For the first time this season, we can look at the Seattle Sounders roster and make reasonable decisions about their Best XI. Whether or not we all agree on what that Best XI is, the candidates are all healthy and available. There are at least a few positions where there's some good debate to be had, but the one I find most interesting is at left mid where three players are already vying for the starting spot and a couple more could be entering the conversation soon.
A conversation I had with some of the other reporters at practice today helped illustrated just how wide open the position is. There doesn't seem to be any clear answer to any of these questions: Who starts on Saturday? Who would I start? or Who starts a few weeks from now?
I may as well go about giving those answers here...
Who starts on Saturday?
This is pretty much a three-man competition between Alex Caskey, Brad Evans and Mario Martinez. What makes this such an interesting conversation is that all three players bring very different things.
The incumbent: Caskey has exceeded my expectations. He's shown a lot more skill than I expected, has some good passing abilities and could develop into a very solid MLS player. Thing is, what he provides is basically stuff that other players already bring, but not at as high of a level. Caskey is a dogged defender, but his size limits how effective he can be. With him, Fredy Montero, Christian Tiffert and Mauro Rosales on the field, for instance, there aren't many players capable of winning a header on the pitch.
My pick: He clearly prefers to be in the middle, but he's proven to be versatile enough to play any one of the midfield positions. Evans is coming off two of his best games this season and provides the kind of aerial ability that few others on the team do. You're not likely to get tons of great crosses coming in from the left, but that's nothing new for this team. Outside of Marc Burch's handful of games, this team has rarely used left-footed crossers.
The dark horse: Martinez will have logged about four practices by the time the Sounders kick off, which makes it unlikely that he's going to start. Although he's left-footed, he also has only played sparingly as a left mid. That said, Schmid hinted that the team could employ more of a 4-3-3 at times, which would probably bode well for someone like Martinez.
Who would I start?
I think it's really between Evans and Martinez. I'm inclined to go with Evans because I think it makes for the most tactically balanced arrangement. With Evans on the left, the Sounders can afford to take a few more chances in the offensive third. Plus, he's starting to showcase some nice creativity, something he's well aware the Sounders' technical staff believed was a shortcoming of his.
But I'm going with Martinez. Chivas USA doesn't offer a whole lot on offense and this is a game that the Sounders might need the extra offense, as their opponents have a tendency to bunker even at home. Plus, you'll get to find out just how ready he is to play at left mid.
Who should start in a few weeks?
The obvious answer is Martinez. He was seemingly brought in to be the starter at left mid and I'm not going to bet against him winning that spot.
I don't think it's quite that simple, though. The Sounders have 13 games remaining -- including CONCACAF Champions League -- and they have three weeks that will feature two games, including next week. There's no way one guy is going to start all 13 games, and Martinez could miss at least two of them before national team action.
Martinez will definitely start his share, but I suspect Evans isn't just going to fall out of the rotation. Steve Zakuani is also getting close to being ready, although I have my doubts he'll start more than once or twice. David Estrada is surely to get some minutes, too, as he comes back from his broken foot. I think there's a chance that we've seen the last of Alex Caskey playing heavy minutes on the left, at least this year, but I doubt he falls out of the rotation either.
Obviously, there is not shortage of options. Of course, there's also the theory that having lots of options suggests there's no clear one. It's one thing to be having this debate with so many unknowns, but if we still don't have a player who's clearly separated himself as the obvious starter by the time the playoffs come around, that could mean trouble. The ability for one player to really claim the position, could well prove the defining element of this season.