[SA POSITIONAL RANKINGS]The second installment of our ranking of teams by position runs the rule over the defenders, and the Western Conference dominates with five of six top teams.
The 2010 season produced several statistical curiosities, one of which was an extreme spread in the goals-allowed category.
Real Salt Lake set a league record by conceding only 20 goals, yet the league also set a record with three other teams -- Los Angeles, Seattle and New York -- allowing less than a goal per game. At the other end, fiveteams allowed 1.5 or more goals a game, with New England the worst with 50.
The rankings judge each team’s defenders for experience, past performance, depth, and expected improvement – or deterioration – in the wake of offseason changes.
1. REAL SALT LAKE. Two Defender of the Year finalists in the middle – captain Nat Borchers and winner Jamison Olave – and solid left back Chris Wingert, plus reliable backups Chris Schuler andRawshawn McKenzie give RSL quality and depth across the back line.
2. NEW YORK. This ranking is based on Rafael Marquez sliding assuredly into the middle alongside Tim Ream, and recent acquisition Teemu Tainio providing stability at right back if needed. Roy Miller is among the league’s elite at left back.
3. LOS ANGELES. Somebody needs to emerge as a reliable alternative to 37-year-old Gregg Berhalter as Omar Gonzales’ central partner. Veteran Frankie Hedjuk adds heaps of energy and experience. Todd Dunivant, Sean Franklin and A.J. DeLaGarza are way above average.
4. FC DALLAS. Ugo Ihemelu and George John are primed to emerge as one of the league’s best central tandems, though the Brek Shea Experiment is an interesting study. Jackson has big shoes to fill, those of Heath Pearce, at right back. Jair Benitez on the left is money.
5. SEATTLE. Getting Jhon Kennedy Hurtado fit and healthy greatly upgrades the back line. He can play with either Jeff Parke or Patrick Ianni. At outside back, James Riley and Leo Gonzalez are capable but prone to poor positioning and late tackles.
6. COLORADO. The Rapids finished the season as one of the better defensive units in the league. Veteran Tyrone Marshalladds some depth to a very good starting four buttressed by Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor in the middle. Right back Kosuke Kimura is one of the league’s best bargains ($36,000 salary last year).
7. COLUMBUS. New faces Sebastian Miranda and Rich Balchan join a unit that has lost Frankie Hedjuk, Eric Brunner and Gino Padula. Outside back Shaun Francis and centerbacks Andy Iro, Julius James and captain Chad Marshall give Columbus a solid foundation
8. SAN JOSE. The loss of then-rookie Ike Opara to a broken foot in midseason jumbled the back line, which relied on Jason Hernandez to flip between the middle and right back, and some staunch work by Brandon MacDonaldand Bobby Burling. This unit improved as the season went on and is deeper this year.
9. SPORTING KANSAS CITY. A lot is riding on Brazilian newcomer Julio Cesar, who has veteran Shavar Thomas alongside him and youth everywhere else. The oldest are Luke Sassano and Mike Harrington; both are 25.
10. CHICAGO. Can offseason signing Josip Mikulic be the new Lubos Kubik? If the three-man back line used by Coach Carlos de los Cobos in preseason is abandoned, a switch to 4-4-2 utilizes Gonzalo Segares on the left and Steve Kinney on the right.
11. TORONTO FC. Adrian Cann has come back into the fold after riding out a contract pout. Ty Harden, Nana Attakora and Dan Gargan are all capable individually, yet at times were terribly out of sync last year. Still, five teams conceded more goals than TFC’s 41 last year, so this group can improve in the right system.
12. CHIVAS USA. Grabbing former U.S. international Jimmy Conrad in the Re-Entry Draft and trading for Heath Pearce are shrewd moves to stitch up a back line that allowed 45 goals. But are there other reliable starters plus a dependable backup or two out of a group that includes rookieZarek Valentin and several veterans?
13. NEW ENGLAND. Another work-in-progress, as Coach Steve Nicol tossed Frenchman Didier Domi, ex-Dynamo Ryan Cochrane, and rookie A.J. Soares into the mix. Right back Kevin Alston slipped in his second pro season, so Zak Boggs is getting a run, and there are considerable expectations for another addition, Argentine centerbackFranco Coria, as well as incumbent Darrius Barnes.
14. VANCOUVER. Linchpin Jay DeMerit needs consistent support from two players with limited MLS experience – Greg Janickiand Jonathan Leathers – and several players making the jump from USSF D-2 or the college ranks. Swiss League veteran Alain Rochat, 28, will be nearly as important as DeMerit.
15. HOUSTON. Jamaican Jermaine Taylor has been acquired to toughen up the middle. Coach Dominic Kinnear moved his back-line pieces around a lot last year and still conceded 49 goals, second-worst in the league. He needs strong seasons from centerback Bobby Boswell and whoever plays on the outside.
16. D.C. UNITED. Rookie Perry Kitchen saw a lot of time in preseason, during which Uruguayan addition Rodrigo Brasesco got to know his teammates and MLS. Dejan Jakovicis one of the more skilled defenders in MLS but could be tougher in the tackle at critical moments.
17. PHILADELPHIA. One of six international center backs signed by Eastern Conference teams, Colombian Carlos Valdes, 25, is expected to complement Danny Califf with his speed and experience. More signings are needed as the Union is short on depth after jettisoning Michael Orozco Fiscal and Cristian Arrieta.
18. PORTLAND. A rather young group – the oldest, Mamadou “Futty” Danso, turns 28 in April – lacks a proven MLS veteran. There’s some experience sprinkled amongst Eric Brunner, Kevin Goldthwaite and Rodney Wallace, but this could be a learning year. (The Kerrea Gilbertsaga is yet to be resolved.)
SA's ranking MLS's goalkeeping corps.