found the back of the net. His uptick in form has helped the Fire move within one point of a postseason position in the Eastern Conference. 

10. Ike Opara, D, Minnesota United

Previous Ranking: Not Ranked

Aug 17, 2019; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota United defender Ike Opara (3) fouls Orlando City SC midfielder Nani (17) during the second half at Allianz Field. (Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports)

Minnesota United did not concede a goal from the run of play over 180 minutes in Week 24. 

The only tally let up by the Loons was a Nani penalty kick Saturday. Other than that, Ike Opara and the defensive unit turned in a solid week. 

Opara’s continued level of form has him in contention for the MLS Defender of the Year. 

9. Miles Robinson, D, Atlanta United

Previous Ranking: Not Ranked

Jul 21, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson (12) runs for a ball in front of D.C. United forward Paul Arriola (7) in the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Opara’s direct competition for the top defender in MLS could be Miles Robinson.

The American defender turned in a defensive masterclass in Atlanta United’s 2-0 win over Portland Sunday, which allowed the Five Stripes to move into first place in the Eastern Conference. 

The next recognition for Robinson should be a spot on Gregg Berhalter’s roster for the fall international windows. 

8. Gustavo Bou, F, New England Revolution

Previous Ranking: 

Jul 27, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Revolution forward Gustavo Bou (7) runs after the ball during the first half against the Orlando Cityat Gillette Stadium. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

Gustavo Bou is up to four goals in six games as a member of the New England Revolution.

Bou’s latest shot to hit the twine could be a massive goal in the playoff race since it occurred on the road against the New York Red Bulls. 

With the 1-1 draw, the Revs were able to stay above the mess around the red line in sixth place within striking distance of D.C. United in fourth and the Red Bulls in fifth. 

7. Vako, M, San Jose Earthquakes

Previous Ranking: 

Jul 12, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Vako Kazaishvili (11) moves the ball against the LA Galaxy in the first half at Dignity Health Sports Park. The Earthquakes defeated the Galaxy 3-1. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Vako continues to be an active participant in the San Jose attack, but his efficiency in front of the net has dropped off a bit lately. 

The scorer of eight goals in 2019 failed to place an attempt on target in his team’s 2-1 defeat to Sporting Kansas City Saturday. 

Vako has two chances to get back on the score sheet in Week 25 against LAFC and Vancouver, two clubs at opposite ends of the Western Conference standings. 

6. Carles Gil, M, New England Revolution

Previous Ranking: 3

Aug 17, 2019; Harrison, NJ, USA; New England Revolution midfielder Carles Gil (22) plays the ball against New York Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis (27) during the second half at Red Bull Arena. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

Carles Gil has an assist in five of his last six games.

The Spaniard extended his brilliant form setting up Bou’s equalizer in the 1-1 draw with the Red Bulls. 

Gil is still searching for his 10th goal, and once he gets that, he will join Vela in the 10-plus goals and assists club.

5. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, F, LA Galaxy

Previous Ranking: Not Ranked

Aug 17, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic (center) is congratulated after scoring a second half goal against the Seattle Sounders at StubHub Center. (Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports)

The man, the myth, the Zlatan stormed back into form in Week 24 by putting a pair of shots past FC Dallas and Seattle. 

The two multi-goal performances were Ibrahimovic’s fifth and sixth of the 2019 campaign.

In fact, the last nine tallies recorded by the Swedish legend have come in three braces and a hat trick. 

4. Julian Gressel, M, Atlanta United

Previous Ranking: 

Julian Gressel directs a teammate during Atlanta United's 3-2 loss to Toronto FC at BMO Field in Toronto on June 26, 2019. (Steve Kingsman-Atlanta United)

Julian Gressel directs a teammate during Atlanta United’s 3-2 loss to Toronto FC at BMO Field in Toronto on June 26, 2019. (Steve Kingsman-Atlanta United)

Julian Gressel dished out the top assist of Week 24 on Josef Martinez’s goal at Providence Park Sunday. 

Gressel may not have the eye-popping numbers of other players on this list, but he has worked his way into the top five by doing all of the little things right during Atlanta’s run of five wins in the last six league games. 

3. Heber, F, New York City FC

Previous Ranking: 5

Aug 17, 2019; Cincinnati, OH, USA; New York City FC forward Heber (9) celebrates after scoring a goal against FC Cincinnati in the first half at Nippert Stadium. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

While Vela, Martinez and Ibrahimovic have earned the lion’s share of attention, Heber has not stopped scoring for New York City FC. 

The Brazilian is now up to 12 goals after striking for two in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over FC Cincinnati. 

In 180 minutes versus the expansion side, Heber has four goals and one assist. 

2. Carlos Vela, F, Los Angeles FC

Previous Ranking: 2

Aug 17, 2019; Sandy, UT, USA; Los Angeles FC celebrate after a goal by forward Carlos Vela (10) against the Real Salt Lake during the second half at Rio Tinto Stadium. Los Angeles FC won 2-0. (Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports)

Aug 17, 2019; Sandy, UT, USA; Los Angeles FC celebrate after a goal by forward Carlos Vela (10) against the Real Salt Lake during the second half at Rio Tinto Stadium. Los Angeles FC won 2-0. (Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports)

Vela broke the record for most combined goals and assists in a single season in LAFC’s playoff-clinching win over Real Salt Lake. 

Vela scored from the spot in the 2-0 victory to keep his lead atop the Golden Boot race at three goals. 

The owner of 24 goals and 15 assists has the opportunity to shine in a pair of Rivalry Week games in Week 25 with San Jose and the Galaxy coming to Banc of California Stadium. 

1. Josef Martinez, F, Atlanta United

Previous Ranking: 

Aug 18, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) celebrates after scoring a goal during the second half against the Portland Timbers at Providence Park. Atlanta United won 2-0. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

The Golden Boot race is 100 percent on. 

Martinez has made the chase to become MLS’ top scorer an intriguing storyline for September and October by finding the back of the net in 11 consecutive matches. 

The last time the Venezuelan started and failed to score for the Five Stripes was May 19 versus the Red Bulls. 

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