Oct 31, 2012

My Best XI + 3 for 2012

On the heels of my Best XI Under 24, here is my Best XI + 3 for 2012.  Why the +3?  Well, a coach gets substitutes, doesn't he?  So here we go.

Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting Kansas City) in what has to be a consensus goalkeeper of the year winner, Nielsen was a rock in the goal for the Eastern Conference winners.  While his habit of licking his lips is nerve wracking, the fact that he has an anemic 0.79 Goals Against Average and a league leading 15 shutouts, if the big Dane doesn't win Goalkeeper of the Year then the fix is in.

Honorable Mentions:  Michael Gspurning (Seattle Sounders FC), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Dan Kennedy (Chivas USA), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)

Defenders (3):
Todd Dunivant (LA Galaxy) despite a brief spell on the bench due to injury, I believe that Dunivant is the best left back in the league.  Consistently one of the best defenders in the league, he also contributes heavily in the attack.

Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City):  The non-mercurial half of the leagues' best centerback pairing, Besler goes about his job with a quiet competence that belies his impact.  Not only is he strong in the air and strong in the tackle, he can pick up the ball and transition into the attack very well.  That is necessary in Peter Vermes' dynamic 4-3-3.

Young-Pyo Lee (Vancouver Whitecaps):  Admit it, you thought he wouldn't adapt to the MLS' phsyicality very well.  It's okay, I didn't think so either and I bet that Martin Rennie is glad that he did adapt well.  I think it unlikely that Vancover makes the playoffs without the Korean workhorse on the flanks.  With one goal and four assists on the year, with 33 starts, the veteran international certainly made a mark in the league.

Honorable Mentions:  Brandon McDonald (DC United), Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake), Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Aurelien Collin (Sporting Kansas City), Arne Freidrich (Chicago Fire); Heath Pearce (New York Red Bull)

Midfielders (4):
Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)  The assist leader for the league in 2012, the set piece master had a break out year, yielding national team call ups (and caps) and generally serving as a leader on the pitch.

Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo):  Why Davis is not getting national team call-ups remains a mystery.  Another set piece maestro, Davis also marauds along the left flank, whipping in cross after cross.  When Davis is playing well, Houston is playing well--you do the math.

Chris Pontius (DC United): What a wonderful thing it is to be healthy for an entire season.  Leading the Black and Red with 12 goals this year, Pontius stepped up in the absence of Dwayne DeRosario by donning the captain's arm band and leading the team down the stretch.

Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders FC):  a holding midfielder's holding midfielder, Alonso has defined the role in MLS with steady, consistent play that sometimes goes unheralded.  A precision passer and tenacious tackler, Alonso helped Seattle concede the second fewest goals of any team this year (just less than a goal a game average).

Honorable Mentions:  Mauro Rosales (Seattle Sounders FC); David Ferreira (FC Dallas), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy); Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake); Marvin Chavez (San Jose Earthquakes), Mike Magee (Los Angeles Galaxy);

Forwards (3)
Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)  Let's see, 27 goals and 7 assists.  That is all.

Kenny Cooper (New York Red Bulls)--maybe Cooper has found a place with 18 goals this season, the big man is contributing like never before.  Maybe it is because every is keying on Thierry Henry or something else, Cooper has found a stride.  Can he keep doing it next year is of course, always the mystery, but this year, he earned him a spot.

Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake):  Yeah, yeah, I know--might as well pick the top three goals scorers and call it a day.  But the job of a striker is to score goals and with 17, Saborio would have been in the hunt for the Golden Boot with Cooper had it not been for Wondo's wonder season.

Honorable Mentions:  Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders FC), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC), Kei Kamara (Sporting Kansas City), Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy); Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)

Super Subs (3):
Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes):  Seriously everyone, if you need a goal in the clutch is there anywhere else to turn this season the this journeyman?  He is so good he did it for the United States Men's National Team when everyone was was like, "Klinsmann is out of his mind!"  13 goals and 7 assists in 23 appearances, mostly off the bench.  Yeah--that qualifies as a super sub.

Chris Birchall (Columbus Crew):  He may not be the greatest player ever, he may not be the classiest player ever, but if you need to kill off a game and need to supplement your back line or add a second holding midfileder, I don't think there are many better at that limited role than Birchall.

Steven Lenhart (San Jose Earthquakes):  Yes, he is the player that everyone loves to hate unless he is on your team.  He has no particularly great skills, unless you count annoying the crap out of opponents and fans, but here is what he brings:  tenacity, work ethic and yes, goals--10 of them to be exact.  His goal scoring total, mostly as a substitute, is better than the top scorer on 11 teams in the league.





Not a perfect formation, but lots of heft.

Oct 30, 2012

My MLS Best XI 2012 (U24)

The MLS season is done and just before Hurricane Sandy came along to bust everything up.  Of course, lots of season awards are being dished out and the Playoffs are upon us.  So, with the season concluded, it is time to name some Best XI's.  I will have two in the next two days--an overall Best XI and, in keeping with MLS' 24 under 24 theme, a Best XI under 24.

Best XI under 24.

Goalkeeper:  Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire).  There are really only two names to consider in this category, Sean Johnson or Bill Hamid.  You could not go wrong with either of these guys between the pipes.  Johnson played more games, faced more shots, had more saves and a pretty good Goals Against Average (1.24).  Hamid, other the other hand, lost his starting job to Joe Willis and had to fight to get it back, posted a miniscule 1.03 GAA and seemed to come up with big saves when he needed to.  In the end, I just had to toss a coin and went with Johnson.  Sean Johnson is the guy.

Honorable Mentions:  Bill Hamid (DC United), Zach McMath (Philadelphia Union), Ryan Meara (Red Bull New York)

Defenders (4):  Sheanon Williams (Philadelphia Union):  There is a reason why you will find a number of young players considered for this XI from Philadelphia, because John Hackworth is used to working with young players and has no problem relying on them.  Williams is a good example, he is an engine on the Union flank, bombing up and down the flank tirelessly.  Strong in defense, with pace and able to whip in a dangerous cross on the attack, Williams is solid, smooth and worthy of watching.  Hopefully a little consistency in the Union technical staff will be helpful.  

Austin Berry (Chicago Fire):  He might be a consensus Rookie of the Year (or at least darn close).  Berry was poised, strong and clearly ready for MLS, even if no one thought him so during the 2012 Draft.  Under the tutelage of Arne Freidrich and Frank Klopas, the Louisville product made his presence felt, but not in a flashy way.  He got the job done, whatever that job was.

Matt Hedges (FC Dallas):  Another rookie, Hedges stepped up and played well for a team that struggled mightily this year.  Hedges is a big guy (like Berry) and clearly strong in the air.  But less noticed is that Hedges can also play with the ball at his feet.  Another Geoff Cameron?  Time will tell, but Hedges earned his pay and then some this year.  

Chance Myers (Sporting Kansas City):  Now in his fifth(!!) year, Myers has blossomed under Peter Vermes' almost frenetic style of play, which suits the active and busy Myers.  Providing lots of width and some good crosses into the powerful striker force.  With seven assists this season, Myers has proven that he can get the job done providing the width to Vermes 4-3-3.

Honorable Mentions:  Andy Najar (DC United), Kevin Alston (New England Revolution), Gershon Koffie (Vancouver Whitecaps), Connor Lade (Red Bull New York)

Midfielders (4):  Perry Kitchen (DC United).  In his second year with United, Kitchen moved into the Defensive midfielder role, his preferred position, and has blossomed into a spectacular leader on the pitch.  Kitchen does what a holding midfielder must do, sit in front of the back four, bust up the plays, tackle and transition.  He has the makings of a solid midfield general in the Kyle Beckerman mold but with the versatility of Shalrie Joseph. 

Juninho (L.A. Galaxy):  With all the big personalities on the Galaxy squad, Donovan, Beckham, Keane, Omar Gonzalez, and Buddle, it is still hard to see how the Galaxy does what it does without Juninho.  A true box to box midfielder with near perfect positioning, a great tackling ability, precision passing and a wicked long range shooting ability, Juninho is the fulcrum around which L.A. pivots--without him I am not sure Bruce Arena's men go far in the playoffs.

Nick DeLeon (DC United):  DeLeon was making a case early in the season for Rookie of the Year.  He hit a wall (like lots of non-defender Rookies) but credit to him for working through it.  During the stretch run when DC United lost Dwayne DeRosario to injury, DeLeon stepped up and played well.  Pairing well with the aforementioned Najar, it is possible that this DC right flank could turn into a nightmare for defenses for their playoff foes and for next year.

Luis Silva (Toronto FC):  If Silva had been anywhere but the train wreck that is Toronto FC, I believe he could have made a much bigger impact on a team.  But toiling in Toronto no doubts has added to his character.  With five goals and five assists, which equates to 25% of Toronto's goal scoring.  Word out of the Toronto camp from Paul Mariner is that he would not have taken Silva as the 4th Pick (Mariner fancied Nick DeLeon).  Not sure if that is smart, unless Mariner is looking to make Silva trade bait.  Still Silva is a great pick and could be a fabulous building block for the constantly rebuilding Toronto FC.

Honorable Mentions:  Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Andy Rose (Seattle Sounders FC), Danny Cruz (Philadelphia Union), Felipe Martins (Impacte de Montreal)

Forwards (2):  Jack McInernery (Philadelphia Union).  After suffering lack of minutes under Peter Novak, McInernery got the nod for new coach John Hackworth and blossomed.  Surprisingly strong with his back to the goal and deadly around the goal, the 19 year old pumped in 8 goals (almost 1/4 of the teams goals) and chipped in 3 assists on a team that otherwise suffered for the season.  

CJ Sapong (Sporting Kansas City):  SKC coach Peter Vermes must sometimes think he has died and gone to striker heaven.  Sapong is one of the young engines of creation and goal scoring that put SKC at the top of the Eastern Conference. Sapong's 9 goals and 2 assists helped, but perhaps not as much as his pure energy on the pitch.  Constantly moving, he is hard to keep track of for defenders and that makes him a constant danger.

Honorable Mentions:  Darren Mattocks (Vancouver Whitecaps), Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo)

Oct 8, 2012

October Call Ups Yield some Surprises Up Top

U.S. Men's National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced his squad for the final matches in this round of World Cup Qualifying.  With the next two games away to Antigua & Barbuda and home to Guatamala having massive importance, the squad yielded some interesting surprises up top--in the form of Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson and the snubs of Jozy Altidore, Terrance Boyd and Chris Wondolowski.
Tthe U.S., Jamaica and Guatamala all have the same number of points (7) in this round with the U.S. tied with Guatamala a the top of the group on goal difference (+2).  The U.S. holds their destiny in their hands, win out and  they are in the Hexagonal.  The best results of match day 5 would be a solid win over Antigua and a Jamaica/Guatamala win by either team.  

But you have to wonder--what the hell is Klinsmann thinking?  Altidore, Boyd and Wondolowski have been in form and Altidore and Wondo lead their respective leagues in goal scoring.  Boyd has been finding the back the net regularly as well.  So, the the "whaaa..." question will be answered later.

Here is the full roster:

GOALKEEPERS (3) : Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
       Seriously---this section is getting to be a snoozer.  Howard will start unless injured.  Guzan could get the nod against Guatamala if the U.S. demolish Antigua and Jamaica and Guatamala end in a win for either side. Don't be surprised if Rimando does not travel to Antigua.  

DEFENDERS (8) : Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), Maurice Edu (Stoke City), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland)

         No surprises here.  All these players are playing on good form and this is shaping up to be Klinsmann's go to squad of defenders.  

MIDFIELDERS (8) : Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Roma), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

         Apparently, Sacha Kljestan is no longer in the doghouse.  It is very, very, very good to see Bradley back--the U.S. always seem to play much better with him on the pitch.  I like Zusi getting another call, but I don't expect him to be in the game day squad, but who knows.

FORWARDS (5): Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Herculez Gomez (Santos), Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)

         Dempsey?  Check.  Donovan?  Check.  Gomez?  Check.  And then the head scratching begins.  Gomez and Demspey have been scoring goals for the U.S. and so it is not a surprise.  Donovan is the talisman who often steps up big in important matches.  But why Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson.

First the positives on both.  Domestically, there is probably no better off-the-bench striker in MLS than Alan Gordon (although fellow Earthquakes striker Steven Lenhart could make a case).  Gordon has scored 13 times this season, mostly off the bench, and is scoring almost one goal for every 90 minutes on the field.  But here is the key stat, Gordon is converting almost 3 out of every 10 chances he has to score.  He has 25 shots on goal (out of 43 taken) and scored 13.  That is a conversion ratio that probably can't be ignored.  Gordon is a big guy, has a high work rate when coming on with 25-30 minutes left in the match, and has shown that he will take the abuse that a fox in the box has to take while holding the ball.  I would call Gordon a poor man's Brian Ching, but I am not sure the comparison holds up beyond the physical toughness.

Eddie "Grown-Ass Man" Johnson got lost for a few years in Europe, but has found form with the Seattle Sounders.  Johnson has 14 goals on 69 shots with 24 on goal.  That is giving Johnson a 20.2% conversion rate as well.  Johnson and teammate Fredy Montero are the league's best strike duo on any team not from San Jose.  What Johnson needed was an ego that matched his own and a partner with creative skills that Johnson lacks, but a partner who does have the raw physical talent that Johnson possesses.  

But is not all about stats is it?  Surely Klinsmann is not just looking at goals and minutes and conversion ratios, right?  Well, maybe not. What do Altidore, Wondolowski and Boyd have at their club teams, that they don't have at the national team level?  Yep, a midfield full of guys who can feed them the ball.  

What the U.S. has lacked with the big stable of defensive midfielders occupying the midfield slots, are creative passers and ball handlers who can get the ball into the final third and find guys like Wondo, Altidore and Boyd.  Add to that fact that those three players are far better at going at players rather than playing with their back to goal.  Johnson and Gordon are better with their back to the goal than Wondolowski, Boyd and Altidore.  I seriously don't expect Gordon or Johnson to get a start, and at most will get 20 minutes if Klinsmann needs to get a goal to put a game out of reach or to equalize in the latter stages (please avoid this situation).  

But what does this do to the U.S. tactically?  I expect to see Klinsmann field a squad that will put a lot of pressure on Steve Cherundolo to provide width on the right.  I would expect to see an asymmetric 4-4-2 or even a 4-3-3.  

Here is what I expect against Antigua

Cherundolo ------Cameron--------Bocanegra-----Castillo


Now that is a weird set up, and again puts a big burden on Cherundolo to provide width on the right and to a lesser extent Castillo on the left.  But here is where things can be itneresting if the U.S. can make the communication work.  Michael Bradley is the best box-to-box midfielder I think the U.S. has produced in years.  Klinsmann should give him free rein to create, to move around and spray passes around like he can, to get the ball wide and to follow up attacks with his late runs into the box.  Let Donovan, Dempsey and Gomez buzz around the back line and in the hole just in front of the back line and drive the defense crazy with movement.  But the three of them have to be on the same page to make sure at least two of them are crashing the goal area on every cross.  

Let Danny Williams do the holding, he did very well versus Jamaica, and let Bradley and Jones create a little.  Yes, Antigua and Guatamala are going to bunker in these games, the U.S. will have to use the movement of Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey and Gomez to defeat that.  

Having said all that, congrats to Alan Gordon for the call-up.  I bet he thought someone was pranking him when Klinsmann called.