Kicking the can on possible Best XI midfielders

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Steve rose to my challenge. Now, I rise to his. At least, I plan to kick this can down the road, adding a little more to the conversation about which midfielders should in the picture for MLS’s Best XI.

First, let’s recap. Yesterday, after hearing Patrice Bernier had been named August’s Player of the Month, I tweeted a hope that people would start discussing his Best XI chances. (Good thing we have a blog, right?) Was I endorsing Bernier for a spot? No, but ever since I spending some time in Montreal, I’ve been trying to dissuade myself of the notion that Bernier’s one of the league’s best midfielders. Now, I’ve stopped trying, convinced my conclusion is more Bernier’s play than soe kind of temporary proximity bias.

But as Steve noted, Bernier’s path won’t be easy. There are three major obstacles: Competition, team selection, and Montreal’s finish.

As Charles van Doren would say, I’d like to take the first part last.

Team Selection

This is a major problem not only for Bernier, but for Osvaldo Alonso, Kyle Beckerman, and any other midfielder who doesn’t make their name with numbers. Because of the way the Best XI works (chosen asa  3-5-2), it’s far too easy for somebody who is essentially a forward to be slotted into a midfield role, leaving true midfielders to compete for spots against guys putting up double-digit goals. For a player like Dwayne De Rosario, there’s justification for that, though the problem’s compounded when you have multiple DeRo-esque players and no mandate to choose a true midfielder (let alone a deep-sitting one, which almost everybody employs).

Players like DeRo, Chris Pontius, Graham Zusi, perhaps Landon Donovan (a forward-only this year) – they’re all going to be problematic. Players like Mauro Rosales and Javier Morales deserve some love, but they’re attack-only players. They really don’t play the same position (or, style) as Bernier and the other, more typical midfielders. While Beckerman and Bernier also serve different purposes, they’re in the same conversation.

As last year’s reminds us, numbers still matter. A lot. Every player in last year’s midfield was among the leaders in goals or assists (Beckham, Davis, De Rosario, Donovan, Shea). Whether he deserves a spot or not, Bernier’s going to be a tough task both (a) beating out the other central midfielders, and (b) not be displaced by the numbers guys.

Montreal’s finish

This is where Steve and I part ways. Most voters are going to factor in team finish. I think it’s fundamentally unfair when voting on an individual award. Making a team’s finish a significant part of an individual’s evaluation distort’s a single player’s influence on the game (while minimizing his teammates’ contributions). “Yeah, but where did his team finish” implies that had he wanted to, the player alone could have willed his team to victory most nights of the season.

At the high school level, a player can have that kind of impact. In Major League Soccer, that’s an unfair standard. That’s not how this league works, but unfortunately, it’s logic that will adversely affect any Montreal player. If the Impact don’t make the playoffs, Bernier won’t be Best XI, whether he deserves it or not.

(Another lesson from last year is that numbers can trump team performance. De Rosario played with three teams while winning Most Valuable Player.)

Competition

Osvaldo Alonso is an obvious choice. Will he make the team? Given he somehow didn’t make last year’s, it’d be foolish to say yes. But it’s hard to imagine a world where Bernier makes the team and not Alonso. If people are going to look beyond the numbers, Alonso’s guaranteed a spot.

After that, there’s a cluster of three: Kyle Beckerman, Roger Espinoza and Bernier. Even if you throw team-centric factors out the window, it will be hard for Bernier to displace either of those guys – players who have spent most of the year being evaluated by Best XI standards. As a result, people are comfortable with the idea that they might be Best XI-worthy.

Bernier’s late to the conversation. When people cast there votes at season’s end, some will have already made up their minds. Others will not have had enough time to think about the new guy.

There are also some wild cards that will influence the conversation. Dax McCarty will get a lot of love, even if his effort is outpacing the results. David Beckham’s coming on. Oscar Boniek Garcia and Federico Higuain will pull some votes, despite not playing full seasons. Garcia’s teammate, Brad Davis, is also a factor.

And don’t forget the attackers – the players whose numbers will earn them spots on the team (perhaps deservedly so).

Patrice Bernier deserves to be in this conversation, but it’s highly unlikely he’s making Best XI. His performance may not be far from the standards of Alonso, Espinoza, and Beckerman, but most of those guys will be on the outside looking in, too. Given the dynamics of picking MLS’s five-man midfield, it’d be pleasant surprise to see any of those four in the all-league team.