New York Red Bulls (2012) vs. D.C. United (1998)

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Steve took his stand this morning in what should be a heated debate (once Tim Cahill settles into the New York Red Bulls’ lineup). Which is the most talented team in MLS history? If New York plays to their talent level, they may eventually throw their hat into the best team of all-time debate.

(MORE: New York and Seattle upping the ante on designated players)

It’s an important distinction: Talented versus best. When LA Galaxy were being touted as the best team of all-time after last November’s title, nobody was nominating them for most talented. As Steve pointed out, they had their full allotment of designated players, but their depth was dependent on role players woven together by Bruce Arena That doesn’t necessarily make them any less of a team. It just changes the conversation.

The subject of talented teams was on my mind when I visited Montreal Impact practice late last week. With the Tim Cahill move just announced, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to Jesse Marsch, who played for D.C. United from 1996 to 1997 before moving on to MLS Cup-winning Chicago in 1998. He got a first-hand view of two of the league’s great teams. Did New York’s collection of talent bring back any memories?

Like the coach that he’s become, Marsch brought it back to the field. The challenge was bringing all the talent together, he said (while not taking a stand on New York’s talent). The exchange reminded me that the most talented debate can be a tricky one. For many, talent can’t be separated from results. If you win, you’re talented. If you don’t, you’re not.

I can’t help, however, comparing this New York team to the squad filed in my mind under “Most Talented, MLS (all-time)”: The D.C. United teams that won three of the first four league titles.

Below, I’ve compared the teams position-for-position. D.C. acquits itself quite well, though as we see at the end, Steve is probably on to something.

Thinking of the devil’s advocate, I’ve used D.C.’s 1998 team – the one team in the four year span that didn’t win MLS Cup. The players are roughly the same as D.C.’s title-winning teams.

Goalkeepers

D.C. United: Scott Garlick
New York Red Bulls: Ryan Meara

Garlick was a journeyman goalkeeper who broke in to MLS in 1997. He would go on to play for Tampa Bay, Colorado, Dallas, and Salt Lake before retiring in 2007. Though he won an MLS Cup in his first season (making eight saves in the final), his career followed an unfortunate pattern of being (a) acquired, (b) installed as the starter, (c) beaten out for the starting job, and (d) traded.

Advantage: Incomplete (Meara’s still too new to pass judgment on)

Defense

D.C. United: Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos, Tony Sanneh, Carlos Llamosa, Carey Talley
New York Red Bulls: Wilman Conde, Heath Pearce, Markus Holgersson, Jan Gunnar Solli, Roy Miller

Eddie Pope continues to be one of the more underrated players the United States has ever produced. He’s joined by three other U.S. internationals along with another player (Talley) who’d play 13 years in the league.

New York has two very good players accompanied by some complementary pieces.

Advantage: D.C. United

Midfield

D.C. United: Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes, Ben Olsen, Richie Williams
New York Red Bulls: Rafa Marquez, Tim Cahill, Sebastien Le Toux, Teemu Tainio, Dax McCarty, Joel Lindpere

If people don’t remember how good Pope was, they sure don’t remember much about Etcheverry. Perhaps that’s because Bolivia’s no longer a factor on the international scene (I don’t know) but while in the States, the guy was the best player on teams that won three MLS Cups, two Supporters’ Shields, and a CONCACAF title. He was named all MLS in each of the league’s first four seasons, won an MVP, and was named to the league’s all-decade team in 2005 … and I still can’t decide if this resumé understates his talent (Bolivia hasn’t threatened to make a World Cup since he retired).

But even with Etcheverry’s talent, New York is just too deep. Two Premier League players, one Barcelona star, and a former MVP candidate? It’s the type of collection the league hasn’t seen since it’s early days of stacked rosters.

Advantage: New York

Forwards

D.C. United: Roy Lassiter, Jamie Moreno, Roy Wegerle
New York Red Bulls: Thierry Henry, Kenny Cooper

Roy Lassiter and Jamie Moreno’s MLS accomplishments speak for themselves. One holds the single-season record for goals. The other is second on the all-time list. Neither, however, had the talent of Thierry Henry, one of a handful of world class players Major League Soccer’s been able to recruit. In midfield, New York had the depth to overwhelm Etcheverry. In attack, Henry is partner makes their comparison to D.C. United an uneven one.

Advantage: New York

I admit: Part of the reason I did this was to offer a counter point. “Most talented ever,” I asked myself when I saw Steve’s headline. Surely Bruce Arena’s teams were being under-appreciated.

Perhaps I’m nostalgic for those first years of MLS when my collegiate naivete thought the league would explode. Perhaps, from near 4,000 miles away, I always built United up to be a juggernaut. Perhaps, back when there was still a fleck of momentum from the 1994 World Cup, I wanted things to be bigger than they were. I want those early D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago teams to match my nostalgia.

After looking at it player for player, I can’t help but side with Steve. Despite greater transparency making today’s roster, spending limits more difficult to transcend, New York has assembled a squad that is (at least) as talented as the league’s legends.

Now, as Jesse Marsch said, it’s about bringing the team together on the field.

Got a more talented team in mind than the late-90s United squads? Hey, that’s what the comments are for.