By Ridge Mahoney
In his third MLS season, Juninho, one of the league's few Brazilians played a key role as the defending champion Galaxy shook off a poor start to reach its second straight MLS Cup.
Central mids can be of different shapes and sizes, and though few have the exact same set of skills, teams can’t win consistently without good ones.
In this category are players often burdened by both offensive and defensive duties. While they may not be box-to-box players, per se, they are expected to move and keep the ball when their team is in possession and to cut off passing lanes and win tackles to stifle the opposition. They are often paired with another similar type but could also be used to complement an attacking or holding mid.
Two midseason arrivals, Christian Tiffert of Seattle and Ricardo Clark of Houston, strengthened those midfields with their range and experience. As links between attack and defense, they may not generate much in scoring stats but are essential to maintain defensive stability and offensive flow. Sometimes they are most notable for failure; if things are falling apart it’s often the fault of those obligated to play both sides of the ball.
Most important in assessing players in this category is how snugly they fit their team’s system and how competently they responded to its demands. The only constant to them is their value to team success.
TOP CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS (SA 2012 RANKINGS)
1. Juninho (Los Angeles)
2. Dax McCarty (New York)
3. Roger Espinoza (Sporting Kansas City)
4. Rafael Baca (San Jose)
5. Patrice Bernier (Montreal)
6. Gerson Koffie (Vancouver)
7. Pavel Pardo (Chicago)
8. Michael Farfan (Philadelphia)
9. Ricardo Clark (Houston)
10. Christian Tiffert (Seattle)
Juninho juggled duties depending on his central partner; he took on more of a holding role if David Beckham slid inside, and got forward more aggressively if teamed with Marcelo Sarvas. He does get his share of fouls (42) yet still scored seven goals, including a few bombs from distance, as the Galaxy steamed through the second half of the season.
McCarty rekindled memories of his play in 2010 when FC Dallas reached its only MLS Cup with a series of solid, smart, performances as chaos occasionally swirled around him.
Espinoza blossomed into a valuable contributor by passing crisply and tackling surely as others took the attacking roles. Overshadowed by Wondo and the Bash Brothers and a pair of Honduran internationals, the clean and quick Mexican-born Baca neatly serviced the middle.
Bernier racked up some remarkable numbers (9 goals, 8 assists) once he attained regular starts for the expansion Impact.
Koffie cut down on mistakes in his second season and his task wasn’t made easier by Vancouver’s radical lineup adjustments. Pardo notched four assists and assuaged some concerns about his age (36) by playing 28 games and starting 27.
Farfan was deployed in several spots and wound up as an attacking mid; while his modest total of five assists didn’t dazzle, his poise in tight situations and dogged determination stood out as the Union tried to recalibrate its course under coach John Hackworth.
If Clark and Tiffert are as effective for an entire season in 2013 as they were as summer arrivals in 2012, they will be among the leaders.