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The Best of MLS
by Ridge Mahoney, December 5th, 2007 4:29PM

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An influx of new players - DPs, youth and senior internationals and drafted rookies - produced the deepest player pool in league history. That depth and quality are reflected in the annual Soccer America positional rankings.

Newcomers dominate the 2007 Soccer America player rankings, which are based only on performance in MLS regular-season and playoff games. More than a dozen players who came to the league this season are listed among the best at their positions.

As in past years, frontrunners are somewhat arbitrarily assigned to the role of either a forward who tends to play underneath or behind their partner or a true striker. The classification of midfielders into attacking, central (two-way) and holding (primarily defensive) is also borne of convenience rather than rigid designation.

Because only two teams - Chicago and New England - played a system with three in the back as their primary formation, all defenders are divided into left backs, central defenders, and right backs. A player on the left side of a three-man back line, such as Gonzalo Segares of Chicago, is ranked as a left back, and all central defenders are lumped together.

Players are downgraded if they missed a significant number of games due to injury, suspensions or international duty.

STRIKERS

Streaky Emilio is new breed

1. Emilio 2. Twellman 3. Johnson

In Luciano Emilio, D.C. United imported a breed of player previously unseen in MLS: a prolific Brazilian goalscorer. Unlike his countrymate Fred, who needed a few months to acclimate, Emilio started sharply and rode through a few barren spells to become the first player to hit the 20-goal mark since Taylor Twellman and Carlos Ruiz in 2007.

Emilio, like many scorers, bagged his goals in streaks. He netted in the first two regular-season games, endured six consecutive games without a goal, then scored in five straight matches. After that six-game drought, he tallied in 13 of D.C.'s next 19 games. United's attack suffered greatly when a leg injury limited him to two ineffective playoff appearances.

Twellman finished third in goals with 16, the fifth time in his six seasons he'd hit double-digits. He netted the only two goals New England scored in the conference finals, and his bike that beat Chicago, 1-0, would have been Goal of the Year if postseason strikes were eligible.

After struggling the past two seasons while scoring just seven goals in 34 games, Eddie Johnson nailed 15 to set a personal high. Head coach Curt Onalfo followed up on his association with Johnson on the national team to rekindle the scoring prowess last seen in 2004, when he scored 12 for Dallas.

Maykel Galindo's pace brought him a dozen goals for Chivas USA and provided MLS with one of its best human-interest stories: the Cuban international defected during the 2005 Gold Cup and after a season in the USL, came to MLS.

In just his second pro season, Jozy Altidore (nine goals for the Red Bulls) refined the power, speed and savvy that could earn him a European contract soon. Toronto FC's Danny Dichio (six goals) terrorized opponents when not sidelined by injuries. Ruiz's seven goals for FC Dallas were the lowest of his MLS career. Injuries and missed chances limited to Brian Ching to six goals. Robbie Findley led all rookies with eight goals despite being traded in mid-season by the Galaxy.

FORWARDS

Razov responds for Chivas USA

1. Razov 2. Donovan 3. Jaime Moreno

Many questions circulated regarding Chivas USA following the departure of coach Bob Bradley; replacement Preki relied heavily on Ante Razov to spark the attack, and he responded with 11 goals while forming one of the league's best forward partnerships with Galindo. When Razov suffered a knee injury and missed the last month of the season Chivas USA's attack sputtered.

Landon Donovan scored eight goals and 13 assists in a season interrupted by his appearances in the Gold Cup and disrupted by Beckhampalooza. He lifted the Galaxy during its late-season playoff push but took some criticism for languid displays earlier in the summer.

Jaime Moreno can still unbalance a defense and freeze his challenger by touch and vision and guile. This up-and-down season, in which he scored nine goals and assisted on 10 while jetting back and forth between MLS and the Bolivian national team, is another reminder D.C. needs to produce a replacement.

The swap of Joseph Ngwenya and Alejandro Moreno improved both teams. Both players scored seven goals. Ngwenya netted the equalizer for Houston in MLS Cup 2007, and Moreno, who also contributed seven assists, revived his career under his former coach in Los Angeles, Sigi Schmid.

Pat Noonan enjoyed a relatively healthy season (27 games, the highest number since 2004) and put up good numbers (seven goals, four assists) with creative elements many teams lack. Kansas City's Scott Sealy (seven goals) and Chicago's Chris Rolfe (six goals) missed nearly half the season with injuries.

Abe Thompson had to sort out different roles in the Dallas attack and picked up five goals and four assists. Eddie Gaven again fought through inconsistent spells while playing in midfield as well, but the numbers (five goals, seven assists) weren't bad.

ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS

Playmakers grow in influence

1. Ralston 2. Schelotto 3. Gomez

More teams used playmakers, and more playmakers did well, than in most previous MLS seasons. Steve Ralston finished the season in the middle after roaming the right flank, as he's done since day one of MLS. He led the league with 14 assists yet fell short once again in MLS Cup.

Christian Gomez slipped a notch or two from his MVP season of 2006 yet still he totaled 10 goals and nine assists for D.C. Like Jaime Moreno, his dips in form drained Emilio and Fred of consistent support. Injuries limited the Crew's Guillermo Barros Schelotto to 22 games, in which he scored five goals, contributed 11 assists, and often dominated matches as a traditional No. 10 is needed to do.

Only by the end of next season can we know just how influential Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco can be. He landed in a sea of change - new coach, new ownership, a few new players - and immediately befuddled opponents and inspired teammates by chipping, flicking, and nicking balls. A searing left-footed strike against Real Salt Lake earned him Goal of the Year honors.

A rather quiet regular season (six goals, four assists) for Dwayne De Rosario blossomed into a solid playoff performance that culminated with a game-tying assist, game-winning goal and MVP honors in MLS Cup.

RIGHT MIDFIELDERS

Olsen sets personal highs

1. Olsen 2. Kljestan 3. Arnaud

Once United coach Tom Soehn sorted out his midfield options and deployed Ben Olsen on the right, the combative Olsen carried his team to victories with spirit, tenacity, and a few rips from distance. He set a personal high with seven goals and added seven assists.

Sacha Kljestan moved outside after playing centrally as a rookie and seized the greater attacking opportunities presented. His slick touch, keen vision, and sense of when to veer inside and when to run the flank resulted in 13 assists.

Davy Arnaud set a personal high-mark with nine assists and also scored four goals playing up front as well as in midfield. Cobi Jones ended his career with some impressive performances that livened up a tepid attack. Dane Richards' frightening pace scorched opponents as he learned the rookie ropes.

LEFT MIDFIELDERS

Toja brightened Dallas picture

1. Toja 2. Smith 3. Fred

Juan Toja's robust tackles, aggressive dribbles and rock-star persona toughened and brightened the Dallas midfield. His lack of polish (a league-high 83 goals) didn't dissuade him from scoring six goals. Bermudan Khano Smith also needs refining and better defensive applications but is a penetrating, left-sided offensive presence the Revs have lacked. Sasha Victorine filled several midfield slots for the Wizards and finished the season on the left side, and with seven assists. Brad Davis missed half of the regular season, but in the playoffs his crosses and dead balls helped propel Houston to a second straight crown.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS

Joseph rules the category

1. Joseph 2. Beckerman 3. Edu

Shalrie Joseph still rules this category and MLS has awarded him with a new contract that reportedly puts him amongst the 10 highest-paid players (not counting DPs) in MLS. His strength, speed, touch and experience are unmatched, and he's imposing on set plays.

Kyle Beckerman, surprisingly traded by the Rapids, solidified RSL's midfield with two-way play reminiscent of his U.S. under-17 days. Toronto FC's Maurice Edu is a force on and off the ball and earned two U.S. caps as well as the Rookie of the Year Award. Clyde Simms added more bite to United's midfield, and his stunning goal in the playoffs against Chicago nearly sparked a successful comeback from a 3-0 deficit. His partnership with Brian Carroll gave United a tough core in the center of the park.

Argentine Pablo Ricchetti's poise settled Dallas' midfield and his injury absence contributed to its late-season fade; teammate Dax McCarty had to play various roles and positions, but his busyness and prowess on dead balls produced seven assists.

The Crew's Ned Grabavoy had modest numbers (three goals, three assists) and can't seem to shake the pattern of good game-bad game. Carey Talley's experience is an asset to an RSL team that needs to add a lot to be competitive. Red Bull signed Claudio Reyna to win games, not rack up big numbers; with him in the starting lineup, NYRB was 7-8-6. It was 5-3-1 without him.

HOLDING MIDFIELDERS

Marsch wins Chivas USA admirers

1. Marsch 2. Mastroeni 3. Armas

Jesse Marsch has limited range, moderate skills, and few admirers aside from his teammates and coaches. He and Paulo Nagamura shared their Chivas USA duties this season effectively.

The Rapids' Pablo Mastroeni has great presence and superb skill yet still is prone to bad tackles and angry protests. Chicago's midseason addition of Wilman Conde and coaching of Juan Carlos Osorio revived the abilities of Armas, who had several excellent games as the Fire rallied to snatch a playoff spot in his retirement season. Kerry Zavagnin anchored the Wizards midfield well but late in the season lost playing time to rookie Kurt Morsink.

Richard Mulrooney played midfield and right back after being traded by Toronto to Houston, and took over for the suspended Ricardo Clark late in the season. Dynamo assistant coach John Spencer labeled him the team's MVP.

LEFT BACKS Barrett keeps corner secure

1. Barrett 2. Bornstein 3. Segares

Wade Barrett captained the defending champion Houston Dynamo to a repeat title by keeping his corner secure and using the ball wisely. A heavy load of U.S. games and club matches took a toll on Chivas USA's Jonathan Bornstein, who nevertheless defended well and threatened going forward. Costa Rican Gonzalo Segares is very hard to beat, tough in the tackle, and delivers some of the best balls out of the back in MLS. Michael Harrington is the best attacking defender in MLS; the rookie began the year in midfield before moving back and eventually totaling three goals, four assists and 29 games (27 starts). United converted Marc Burch from forward to left back and has unearthed a dogged defender whose crossing is top-class and rates a slight edge over Jim Brennan, a real stalwart in Toronto's first season.

CENTRAL DEFENDERS

Robinson matches up well

1. Robinson 2. Suarez 3. Parkhurst

Just about every season Houston's Eddie Robinson is among the league leaders in fouls and cautions, and just about every forward and opposing coach in MLS say they hate to play against him. His pace and strength in the air enable him to match up well against both the speedy and the big.

The years - 38 - have failed to neutralize Claudio Suarez's toughness in the tackle and recognition of situations. The Revs' Michael Parkhurst committed just five fouls as Defender of the Year and has amazing instincts for anticipating danger and snuffing it out. He led the Revs to three straight playoff shutouts leading up to MLS Cup. Jimmy Conrad missed a chunk of the season playing for the U.S. and he's a vital component Kansas City struggled to replace. RSL's Eddie Pope bowed out with a good showing, and Ryan Cochrane's reliability, coupled with Robinson's edge, frustrated most Dynamo foes.

Once Shavar Thomas got in shape, he played solidly for Chivas USA down the stretch. In the middle and at right back for FC Dallas, Drew Moor progressed significantly and played for the U.S. in the Copa America. When on his game, D.C.'s Bobby Boswell contributed, but after losing his starting spot his season unraveled. Colorado's Ugo Ihemelu is nothing special or fancy, just a rugged defender with decent speed.

RIGHT BACKS

Namoff's tenacity frustrates opponents

1. Namoff 2. Hejduk 3. Waibel

Bryan Namoff's tenacity seldom allowed D.C. opponents the time and space they needed. He's fast enough to run down most opponents and can often recover even if knocked off the ball.

The Crew's Frankie Hejduk is no craftsman, just a roadrunner who can bust up plays and launch attacks. Houston's Craig Waibel plays the right corner more ruggedly than most and frustrates opponents through canny knowledge of angles and timing as well as muscle. New England's Jay Heaps played some of his best soccer this season by reading the game rather than relying on his speed and amazing hops. Lawson Vaughn filled several roles for Chivas USA and did enough at right back to edge out Kansas City's Jack Jewsbury of Kansas City and Toronto's Marvell Wynne, who actually did his best work on the right side of midfield.

GOALKEEPERS

Guzan comes into his own

1. Guzan 2. Onstad 3. Perkins

His third pro season was the best for Chivas USA's Brad Guzan, who cemented his place as the U.S. No. 2 keeper by melding consistency to his sharp reflexes, command of the penalty area, great hands, and extraordinary attitude.

Houston's league record of 23 goals allowed was rooted in Pat Onstad's calm, poised play. Always reliable, he tended his net sharply all season despite an emergency call-up to the Canadian national team for the Gold Cup.

Occasional gaffes detracted from an overall fine season for Troy Perkins. He's good, but those errors can't continue. Matt Reis allowed more goals (1.43 per game) than in past years yet he remains one of the best and bravest keepers in the league. At times all that stood between RSL and a route was Nick Rimando, whose 146 saves led the league.

The exceptionally athletic Bouna Coundoul needs doses of consistency and experience to progress at Colorado. Matt Pickens performed superbly in several Chicago games while erring in a few others. Jon Conway played 14 games and allowed few goals (1.10 per game) for New York but lacks a dominant personality. Joe Cannon started badly in LA, then played some great games late in the season. Kansas City's Kevin Hartman, excellent at times, had occasional troubles getting to balls in traffic.

MLS LEADERS

STRIKERS
1. Luciano Emilio (D.C. United) 2. Juan Pablo Angel (New York) 3. Taylor Twellman (New England) 4. Eddie Johnson (Kansas City) 5. Maykel Galindo (Chivas USA) 6. Jozy Altidore (New York) 7. Danny Dichio (Toronto FC) 8. Carlos Ruiz (FC Dallas) 9. Brian Ching (Houston) 10. Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake)

FORWARDS
1. Ante Razov (Chivas USA) 2. Landon Donovan (Los Angeles) 3. Jaime Moreno (D.C. United) 4. Joseph Ngwenya (Houston) 5. Pat Noonan (New England) 6. Alejandro Moreno (Columbus) 7. Scott Sealy (Kansas City) 8. Chris Rolfe (Chicago) 9. Abe Thompson (FC Dallas) 10. Eddie Gaven (Columbus)

ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS
1. Steve Ralston (New England) 2. Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Columbus) 3. Christian Gomez (D.C. United) 4. Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Chicago) 5. Dwayne De Rosario (Houston)

RIGHT MIDFIELDERS
1. Ben Olsen (D.C. United) 2. Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA) 3. Davy Arnaud (Kansas City) 4. Cobi Jones (Los Angeles) 5. Dane Richards (New York)

LEFT MIDFIELDERS
1. Juan Toja (FC Dallas) 2. Khano Smith (New England) 3. Fred (D.C. United) 4. Sasha Victorine (Kansas City) 5. Brad Davis (Houston)

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS
1. Shalrie Joseph (New England) 2. Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake) 3. Maurice Edu (Toronto FC) 4. Clyde Simms (D.C. United) 5. Pablo Ricchetti (FC Dallas) 6. Brian Carroll (D.C. United) 7. Dax McCarty (FC Dallas) 8. Ned Grabavoy (Columbus) 9. Carey Talley (Real Salt Lake) 10. Claudio Reyna (New York)

HOLDING MIDFIELDERS
1. Jesse Marsch (Chivas USA) 2. Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado) 3. Chris Armas (Chicago) 4. Kerry Zavagnin (Kansas City) 5. Richard Mulrooney (Houston)

LEFT BACKS
1. Wade Barrett (Houston) 2. Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA) 3. Gonzalo Segares (Chicago) 4. Michael Harrington (Kansas City) 5. Marc Burch (D.C. United)

CENTRAL DEFENDERS
1. Eddie Robinson (Houston) 2. Claudio Suarez (Chivas USA) 3. Michael Parkhurst (New England) 4. Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City) 5. Eddie Pope (Real Salt Lake) 6. Ryan Cochrane (Houston) 7. Shavar Thomas (Chivas USA) 8. Drew Moor (FC Dallas) 9. Bobby Boswell (D.C. United) 10. Ugo Ihemelu (Colorado)

RIGHT BACKS
1. Bryan Namoff (D.C. United) 2. Frankie Hejduk (Columbus) 3. Craig Waibel (Houston) 4. Jay Heaps (New England) 5. Jack Jewsbury (Kansas City)

GOALKEEPERS
1. Brad Guzan (Chivas USA) 2. Pat Onstad (Houston) 3. Troy Perkins (D.C. United) 4. Matt Reis (New England) 5. Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake) 6. Matt Pickens (Chicago) 7. Bouna Coundoul (Colorado) 8. Jon Conway (New York) 9. Joe Cannon (Los Angeles) 10. Kevin Hartman (Kansas City)

(This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)



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