By Ridge Mahoney
In the case of international defenders coming to MLS, more is better.
The expansion of international slots to eight per team prior to the 2008 season, has encouraged teams to use more of those slots on defenders, whereas earlier in the league’s existence the three or four available slots went to attacking players much more often.
No question the presence of players such as Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Jamison Olave, Victor Bernadez, Alessandro Nesta and others has complemented the traditionally strong American contingent led in recent years by Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Chad Marshall, Geoff Cameron, Nat Borchers, and other domestic products. Aside from Lubos Kubik (1998), no foreign player had been selected Defender of the Year until Olave won the award in 2010.
To bolster New England’s back line in his second season as head coach, Jay Heaps picked Portuguese defender Jose Goncalves, who when he was signed at age 27 had already toured the Swiss, Italian, Scottish, German and Lithuanian (!) leagues. He was one of only three field players (all defenders) this season to play every minute of every game as the Revs finished tied for third-best in goals allowed with 38.
“Leaders stand out right away,” said Heaps in an interview last week of Goncalves, who tweaked his right hamstring in the season finale against Columbus yet still preserved his ever-present record. His status for the playoff game against Sporting Kansas City is in question. “He’s a true professional in his preparation, a leader on the field and off the field, and he makes us a better team.”
Last year, the Revs allowed only six more goals, 44, than they did this year. But they also increased their goals scored from 39 to 49, reflecting the confidence Heaps put in his attacking players knowing they were backed by more resilience in midfield and at the back.
The league’s stingiest defense, Sporting Kansas City, used three center backs – Aurelien Collin, Ike Opara, and 2012 Defender of the Year winner Matt Besler – and of that trio Collin played the most games (29). Besler missed some time (23 games played) because of national team duties, niggling injuries, and a spell of poor form. In several games this year Opara played the steadiest and most confident soccer of his career.
Michael Harrington played the most games, 33, of a solid Timbers’ defense that conceded just three more goals than New England. Gambian defender Pa Modou Kah, 23, got his first start May 25 and in his 20 appearances the Timbers posted 11 of their league-high 15 shutouts, including the last three games of the regular season. Like Besler, Kah lacks enough games for Defender of the Year consideration.
For whatever reason the Galaxy and Omar Gonzalez didn’t get much praise this year though the team’s 38 goals allowed was bettered by only Portland and SKC. Maybe it was that Jekyll-Hyde defensive record: Airtight at home, where only eight goals were conceded in 17 games, the Galaxy ranked worst among playoff teams with 30 road goals allowed. In Gonzalez’s 27 games, the Galaxy went 13-7-7, and allowed 27 goals. Those blips of switching off persist.
Traded by Real Salt Lake to New York along with attacker Fabian Espindola in a salary-dumping move, Olave is a major reason the Red Bulls won the Supporters’ Shield, though he was sent off three times. He started 27 of 29 games and scored four goals.
Bernardez struggled with consistency and fitness while hopping back and forth between the Quakes and the Honduran national team. He found his groove in the second half of the season as Coach Mark Watson spaced out his appearances; in Bernardez’s 11 starts since July 13, the Quakes conceded only seven goals and lost just once. With 25 starts he just makes the cutoff for this category.
Here are the top five in the chase for 2013 MLS Defender of the Year:
1. Jose Goncalves (New England).
2. Aurelien Collin (Sporting Kansas City).
3. Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles).
4. Jamison Olave (New York).
5. Victor Bernardez (San Jose).
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