Valentín Castellanos Is The Best Striker In MLS
Taty has emerged as elite force and everyone better recognize.
While the MLS punditry fawns over the return of Josef Martínez and Chicharito actually looking like he should be paid to play soccer, Valentín Castellanos has quietly become the best striker in Major League Soccer. The fiery, rabona-loving Argentine is Ronny Deila’s “clear number one up front” and will continue to be that for the foreseeable future thanks to a contract extension until 2025. Despite a reported doubling of his previous $324K salary, being able to fit a DP-caliber striker on a TAM-level salary is a big win for the cost-efficient mentality of the NYCFC front office.
Locking up Taty to a long-term deal also effectively ends a transfer saga (for now) with Palmeiras, who were in hot pursuit for his signature all offseason. However, despite being targeted by one of the South American giants and the most dynamic goal scorer in MLS since last October, Castellanos still does not garner the attention on the domestic front that a player of his pedigree should. It turns out being underrated is the norm for Castellanos.
The Outfield published an article in December of 2019 that told you Taty Castellanos Is (Still) Better Than You Think when the young NYCFC striker-winger hybrid was coming off an 11 goal, 6 assist season built upon even stronger underlying peripherals at the ripe age of 20. The article questioned why Castellanos had not received enough praise as the 6th ranked player in the MLS 22 Under 22 list.
While the court of public opinion has shifted positively on him since the time of that writing, the title of that article still holds true nevertheless. Examining Castellanos’ performance in the interim, it becomes clear there is no praise too high. He should be discussed at the very top of his position group, but with no caveats or age restrictions this time.
Coming into MLS in 2018 as an unpolished ball of raw energy, Castellanos was immediately effective, compiling 0.53 non-penalty xG+xA per 96 minutes across his first two seasons. That production ranked 29th among qualified strikers and put him slightly above average in the 53rd percentile but undersells his overall contribution. His value was better represented by a 0.05 g+ above average per 96 minutes that placed him in the top ten center forwards in the league. Castellanos has since vaulted himself into the MLS stratosphere by refining a skill set already brimming with quality.
The physical strength to post up a defender in hold up play has always been there, but it’s now paired with upgraded skills when he actually receives the ball. Castellanos showed off a host of tricks and the obligatory rabona in recent matches against Philadelphia and Orlando, releasing teammates forward when it seemed as if the only option was to retreat. More completed passes under pressure than ever and a pass completion percentage increasing further towards expectation each year has made him more of an asset in ball progression.
Taty’s natural propensity to pull the trigger from anywhere and everywhere is alive and well, but he’s become savvy with where on the field he gets his fix. So while he continues to boost his shot quantity, his shot quality is also on the rise as more experience has fueled better instincts for off ball movement. These improvements jettisoned Castellanos to 2nd and 1st amongst strikers since the start of 2020 in both non-penalty xG+xA (0.69) and g+ above average (0.09) per 96 minutes, respectively.
With those types of rankings, we could wrap this article up and make some lofty claims about the 22-year-old right now. But where some strikers’ contributions are heavily skewed on the offensive side of the ball, Castellanos also harnesses an unbridled work rate and focuses it into elite defense as the tip of NYCFC’s press. He is just as unrelenting off the ball as he is on it but is now more efficient with how he expends his energy, gearing up and down at opportune moments. Few can replicate his ability to disorient an opponent’s buildup, ranking 2nd among all MLS forwards since the start of last season in attacking third pressures per 100 opponent passes allowed.
It’s hard to imagine how Castellanos is not being viewed in the highest regard given that level of production but a particularly bad finishing season can effectively suppress praise. No player underperformed his xG total more than Castellanos, who managed just 4 goals from 8 non-penalty xG. That turned what could have been a second consecutive season of double digit goals into one that could be considered disappointing on its surface. Nonetheless, a diminished goal output couldn’t mask Castellanos’ development from an attacking hybrid to a bonafide, well rounded No. 9. It clearly didn’t affect his reputation with Palmeiras, and the decision makers in New York felt just as strongly.
With a positive regression in the finishing department looming, NYCFC have secured themselves as the beneficiaries by extending Castellanos, who will establish his rightful standing among the best of the best in the process. Early returns in 2021 suggest we’re already on the way to that reality after 4 goals (1 penalty) from 3.6 expected goals so far. Strikers finally start to get the credit they’ve always deserved when the expected goals become real goals and Castellanos is no exception.
But it’s not enough. Taty’s rarely discussed among the likes of Chicharito, Josef Martinez, Raul Ruidiaz, and Gonzalo Higuain so it needs repeating: Taty Castellanos is still better than you think. It’s time for all of us to admit that he’s the best striker in Major League Soccer. Deila expects “big things from him in the future”, and now he has more time to prove it. We can’t wait. ❧
Image: Utagawa Kunisada, Futami-ga-ura Rocks at Ise, Land of Dawn