[MLS] The evaluation of each MLS team by position continues with this third installment looking at the league’s midfield corps. Performance so far this season and what can be accomplished in the remaining two months are the primary criteria.
1. REAL SALT LAKE. Preseason ranking: 2. All the fuss about the “tight” diamond formation – as opposed to loose diamonds? – played by RSL’s midfield sometimes obscures its real reason for success: quality. Week after week, Javi Morales and Kyle Beckerman make claim that they are the best playmaker and holding mid, respectively, in MLS. Many teams would look a lot better with Will Johnson and Ned Grabavoy – both solid in the tackle yet good on the ball -- in their colors, and the occasional starters include veteran Andy Williams. Youngsters Jean Alexandre and Collen Warner will be called upon with Concacaf matches loading up the late-season schedule.
2. LOS ANGELES. Preseason: 6. The pieces don’t always seem to fit, as there’s seldom a clear-cut choice at left mid, but players like Chris Birchall, Juninho and Michael Stephens know their roles, which is to win the ball and get it to the feet of guys who can do something with it. Part-time starter Jovan Kirovski adds some attacking impetus yet he may be pushed up front more in the aftermath of Clint Mathis’ retirement and Alan Gordon’s move to Chivas USA.
3. FC DALLAS. Preseason: 10. Like RSL, focus on the team’s formation (4-1-4-1) overshadows the men who play in it. Attacking catalyst (and MVP candidate?) David Ferreira and destroyer Daniel Hernandez are flanked by classic winger Brek Shea on the left and converted forward Atiba Harris wide right. The reliable and underrated Dax McCarty is first choice to back up this quartet, which is very difficult to bottle up when it has the ball and tough to fight through when defending.
4. COLUMBUS. Preseason: 3. This unit hasn’t been clicking consistently in 2010, with both Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven having slipped a notch from their performances of the past two years and Emmanuel Ekpo yet to score an MLS goal. The centerpieces of Brian Carroll and Adam Moffat are reliable enough but the attacking elements need improvement if Guillermo Barros Schelotto isn’t to be over-burdened with creating and scoring goals.
5. CHICAGO. Preseason: 5. This has been an excellent season for winger Marco Pappa, who is ably supported by center mids Peter Lowry and Logan Pause. Baggio Husidic adds guile and vision in the middle, and sometimes Patrick Nyarko drops back to add his pace to the midfield mix. If this unit can improve steadily, it has enough games to play – 13 – to be pretty tough by season’s end, especially if veteran John Thorrington comes back from injury and Freddie Ljungberg finds a niche.
6. NEW YORK. Preseason: 16. Joel Lindpere has single-handedly upgraded this unit, which could be right near the top if Rafa Marquez adjusts to MLS quickly enough and rookie Tony Tchani continues to mature. Wide men Dane Richards and Macoumba Kandji are too fast for many opponents, and Seth Stammler and Sinisa Ubiparipovic are ideal role players.
7. SEATTLE. Preseason: 1. The loss of Brad Evans until October with a torn patellar tendon robs this group of some experience and quality. Osvaldo Alonso is back to full fitness and again ready to cover amazing amounts of ground, use the ball well, and occasionally take a crack at goal. Steve Zakuani is better defensively and still as dangerous as he was in 2009 as a rookie. If newcomer Alvaro Fernandez brings his World Cup game to the final one-third of the MLS season, the Sounders’ midfield will rank near the top.
8. COLORADO. Preseason: 8. Jeff Larentowicz has added steel and Mehdi Ballouchy is enjoying his best professional season. As a result, Pablo Mastroeni buttresses a very solid midfield, though the loss of Colin Clark to a torn ACL is a drawback. This is a prime opportunity for Wells Thompson – acquired from the Revs along with Larentowicz during the preseason – to establish himself as a reliable starter, though Coach Gary Smith has used Omar Cummings out wide on occasion.
9. TORONTO. Preseason: 15. By getting his first TFC goal against Cruz Azul Tuesday, Martin Saric may be ready to complement the incredible prowess of Dwayne De Rosario and talents of Julian de Guzman. Nick LaBrocca has a lot of range but has yet to settle into a comfortable role, so the increased work required by Concacaf play will bring him and several backups – Jacob Peterson, Amadou Sanyang, Joseph Nane – into the mix.
10. PHILADELPHIA. Preseason: 13. Fred hasn’t been the impact player that coach Peter Nowak had hoped he’d be but there’s good news elsewhere, especially when Sebastien Le Toux is on the field. Teenagers Roger Torres and Amobi Okugo add some energy to a cast of veterans that includes Stefani Miglioranzi and Andrew Jacobsen. Recent additions Justin Mapp and Eduardo Coudet could be valuable contributors given some time to jell.
11. SAN JOSE. Preseason: 14. The resurgence of Bobby Convey, when not needed at left back, has sparked the Quakes on that flank much as Darren Huckerby did in the second half of the 2008 season. There’s been a lot of juggling in the other spots, with Arturo Alvarez and Joey Gjertsen vying for time out wide, and the middle contested by ex-TFC midfielder Sam Cronin and recently acquired Khari Stephenson. Brandon McDonald has toggled between center back and central mid and done well in both spots.
12. NEW ENGLAND. Preseason: 11. Forward Marko Perovic has brought some creative spark to the attack but aside from rock Shalrie Joseph, there’s not much to be thrilled about. Pat Phelan is still learning the pro ropes, Sainey Nyassi hasn’t been consistent (“this is a recording”), and no one has established himself as the left-sided starter. Chris Tierney has the best left foot and hits a good cross. Khano Smith came back to the Revs a few months ago.
13. KANSAS CITY. Preseason: 11. It’s not been a stellar season for Davy Arnaud; the effort and skill are there, but two goals and two assists are his totals. Stephane Auvray has been pretty solid in the middle and Ryan Smith has cooled off after a torrid start. This team has guys who can cover ground – Jack Jewsbury, Michael Harrington, David Rocastle – but not enough potency in the attacking third.
14. CHIVAS USA. Preseason: 7. Rookies Ben Zemanski and Blair Gavin, both out of Akron, are progressing well, but haven’t delivered consistently. Sacha Kljestan’s departure for Europe places more responsibility on Jesus Padilla and newcomer Rodolfo Espinosa to open up defenses; between them they have one assist. Michael Lahoud is struggling through a bit of sophomore slump and a sprained ankle hobbled Salvadoran Osael Romero in midseason.
15. HOUSTON. Preseason: 4. The Dynamo finally ran out of replacements. Dwayne De Rosario left after the 2008 season and not yet has it recovered from the subsequent losses of Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark last year. Brad Davis is putting in good shifts as the playmaker, but Lovel Palmer and Anthony Obodai are not sufficiently strong in the center, and Brian Mullan’s hard work doesn’t pay off very often. If Geoff Cameron stays in the back line, and Corey Ashe doesn’t step it up, this season is a lost cause.
16. D.C. UNITED. Preseason: 9. A midseason signing of DP Branko Boskovic has yet to resolve serious problems that started when offseason acquisition Christian Castillo went bust. Andy Najar can excite on the right flank, but Clyde Simms seems lost in the middle and Chris Pontius and Santino Quaranta aren’t the consistent offensive threats they could be.