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MLS Positional Rankings: Driving force Johnson keys Timbers' revival
by Ridge Mahoney, December 23rd, 2013 1:49PM

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TAGS:  mls, portland timbers

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By Ridge Mahoney

Into the gray area of who does what in the center of the park comes this edition of the Soccer America MLS positional rankings.

Though roles in this part of the field can overlap, and classification is somewhat arbitrary, in these rankings central mids do a lot of work on both sides of the ball. The best ones can put up decent offensive numbers though they are not attacking mids, and contribute defensively while not restricted to a holding role.

Best of MLS 2013:
Goalkeepers: Donovan Ricketts
Right Backs: Sheanon Williams
Right Centerbacks: Jamison Olave
Left Centerbacks:
Jose Goncalves
Left Backs:
Seth Sinovic
Holding Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman

We regard both Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe as central mids, since they are backed by holding mid Scott Caldwell (or Andy Dorman) in a 4-1-4-1 formation, and both share the duties of getting shots on goal, providing balls to their fellow attackers, and applying pressure and winning balls when the Revs are defending. On the other hand, when Red Bulls play 4-4-2, Tim Cahill is an attacking mid, since most of his considerable work is devoted to getting the ball forward, and the center is buttressed by holding mid Dax McCarty.

The Timbers, in this interpretation, play with an attacking mid (Diego Valeri), a central mid (Will Johnson), and a holding mid (Diego Chara) in their three-man system. Sporting Kansas City’s 4-3-3 often breaks out with Graham Zusi as attacking mid, Paulo Nagamura as the two-way conduit, and Oriol Rosell holding. When Zusi moves up top, another midfielder takes his place and the roles change.

These rankings are based on performances in regular-season and playoff games. Players are evaluated by their statistics, consistency, workrate and ability to contribute on both sides of the ball. (Holding mids and attacking mids are ranked separately.)

SA's Top 10 MLS Central Midfielders (2013)
1. (7*) Will Johnson (Portland Timbers)
2. (8**) Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution)
3. (NR) Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders)
4. (9) Ricardo Clark (Houston Dynamo)
5. (8*) Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution)
6. (NR) Ned Grabavoy (Real Salt Lake)
7. (NR) Hendry Thomas (Colorado Rapids)
8. (-) Michel (FC Dallas)
9. (-) Nigel Reo-Coker (Vancouver Whitecaps)
10. (1) Juninho (LA Galaxy)
Note: In parentheses 2012 ranking of all central midfielders.
NR=not ranked in 2012; -=not in MLS in 2012. *=ranked as left midfielder in 2012; **ranked as right midfielder in 2012.

“Portland runs on Will Johnson” ran a comment in the wake of an amazing rebound season. Captained and inspired by the former RSL stalwart, who scored nine goals and registered five assists, the Timbers topped the Western Conference and beat hated rival Seattle in the playoffs. Whether slipping a ball into a seam, flighting a free kick into the top corner, dribbling through pressure, serving up a swirling corner, or battling to win a ball, Johnson epitomized the breadth of skills and commitment to the cause required in this position.

Rowe’s second pro season redefined the Revs’ midfield. He and Nguyen conjured up dozens of fluid combinations with each other and in tandem with teammates; his stats, seven goals and eight assists, reflect his importance offensively. Yet he also delivers as a midfield destroyer. Jack-of-all trades Brad Evans played outside as well as in the middle while recording four goals and five assists in 24 appearances. Ricardo Clark shouldered a plethora of responsibilities as head coach Dominic Kinnear tweaked the midfield; in 31 games Clark scored four goals and registered four assists.

Ned Grabavoy is sometimes overlooked in the potent RSL midfield. The emergence of Luis Gil shrouded a strong season of five goals and five assists in 32 games. Grabavoy was also fouled 63 times, second on the team only to playmaker Javier Morales. Hendry Thomas could have been classified as a holding mid yet the changing personnel around him required a fair bit of link play going forward. Michel burst on the scene with some potent work on set plays and incisive balls out of midfield but labored as FCD plummeted down the standings.

Another team with an unsettled midfield, Vancouver, also used Nigel Reo-Coker at right back; he and Gerson Koffie sometimes conflicted, but Reo-Coker’s energy and crisp passing livened up many stilted displays. Juninho slipped significantly from a stellar showing in 2012 and sometimes faded out of games when the Galaxy needed him to step up.

SA's Best Central Midfielders (2001-2013)
2013 Will Johnson
2012 Juninho
2011 Jack Jewsbury
2010 Pablo Mastroeni
2009 Shalrie Joseph
2008 Shalrie Joseph
2007 Shalrie Joseph
2006 Amado Guevara
2005 Shalrie Joseph
2004 Diego Gutierrez
2003 Chris Armas
2002 Mark Chung
2001 Chris Armas


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