MLS Season Preview: Ranking the top 10 forwards

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The countdown to the 2014 Major League Soccer season is ticking away and very shortly MLS will be back with a bang, as a spectacular season awaits.

We’ve been rolling out season previews of every team at PST and now it’s time to focus on each position and share who we think are the top 10 players.

LATEST 2014 MLS PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE

Let’s take a look at the best attackers in Major League Soccer as our season preview continues. With the league’s top scorer from last year gone, the field is wide open.

1. Marco Di Vaio

Let’s face it – at the end of the day, it’s a striker’s job to put up the numbers and keep the scoreboard ticking.  Last year, just two players were better than Montreal’s ageless wonder at putting the ball into the back of the net, and one of them is gone.  What the 37-year-old is doing is nothing new in his book; Di Vaio has 11 seasons in his 16-year career where he put up double-digit scoring totals, with many of those coming in European leagues.  Oh, and he’s done it in each of the last 5 season, all at the age of 32 and older. Add the fact that he’s by far the best player on his team, and it’s no wonder he tops this year’s list, despite stiff competition.

2. Robbie Keane

Despite a down year for the LA Galaxy as far as they are concerned, Robbie Keane helped his squad remain a force on the attack, one of six MLS teams to score over 50 goals last year – 27 of which came directly from his foot.  What makes the Irishman so dangerous is not only did he bag 16 goals last year, but he assisted 11 as well. It helps that his strike partner is also on this list, but at 33 Keane remains effective and lethal on the attacking end, and his ability to play a multifaceted game helps him climb our list.

3. Mike Magee

Like we said with Di Vaio, in the end all that matters is an ability to keep the scoreboard ticking, and Magee’s breakout year last season singlehandedly allowed the Chicago Fire to challenge for a playoff spot. They fell just short, but with a full season on Magee’s back, the Fire should be a serious contender for the final playoff positions in the East.  Don’t be surprised if his pure numbers fall, as he will be sure to attract added attention, but it will open up spaces for Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe, and the rest of his strike force.

4. Jermain Defoe

While his MLS canvas remains blank, the Toronto newcomer is a force at the front, and that is not debatable.  With his Spurs career petering out, Defoe had to make a switch, and he is ready to return to his form. His numbers from his final Spurs season are misleading, as any player’s form will dip sharply when forced into a reserve role.  Still, he managed a pair of impressive matches in his final two appearances at the club, scoring a goal off the bench against Crystal Palace.  He immediately becomes a marked man in Major League Soccer, and with a proven Premier League track record in his recent past, he has more than earned his place on the list.

5. Landon Donovan (Even though he was in the top 10 MF’s list too, LD is a proper ‘tweener’ so he made it)

Do we really need to explain Donovan’s presence in the MLS top 5? It’s a bit redundant at this point. 10 goals and seven assists last season in a down year, the important player in one of the league’s most prolific attacks, needs just one goal to set an all-time scoring record, yata yata yata, you know who he is. Next.

source: AP
Thierry Henry has been a fixture at Red Bull Arena, and the New York faithful can count on him to bag goals yet again.

6. Thierry Henry

In a list bursting at the seams with proven age, Henry tops the “body of work” category.  At 36, he’s still got it, and that’s not even up for debate.  Last year he bagged 10 goals and set up seven more, and let’s not forget this is the same guy who two years ago picked up two goals in 96 Premier League minutes for Arsenal in an emotional winter return.  One of the most purely skilled players in MLS, Henry looks to lead New York back to the Supporters Shield.

7. Chris Wondolowski

Wondo may not have the national team pedigree that Landon Donovan has, but in Major League Soccer, he’s just as deadly.  A busy summer for the USMNT in which the 31-year-old had his best go-around yet, it put a dent in his MLS production, with 11 goals marking his lowest league goal tally in the last four years.  But don’t think he’s slowing down – he played half the season broken foot. Suddenly those 11 goals don’t seem so mediocre. He’s a force.

8. Alvaro Saborio

Saborio gets lots of mentions as the most underrated, under-appreciated striker in MLS.  While that’s true, it’s largely because he doesn’t put up flashy numbers.  But in a RSL system that midfield solidity above all else, Saborio remains a consistent threat at the top.

9. Eddie Johnson

A set-piece machine, Eddie Johnson has found a new home in DC United’s rebuilding project. He’s streaky to say the least, but when Eddie Johnson’s on, he’s one of the best in the biz. He has a lot to be thankful for from his time with the Sounders, but with his new Designated Player contract, it had to be outside of Seattle. He’s ready to be the guy in DC.

10. Federico Higuain

He’s a flashy player, and while like the man above him the goals come in streaks, but there’s no doubt he’s the most important person in the Columbus squad. His numbers from last year rival those of Robbie Keane, with 11 goals and nine assists, and the best part about his assists total – his nine dishes were served up to six different teammates.  Higuain gets everyone involved, and it speaks volumes that he’s known for his assists and yet the Argentine’s 11 goals flew under the radar.

Honorable Mention:

I felt it necessary to add some names to this list even if they didn’t crack the top 10, because all those names up on the list – not surprisingly – are established strikers with proven track records.  However, there are players who remain just as important to their club – like Claudio Bieler, Blas Perez, and Obafemi Martins – who simply don’t have the numbers to crack the top 10. There’s Tim Cahill who falls not because of his skill or ability, but because he’s second fiddle in the strike pair with Thierry Henry. There are also a number of younger players such as Jack McInerney and Kekutah Manneh who haven’t shown the consistency to be a top striker but have all the talent in the world and could easily be here as soon as next year.

Finally, there’s one glaring miss on this list – Clint Dempsey. The American has shown not just poor, but horrific form since the latter part of the 2013 MLS season, and the 30-year-old has to prove his career isn’t tumbling down the stairs before he can return to the league’s elite. In both his final matches with Seattle and his loan stint at Fulham, Dempsey looked like he was running with shackles on his ankles, and he wasted most of the precious few chances he could muster.  He didn’t look much better in the friendly against Ukraine either, and it’s clear much work is left to be done for the forward from Nacogdoches.

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Solskjaer warns “could have been one of those nights” for Manchester United

Manchester United Solskjaer
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was clearly relieved after his dominant but wasteful Manchester United finally beat goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson and Copenhagen in extra time of their Europa League quarterfinal in Cologne.

“I think it was just one of those nights,” he said after the win. “I think we deserved to win, that’s clear, but they made it very hard for us.”

Johnsson made 13 saves as United out-attempted the minusM-1000 underdogs from Denmark by a 26-9 margin. The Red Devils blocked several Copenhagen chances in tight, making the Danes’ total of zero shots on target a bit deceiving.

[ RECAP: Manchester United 1-0 Copenhagen ]

“Their keeper was unbelievable and we hit the post a few times,” Solskjaer said. “It could have been one of those nights that you end up with a shootout. We had to block, defend well and they made it hard for us.”

But United was clearly the better team on the day, as expected. Juan Mata entered late in the game and was an influential sub in extra time.

He says the Red Devils were a bit beat up on a hot night in Germany.

“The team is quite tired physically,” Mata said. “At this stage of this season it is important to win games like today and we go through. We stay in Germany for quite some time and hopefully we can win.

“Both teams got a little tired and there were more spaces and more chances. They played some good football and credit to them. We could have scored more goals in extra time but we are through.”

United will meet either Sevilla or Wolves in a dynamite semifinal in one week.

Manchester United breaks through Copenhagen in extra time

Manchester United - Copenhagen
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Manchester United – Copenhagen: The Europa League’s biggest underdogs of the quarterfinals took the tournament favorites to extra time before succumbing 1-0 in Cologne.

Bruno Fernandes highlighted his Man of the Match performance by converting an Anthony Martial-won penalty in the 95th minute for Manchester United, the only way past Copenhagen’s terrific goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson.

But Fernandes gave United a scare, needing care for his hamstring at the final whistle.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Johnsson made 13 saves, seven from inside the box, to keep Copenhagen within a sucker punch of eliminating the Red Devils over 90 minutes.

Manchester United heads to Dusseldorf for an Aug. 17 semifinal against the winner of Tuesday’s tilt between Wolves and Sevilla.


Three things we learned

1. Copenhagen plays prime tournament soccer: The heaviest underdogs in the quarterfinals, Copenhagen executed a traditional 4-4-2 in a less-traditional low block for much of the match. The low block wasn’t the surprise, but instead of two banks of five, the rows of four with two men hassling up front challenged United for time and helped spring a number of dangerous counters. The Danes opened up in extra time after going behind, but taking it to extra time was more than many expected out of them.

2. VAR denies the Red Devils: A rout would’ve been on if this match was staged a year ago without VAR, as the assistant referee twice allowed United goals to go to video. Harry Maguire was offside before assisting the first would-be Red Devils goal, while Mason Greenwood was off before ripping a rocket off the far post and into the goal.

3. Bruno is a beast: Fernandes was everywhere, cueing up his teammates for chances when he wasn’t smashing them off the frame in a bid to win it himself. The Portuguese playmaker registered three key passes, put three of his five shots on target, and won the majority of his duels on top of scoring the game’s lone goal (SofaScore). Now United must hope his late leg injury was just a product of 120 minutes and nothing major.

Man of the Match

Fernandes, and yes we had him here before he smashed his penalty home. Fernandes is now the Europa League’s leading scorer with seven goals between Sporting Lisbon and United.


Manchester United – Copenhagen recap

United has plenty of the ball in the first 10 minutes but Copenhagen provided legitimate danger that Eric Bailly managed in his own six.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka blocked a cross with his face and needed treatment, looking quite dazed before returning to the game.

Another Copenhagen chance was blocked in the six by Bailly (again), who proved a wise choice over Victor Lindelof.

VAR had a look at an early United goal and rightly chalked Harry Maguire offside in the build-up. And it took Mason Greenwood’s hammer off the far post off the board for offside early in stoppage time.

Copenhagen was in it at the break. Would United pay?

[ MORE: Lukaku leads Inter past Bayer Leverkusen ]

The early stages of the second half remained with the Red Devils, Copenhagen parking all its men behind the ball at times.

Rashford flubbed a chance to shoot or pass to Paul Pogba when Bruno Fernandes spotted him at the back post just after the hour mark.

Fernandes tried his luck from distance in the 63rd, ripping a shot off the far post.

Ex-Everton man Bryan Oviedo nearly put Copenhagen ahead in the 66th only to see Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Bailly clog his shooting lane after Rasmus Falk dazzled to get into the box.

Karl-Johan Johnsson made a flying save on Anthony Martial to force an 84th-minute corner that came to nothing for United.

Johnsson denied Martial again in-tight at the start of stoppage time, but the high was short-lived as the Frenchman was dropped in the box moments later.

Fernandes stepped to the spot and used a stuttering run-up before blasting his penalty home.

Martial nearly had it 2-0 after the restart when he dribbled through the Copenhagen 18 but took it himself instead of laying off to Juan Mata in what would’ve been a fairly straight-forward chance for the Spaniard.

Johnsson denied Fernandes at the end of the first 15 minutes of extra time, United unfortunate to not score on the ensuing corner when Mata’s shot was blocked to Lindelof, who fired off the outside of the post.

Lindelof made a fine intervention to block a close-range equalizer bid in the 116th.

Inter Milan rides early goals past Bayer Leverkusen

Inter Milan - Bayer Leverkusen
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While Manchester United and Copenhagen played chess across the country, Inter Milan and Bayer Leverkusen were staging double jumps all over a checkerboard in Dusseldorf.

Romelu Lukaku and Nicolo Barella scored twice in six first-half minutes before Kai Havertz answered in the 24th to account for all the goals in Inter’s 2-1 defeat of Bayer.

Lukaku has scored in nine-straight UEL matches, a new record.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Inter now waits for an Aug. 16 semifinal in Cologne, where it will meet the winner of Tuesday’s match between Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk

Bayer now must settle for the Europa League again via its fifth-place finish in the Bundesliga.

The three goals in the nine minutes were highlighted by Lukaku doing his best “Harry Kane versus Leicester City” falling down finish.

Nicola Barella put Inter ahead after a quarter-hour when he made the most of a loose ball outside the 18.

A Manchester United connection saw Inter ahead by two when Ashley Young found Romelu Lukaku and the Belgian striker maintained his composure while being dragged to the ground, beating Lukas Hradecky with a low shot.

Kai Havertz and Kevin Volland’s interplay near the box ended with the transfer rumor mainstay slipping a shot home to bring Bayer back within one.

Lukaku had penalty decisions taken off the board by VAR in each half.

Who’s next for Manchester United if Sancho stays at Dortmund?

Chiesa to Manchester United
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The transfer rumor mill is usually buzzing this time of year, but it’s nearly a cacophony following Michael Zorc’s announcement that Jadon Sancho will be staying at Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Reports say Manchester United is not quitting on the idea of Sancho at Old Trafford, but here are some other targets if the Red Devils have to look away from the English phenom.

Federico Chiesa, Fiorentina

Linked with United for some time including a Monday nod from Football-Italia, Chiesa’s approximately $80 million price tag is high but half of what Dortmund is asking for Sancho.

The versatile playmaker has often been linked with Juventus, though Fiorentina is loathe to do business with The Old Lady unless absolutely necessary after big sales of Roberto Baggio and Federico Bernardeschi to Juve in the past.

The 22-year-old already has 17 Italian caps and scored 10 goals with six assists for La Viola this season in Serie A play, career bests in both.

Douglas Costa, Juventus

This one could become even more feasible if Juve latched onto Chiesa.

Juve desperately needs to get younger and Costa doesn’t figure to fit into the plans of Andrea Pirlo, a month away from his 30th birthday.

Costa works better on the right side and would be a worker bee looking to set up Rashford and Martial or cut back for Bruno Fernandes. He boasts double-digit assist seasons in the Bundesliga (Bayern), Serie A (Juve), and Ukraine (Shakhtar Donetsk).

TURIN, ITALY – MAY 19: Douglas Costa (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Raul Jimenez, Wolves

This one still feels like a long shot of long shots given the players’ age and status at Wolves, but the El Tri star has been linked with United in the past.

Jimenez doesn’t solve the wing issue presented by Sancho staying at BVB, and you’d fancy the Red Devils to go after one of Wolves’ wingers before Jimenez.

But Solskjaer enjoys Marcus Rashford at left wing and could use Anthony Martial at right wing a bit more often than center forward. Throw in Mason Greenwood and the boss would have a lot of permutations to use around Bruno Fernandes in a front three or four.

Ivan Perisic, Inter Milan

Mentioned as part of a swap deal for Alexis Sanchez, that’s less on the cards after the Chilean accepted a Man United payoff to move to Inter for free.

The 31-year-old favors the left wing and Inter would be happy to offload him after Bayern declined its option to buy the loanee who managed seven goals and 10 assists in just over 1600 minutes.

That’s pretty good output for a part-time player who kept some tread on the tires.

Perisic to Manchester United
MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JULY 15: Ivan Perisic of Croatia (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

James Rodriguez, Real Madrid

If you’re sensing a thread amongst most of these players, it’s no surprise considering United has a wage scale to meet the needs of many wantaways.

Real desperately wants to get something for Colombian star James, who at 29 played less than 800 minutes for La Liga’s champions this season.

His two-year loan stint at Bayern also saw him as a part-time player, but like Perisic a productive one. James scored 15 times with 20 assists over two seasons with the Bavarians.

Kingsley Coman, Bayern Munich

This would cost a lot of dough.

The 24-year-old has been a part of nine-straight league winners between Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, and Bayern.

Okay that’s cheating a bit considering his Ligue 1 crowns came off a handful of appearances over two seasons at the Parc des Princes.

But the left and right winger might be on for a change of scenery with Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane set to dominate the preferential places at Bayern.