Commentary

MLS Positional Rankings: TFC duo heads the pack at outside back

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)
 
MLS teams don’t spend much on outside backs. They’ve been only marginally affected by increases in the salary cap, none are Designated Players permitted per team, and no team has yet spent any Targeted Allocation Money to sign one.

The ideal outside back can track and tackle tenaciously, effectively protect the back post on  serves from the opposite flank, whack balls clear during scrambles and set plays, and get forward to aid attacks with overlapping runs and accurate crosses. Ironically, their jobs are tougher than ever with many teams using DP slots and TAM resources to upgrade their wide attackers. Unless he draws attention bombing forward the best outside back is the one rarely noticed because he’s not being scorched or spun by swift, slick wingers or, worse, a counterpart on the other team.

The TFC duo of Steven Beitashour ($230,000) and Justin Morrow ($200,000) earn more than most of their compatriots, and they worked a double-shift of sorts in 2016. They ended the season as wingbacks in a 3-5-2 formation after playing mostly on the corners of a four-man backline.
 
SA's Top 10
RIGHT BACKS
1. Steven Beitashour (Toronto FC)
2. Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew)
3. Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union)
4. Tyrone Mears (Seattle Sounders)
5. Saad Abdul-Salaam (Sporting KC)
6. Andrew Farrell (New England Revolution)
7. Robbie Rogers (LA Galaxy)
8. Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake)
9. Atiba Harris (FC Dallas)
10. Eric Miller (Colorado Rapids)
 
Beitashour has jumped around the league -- he’s also played in San Jose and Vancouver -- and around the world as well playing for Iran.  He assisted on just one goal in his first season for TFC but completed 75 percent of his passes and gave the right corner a stability the team has seldom enjoyed.

Among right backs, Afful scored the most goals (3) and set up the most scoring chances (30), and completed 80.7 percent of his passes. One of the revelations of the season, rookies or otherwise, Rosenberry played every minute, created 28 chances, and committed just 13 fouls. Mears endured some harrowing moments while playing 32 games in the regular season, but he was mostly reliable while playing every postseason minute. Abdul-Salaam rebounded from his double-post, penalty-kick miss in the 2015 Knockout Round against Portland to post six assists and play 30 games (26 starts).

In 32 starts at right back and centerback, Farrell put up solid stats (2.2 tackles, 2.5 interceptions, and 2.8 clearances per game). The arrival of Ashley Cole moved Rogers to the right side; he completed 81.4 percent of his passes and earned two assists. Beltran logged three assists in 29 games (27 starts) but took nine cautions.

Harris started 24 of 30 games for the Supporters’ Shield winner and assisted on three goals. Miller emerged from a Rapids’ logjam at right back to start 23 of 26 regular-season games and go start to finish in all four playoff games.
 
SA's Top 10
LEFT BACKS
1. Justin Morrow (Toronto FC)
2. Taylor Kemp (D.C. United)
3. Marc Burch (Colorado Rapids)
4. Ashley Cole (LA Galaxy)
5. Roland Matarrita (New York City)
6. DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo)
7. Jimmy Medranda (Sporting KC)
8. Ambroise Oyongo (Montreal Impact)
9. Chris Tierney (New England Revolution)
10. Brandon Vincent(Chicago Fire)

Morrow’s third season with TFC produced five goals, four assists, and just eight fouls committed. His defensive game is solid as well. Kemp shared the assist lead (6) among defenders with Abdul-Salaam while starting 30 of 31 games. Burch logged three assists and set career highs for minutes (2443) and starts (27) on the stingy Rapids back line.

Cole answered the questions about his age (35) by starting 25 of 26 games and finishing 16th in passing percentage at 85.7. Matarrita wasn’t consistent enough defensively in his first MLS season, but displayed an exceptional touch while logging five assists. Beasley started all 24 of his appearances and as might be expected of a former midfielder, connected on 81.6 percent of his passes. After playing just 13 games in his first three pro seasons, Medranda started 22 of 28 matches playing up front as well as in the back, and put up good numbers in tackles (3.6) and interceptions (2.7) per game.

Oyongo assisted on five goals during the regular season and scored a great goal in the conference finals against TFC. Tierney soldiered through a seventh straight season of starting at least 25 games to score two goals and contribute three assists. A strong rookie season bodes well for Vincent, a starter in 24 of his 26 appearances and another in the line of Stanford products to go pro.
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