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Year In Review: Best Of MLS
by Ridge Mahoney, December 1st, 2008 3:48PM

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The second year of designated players was also the first year of liberalized rules regarding limits on foreign player. With some teams overloaded by games in different competitions, many MLS teams relied on youngsters to get the job done.

The three-man backline nearly disappeared from MLS in 2008, with injuries and tactics prompting the Revs to alter their familiar 3-5-2 formation, and a coaching change in Dallas resulting in a switch to four in the back.

A heavier influx of foreign players - the limit per team was increased to eight and age restrictions were removed - wasn't spread evenly throughout the league. By the end of the season, still one half of the teams had yet to utilize the Designated Player option.

New York blew through lineups as master tactician Juan Carlos Osorio juggled formations and personnel to get the moribund franchise to its first MLS Cup, and Toronto FC led the league with appearances by 31 field players. At the other extreme was Houston, which played a heavy schedule but used just 19 field players and two goalies in its 30 league matches.

For purposes of this ranking, we've separated midfielders into the following categories: holding; central (two-way), attacking, right, and left. Several attacking midfielders often play out wide, yet we have usually placed a flank player into his position on the field regardless of his role.

Front players are divided into "second" forwards, who tend to play underneath a partner, and strikers. These decisions, too, are somewhat arbitrary.

Only one of the 11 players ranked No. 1 last year repeated on top, and that is Revs midfield fulcrum Shalrie Joseph. Of course.

STRIKERS
1. Angel 2. Ching 3. Buddle

Commentator and former Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing says Juan Pablo Angel is "the best pure finisher" ever to play in MLS. Messing played with perhaps the most prolific scorer in the history of the North American Soccer League, Giorgio Chinaglia, and against many other lethal finishers, so that is high - and deserved - praise.

Off the field as well, the Red Bull DP has proven to be an outstanding signing. "His presence in the locker room is invaluable to this team," says keeper Danny Cepero. "I think if you were to come in and not know who Juan Pablo was, merely you wouldn't think of this guy as a superstar. He's just like one of the regular guys.

"His work ethic is unparalleled I think for somebody coming in as a designated player, he's one of the hardest working guys be it in the weight room, on the practice field, in matches."

Angel missed seven games and still netted 14 league goals.

Houston and Brian Ching struggled to score in the first portion of the season yet got their games in gear down the stretch. By contrast, Edson Buddle zipped out to a fast start with the high-flying Galaxy, but had trouble hitting the net during a futile push for a playoff spot.

D.C. United traded Christian Gomez for a second DP slot and upgraded Luciano Emilio, who led MLS last year with 20 goals, to DP status. Like many of his teammates, he struggled with injuries but again finished among the leaders in goals.
Chad Barrett went from Chicago to Toronto in the deal that brought Brian McBride to the Fire, and the deal worked out well for both teams. Conor Casey flourished when given increased playing time after Gary Smith took over the Colorado coaching reigns from Fernando Clavijo.

FORWARDS
1. Schelotto 2. Donovan 3. J.Moreno

Crew head coach Sigi Schmid revamped his formation early in the season to retain a free role for Guillermo Barros Schelotto yet keep him as far upfield as possible. The Argentine led the league with 19 assists, displaying a passing touch rarely seen in MLS, and contributed much more consistently than he had in his first season.

"There's no one that does it better since I've been in the league," says Crew defender Frankie Hejduk. "The closest guys, maybe, [Carlos] Valderrama or [Marco] Etcheverry. He's right up there with them for sure. The weight of the pass is just incredible."

Landon Donovan played a far more aggressive role than Schelotto, scything through defenses and racing past defenders to set a career mark with a league-best 20 goals and tack on nine assists in 25 games as Los Angeles led the league in scoring. But again LA failed to make the playoffs.

Injuries and age (34) continue to impair Jaime Moreno, yet with 10 goals and 10 assists, he hit double digits in both categories for the fourth time in his career. He was the only MLS player to attain that feat in 2008.

Kenny Cooper scored 18 goals during a tumultuous season that saw a coaching change in Dallas and team management declining transfer offers from foreign clubs.

Like Schelotto, Cuahtemoc Blanco often played behind a single striker. One of his seven goals was a long-range, left-footed blast that reached the final cut for Goal of the Year, and he also registered 11 assists.

ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS
1. Morales 2. Ralston 3. Arnaud

Shifting Schelotto and Blanco out of this category shortens the list of candidates but regardless of the competition, Real Salt Lake midfielder Javier Morales rates highly.

With a touch nearly comparable to that of Schelotto and preferring to play a slightly deeper role, Morales majestically yet energetically orchestrated the RSL attack. Limited by a shoulder injury to just seven games after arriving midway through the 2007 season, Morales finished second to Schelotto with 15 assists and delivered some of the sweetest free kicks seen in MLS this season.

A broken leg sidelined Steve Ralston in early October yet still he led the Revs in scoring with eight goals and seven assists and shouldered much of the attacking load when injuries sidelined other attackers.

Kansas City coach Curt Onalfo got his team into the playoffs with a late-season switch in tactics and personnel. Moving Davy Arnaud into the middle - he also played up top and out wide in midfield - gave the Wizards a focal point to their attack. Arnaud led Kansas City with seven goals, the same number as Dwayne DeRosario, who played several excellent games but wasn't as consistently influential as in the Dynamo's 2006 and 2007 championship seasons.

RIGHT MIDFIELDERS
1. Beckham 2. Rolfe 3. Cooke

With Ralston playing most of the season centrally, David Beckham and Terry Cooke ruled the right side among crossers, and converted forward Chris Rolfe contributed a productive season well-balanced in goals and assists.

Beckham still delivers the best serves in the league yet only logged 10 assists though the Galaxy tallied a league-high 55 goals. Playing for England after a busy summer seemed to drain him. If he's consistently picked for the 2009 slate of qualifiers, it's something Coach Bruce Arena will have to monitor.

Rolfe finished among the league's top scorers and atop the Fire charts with nine goals and seven assist. Tricky, quick and persistent, Rolfe excels at attacking defenders one-v-one while isolated out wide and also is capable of incisive combination play.

Cooke seemed to be one of the forgotten men when Smith replaced Fernando Clavijo - he played just 24 games, starting 18 - but still ranked third in assists with 12. He is one of the few classic wide players in MLS who serves good balls from midfield as well as near the corner flag.

Sacha Kljestan is a young, skilled midfielder whose busy 2008 included the Olympic Games and national-team games. Demanding the ball more in pressure situations will further improve his game, whether he stays in MLS or goes abroad.

LEFT MIDFIELDERS
1. van den Bergh 2. Huckerby 3. Rogers

The tinkerings of Osorio altered the Red Bull lineup almost constantly, and Dave van den Bergh sometimes lined up at left back for lack of a better option. With Angel sidelined for one-third of the season and Jozy Altidore on hand for just eight games before being sold to Villarreal, van den Bergh took on some of the goalscoring responsibility. He netted seven goals - second on the team to Angel - to go along with his five assists and didn't disgrace himself while playing in defense.

A midseason addition of English veteran Huckerby sparked a nine-game unbeaten run that pushed San Jose into the playoff chase. That push fell short yet Huckerby's modest stats (6 goals and 4 assists in just 14 games) were enough to lead the team in scoring.

Those two international players outdistanced a pack of capable and solid Americans, all of whom played well for significant stretches of the season. None, however, contributed consistently throughout the seven-month schedule.

Robbie Rogers got off to a fast start, hit a midseason lull and left to play in the Olympics. He revived his play in the final month of the season to finish with six goals and three assists.

Justin Mapp and Brad Davis each recorded eight assists. Mapp - a paragon of sporadic spurts in past seasons - raised his consistency factor. Colin Clark played some spectacular games but somehow only garnered five goals and three assists.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS
1. Joseph 2. Beckerman 3. Thorrington

The top two replicated their rankings of 2007. A slew of injuries to attackers shunted more offensive responsibility to Shalrie Joseph, always a willing warrior who is regarded, justly, as perhaps the league's best player. Period. His combined prowess in tackling, tracking, passing, heading and running is remarkable.

Only slightly less important to his team than Joseph is to the Revs is Beckerman, whose range, timing and tenacity provide a solid midfield pivot for RSL. Last year, he shouldered some of the attacking load; this season, he tended more to plugging holes and cleaning up messes in support of Morales while playing every minute of every game.

Four years after signing with the Fire, John Thorrington broke into the starting lineup and showed the bite and fire and touch he'd displayed as a teenager before leaving the U.S. to spend seven years knocking around in Europe. Front to back, nobody covers more ground in less time than Thorrington, who can score goals with a fierce shot or stop them by hard tackles.

HOLDING MIDFIELDERS
1. Carroll 2. Larentowicz  3. Pause

Five seasons with D.C. United showcased the heady, tough play of Brian Carroll but a drastic remodeling prompted a move to Columbus, where a promising partnership with Adam Moffat ended after just seven games when the Scotsman suffered a torn ACL.

Undaunted, Carroll manned center mid with Brad Evans and they quickly formed a potent duo, with Carroll's acumen and tackling shielding the back four, and prompting attacks with smart and accurate passes.

The rock in the middle of the Revs midfield for the past few seasons has been Jeff Larentowicz, who also moved back to play a few games in central defense during an injury-marred season.

Once Thorrington had established himself as the midfield instigator, Pause blossomed in a traditional holding role. His sense of timing and tactics blunted opponents efficiently; in 27 games, he committed only 23 fouls and incurred just one caution.

LEFT BACKS
1. Segares 2. Padula 3. Barrett
One of the traditional weak spots of MLS was strengthened by the arrival of Argentine Gino Padula, who after overcoming a pair of injuries greatly stabilized the Crew's left corner. He and Gonzalo Segares play the position very differently, yet both are essential to the success of their teams, who met in the Eastern Conference final won by the Crew, 2-1

"Gino's more of a passer, he's more of a positional defender, he defends more with positional play and tactics," says Schmid of Padula. "Gonzalo is somebody who doesn't mind mixing it up a little bit, he has a physical element to his game, and he's going to go well in challenges. They're both among the best left backs in the league."

Houston's Wade Barrett, the team captain, topped the rankings last year and played well most of the season. Once he and left mid Brad Davis got back in sync, the Dynamo rolled confidently through a loaded schedule of league, U.S. Open Cup, SuperLiga and Concacaf Champions Cup games, until being stunned by New York in the conference semifinals.

CENTRAL DEFENDERS
1. Marshall 2. Conde 3. Boswell

A series of concussions and other injuries sidelined Chad Marshall in August 2007; his remarkable recovery and presence in the back line steered Columbus into MLS Cup for the first time ever. Challenged by Schmid to take on more leadership, Marshall got louder and added that presence to his prowess in the air at both ends of the field.

"It's no secret that on set pieces he's always he's always the one in there getting his head on the ball and his timing on when to step to those balls and stepping around defenders has been incredible this year," says Hejduk of the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year winner. "I think he's just really grown as a player. And you're definitely going to see more and more to come from him.

It took a few months for Fire coach Denis Hamlett to convince Wilman Conde that he wasn't going to follow Osorio to the Red Bulls, but once that mission was accomplished, Conde and Bakary Soumare formed one of the league's toughest tandems. He also got forward to head home a goal in the playoffs.

With Eddie Robinson struggling through some tough times, Bobby Boswell anchored Houston's back line that permitted the fewest goals. He missed just one league game through suspension.

RIGHT BACKS
1. Hejduk 2. Wingert 3. Namoff

Last year's top two were Bryan Namoff and Hejduk at No. 1 and No. 2. This year RSL's Chris Wingert moved in between them thanks to his quiet yet solid season that included time on the left corner as well as on the right.

At age 34, Hejduk's amazing workrate, energy and spirit continue unabated. He's ideally suited to the frenzied, sometimes frantic conditions under which many MLS games are played. His crossing can be faulted but he gets past challengers so consistently his runs often produce a shot.

Wingert earned three assists while playing all but one league match. He's solid defensively, seldom concedes possession or misses tackles in bad spots, and rather than looking for the dramatic long ball, hits shorter passes that maintain possession.

Namoff did what he could to stabilize a United back line that utilized 10 different players and often look disjointed if not in complete disarray

GOALKEEPERS
1. Busch 2. Hesmer 3. Onstad

All of the top three keepers allowed slightly more than a goal per game, and Jon Busch and William Hesmer tied - along with Kansas City's Kevin Hartman - for the lead in shutouts with 10 apiece.

Busch ranked second in the league with 122 saves while playing every minute and won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors. He grabbed his opportunity when last year's starter, Matt Pickens, left Chicago to try his luck in Europe and completed a remarkable comeback from tearing the ACLs in both knees and being cut by the Crew two years ago.

In just his second year as a starter, the Crew's Hesmer improved significantly from his 2007 performance in which he played 20 games. At age 40, Pat Onstad hasn't slipped from the level - extremely good - as when he broke into MLS five years ago.

(This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.) 



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