By Ridge Mahoney
In the annual Soccer America positional rankings, the top two spots up top go to Chris Wondolowski of San Jose and Robbie Keane of the Galaxy.
Ranking players by positions being a very imprecise science, the process is rooted in statistics yet also shaped by perceptions.
The classification of strikers and forwards is at times arbitrary. Many players serve in both roles during a season and occasionally drop into midfield as well. The loose definitions used here are that strikers play farthest forward most of the time, with forwards working underneath and alongside. Those who best fit the description of attacking midfielder will be ranked in an upcoming column.
Teams that play a 4-3-3 formation blur these distinctions, as do teams that field two forwards with similar traits. But the decision of where to place certain players isn’t as important as the method of assessing the top performers by their play during league games in 2012. Nothing else – Open Cup, Concacaf, national-team appearances, past performances, potential – is considered.
Allowances are made for players who arrived in midseason but their stats are not automatically projected over a 34-game season. Some players, such as the Columbus duo of Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain, were deemed good enough to make the cut regardless. Others, like Marco Di Vaio of Montreal, fell short.
1. Robbie Keane (Los Angeles)
2. Eddie Johnson (Seattle)
3. Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake)
4. Kenny Cooper (New York)
5. Alan Gordon (San Jose)
6. Saer Sene (New England)
7. Jairo Arrieta (Columbus)
8. C.J. Sapong (Sporting Kansas City)
9. Blas Perez (FC Dallas)
10. Danny Koevermans (Toronto FC)
Robbie Keane lit up MLS in the second half of the season, scoring 12 of his 16 goals as the Galaxy rebounded from a bad start to finish fourth. Keane’s cleverness and experience enabled him to play as a second forward with Edson Buddle or share duties when paired with Landon Donovan. The sharp finisher also dished off enough passes to earn five game-winning assists.
Four years in the European wilderness brought the return to MLS of Eddie Johnson, who disproved notions he was done by scoring 14 goals and playing not only with pace and power but real determination. Another strong season (17 goals) for Alvaro Saborio, the top striker in the 2011 rankings, kept him among the elite. Kenny Cooper responded to a trade from Portland by playing all but one game to finish second behind Wondolowski with 18 goals.
Starter or sub didn’t matter to Alan Gordon, who scored 13 times in 1,279 minutes of play, a league high among regulars of 0.90 goals per 90 minutes.
One of the league’s top newcomers was Saer Sene, a French striker who netted 11 goals in 25 games for an offensively weak Revs squad before a hamstring injury ended his season. Another newcomer, Colombian Jairo Arrieta, arrived in midseason and livened up the Crew’s attack with his energy and quickness to score nine goals in just 18 games. The 2011 Rookie of Year didn’t stay as healthy as he’d have liked, and so the production for C.J. Sapong was limited to nine goals though he started 24 of 31 games. Blas Perez justified the trend of MLS teams seeking Panamanian players by hitting nine goals in only 20 games. Danny Koevermans missed half the season through injury, so his nine goals for pathetic TFC are noteworthy.
1. Chris Wondolowski (San Jose)
2. Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United)
3. Thierry Henry (New York)
4. Fredy Montero (Seattle)
5. Landon Donovan (Los Angeles)
6. Kei Kamara (Sporting Kansas City)
7. Fabian Espindola (Real Salt Lake)
8. Will Bruin (Houston)
9. Chris Rolfe (Chicago)
10. Federico Higuain (Columbus)
The MVP-in-waiting tied Roy Lassiter’s league record of 27 goals as the Quakes ran away with the Supporters’ Shield. Chris Wondolowski played as a partner for either Steven Lenhart or Alan Gordon, or as a quasi-midfielder in support of both of them, and racked up four Player of the Month awards. He also smashed Raul Diaz Arce’s mark of 56 goals in three consecutive seasons; with 61, he has a great chance of topping Lassiter’s four-year mark of 73.
Last year’s MVP again terrorized MLS defenses until going down with a knee injury in early September, yet D.C. United shook off the absence of Dwayne De Rosario (scorer of seven goals along with 12 assists) to qualify for the playoffs anyway. Thierry Henry (15 goals, 12 assists) labored through knee and back problems and the usual petulant fits, but his uncanny ability to glide through tackles and drive balls into the net remain valuable. Fredy Montero scored 13 goals and registered eight assists while improving his consistency and concentration. Landon Donovan battled with injuries and motivation yet still rang up 14 assists, tied for second-best, along with his nine goals.
Oft-deployed as a winger in SKC’s 4-3-3, Kei Kamara plays a uniquely unorthodox game that was good for 11 goals and eight assists. The streaky and explosive – in more ways than one – Fabian Espindola scored nine goals and picked up seven assists along with countless collisions. A good rookie season in 2011 led to a better second year for Will Bruin, whose increased versatility and stamina paid off with 12 goals. A return to MLS from Denmark found Chris Rolfe in a new role, and he overcame some injury issues to score eight goals while displaying touch and skill few players can match. A brilliant start – two goals direct from free kicks in the same game - thrust Federico Higuain into prominence; though he faded right near the end he did manage five goals and seven assists in only 13 games.