[SA POSITIONAL RANKINGS] Midfields are where games are won and lost, so the saying goes, though what happens in each penalty area usually determines the result. Yet even in a physical, oftentimes direct league such as MLS, throttling the other team and dominating possession in the middle third are critical components of success. Ranking the 18 MLS midfields is complicated by the different systems and formations utilized, plus the usage of some mids also in the back line or up top.
Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski of San Jose, for example, played forward much of the time and ended the season at right mid, and was named as a forward to the MLS Best XI. Classifying Dwayne De Rosario as anything other than an attacker is too restrictive, though he was a Best XI midfielder.
So the rankings for midfielders and forwards (to appear Friday) will include such players in both categories if the circumstances warrant. The teams are ranked by overall caliber of players, experience, depth and projected performance in 2011.
1. REAL SALT LAKE. Javier Morales fits the MLS playmaker mold snugly, Kyle Beckerman holds the center yet is capable of the occasional raking pass or strike at goal, and Will Johnson is a solid two-way player. Coach Jason Kreis must usually decide between Andy Williams and Ned Grabavoy, but he has other options in all spots and off the bench.
2. NEW YORK. How the talents and abilities amassed by Coach Hans Backe are deployed this season will be an intriguing subplot. Joel Lindpere is a presence whether out wide or in the middle, Dane Richards terrorizes the right flank, Tony Tchani is a force, and Mehdi Ballouchy and newcomers Jan Gunnar Solli and John Rooney add different elements.
3. LOS ANGELES. This unit is younger and presumably more dynamic than last year’s version. In his second MLS season we’ll see what Juninho is truly made of. Chris Birchall seems to have found his feet in this league, there should be consistent production from David Beckham, and Landon Donovan is, well, Donovan. Mike Magee and Jovan Kirovski are capable veterans. Uruguayan newcomer Paulo Cardozo is the wild card.
4. FC DALLAS. The loss of Dax McCarty is a huge hole to fill, but Coach Schellas Hyndman has Eric Alexander and other options. David Ferreira is the top No. 10 in MLS, Marvin Chavez is an emerging star on the right flank, and if Brek Shea lines up on the left he’ll contribute his height and hunger to score. Daniel Hernandez is still spry at 35 (in July).
5. COLORADO. A full season from Jamie Smith, the addition of Sanna Nyassi, and the experience of late-season acquisition Brian Mullan can enhance the abilities of Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni for the defending champion. Wells Thompson is among the capable backups.
6. CHICAGO. Newcomers aside, there’s no reason Marco Pappa, Logan Pause and Baggio Husidic can’t form a consistently solid outfit, whether Patrick Nyarko plays here or up top. Marko Maric and Bratislav Ristic are imports from Eastern Europe, Mike Banner and Daniel Paladini are dependable role players.
7. SAN JOSE. Overrun with central mids and converting, supposedly, to a 4-3-3, the Quakes are testing Bobby Convey as a winger with Khari Stephenson and Chris Wondolowski as central mids. Regardless of system, there’s talent to be utilized, and the signing this week of Simon Dawkins on loan adds to the intrigue, as does the preseason injury absence of Andre Luiz.
8. SEATTLE. Oswaldo Alonso and Steve Zakuani are among the league’s best; after that, there are concerns. Alvaro Fernandez has immense talent that has yet to flourish consistently in MLS, Brad Evans is coming back from an injury, and newcomer Erik Friberg is learning the ropes. Mike Fucito and rookies Servando Carrasco and Michael Tetteh can push the regulars.
9. COLUMBUS. The Crew has Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven for attacking impetus and a few candidates to play the holding role. Emmanuel Ekpo moved from the flank to the middle in preseason and hasn’t yet established himself. Might the highly touted Dilly Duka break through in his second pro season?
10. HOUSTON. This could be a much improved unit, but only if Geoff Cameron comes all the way back to his pre-injury form, Brad Davis gets it done every week, and somebody – Danny Cruz, Francisco Navas Cobo, Corey Ashe – strengthens the right side. In a longer season Lovel Palmer will need backup grinding it out in the center. Draft pick Alex Dixon moved the needle in preseason.
11. PHILADELPHIA. Justin Mapp on the left, Roger Torres on the right, Brian Carroll in the middle, OK, looks good. Now what? Philly needs two or three reliables to emerge from group that ranges from veteran Stefan Miglioranzi (33) to youngster Amobi Okugo (20). Zach Pfeffer, 16, gets a pass.
12. SPORTING KANSAS CITY. The assumption here is that Mexican Designated Player Omar Bravo plays somewhere up top, so the midfield looks a bit thin after Davy Arnaud, Stephane Auvray and Ryan Smith. That’s a good trio to play in a 4-3-3, but more depth than Graham Zusi would be nice.
13. D.C. UNITED. Just as important as the arrival of Dax McCarty is the return of Chris Pontius, limited to 17 games in 2010 with hamstring problems. They can provide DP Branko Boskovic opportunities for incisive balls and driving dribbles, and open space for Andy Najar and Fred. Theoretically.
14. NEW ENGLAND. Marko Perovic can emerge as a star in this league whether he plays attacking mid or forward, but he needs help. Chris Tierney, who also plays left back, is a good complement out wide, and Shalrie Joseph can reassert his central dominance if he sets aside his personal issues. It’s a make-or-break year for Ghanaians Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi. Newcomer Ousmane Dabo might play in the middle.
15. CHIVAS USA. Michael Lahoud really struggled last year, Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski are nice players but not terribly influential, and Chukwudi Chijindu is still learning the game. Original Chivas USA member Francisco Mendoza (2005-08) returns after two seasons in Mexico and could be the lock-picker. The experience of veterans Paulo Nagamura and Simon Elliott is essential for an otherwise young group.
16. PORTLAND. Right mid Sal Zizzo showed some spark in preseason, and there’s experience provided by captain Jack Jewsbury and Adam Moffat. Peter Lowry and Jeremy Hall are itching to show what they can do in their second MLS assignments. An injury sidelined No. 2 overall pick Darlington Nagbe in preseason; he brings speed and the unpredictable.
17. VANCOUVER. This might be the stage John Thorrington needs to regain the status he held with Chicago a few years ago, as a slashing, box-to-box catalyst. There are huge burdens on USSF D-2 grads David Chiumiento and Terry Dunfield, and cast-offs Shea Salinas and Atiba Harris, who will also play up front.
18. TORONTO FC. It’s going to be a long season for Nathan Sturgis and Jacob Peterson, even if Dwayne De Rosario is prowling the attacking third. Julian de Guzman just hasn’t done the business. Teenager Nicolas Lindsay, an academy product who impressed last year in very limited duty, is out for the season with torn knee ligaments. Signed this week was Dutch League veteran Elbekay Bowchiba, 32.