When I saw the MLS Best XI the other day, what first struck me wasn't that Kasey Keller made the list, or Osvaldo Alonso didn't, or that there were 4 Galaxy players. Actually, my first reaction was "wow, I would NEVER field that XI in an actual match!"
This has nothing to do with talent, of course, but more to do with structure and roles. We can actually learn a lot by analyzing what the "Best XI" would do as a team. One of the foremost lessons we can learn is that sometimes soccer-football can be strangely counterintuitive.
Before I go on I want to point out that I am fully aware of the nature of "Best XI" and All-Pro type-lists. But that is also my inherent issue with such "teams", in most cases, they don't reflect what a real "team" would look like.
At first glance, the team appears to be what can best be described as a 3-4-1-2. On defense, you have a left back but not a right back, which ultimately doesn't matter because with a 3-man defense left back Todd Dunivant is going to be playing more like a center back. In the midfield you have two left-wingers in Brek Shea and Brad Davis, which essentially means that one of them is going to have to move into a central role. This actually isn't the real problem. The REAL problem is that I am asking my outside mids to be wingbacks, supporting the 3 defenders in wide areas defensively.
As I have previously written, wingbacks and fullbacks are essentially the same player. While I am actually pretty sure that the likes of Shea or Landon Donovan are good enough to adapt to that role, I would rather a fullback play fullback, and allow these attacking players to do what they do best. While in a theoretical sense, having Dunivant as my left defender might allow the left wing to play more like an actual winger, in practice Dunivant is going to be limited in what he can do by the shape of the defense.
And so this is my first change. Sorry, Chris Wondolowski, but I'm sending you to the bench, and replacing you with a right back. Sean Franklin seems a logical choice - yeah, another Galaxy player, but a member of the League's best defense, and a player with enough moxie going forward to have earned some time at right mid this season.
At first glance I have made the team more defensive, after all, I just pulled a forward for a defender. But this overlooks some important considerations. Fullbacks are really 30/70 (i.e. 30% attack, 70% defense) players - or in some cases maybe even 40/60. Meanwhile, my wingbacks, at best, were going to be 50/50 players, but by putting fullbacks behind them now they can be 70/30 players, and do what they do best. Furthermore, I am now asking them to do a lot less running by not having to cover the entire flank, and that ought to pay dividends late in the match. I have also freed up Dunivant to do what he does best, which is play fullback.
So, I haven't made my team any more defensive, necessarily, but i have made them more effective, in all likelihood.
But i still have an issue in that midfield, but not in the way that you may first think. A good midfield needs creators, passers, and destroyers. I am well off on passers and creators, but I need someone to win the ball, and link between the defense and the rest of my midfield. For this role I need a special player, someone with the kind of stock that played in 44 of his team's 48 competitive matches on the season, and is as capable of a good crunching tackle as stepping up and threatening the opponent's goal when need be. I need El Corazon, I need Ozzie Alonso in my XI.
So remember that issue with two left wingers? Solved, And it was a tough choice but I'm going with Shea, so sorry Davis, to the bench with you to make room for Alonso.
Now I have my complete midfield. Dwayne DeRosario maintains his free role, David Beckham maintains his distributor role, I've given Shea and Donovan the freedom to play as true wingers, and I've strengthened my defense. It appears to be something between a 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3, and I have plenty of attack on the pitch. Now my only question is if I really want Thierry Henry as my "lone striker" up top… ;-)