A few new names crop up among the familiar standouts
Unlike the MLS Best 11, which is selected at the end of the regular season, the Soccer America rankings incorporate the playoffs as well.
What a player does for his national team has no bearing on his MLS rankings, but his club competitions outside of MLS matches ù U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions Cup ù are factored in.
Reputations, potential and past accomplishments were not weighted into the rankings, which are designed to reflect what a player acccomplished in an MLS jersey in 1999.
Injured players were downgraded if another player in that category played significantly more matches. Again, performance in 1999 is the overriding factor.
WeÆve broken up the player pool into eight categories. Most defenders playing on teams that normally used a three-man backline were classified as central defenders, and more than a few midfielders ù particularly those in Columbus, Dallas and Los Angeles ù played different roles as formations and tactics changed.
SA has tried to place players in those categories they occupied the majority of the time and were most effective.
1. Kevin Hartman (Los Angeles)
2. Matt Jordan (Dallas)
3. Scott Garlick (Tampa Bay)
4. Mark Dougherty (Columbus)
5. Zach Thornton (Chicago)
He may not be as technically clean as Jordan, but Hartman has no peer in stopping tough shots. He sometimes flails, he occasionally flaps, yet he usually gets a piece of the ball. He reads and deals with crosses well.
While JordanÆs inexperience was exposed in the playoffs, Hartman rarely erred. He logged two brilliant games against Colorado, and twice saved superbly against Dallas in Game 2 of the conference finals with the score tied, 2-2. Hartman gives up very few bad goals, and is the best clutch keeper in the league.
With experience, JordanÆs decision-making will be refined. Most of his fundamentals are solid, and he simply tried to do too much in two playoff games.
Garlick had a lot more work to do in Tampa Bay than he ever did in D.C. and met the challenge. DoughertyÆs emotions occasionally trigger poor decisions, but heÆs a fine shot-stopper and an intimidating presence in the box. Thornton needs to bounce back after the clock struck midnight on his fairy-tale season in 1998.
Marcus Hahnemann, who left MLS for English club Fulham in midseason, might be the best of the bunch, and D.C. UnitedÆs Tom Presthus is very close to the top group. Joe Cannon had a promising first season for San Jose.
1. Jeff Agoos (D.C. United)
2. Greg Vanney (Los Angeles)
3. Ezra Hendrickson (Los Angeles)
4. Diego Sonora (D.C. United)
5. Jason Bent (Colorado)
Every year, he is lambasted for being too slow, and yet every season, heÆs near the top in coachesÆ evaluations and in the voting for honors. And so it is again for Jeff Agoos, whose experience and strong tackling were one of the few constants in an ever-shifting D.C. United lineup.
His teammate, Diego Sonora, is generally regarded as the best in this category, but injuries and petulance drop him down the list. The Galaxy pair provided a reliable set of bookends, with HendricksonÆs propensity to come forward counterbalanced by VanneyÆs stronger defending.
BentÆs speed and tenacity were key factors in the Colorado defensive revival. Teammate David Vaudreuil ranked close behind Bent, as did TampaÆs Dominic Kinnear and New EnglandÆs Ted Chronopolous.
1. Lubos Kubik (Chicago)
2. Mauricio Wright (San Jose)
3. Robin Fraser (Los Angeles)
4. Richard Farrer (Dallas)
5. Carlos Llamosa (D.C. United)
Kubik kept his reputation solid despite ChicagoÆs troubles. He reads the game astutely and is an excellent distributor. He makes up in positioning what he lacks in tackling ferocity.
Wright and Kubik were often called upon to push into midfield, and Wright ù dynamic, skilled, clever ù must be regarded as among the top newcomers to MLS this season.
Fraser had another fine season, and was greatly helped by being paired with veteran Paul Caligiuri, who very quietly turned in a fine season. FarrerÆs steady play anchored a Burn defense that unraveled in the playoffs under the stress of injuries and suspensions.
Despite missing nearly half of the season, LlamosaÆs cool defense gives him the nod over teammate Eddie Pope, Marcelo Balboa and Jorge Rodriguez, who played midfield as well as in the back for Dallas.
1. Chris Armas (Chicago)
2. Danny Pena (Los Angeles)
3. Chad Deering (Dallas)
4. Richie Williams (D.C. United)
5. Leonel Alvarez (New England)
Armas missed one-third of the season because of injury, yet nobody else had a strong enough season to unseat him. Pena has smoothed most of the recklessness out of his game and, in the more disciplined system installed by Sigi Schmid, is left stranded less often and therefore has less need to hack someone.
In the five-man midfield usually favored in Dallas, Deering often plays alongside or in front of Ted Eck and behind Oscar Pareja. HeÆs a capable link between attack and defense, and scored twice during the regular season with spectacular blasts from outside the penalty area.
Alvarez has slowed considerably, and the limitless grit and tenacity of Williams do not supercede the greater abilities of those ranked above him.
Josh Keller of Tampa Bay has blossomed into a reliable player and is younger than anyone in the top five. Also worthy of mention are ColoradoÆs Matt McKeon and Eck, the MLS answer to middle linebackers.
1. Steve Ralston (Tampa Bay)
2. Eddie Lewis (San Jose)
3. Ben Olsen (D.C. United)
4. Diego Gutierrez (Chicago)
5. Mark Santel (Dallas)
Ralston regained the confidence and production he displayed in his rookie season to ring up 18 assists, tied for best in the league this year and just one short of the MLS season record.
Yet he wonÆt be playing alongside Carlos Valderrama forever. His areas that need improvement are toughness on the ball and creating opportunities himself.
Lewis is the most talented player at this position, but simply didnÆt produce consistently in MLS until August. OlsenÆs numbers dropped from his rookie season, and they dipped because of tighter marking and rougher treatment along with an irritating tendency to get into the refs much more than he was into the game.
Gutierrez was not as consistent nor dominant as he was in 1998. Mark Santel is not Superman but can do many things rather well.
Of the young crop, the BurnÆs Sergi Daniv and ColoradoÆs Ross Paule have the most promise. But Paule had trouble keeping a starting spot in Colorado, as did Joey DiGiamarino.
1. Marco Etcheverry (D.C. United)
2. Mauricio Cienfuegos (Los Angeles)
3. Henry Gutierrez (Miami)
4. Carlos Valderrama (Tampa Bay)
5. Robert Warzycha (Columbus)
El Diablo put up good regular-season numbers (4 goals, 17 assists in just 22 games) and has been nearly unstoppable in the playoffs. HeÆs way above the rest. He could, and should, score more goals himself, but perhaps the 10 he got last year was an aberration. End of criticism.
Cienfuegos labored through a sluggish first half of the season because of a preseason holdout and an early-season coaching change. In the past two months, heÆs been bouncing and buzzing around midfield as he did in leading the Galaxy to the final in 1996, and heÆs fresher than heÆs been in past playoffs.
On a bad team deprived of its best striker for the second half of the season, Gutierrez prodded the Fusion attack into something approaching respectability. Valderrama still dishes the sweetest short balls in the league. The legs may be weary, but how many times do you see those 37-year-old feet lose possession?
Warzycha gets the fifth spot mainly by default and his dozen assists.
Much of the FireÆs problems can be tied to Peter NowakÆs indifferent performances. HeÆs an excellent player, but wasnÆt up to snuff this year.
Roy Myers and Clint Mathis of Los Angeles and Oscar Pareja of Dallas fell just a shade short. Both Mathis and Myers were shifted between wide and central positions, thus causing many opponents to constantly make adjustments.
1. Jaime Moreno (D.C. United)
2. Joe-Max Moore (New England)
3. Jason Kreis (Dallas)
4. Ronald Cerritos (San Jose)
5. Jeff Cunningham (Columbus)
MorenoÆs numbers werenÆt all that dazzling in the regular season (10 goals, 13 assists) yet he was one of just three players to hit double-digits in both goals and assists.
Whether replacing Etcheverry in midfield or taking the pressure off Roy Lassiter, Moreno always draws respect ù and the occasional body slam ù from opponents wary of his positional sense and quick first step.
Moore sometimes lets his competitive fury override his skills, and many coaches have tried to harness that energy with varying success. HeÆll throw himself into the goal along with the ball if thatÆs what it takes. For scoring 37 goals (15 this season) in four years for the rudderless Revs, he more than deserves fame and riches at Everton.
Kreis tailed off badly in the playoffs following a regular season (18 goals, 15 assists) that tied for third-best in league history. Manhandled by Chicago and Los Angeles, he couldnÆt find ways to contribute.
If not brooding, the boyish Cerritos can be brilliant, and with maturity may come consistency. HeÆs got all the physical tools to shred defenses and lure fans.
For Cunningham, also sporadically brilliant, playing time may yield maturity.
Just off the top five are the MetrosÆ Henry Zambrano (no, really, itÆs not his fault the team reeks), and the always-dangerous Cobi Jones.
1. Stern John (Columbus)
2. Roy Lassiter (D.C. United)
3. Ariel Graziani (Dallas)
4. Ante Razov (Chicago)
5. Diego Serna (Miami)
As Gilda Radner said, ôItÆs always something.ö In the case of MLS, which sorely needs scorers, two of its best attackers (Moore and John) are headed abroad.
Moore had his most productive season (15 goals, 8 assists), and John merely has scored more goals in consecutive seasons (44) than anyone else. Never mind.
There arenÆt enough pure goalscorers in MLS, and JohnÆs finishing while streaking into the box or swiveling past a defender will be missed.
Lassiter hit hot and cold streaks during the regular season, yet his pair of goals in Game 3 against Columbus were Roy specials.
Fans in Dallas canÆt wait to see what the Great Graziani can produce in a full season, and whether the moment of impact requires a volley, a header, or a heel-flick, the Ecuadoran can deliver. He scored nine goals in 14 regular-season and playoff games for Dallas.
Razov blows more than his fair share of chances and has more than his share of pouts, yet 14 goals is 14 goals, plus two in the playoffs. Serna collected 10 goals in 21 games in a sputtering attack before being injured.
Raul Diaz Arce came on strong in the second half of the season to finish with 13 goals, but can he and Mutiny teammate Musa Shannon (12 goals) find true happiness together?
Jorge Dely Valdes (Colorado) and Alex Bunbury (Kansas City) vanished after robust starts. Carlos Hermosillo scored eight goals in just 16 regular-season games for the Galaxy, and three more in the playoffs.
by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney