[BEST OF MLS 2011: Right Backs] In 2011 the right-back position turned into a young man’s game, as epitomized by Zach Loyd, the
second-year FC Dallas pro who tops the Positional Rankings.
SA's Top 12 Right Backs (UPDATED)
1. Zach Loyd (FC Dallas)
2. Sheanon Williams (Philadelphia)
3. Sean Franklin (Los Angeles)
4. Kosuke Kimura (Colorado)
5. James Riley (Seattle)
6. Andre Hainault (Houston)
7. Perry Kitchen (D.C. United)
8. Sebastian Miranda (Columbus)
9. Kevin Alston (New England)
10. Jan Gunnar Solli (New York)
Whether by design or desperation, more teams gave the right-back slot to younger players in 2011.
In an athletic league such as MLS, security on the flanks can be indispensable. Fans and pundits rave about outside backs who can fly forward to cut back balls from the byline. Coaches have more pragmatic needs such as winning tackles and squeezing space.
The learning curve is steep for outside backs, who are often left alone to duel dribblers one-v-one yet must also tuck inside to shut off through balls and win aerial duels. Loyd, 24, hasn’t mastered the position by any means. But he seems to be on the right track.
The 2010 SuperDraft pick out of the University of North Carolina has shown toughness and poise while earning respect around the league for his play in several defensive roles. He has good instincts, wisely picks his spots to get forward, and wins many more tackles than he loses.
Williams, 21, jumped to MLS from Harrisburg City of USL-2 midway through the 2010 season, and in 32 games he smothered attackers with tenacity and pace while reducing those positional and judgmental glitches. Kimura, a relative graybeard at age 27, got exposed a few more times than he did during Colorado’s title run in 2010, yet started every game and fouled much less than many counterparts.
Riley has been amongst the league’s better right backs since he came to Seattle for its 2009 expansion season, and while solid in 2011, didn’t quite measure up and was traded to Chivas USA after being picked by Montreal in the Expansion Draft. Canadian international Hainault also played center back as the Dynamo reshuffled; once his position was secure, he stabilized the flank and scored two goals in the playoffs. He’s also tough in the air at the back post, where outside backs can be exploited.
Kitchen is penciled in to play defensive mid next season; in 2011 United needed the rookie at center back as well as out wide, and the Akron product -- just 19 – seldom looked overwhelmed. Miranda played all 34 matches for the Crew, which in itself is impressive for a 21-year-old in his first season in a new country.
Alston’s anticipation and positioning have improved and he can chase down just about anybody in MLS, but he’s still too reliant on speed. Solli’s work on the ball and eight assists are commendable yet he can be a sieve defensively, which is inexcusable for such an experienced player. Russell lost his starting spot to Tony Beltran and will give his new team, D.C. United, a veteran presence if not quite the same physical prowess as a few years ago.
(Another youngster, Julian Valentin, 20, yo-yoed between excellent moments and disastrous ones as a rookie for Chivas USA. He is bound for Montreal.)