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Our Best XI first-year imports
by Paul Kennedy, July 3rd, 2013 1:54AM

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[MLS SPOTLIGHT] MLS's secondary transfer window is set to open on July 9. In recent years, a flood of imports arrived over the summer after finishing up their club obligations elsewhere at the end of June. In the meantime, here's a look at those first-year  imports -- foreigners recruited from abroad without previous MLS experience -- who have had an impact over the first four months of the MLS season. Our Best XI is heavy on players who have helped lead their teams to the top of their respective conferences or into playoff contention.

Goalkeeper:
Raul Fernandez (FC Dallas, 15 games, 1.40 GAA). The Peruvian keeper has given Dallas fans some scary moments, especially early in the season, but there is no denying his shot-blocking abilities. He leads all MLS keepers with an average of 3.87 saves a game.

Other candidates: Carlo Cudicini (Los Angeles, 15 games, 1.20 GAA) ranks seventh among MLS keepers in goals-against average, but the Italian hasn't exactly exuded confidence, particularly in some late-game situations. Exhibit A: The stoppage-time goal conceded to Tim Cahill in New York's 1-0 win in mid-May.

Defenders:
Jose Goncalves (New England, 16 games). The 27-year-old Portuguese defender came in without much fanfare after bouncing around Europe, but he has been instrumental in the young Revs' surprising start, earning the captain's armband. They gave up a league-low 14 goals in their first 16 games.

Nigel Reo-Coker (Vancouver, 15 games, 2 assists). Reo-Coker is perhaps the most important player in the Vancouver lineup. The Englishman usually plays in midfield, but he has been slotted in at right back when Lee Young-Pyo has been rested and the 'Caps have needed his leadership on the backline.

Djimi Traore (Seattle, 13 games, 1 goal). The French-born Mali international, now 33, was a late signing in the preseason and has added some stability to a backline that lost Jeff Parke in the offseason and Patrick Ianni with a broken foot in a fluke preseason accident. Traore loves Seattle and its strong fan base, comparing Sounders' supporters to those he played in front of at Liverpool and Marseille.

Glauber (Columbus, 13 games, 1 goal). Just how vital Glauber, now out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, was to the Crew is evident in that it has given up five goals in its last two games, both losses. The giant Brazilian, injured in an Open Cup match three weeks ago, ranked among the top defenders in blocks and interceptions and was a threat offensively.

Other candidates: Steven Caldwell (Toronto FC, 6 games, 1 assist). The 32-year-old Scotsman arrived from Birmingham City and was rewarded with a new contract after only six appearances. He has already helped stabilize the TFC backline during its initial loan spell, which expired June 30. The offseason pickup of Honduran Johnny Leveron (Vancouver, 7 games) became more critical for the Whitecaps after Jay DeMerit went down in the season opener.

Midfielders:
Michel (FC Dallas, 17 games, 1 goal, 5 assists). Some better known Brazilians -- like New York's Juninho and Philadelphia's Kleberson -- were acquired in the offseason, but Michel has emerged as a leading candidate for Newcomer of the Year, leading FC Dallas to the top of the Western Conference for much of the season. Michel is one of the most dangerous players in MLS on set pieces, as he demonstrated with his one goal off a corner kick, an Olimpico against Seattle.

Diego Valeri
(Portland, 15 games, 4 goals, 4 assists). The 27-year-old Argentine has quickly emerged as a candidate for MLS's best playmaker. He earned the award for MLS Goal of the Week in his first game, and picked up a second award in mid-June. He is on a season-long loan deal from Lanus, and he's one player MLS would be wise to tie up to a long-term deal.

Andrew Driver (Houston, 16 games, 3 goals, 1 assist). The 25-year-old Scotsman admitted the Houston heat took a little getting used to, but he says he loves playing in MLS after coming over on loan from Hearts. He was supposed to give Houston some depth in midfield, where Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia have been away on national team duty, but he has already started 14 games. As Houston faces a busy second half of the season with the Concacaf Champions League starting up again in August, Driver's value will only increase.

Daigo Kobayashi (Vancouver 14 games, 1 goal, 1 assist). The 30-year-old Japanese was a key to the Whitecaps' fast start, earning MLS Goal of the Week honors for his bomb in Week 2. He has injured in May and struggled recently to find a permanent home in midfield.

Other candidates: Juninho (New York, 13 games, 1 goal, 4 assists) leads the Red Bulls in assists even though he has been limited to 10 starts because of injuries and suspensions. [UPDATE: The Red Bulls announced Wednesday that Juninho's contract was canceled and he is returning to Brazil.] Injuries have limited the contributions of Argentine Andres Romero (Montreal, 13 games, 1 goal, 1 assists) and Italian Andrea Pisanu (Montreal, 8 games, 1 assist) out wide, but the Impact will look to add to its lead in the Eastern Conference now that they are back.

Forwards:
Claudio Bieler (Sporting KC, 17 games, 8 goals, 2 assists). Acquired along with Valeri as part of the MLS initiative to support the signing of 9s and 10s from abroad, the Argentine Bieler hasn't disappointed after a period of adjustment in pre-season. His eight goals lead Sporting KC and are tied for fourth in the league.

Olmes Garcia
(Real Salt Lake, 11 games, 4 goals, 2 assists). Garcia is just the kind of player MLS has been seeking in its Young Designated Player program -- designed to encourage MLS teams to sign young prospects from abroad. He has shown all the tools -- skill, speed, power in the air -- in helping rebuilt RSL jump into the lead for the Supporters' Shield.

Other candidates: Obafemi Martins (Seattle, 9 games, 4 goals, 1 assist) has managed to play just 565 minutes since arriving from Levante at the start of the season. The Sounders will need the Nigerian to be healthy if they want to make a run at the Western Conference title. Robert Earnshaw (Toronto FC, 15 games, 6 goals) is second behind Bieler among first-year imports with six goals. Toronto was also looking to extend the 32-year-old Welshman's stay in MLS. Frederic Piquionne (Portland, 15 games, 1 goal, 4 assists) has been a valuable addition for the Timbers, scoring five goals in their three Open Cup wins. He's now off to represent Martinique at the Gold Cup.


2 comments
  1. Paul Salo
    commented on: July 4, 2013 at 3:09 p.m.
    Obafemi Martins had 2 more goals last night in Seattle's win over DC!!!

  1. Frank Geff
    commented on: July 5, 2013 at 4:21 a.m.
    I think some of these MLS teams should get some more of these Nigerian players. Obafemi Martins impact has been immediate.


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