As some of you may be well aware, one of my favorite moments of the MLS offseason is when I get to eviscerate the MLS "Best XI," and try to put together a side of MLS players that may actually resemble a lineup a sane manager would field in a competitive match. This goes well beyond the fact that the 3-4-3 is a formation we have rarely seen used in MLS; in putting together the Best XI absolutely no regard is given to the all-important nature of styles and roles. How players theoretically fit together is every bit as important as individual talents in assembling a team. Beyond that, we live in an enlightened time with the bevy of metrics we have at our disposal to analyze individual player's tangible attributes.
But first, some ground rules. What I am going to do is pick an 18-man match-day roster; and to make things more difficult on myself, i am going to include all the players listed on the MLS Best XI list, even though there are at least 3 players that I believe have no business even being on that team, and in fact I would find it a stretch to include them in my 18. I will then select a starting XI from that 18, using a formation that accurately reflects common tactics from this last MLS season. Also, as an editorial note, my ratings and metrics are all from whoscored.com, with some cross-referencing to MLSsoccer.com.
As always, when building my team I start from the back and move forward. So without any further ado:
MLS Pick: Donovan Ricketts.
It's pretty hard to argue with that selection, and in selecting the other 'keeper the obvious choice would be Nick Rimando. One could make eloquent cases for Troy Perkins or even Luis Robles, buts it's hard not to go with the RSL backstop.
MLS Pick: Jose Goncalves, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler
So, this is where I have a real bone to pick. MLS lists "defenders" and voters, of course, pick 3 center backs. This completely ignores two pretty fundamental realities: A) there wasn't a single MLS side in 2013 that predominantly used a 3-defender system, and B) this completely ignores the clear and important distinction between centerbacks and fullbacks in soccer. This bugs me... a lot.
I'm already stuck with 3 CB's and the 3 names I'm given don't even include the League's best CB from the 2013 season: SKC's Aurelien Collin. In actual measurable numbers Collin blows the other 3 out of the water, AND played for the team that allowed the fewest goals. He was 2nd in MLS in aerial duels won, 2nd in interceptions, 4th in clearances, won the most offsides calls in the league, and was one of the better tacklers amongst CB's and had the most accurate long balls per match of any CB. Frankly, I'm not sure what Goncalves is even doing on this list. Besler at least led MLS in pass attempts amongst CB's, averaging 50.3 passes with a 80.2% success rate; but 5 of the top 8 players this season in pass percentage were CB's, all completing better than 86%. Goncalves rates above Collin and and Besler on blocked shots, and he was 20th in the League, but that's the best I can do for him. Then there's Omar Gonzalez, who rates 3rd overall among CB's; his only metric that stands out is that he was 2nd in offsides won.
Chad Marshall rates out higher than any of the three named to the Best XI. Honestly, it boggles the mind. I've got to include Collin in my 18; I'd be foolish not to; and I'd love to include Marshall but I just don't have room for 5 CB's.
MLS Pick: none
I wrote about this some time ago, but if you spend any time looking at heat maps and average positional charts you will get the pretty clear picture from around the world of soccer that teams employ a "W" defense, with fullbacks and a CDM - or at least the deeper of the 2 holding mids, as a distinct layer in front of CB's. As we have seen with our own Brad Evans - holding mid for club and RB for country -- fullbacks in many ways are the ultimate utility players. The fact that the voters failed to recognize the distinction is incredibly disappointing.
Even more troubling is that there is considerable talent to choose from, but thanks to being saddled with 4 CB's I just don't have room to choose more than one LB and RB to fill out my side.
Similar to my CDM, I want players who can help win possession and keep possession. Possession is the name of the game for the "proactive defending" layer. At left back Chris Klute had a standout year for Colorado with 7 assists, but Sounders own Leo Gonzalez had the 2nd-most tackles per match in all of MLS -- behind Chicago left back Gonzalo Segares - AND was 3rd in Interceptions. Overall, a side-by side comparison between the 2 makes for a very tough decision, with various attributes canceling each other out. I'll spare you the details, but Klute wins out by a narrow margin. Yes, Gonzalez rates out as the 2nd-best Left Back in MLS for the 2013 season.
At Right back there is an interesting list of names: DeAndre Yedlin led all MLS fullbacks in interceptions, and we all know the breakout season he had. But RSL's Tony Beltran was the best overall passer amongs MLS fullbacks and his defensive numbers hold up, so he gets the nod over Hassoun Camara of Montreal and Andrew Farrell of New England, who both rated high across the board.
MLS Pick: Will Johnson.
I applaud the pick of Will Johnson, as my MLS 18 would certainly include him. But he is NOT the "5th defender" type of CDM that has become probably the most critical position in contemporary soccer. For the role of CDM I have three choices, but room for only 2.
Kyle Beckerman was the League's most prolific passer, but in terms of sheer defensive numbers leaves something to be desired when compared to the ball winning abilities of Diego Chara and Osvaldo Alonso. Chara and Alonso stand out as the 2 best *defensive* CDM's in MLS.
But you probably already know where I'm going with this. No one playing MLS soccer right now comes close to Alsono in all-around performance at the tip of the "W." I could go on and on and on, but I don't need to. I'd be crazy to put together an 18-man roster of MLS players and not include Alonso. Beckerman takes the other available spot.
MLS Picks: Graham Zusi, Tim Cahill and Diego Valeri.
I find the inclusion of Valeri an odd one, as I would consider him my 3rd-choice CAM behind Javier Morales and Federico Higuain. They rate 2nd and 1st, respectively, in key passes. Javier Morales was the 2nd-most prolific passer in MLS behind his teammate, and completed 83.1%, a greater rate that Higuain or Valeri. Valeri did have the slight edge in through balls, but both Morales and Higuain were better crossers (yes, your CAM is going to drift wide at times). In fact, in across-the-board passing metrics, Valeri doesn't rate too far ahead of Mauro Rosales. Looking to break up the Argentinian party is Oscar Boniek Garcia of Houston, who overall also rates higher than Valeri. Given the rules I've set for myself, I've got to take Morales and apologize profusely to Higuain that his spot got taken by Valeri.
Graham Zusi fits in nicely as a WAM, so I'm certainly going to have no problems fitting him into my squad. Tim Cahill played much of the season as a 2-way central midfielder, but fits into my squad as an attacking mid, since I've already got Beckerman, Johnson, and Alonso.
So, if you're counting along, I'm up to 15 players: Ricketts and Rimando; Goncalves, Gonzalez, Besler, and Collin; Beltran and Klute; Johnson, Alonso, and Beckerman; Zusi, Cahill, Valeri, and Morales. So I have three spots left, which works out because:
MLS picks: Mike Magee, Robbie Keane, and Marco Di Vaio.
Well, then, that's my 18. Although I've got to make a difficult phone call to Thierry Henry explaining why the MLS selectors handcuffed me with Di Vaio and I don't have room for him. I know Di Vaio scored lots of goals, but he is a classic old-school "one-dimensional" finisher. In the modern game we need forwards who can pass as well as shoot, who can drop off into the midfield and help in the possession game, and play a little hold-up for my attacking mids to get into the attack. Di Vaio just doesn't fit that bill, not with the playmaking ability of Magee, Keane, and Henry.
So, with that 18, now I have to select my starting 11. The most important factor is that I need to put my players in a position to succeed; even though this is an "all-star" lineup I don't want to put any players in a position outside their comfort zone. I've already more or less tipped my hand, but my midfield shape is going to be 2 holders and a CAM, with wide attackers supporting a single forward. It's a 4-2-3-1; the contemporary "default" formation of soccer worldwide.
On my bench are Rimando, Goncalves, Besler, Beckerman, Valeri, Cahill, and Di Vaio
There are a few issues to address. First I am asking Magee to switch to left Mid, a position he had plenty of experience playing for L.A. I'm quite sure he can handle that, particularly given Keane's willingness to drop back, leaving that area open for runs, with Johnson free to drift into space left by Magee.
Another is that both Gonzalez and Collin line up as the right of the 2 CB's for their respective teams. I could alleviate this by starting either Besler or Goncalves, but neither of them are better than Gonzalez. It's a tough predicament, made even more troubling by the fact I've got no real subs at Fullback. Overall, given what I've got, I'm assuming Gonzalez is capable of handling the switch.
But perhaps the most glaring issue is the fact that my 18 does not include Landon Donovan. It seems like I really ought to be able to fit him in SOMEWHERE, and between Di Vaio and Valeri or even dumping Beckerman and adjusting my midfield a bit, I ought to be able to find him a spot. But rules are rules (dammit).
This just demonstrates the difficulties of proper roster construction. Its a tough task when you really start to dig your claws into it and realize there is far more to it than just finding 11 good players and throwing them out there hoping it works.