By Ridge Mahoney
In past seasons, filling out an all-American MLS Best XI would entail great, shall we say, compromise. There were few, if any, worthy candidates at key positions such as attacking midfielder and in some seasons the pickings were pretty slim at outside back.
More teams means more candidates at more positions, of course, and a feared dilution of talent through rapid expansion has been mitigated by an increase in the number of foreign slots per team to eight. Though the SuperDraft has been cut down to two rounds, there’s a general consensus that more players are coming out of college better prepared for the pro game.
As several teams drifting away from the traditional 4-4-2 formation and take on their own unique identities, pegging a Best XI involves some compromise as well as subjective judgments. (This Best XI is designed to reward the top performers and probably wouldn’t be practical in its 3-4-3 formation.)
This selection is based primarily on league performances during the 2012 MLS season. As of now, they are all employed by MLS teams. Filling the gap between the American players selected by U.S. coachJurgen Klinsmann and the MLS Best XI, we present this hybrid list. Let the quibbling begin.
Goalkeeper – Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake). He’s being pressed by younger challengers such as Tally Hall (Houston), Sean Johnson (Chicago) and Bill Hamid (D.C. United) but his reflex saves and unquenchable spirit keep him on top.
Defender – Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City). The Notre Dame product has been a back-line stalwart for SKC, earned Defender of the Year honors in 2012, and claimed his first cap against Canada.
Defender – Jeff Parke (Philadelphia). He played the most minutes of any field player and with a variety of centerback partners, so he must have had something to do with Seattle’s second-best goals-allowed mark of 32. He should be a key cog as Philly rebuilds.
Defender – Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles). He’s the linchpin of the league champion, a rugged defender who can dominate in the penalty area at either end of the field, and on the fast-track to national team stardom. His return from injury last year stabilized a shaky Galaxy defense and helped claim a second straight title.
Left midfielder – Brad Davis (Houston). He’s always among the league’s assist leaders. He hits the best left-footed serves seen in MLS since the days of Eddie Lewis and in the past few seasons has sharpened his edge playing centrally.
Holding midfielder – Dax McCarty (New York). A bright spot in an otherwise disappointing Red Bulls’ season, he gives new head coach Mike Petke a kindred spirit imbued with the same determination and dedication. His positional sense and accurate passing are not always appreciated on a team studded with glamorous names.
Central midfielder – Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City). His attacking prowess playing multiple positions in MLS prompted some unrealistic expectations when called to the national team; for him, running the show as SKC vies for its first MLS Cup appearance in more than a decade is job one.
Right midfielder – Chris Pontius (D.C. United). He finished the season playing more on the left but his skill and guile are effective anywhere in the attacking third. His health is essential for United and quite possibly the national team this year.
Forward – Chris Wondolowski (San Jose). A record-tying season of 27 goals confirms his status as one the league’s most dangerous players, and his ability to slide into midfield will again confound opponents in 2013.
Forward – Landon Donovan (Los Angeles). He and Robbie Keane form the most lethal forward partnership in MLS and regardless of his numbers, his acumen on the dribble, knifing through from midfield, or running onto balls is unsurpassed in MLS.
Forward – Eddie Johnson (Seattle). His rebirth after four long seasons in Europe doesn’t seem like a fluke. His powerful runs into the channels are difficult to defend and he’s much more effective checking back than he was before heading overseas.
Reserves -- Tally Hall (Houston), Seth Sinovic (Sporting Kansas City), Austin Berry (Chicago), Steve Beitashour (San Jose), Brad Evans (Seattle), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Chris Rolfe (Chicago), Kenny Cooper (FC Dallas), Alan Gordon (San Jose).