We are just past the mid-point of Major League Soccer’s 19th season. Which makes it time to begin exploring (read: arguing about) the league’s showcase awards. Foremost, as always, is Major League’s Soccer’s Most Valuable Player:
My pick: the LA Galaxy’s Robbie Keane.
With 23 goals over the last two seasons, only Chris Wondolowski has more in MLS during that time. Of course, that’s no shocker, is it? The Irish international is a goal scorer’s goal scorer, isn’t he?
So you may be surprised to know that Keane leads MLS in assists today. He has eight to go along with seven goals. If you add goals and assists, Keane has contributed directly to 15 Galaxy goals. Only Vancouver’s Camilo (13) and Chicago Mike Magee (also 13) are close.
Significantly for Keane, his numbers have been supplied in just 11 matches.
His overall contributions on the attack (along with Magee’s, too, before the trade to Chicago) kept the Galaxy near the head of the Western Conference class while Landon Donovan got himself together. Keane’s movement off the ball continues to represent the gold standard for MLS strikers.
He’ll miss another match here and there for World Cup qualifiers, but hopefully Keane is past the minor injuries that kept him off the field some in the late spring.
My top picks for second: Will Johnson, and Magee with an asterisk
Johnson has been the heart and soul of Portland’s revival this year under first-year pro manager Caleb Porter. Johnson is the team’s midfield engine, its brain between the white lines and its leader as captain. I posted a story earlier this week on what Portland lost when their Canadian captain stepped out of the starting lineup for the first time this year on Sunday.
No player appears more valuable to their club. And since Portland is having such a swell season, stylistically and in terms of bottom-line performance, Johnson has to be in the MVP conversation.
Magee also has to be in the conversation … although with an asterisk. I mentioned this, too, in another PST story earlier in the week. Long story short is this: if the Fire makes the playoffs, “Magic Mike” will get heaping helpings of praise – and consideration for the MVP crown.
Others to monitor over the final 15 rounds (in alphabetical order):
Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman
Vancouver Whitecaps’ Camilo
Montreal Impact’s Marco di Vaio
Philadelphia Union’s Jack McInerney
Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi
Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia
The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.
Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.
Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.
Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.
How does Arena cope with injuries?
The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.
While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.
Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.
Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?
It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.
Bradley must control the middle once again
Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.
In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.
The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.
In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.
Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.
On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.
It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.
The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.
Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.
Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.
We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.
Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.
great first day back training with the boys, ankle felt really good and i'm getting more confident with it by the day! not long now 🙏🏼💪🏼