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MLS 2002 Player Rankings
November 27th, 2002 5:18PM

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IN A SEASON OF CONTRACTION AND A WORLD CUP, PLAYERS AND FORMATIONS WERE JUGGLED and switched extensively as coaches sought the right mix. The imperfect science of ranking players for 2002 included the opinions of coaches and players and statistics with an emphasis on performances following the World Cup and in the playoffs. As always, the positional classification of players and exclusion of those who missed more than one half the season because of injury are somewhat arbitrary.

GOALKEEPERS

1. Kevin Hartman (Los Angeles)

2. Joe Cannon (San Jose)

3. Jon Busch (Columbus)

4. Nick Rimando (D.C. United)

5. Zach Thornton (Chicago)

6. Adin Brown (New England)

One unforeseen result of contraction was a significant improvement in goalkeeping.

With two fewer starting spots along with better attackers on most teams, goalies had a very small margin for error.

The top three were virtually indistinguishable by their statistics. Hartman had to win the starting spot from Matt Reis again and excelled down the stretch. Cannon played all but one game as the Quakes posted the second-best defensive record in MLS (35 goals allowed) and led the league with eight shutouts.

Busch took over in the middle of his first MLS season and stabilized the Crew back line. He did let in a fluke goal against New England in the third game of the semifinals, but his stunning save on Revs midfielder Brian Kamler's laser in the 0-0 tie in late August might be Save of the Year if MLS recognized one.

Rimando played every minute for the besieged D.C. back line and somehow posted seven shutouts. Thornton had a busy season (124 saves) as the Fire conceded a third-best 38 goals.

Brown, like Busch and Hartman, refused to relinquish the starter's jersey once he'd won it. The Revs permitted 1.23 goals per game with him in the nets and 2.39 per game without him.

''Brown has made key saves for us in certain games,'' said teammate Daniel Hernandez. ''It just changed the whole mindset of everybody to have somebody back there who was solid and you don't have to worry about a silly goal going in.''

CENTRAL DEFENDERS

1. Alexi Lalas (Los Angeles)

2. Eddie Pope (D.C. United)

3. Danny Califf (Los Angeles)

4. Carlos Llamosa (New England)

5. Tenywa Bonseu (Dallas)

6. Brian Dunseth (Columbus)

Of his move to sweeper in June, Lalas said, ''I've come full circle'' to the position he played at Rutgers. His anticipation, experience and positioning helped mitigate his less-than-scintillating speed.

D.C.'s impotent attack and porous midfield allowed opponents to set up camp in the United defensive third, but its back-line play improved markedly when Pope wasn't on national team duty.

Califf is the quintessential man-marker: scrappy, swift and superb in the air. And you have to love that near-post header he nailed in the first semifinal game against Colorado.

Llamosa incurred a two-game suspension for blowing his stack in the playoffs, yet his incisive tackles and timely interceptions were vital to the Revs' revival.

Bonseu plugged holes and covered spaces nicely for the Burn. By staying at home, he enabled mate Steve Morrow to get on the end of set plays.

Dunseth would have dearly loved for the Crew to dump his former team, New England, out of the playoffs. His diligent work stabilized the middle. He edges out San Jose's Troy Dayak, who missed half of the season because of injuries.

OUTSIDE DEFENDERS

1. Wade Barrett (San Jose)

2. Carlos Bocanegra (Chicago)

3. Jay Heaps (New England)

4. Ryan Suarez (Dallas)

5. Joey Franchino (New England)

6. Tyrone Marshall (Los Angeles)

The best left back in the league had to slide into the middle when Jeff Agoos and Dayak weren't available, yet Barrett still tackled strongly and sent dangerous balls out of the back. He missed only one minute of regular-season action, tops among field players.

Bocanegra deservedly won MLS's Defender of the Year honors for a fine season during which the Fire had to juggle personnel and systems. Heaps and Franchino were secure once they'd been established in their slots. Franchino also serves a mean dead ball.

Suarez has quickness of foot and thought, which is good, and of temper, which is not so good.

Marshall's speed, agility and spring allowed him to shine at outside back, man-marker and sweeper once it was made clear to him he wasn't supposed to be in midfield.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS

1. Mark Chung (Colorado)

2. Ronnie Ekelund (San Jose)

3. Richard Mulrooney (San Jose)

4. Simon Elliott (Los Angeles)

5. Jesse Marsch (Chicago)

6. Daniel Hernandez (New England)

Chung's stunning header in the first minute of the series tiebreaker knocked the Burn out of the quarterfinals after a regular season in which he set a career high with 11 goals. He hadn't hit double-digits since 1997.

After going goalless in 2001 for a championship team and being asked about it repeatedly, Ekelund responded he hadn't known statistics were so important in America. He responded with six goals and eight assists for 20 points to rank second on the Quakes in scoring.

Mulrooney, Ekelund's counterpart, also logged eight assists while occasionally filling in at right back. His absence because of a broken ankle cost San Jose dearly in the playoffs.

Of Elliott, Coach Sigi Schmid says, ''After every game he has ice on both ankles, on his knee and on his back. I don't know how he does it.'' The Kiwi did it well enough to finish with 10 assists while thwarting opponents as well.

Marsch has fight and fortitude, without which the Fire would have floundered worse than it did. The Hernandez-Leo Cullen duo was the league's best down the stretch.

Just missing the cut are Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado), who labored through an up-and-down season, and workhorse Duncan Oughton (Columbus).

WIDE MIDFIELDERS

1. Steve Ralston (New England)

2. Chris Henderson (Colorado)

3. Antonio Martinez (Dallas)

4. Chris Klein (Kansas City)

5. Ezra Hendrickson (Los Angeles)

6. Edson Buddle (Columbus)

Ralston compiled 19 assists during the regular season - the best output of his career. In the playoffs, he dropped to right back to replace an injured Rusty Pierce when the 10-man Revs held out for a 1-0 win over Columbus in Game 2 of the semifinals, then scored a stunning left-footed goal in Game 3.

Henderson played a lot up top in the absence of John Spencer and set career highs of 11 goals and 29 points.

With his slashing runs and bending balls from the left flank, Martinez led the Burn with 10 assists and also chipped in four goals, including a superb shot against the Metros that he set up with one touch that took him past two defenders.

Klein came back from an ACL injury to set a career mark with seven goals. Hendrickson didn't match his four game-winning goals of 2001 but did bag eight assists. Buddle had a breakthrough season with nine goals and five assists.

Brian Kamler didn't quite make the top six. The Revs wouldn't have reached the final without him, though. His two superb strikes into Kamler's Corner against Chicago in the quarterfinals will forever be etched in Rev lore.

PLAYMAKERS

1. Andy Williams (MetroStars)

2. Carlos Valderrama (Colorado)

3. Preki (Kansas City)

4. Mauricio Cienfuegos (Los Angeles)

5. Marco Etcheverry (D.C. United)

6. Peter Nowak (Chicago)

The traditional No. 10 may not be extinct in MLS, but playmakers were certainly an endangered species in 2002.

Age is catching up to Valderrama and Cienfuegos. If it isn't the years dragging on Marco the Maestro, maybe it's accumulated injuries.

Williams, who wound up with a combination of Mamadou Diallo, Clint Mathis and Rodrigo Faria around him, scored twice and earned 13 assists in just 19 games. The man without a position may have found one.

Valderrama had some dazzling games in recording 16 assists, but the most stunning aspect of his season was the header he scored in the playoffs against Dallas. The Burn promptly ran four goals past his shocked teammates.

Watching the Wizards' wizard at times this season conjured memories of the MLS ad in which a fan declares, ''Preki's a god.'' But his seven assists was an all-time low.

The numbers for Cienfuegos (2, 8) were about the same as last year (2, 7). Nowak missed half the season through injury. His numbers (2, 4) were miserly, but he showed a bit of the old zip in the playoffs.

ATTACKERS

1. Cobi Jones (Los Angeles)

2. Jeff Cunningham (Columbus)

3. Jason Kreis (Dallas)

4. Landon Donovan (San Jose)

5. Rodrigo Faria (MetroStars)

6. Igor Simutenkov (Kansas City)

After returning from the World Cup, Jones smoked opponents with six goals and 16 assists in 13 regular-season starts and five playoff appearances. Twice he rang up three assists in a game.

Cunningham is the MLS version of a power forward. Subtlety and he are strangers, but in a 16-goal season he epitomized the ''attack'' in attackers. He scored with 21 percent of his shots (third-best among the top 10 scorers) during the regular season yet was shut out on 12 playoff attempts.

Kreis led the scorers table until July, but injuries dogged him down the stretch. He wasn't much of a factor in the playoffs.

Donovan returned from the World Cup a pop icon. Fatigue and harsh treatment blunted his performance in September.

In just his second season, Faria hit 12 goals for the sputtering Metros. Simutenkov isn't brilliant but he did notch six goals in 16 games.

FORWARDS

1. Carlos Ruiz (Los Angeles)

2. Taylor Twellman (New England)

3. Ariel Graziani (San Jose)

4. Ante Razov (Chicago)

5. Mamadou Diallo (MetroStars)

6. Chris Carrieri (Colorado)

Ruiz is a bit quicker and more explosive than Twellman, but he dives and fouls a lot more, too. Both are mobile and will forage far from the goalmouth to find the ball.

They had the best scoring percentages of the leaders, with Twellman's 25 percent just nudging Ruiz at 24 percent of shots going in.

Graziani stuck in one of the extraordinary goals of the season from an apparently impossible angle against Dallas, his former team. He hit double digits for the third straight season with 14 goals.

Razov needed 115 shots to score his 14 goals (12 percent), but he did add eight assists. After scoring just once in 30 shots for the Revs, Big Momma nailed 11 in 51 attempts in a Metros shirt.

Carrieri gives the Rapids a breakaway threat. His excellent near-post, first-time blast beat the Burn in Game 2 of the quarterfinals.

by Soccer America Senior Editor Ridge Mahoney



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