MLS Positional Rankings: Kljestan, Felipe, Alonso top the midfield slots

By Ridge Mahoney

For players who toil in the middle of the park, roles and classifications often overlap as tactics and formations change from game to game or even within a game.

Coaches and general managers and pundits talk of a “No. 10,” the playmaking hub around which the attack revolves, yet in many leagues around the world – including MLS – what was traditionally a passing position has broadened to include players who can score goals as well as consistently set them up.

In the category of attacking midfielders there are those who are primarily passers such as Sacha Kljestan and Mauro Diaz and Luciano Acosta, and those more inclined to get forward and finish a la Frank Lampard. (Wide midfielders and wingers who take on much of a team’s attacking responsibility, like Ignacio Piatti of Montreal, are rated in separate categories.)

Central mids can be box-to-box stalwarts -- as in Felipe and Sam Cronin -- or a cagier, deep-lying maestro like Andrea Pirlo. The holding or defensive mid is easier to identify and the importance of an Osvaldo Alonso increases as the overall quality of the league improves and more is demanded than simply winning tackles.

Here are the top 10 in each of the three midfield classifications for 2016:
SA’s Top 10
1. Sacha Kljestan (NY Red Bulls)
2. Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)
3. Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas)
4. Benny Feilhaber (Sporting KC)
5. Kaka (Orlando City)
6. Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution)
7. Luciano Acosta (D.C. United)
8. Pedro Morales (Vancouver Whitecaps)
9. Frank Lampard (New York City)
10. Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake)
In his second season back in MLS, Kljestan topped the league in assists (20) and key passes (3.3 per game) during the regular season. Like many of his teammates he didn’t quite come through in the playoffs but is clearly at the head of the class. Statistically, Valeri posted much better numbers in 2016 (14 goals, 7 assists) than he did in Portland’s championship season (2 goals, 8 assists), part of which he missed through injury. A key element in a Timbers’ revival will hinge on his performance in a re-shaped team. When an Achilles injury sidelined Diaz , FCD’s title hopes collapsed. Period.

Feilhaber is clearly among the league’s elite players at his position yet he’ll be 32 in 2017 and it seems he and SKC need one more quality attacker -- Krisztian Nemeth was a big loss -- to challenge for a title. Kaka slipped a notch in 2016 and with new, regional rival Atlanta making a big splash, the Lions need their Brazilian sharper and healthier. Nguyen led the Revs with 10 assists but three of them came in a 3-0 defeat of Orlando City and down the stretch he was blanked during a six-game winless streak. After a rocky start to his MLS career that included a sideline argument with head coach Ben Olsen, United converted Acosta’s loan into a transfer for a club-record fee of about $1.4 million. He led the team with 11 assists and at 22 he’s likely to improve greatly.

A streaky, turbulent stay in MLS for Pedro Morales ended after three seasons. In 2016, he scored nine goals and recorded six assists, but started 13 straight games without an entry in either column before scoring three goals in the last four games. Lampard also terminated a contentious MLS tenure and his critics will ignore the 12 goals he scored on just 33 shots. Are RSL fans nervous that Javier Morales, their all-time assist leader (90, including playoffs), will haunt them in an FCD uniform next season if he signs as a free agent? Yes they are. The old guy (37 in 2017) still has game.
SA’s Top 10
1. Felipe (NY Red Bulls)
2. Andrea Pirlo (New York City)
3. Sam Cronin (Colorado Rapids)
4. Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC)
5. Roger Espinoza (Sporting KC)
6. Marcelo Sarvas (D.C. United)
7. Sebastian Lletget (L.A. Galaxy)
8. Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
9. Patrice Bernier (Montreal Impact)
10. Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes)
As much as holding mid is a thankless task, usually life is even tougher for the No. 8, who must work back and forth in transition, hold the ball and keep possession as the attackers move into position, and pass the ball crisply as well as shake it loose and scoop it up. Felipe does all of this very well.

Pirlo is nothing like Felipe, but he plays so deep he’s not an attacking midfielder in the modern parlance. He seldom tackles, either, so his graceful touches and elegant passes of any angle and distance fall into this category. Cronin, under-appreciated in Toronto and San Jose, embraced a fresh start and fully justified his role as captain.

Osorio played the most games (30) and minutes (2,440) of his four-year career in the regular season and scored two goals in the playoffs. He’s on the brink of becoming a very good player. Espinoza set career marks for games (30), minutes (2,679), and assists (5) as well as fouls (65) and cautions (10), which neatly sums up the patchwork season it was for him and SKC. At 35, Sarvas tied for seventh with 3.4 tackles per game but he was also fourth in total fouls (67). Lletget flourished when moved into the middle -- he finished third on the team with eight assists -- and in his third MLS season will assume a lot of leadership as the Galaxy moves on after Bruce Arena, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, etc.

The Sounders’ incredible title run gave Roldan the proper platform to grow and mature into a reliable contributor. Bernier, 37, rebounded from a lackluster spell to empower the Impact's attack in October and November. Godoy has been one of the most underrated Panamanians in MLS and a more stable cast of teammates would showcase his abilities.
SA’s Top 10
1. Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders)
2. Dax McCarty (NY Red Bulls)
3. Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
4. Carlos Gruezo (FC Dallas)
5. Matias Laba (Vancouver Whitecaps)
6. Soni Mustivar (Sporting KC)
7. Michael Azira (Colorado Rapids)
8. Marco Donadel (Montreal Impact)
9. Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake)
10. Jeff Larentowicz (L.A. Galaxy)
Of all the stirring sagas generated by Seattle, none are as poignant as that of Alonso, who left his homeland of Cuba to excel as a professional and celebrate his team’s first league title with his beloved father present. He also led the league in passing percentage (90.3). McCarty is the engine that drove the Red Bulls during an impressive regular season and sputtered a bit in the playoffs. Bradley averaged a fifth-best 3.5 tackles per game but his rank of 60th in passing percentage (82.2) triggers a lot of criticism even though he does attempt more long passes (8.8 per game) than any field player.

Gruezo, who debuted for Ecuador two years ago at 19, started 28 of his 29 appearances and justified the trust of head coach Oscar Pareja by adjusting quickly to a new league and a new culture. Laba led all players with 4.1 tackles per game and his passing percentage of 85.2 ranked 20th. Mustivar struggled through a few inconsistent spells yet his stats of 2.6 tackles (19th) and 2.9 interceptions (25th) per game were solid.

Donadel and Co. ran out of gas against TFC in the conference finals, which dulled a strong finish to the regular season and very good displays in the first three playoff games. Beckerman is not the imposing force he’s been for most of his MLS career and turns 35 in April, yet phasing him out won’t be easy. In an oft-muddled Galaxy midfield, Larentowicz provided some stability while starting 17 of 23 games and will give expansion entrant Atlanta United some valuable experience.
1 comment about "MLS Positional Rankings: Kljestan, Felipe, Alonso top the midfield slots".
  1. Milo Mike, December 28, 2016 at 1:59 p.m.

    Nicolas Lodeiro warrnets the highest position on the attacking mids list. The Sounders number 10 played brilliantly through 13 complete games, shoring 4 goals and making 8 assists. He played six complete games in the post season, scoring 4 critical goals. Most importantly, his leadership and performance ignited his team mates, vaulting the Sounders from the bottom of the stack to the MLS CUP CHAMPIONS.

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