MLS Positional Rankings: Birnbaum and Van Damme command the centerback slots

By Ridge Mahoney

The three-man back line is gaining favor in MLS as well as around the world, but the standard four-back system prevails.

Occasionally, a player will toggle between the central slots, but most players and coaches prefer to establish one side as their own. Steve Birnbaum has played well enough to earn callups to the U.S. national team, and in his first MLS season Jelle Van Damme has displayed the toughness and savvy acquired during more than a decade of play in Europe.

Teams rely heavily on the centerback tandem to limit opponents’ opportunities, clear balls out of the danger zone, and connect on a reasonable percentage of passes. The cohesion between players, ideally, provides a strong defensive core that spreads confidence throughout the team.

Centerbacks constantly talk to each other to keep the right spacing and balance between themselves as well as the rest of the team. In many cases one centerback takes on a more aggressive role and tries to win balls that his partner or another teammate can clean up if necessary.

Probably nowhere else on the field are two players more interdependent on each other, for mistakes are often punished by goals conceded. Here are the best performers for the 2016 season:
SA's Top 10
1. Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United)
2. Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
3. Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders)
4. Aurelien Collin (NY Red Bulls)
5. Marvell Wynne (San Jose Earthquakes)
6. Nat Borchers (Portland Timbers)
7. Victor Cabrera (Montreal Impact)
8. Jared Watts (Colorado)
9. Justin Glad (Real Salt Lake)
10. Jonathan Campbell (Chicago Fire)

In just his third pro season, Birnbaum’s aerial dominance is well known; he led the league with 4.1 duels won per game and scored three goals. How many callups and games he gets from Bruce Arena will be an intriguing subplot this year.

The same can be said for Zimmerman, who has yet to play for the USA but ranked in the top 10 with 3.3 tackles and 5.1 interceptions per game. He also scored four goals. In nine regular-season games after a long injury layoff Torres helped stabilize the Sounders’ core and in the playoffs he and Chad Marshall excelled.

Collin ranked third in interceptions (4.0) and clearances (5.3) per game after the Red Bulls got him from Orlando City in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. His steady play helped them recover from a 1-6-0 start. Injuries along the back line pushed Wynne from right back into the middle and his solid play was one reason only three teams conceded fewer goals than the 40 by San Jose. Many problems beset the Timbers in 2016 and their rickety defense couldn’t recover when a ruptured Achilles’ tendon sidelined Borchers in late July. Cabrera led all players with 4.5 interceptions per game, ranked ninth in tackles at 3.3, and he’s only 23.

The Rapids were 6-3-9 when Watts started during the regular season and he played every minute in the playoffs. Glad, 19, showed great instincts and savvy as he started 27 of his 28 games yet is not quite strong or experienced enough to handle the physical burden. In his rookie year on a team in transition, Campbell started 30 of 33 games and landed in the top 10 with 4.7 clearances per game.
SA's Top 10
1. Jelle Van Damme (L.A. Galaxy)
2. Lauren Ciman (Montreal Impact)
3. Matt Hedges (FC Dallas)
4. Drew Moor (Toronto FC)
5. Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids)
6. Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders)
7. Matt Besler (Sporting KC)
8. Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps)
9. Richie Marquez (Philadelphia)
10. Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes)

The departure of Omar Gonzalez to Mexico left a huge hole in the Galaxy back line, and it didn’t take long for the league to recognize the attributes of replacement Van Damme. He was a finalist for both Newcomer of the Year and Defender of the Year, ranked sixth in interceptions per game (3.5), tied for eighth in clearances (4.7), and assisted on three goals.

Ciman, the 2015 Defender of the Year, labored through good and bad spells for much of the season then played solidly the rest of the way. He finished second in interceptions per game (4.3) and fifth in clearances (5.1). Hedges, a DOTY finalist last year, won the award after averaging 3.7 interceptions per game and backstopping a defense that placed second in shutouts (12) and shots by opponents (330).

Moor left the Rapids to shore up a leaky TFC back line that cut down its goals allowed from 58 in 2015 to 39. Sjoberg stepped up in his second pro season to anchor the league’s best defense (32 goals conceded) and was also a DOTY finalist. Marshall came on strong to score four goals and post solid stats in clearances (4.6) and interceptions (3.1) per game. Injuries, callups, and “coaches decisions” limited Besler to 18 games in which he averaged 3.1 interceptions, completed 82.6 percent of his passes, and for his only goal headed a stoppage-time winner against Columbus.

At times this season Waston looked every bit the 2015 DOTY finalist but some egregious errors and a league-leading three red cards added up to a frustrating season for him and the Whitecaps. After sitting out the season opener, Marquez reeled off 33 straight starts and drew praise while averaging 1.6 tackles and 4.4 clearances per game. Bernardez ranked 20th with three interceptions per game and led the injury-ridden Quakes in games played (33) as they limited opponents to 40 goals, the fourth-best mark in MLS.
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