MLS released their best XI this week. It’s the expected list of a nominal 3-4-3 with seven forwards, no defensive midfielders, two center backs and a left back - but there will be lots of goals! There were all of three Americans on the list, can you guess what third of the field they play in? The names would be defenders Aaron Long and Chad Marshall along with keeper Zack Steffen. Is it weird that Steffen made the list despite his team giving up more goals than Long’s and Marshall’s and that no other Columbus Crew teammate made the list? Don’t think too hard about the marketing implications of the list and why the names that appear on there do.
Just for fun, let’s put together an American Best XI and see how it stacks up. First, a quick note on the formation - I wish I could tell you that America is deep enough to play a 3-4-3 with an explosive front seven, but we all saw the real USMNT play against England and know that kind of talent doesn’t exist in MLS so let’s get that out of the way - in all fairness, the team would be a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 or even a 5-4-1. Remember, this is America, we make defenders not goal scorers.
Just go ahead and bring along Long, Marshall, and Steffen. They’re fair enough picks and Steffen’s record setting 525 minute scoreless streak is an impressive personal achievement that Luis Robles and Stefan Frei can’t match even if they let in fewer goals. You might want someone younger than Marshall at center back, but his ability to help Seattle shut down any excitement in soccer for half a season is a remarkable skill.
Gyasi Zardes - Striker - Zardes ended the season tied for fourth most goals in the league for his best ever season in MLS. His main skill this year was just trying not to do too much. As a winger and second forward for the LA Galaxy, Zardes struggled with his touch and passing vision leading to few goals, many turnovers, and much derision. This year Gregg Berhalter turned him into a poacher and he ended up with 19 goals on the season.
Paul Arriola - Right wing - The lone designated player on this list, Arriola will turn 24 next year and entering his prime tallied a solid seven goal, six real assist season with DC. If he can manage to avoid playing right back as has been the fate of so many an American attacking right winger he could grow into a national team starter.
Cristian Roldan - Center midfield - Roldan had a good season with Seattle leading Americans in MLS with a robust seven real, non-hockey assists. There’s not really an out and out attacking or creative American midfielder in MLS and Roldan can run a lot and try really hard with the best of them and helped Seattle tread water until Raul Ruidiaz showed up in the summer.
Tyler Adams - Center midfield - The MLS hype was validated by a big transfer set for the end of the season and by Adams being the engine that made what has been a great team over the past few years into the best team in MLS history because of the press that he helped perfect. Adams simply does everything well, he clogs passing lanes and is always trying to be one step ahead when New York is trying to win the ball back. Once they do get the ball, play usually goes through Adams as the midfielder looks to orchestrate the Red Bulls in transition and set up his team to create a chance.
Russell Canouse - Center midfield - What’s a Durkin? Canouse stepped into the DC United lineup and in his 17 games this year helped turn the team around. Sure, they needed Wayne Rooney to put everything together in the attack, but in the center of the pitch, Canouse brought the stability that was needed to lead DC into the post-season.
Russell Canouse’s second half? 37/37, 14/14 in the attacking third and 3 more tackles. Overall 84/86, 11 recoveries, 8 tackles, made all 29 passes in the attacking third. Hydrate son, we need that Sunday #DCU pic.twitter.com/kndbGu7hfM— Ryan Keefer (@reefa_k) September 13, 2018
Fafa Picault - Left wing - Maybe I should have gone with a 5-4-1. I really don’t buy that is as good as his 10 goal, 4 assist stat line indicates - and that’s a flaming hot take, I don’t have much to back it up. But until Andrew Carleton proves he’s not the next Tommy Thompson, Picault is on the list. Did you know that Sebastian Lletget had three goals, one assists, and less than 2,000 minutes for the LA Galaxy this year and is on the national team roster?
Graham Zusi - Right back - What do you mean this list is completely futile and the US player pool in MLS is terrible? Actually, let’s not do this, we can find an attack minded right back not named Zusi. Everyone, I give you Brooks Lennon, another winger-turned-defender as your not Graham Zusi representative on this list. Welcome to the party Brooks.
Chad Marshall - Center back - We’ve been over this.
Aaron Long - Center back - The best defender on the best team in the league, enough said.
4 way tie - Left back - Take your pick between Jorge Villafana, Edgar Castillo, Greg Garza, and DaMarcus Beasley. On the one hand, Beasley and Castillo should get the edge because they actually played most of the games for their teams this year and Castillo may have been the best player on the Rapids in 2018. On the other, Villafana won LigaMX recently and when Greg Garza is healthy he’s probably the best attacking left back the US has.
Zack Steffen - Goalkeeper - Am I buying into what seems like it might be MLS/SUM propaganda about elevating a new keeper a little bit? Maybe. But Gregg Berhalter didn’t have the defenders or stomach to play anti-soccer for half the year and sure didn’t have the talent to press teams to death like other best-XI keepers’ teams.
Subs - let’s go to the bench... Striker - Dom Dwyer - with 13 goals and zero assists, Dwyer is an ideal swap for Zardes who also did not manage an assist this season (an interesting tidbit is that Dwyer, with 13 goals was the second leading American goalscorer in the league behind Zardes and 13th on the list overall, no. 3 was Teal Bunbury with 11 goals at 26th overall, and Zardes’ 19 was good for 5th... yes, the top three American goal scorers in MLS were ranked 5th, 13th and 26th in terms of overall goals scored - it’s not good); Midfield - Miguel Ibarra - The Minnesota United midfielder can do a bit of it all, defend, score, assist - he played a number of roles for the Loons this year and would be a good addition late in matches in a variety of scenarios; Defense - Tim Parker - The center back is great in the air, can play with the all at his feet, and if you need to put a game away should be on late.
So there you have it. The best Americans in MLS can probably fill out a fairly competitive 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 depending on if you want to start Picault or Dwyer, I’d argue for Picault over Dwyer because I have no idea what would happen up front with him starting next to Zardes. It’s probably not going to be very pretty.