MLS Positional Rankings (Holding Midfielders): Embattled Alonso holds his place among defensive anchors

As MLS has evolved, so too has the class of midfielders labeled as “defensive” or “holding.”

Typically, they are not tasked with offensive duties, other than to get the ball to a teammate once it has been secured. Yet the player who can destroy opponents’ attacks yet do little else is not nearly as valued as in the past.

Teams that use a 4-2-3-1 formation will sometimes designate both players in front of the back line as defensive mids, but usually one is more adept offensively than the other. The two may also switch off roles during the game as conditions and situations change.

A lone player screening the back line is facing a tremendous task, with a vast amount of ground and angles to cover. In a 4-4-2 diamond formation, the flank midfielders must pinch in to help out defensively while also watching for the opportunity to spring forward when the ball turns over.

A team’s transition game benefits greatly when the holding mid(s) can hit accurate passes, and even though they seldom earn a salary anything close to their more glamorous counterparts, they are highly regarded by teammates and coaches. Several players who play mainly a holding role but also played further forward or in other roles weres include in the rankings of central midfielders.

The rankings are based on performance and production during the 2017 regular season and playoffs.
SA Top 10: Defensive Midfielders:

1. Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle)
2. Julian Gressel (Atlanta United)
3. Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
4. Alexander Ring (New York City FC)
5. Dax McCarty (Chicago)
6. Wil Trapp (Columbus)
7. Juan David Cabezas (Houston)
8. Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake)
9. Felipe (New York Red Bulls)
10. Carlos Gruezo (FC Dallas)
Another excellent season for Ozzie Alonso ended bitterly: he watched injured as Seattle lost the MLS Cup final to Toronto FC, and didn’t appreciate being put on the unprotected list for the Expansion Draft. His pass completion rate of 90.9 was one of the highest in the league and he averaged 2.4 tackles per game.

Julian Gressel shared defensive duties with teammate Carlos Carmona and somtimes played on the wing yet lit up the attacking sheets by scoring five goals and registering nine assists. The Rookie of the Year, albeit at 23, played a huge role in Atlanta’s amazing expansion year.

Given a lot of help in the 3-5-2 formation normally used by TFC, Michael Bradley orchestrated a record-breaking season. He did the defensive work (2.3 tackles, 2.0 interceptions per game) and completed an excellent 88.1 percent of his passes in a smoothly functioning operation that rolled to the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.

In his first MLS season, Alexander Ring finished among the league leaders in tackles (3.9) and interceptions (2.2) per game. He took a few too many cautions (10) and his pass-completion percentage (83.2) wasn’t stellar, but no doubt he played a major role in NYCFC’s second-place finish in a very tough Eastern Conference.

The move of Dax McCarty in a trade sent a shock wave through the league and for the most part he handled the responsibilities and pressure well of knitting together the Fire midfield. But he and team didn’t finish strongly, which casts a cloud over 2018.

Columbus, MLS Cup finalist in 2015, bounced back from a poor 2016 with Wil Trapp a key reason for the revival. Steady and strong and smart, Trapp collected four assists while completing 88.3 percent of his passes and defensively did the business with 2.4 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game. Houston’s dynamic attack relied heavily on the rugged work of Juan Cabezas, as shown by his 3.8 tackles and 2.1 interceptions per game.

One-third of the way through the season the future looked grim for RSL and stalwart Kyle Beckerman, but he was a big factor in young RSL's turnaround and should be rewarded with a new contract.

Felipe scored two goals, earned three assists, and averaged nearly a key pass every game as well as 2.4 tackles and 1.7 interceptions. Just making the playoffs is well below Red Bull expectations yet without Felipe they might have fallen short of that modest accomplishment. Carlos Guezo soldiered through the  FCD collapse to average 2.6 tackles and 1.3 interceptions while also connecting on 85.7 percent of his passes.

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