Albert Rusnak

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Filling out an MLS Best XI is harder than ever

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Fewer fun things have been as agonizing as filling out a ballot for the 2017 Major League Soccer Best XI.

This goes beyond the travails of deciding whether you need your lineup to be one that can actually play functionally in a match, whether that be by using a standard formation or players out of position. Even long believers in that process — this post-writer fell in that group until, spoiler alert, this season — would be challenged by this season’s options.

[ MORE: PST’s Best XI | Award winners ]

Part of that is due to super teams — Who contributed the most? — while plenty more comes down to some absolutely bonkers performances from players on wildly disappointing teams (Ignacio Piatti and Romain Alessandrini, we’re looking at you. Andre Blake, you, too).

Admittedly, my Best XI looks a lot like the one compiled by our PST staff, seven of 11, but I’ll give you my decision later. Here are some of your challenges.

1) Super teams — Toronto FC was the best single season club in MLS history and, given the parity and strength of the league relative to previous seasons, it’s easy to argue it isn’t even close. Sebastian Giovinco is its best player but missed significant playing time. Victor Vazquez became the straw that stirred the drink. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were fantastic but missed time with international commitments. Left-sided man Justin Morrow is, spoiler alert, my defender of the year.

How many can you take from that squad, and how about the shiny new toy that is Atlanta United, which had injury absences of its own but excited on so many levels. Beyond ex-River Plate defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, the Five Stripes boasted four star attackers in Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, and Yamil Asad. Consider that this was September’s Best XI according to the advanced stats people at WhoScored.com:

2) Midfield and attack problems: This is rarely easy given the magnification of star turns from players who score goals, but choosing even seven players this season was troubling given the remarkable amount of new boys and regular stars who got the job done this season.

In the midfield, there was the no doubt inclusion of Diego Valeri, who’s 21 goals and 11 assists demanded MVP attention, and the dominant seasons of Seattle’s Cristian Roldan and Montreal’s Piatti. Then there’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, Vazquez, Alessandrini, and RSL’s Albert Rusnak.

Difficult stuff, and we’re not even talking out-and-out attack. Martinez and Giovinco posted gaudy numbers despite missing significant portions of the schedule with injury. Is that enough to discount them? What absence counts for this? Miguel Almiron missed time late, while David Villa, too, had an MVP caliber season and Nemanja Nikolic only went and led his third-straight league in goals.

All that without a mention of Alex Ring, Justin Meram, Lee Nguyen, and Ola Kamara. Fortunately for the league’s voters, Blerim Dzemaili’s 22 matches mean he wasn’t around long enough to warrant a vote despite 7 goals and 10 assists in limited time.

3) Formation: So, given this and the amazing season of Morrow, how do you rightly go about picking three at the back? It’s enough to move stringent XI voters to a team that would get in trouble on a real pitch by using a 3-4-3 to maximize mids and forwards.

4) Goalkeeper: The usual suspects — Luis Robles, Bill Hamid — were good, with several others included in the MLS MVP shortlist: Bobby Shuttleworth, Tim Howard, Joe Bendik, and Stefan Frei (Robles was not included in RBNY’s bunch). However, it’s hard to imagine voters weren’t deciding between former No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Andre Blake of Philadelphia and the near-impeccable season of Sporting KC’s Tim Melia.

Blake (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

5) So what was your ballot, writer dude?

The Best XI was the only category that took me longer to sort out that the MVP debate, and that’s because I had a very difficult time reconciling Valeri’s unbelievable full season with the fact that Giovinco was the best player despite missing five different stints with injury (More on that later).

Ultimately, I hedged on that “Could this team perform on the pitch?” question. As much as it would be easy to play a four at the back by including Graham Zusi, or to feel better about a back three by having Kendall Waston get a deserved spot, I’d rather have Justin Morrow slightly out of position than have to sacrifice a midfielder or attacker.

The trio of forwards was the most difficult choice. Martinez and Giovinco were Nos. 1 and 2 in terms of potent players in the league when healthy. Martinez’s 17 goals in 19 matches allowed me to slot him in the team, while Giovinco’s 16 goals and six assists in 25 matches feel similar. Including both, however, would mean dismissing Villa, the best player in league history and the prime reason NYCFC finished second in the East, or Nikolic.

Here’s one area I will hedge: While I felt confident in submitting my XI, I’ve since felt nagged by two exclusions: Villa (!!) and Waston. If the deadline was 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, I may have removed Martinez and Matt Besler.

Andre Blake (PHI)

L. Gonzalez Pirez (ATL) — Matt Besler (SKC) — Justin Morrow (TFC)

Bastian Schweinsteiger (CHI) — Cristian Roldan (SEA)

Diego Valeri (POR) — Ignacio Piatti (MTL)

Josef Martinez (ATL) — Nemanja Nikolic (CHI) — S. Giovinco (TFC)

Ultimately, I think we beat your team.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Real Salt Lake DP scouted by England, Germany, Scotland

Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images
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Albert Rusnak‘s outstanding season in Major League Soccer has scouts abroad wondering if he’s made a breakthrough.

With intense weeks ahead in World Cup qualifying and MLS, he may not have much time to notice the extra eyes.

[ MORE: Top talents at U-17 World Cup ]

Rusnak, 23, has seven goals and 12 assists for Real Salt Lake this season, and the DP attacking midfielder is in focus Thursday at Hampden Park in Scotland.

The Slovakian star won’t be worried about scouts, largely, as his side looks to clinch at least second place in UEFA World Cup qualifying Group F, but the BBC’s Simon Stone says he’s not likely to MLS for long thanks to interest in England, Germany, and Scotland (at the very least).

Scouts from clubs in all three countries will watch the 23-year-old in Glasgow before what is likely to be a move away from current Major League Soccer outfit Real Salt Lake in January.

Rusnak was with Manchester City from 2010-15, where his father was a scout. He took loans at Oldham Athletic, Birmingham City, and SC Cambuur before moving to Groningen and then RSL.

He has five caps for Slovakia, which sits five points back of England and a point ahead of Slovenia and Scotland. His RSL side has surged into the Top Six and looks to maintain playoff positioning over the final two matches.

MLS Snapshot: Red-hot RSL end Sounders’ unbeaten run at 13

Photo credit: Real Salt Lake / @RealSaltLake
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The game in 100 words (or less): With the Seattle Sounders’ 13-game unbeaten run now a thing of the past (and the final four of those games all draws), Real Salt Lake (two losses in their last two, including wins in four of their last five) might just be the hottest team in MLS not named Atlanta United (just one loss in their last 12, including wins in three of their last four; combined score: 17-3). Furthermore, Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Seattle at Rio Tinto Stadium boosts RSL into fifth place in the Western Conference, two points clear of the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo, as Mike Petke’s side makes this year’s improbable, late charge toward the MLS Cup Playoffs, in much the same fashion Brian Schmetzer’s Sounders did a year ago. Jefferson Savarino, who scored one and assisted one on Saturday, has proven himself a star on the rise in recent weeks, and has RSL playing their best soccer of the year at exactly the right time.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

52′ — Savarino slams home Rusnak’s pass for 1-0 — RSL have themselves an attacking trio (Savarino, Albert Rusnak and Brooks Lennon) that loves to play together, and that joy really shines brightly in moments like this.

66′ — Mulholland slams home from Savarino’s cross for 2-0 — Savarino turned provider just 15 minutes later, getting in behind Joevin Jones, corralling Joao Plata’s through ball, and picking out Mulholland atop the six-yard box.

92′ — Rimando makes a stunning save to deny Dempsey — Clint Dempsey tried to sneak a quick free kick past Nick Rimando, but the all-time greatest goalkeeper in MLS history was over it.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jefferson Savarino

Goalscorers: Savarino (52′), Mulholland (66′)

MLS Snapshot: RSL climb into playoff position with win over POR

Photo credit: MLS / @MLS
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The game in 100 words (or less): Look away, FC Dallas fans, because your six-week slide (winless in nine games, including five losses) has finally cost you one of the Western Conference’s top six places. If the season ended, and the playoffs started, today, the current Supporters’ Shield holders wouldn’t even be competing in the postseason. Currently taking their place, following Saturday’s 2-1 win over the second-place Portland Timbers, would be Real Salt Lake. With four wins from their last six games, Mike Petke’s team has settled on a system (4-2-3-1) and a lineup (Kyle Beckerman, flanked by Luke Mulholland, deep in midfield; Joao Plata and Jefferson Savarino either side of Albert Rusnak, the no. 10, and Luis Silva the lone striker leading the line) that’s picking up results and vaulting RSL up the standings on a weekly basis. Rusnak and Savarino (assisted by Rusnak) bagged the goals for RSL, nullifying Diego Valeri’s second-half equalizer, his eighth straight game with a goal scored to set a new MLS record.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — TFC’s Shield chase continues in LA ]

Three moments that mattered

14′ — Rusnak takes it himself, hammers home for 1-0 — Someone should probably consider stepping up to Rusnak, at some point, any point. Anybody.

47′ — Valeri heads his way into the record book — Of all 55 of Valeri’s regular-season goals, probably only two or three have been scored with his head, so of course he scores a record-breaking goal with his head.

61′ — Savarino sticks it upper-90 with authority — It’d be tough to hit one any more upper-90 than this one.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Albert Rusnak

Goalscorers: Rusnak (14′), Valeri (47′), Savarino (61′)

MLS roundup: Home sides roll in four midweek tilts

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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Home field advantage in Major League Soccer remains very real, and Houston Dynamo’s Jekyll and Hyde act home and away is just as authentic.

All that inside our wrap-up of a quartet of MLS matches played Wednesday, all but one inter-conference affairs.

Sporting KC 3-0 Seattle Sounders

Gerso Fernandes scored two goals in two minutes, his third and fourth of the season, right before the match turned an hour old. He added a third to complete his hat trick. Watch them all here.

Philadelphia Union 2-0 Houston Dynamo

Philly went eight matches without a win to start the season, but goals from Ilsinho and Fafa Picault have them unbeaten in five. The last three of those are wins, and Philly is rolling. Houston’s terrific home performances have been stung by their road work; The Dynamo are winless in six away from their Texas home.

Chicago Fire 3-0 Colorado Rapids

Nemanja Nikolic can ball, and the Fire’s big striker has 10 goals in 11 matches — including a brace on Wednesday — since arriving in MLS from UEFA Champions League side Legia Warsaw.

David Accam added a goal in the second half. Here’s Nikolic’s second.

Real Salt Lake 2-1 New York City FC

Sean Okoli struck in the fourth minute for his first MLS goal, but the visitors wouldn’t stay in front into halftime. Jefferson Savarino cued up Albert Rusnak for this well-hit equalizer in the 38th minute.

Rusnak later sent in a corner that Aaron Maund headed home to boost RSL to its first lead of the game.