Photo credit: Real Salt Lake / @RealSaltLake

MLS roundup: ATL roll past Galaxy; RSL survive 10-man Rapids

Leave a comment

A roundup of, plus a few quick thoughts about, all of Saturday’s action from around MLS…

[ MORE: Other MLS Things — The Archive ]

LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta UnitedFULL HIGHLIGHTS

Two teams with fantastic attacking talent but very little in terms of a strong, controlling midfield presence — you’d expect a game like that to be wide open with plenty of chances at both ends of the field, and you’d have been right about Atlanta’s 2-0 victory over LA (at least for the opening 45 minutes. The stark difference between the two sides on Saturday? Atlanta’s ability to turn shooting chances into scoring chances, and LA’s inability to do so.

In truth, the chance resulting in the Five Stripes’ opening goal, which also turned out to be the winner, was the scrappiest once of the bunch.

Miguel Almiron was sensational on the night — constantly on the ball in dangerous areas, constantly gliding past one and two white shirts, constantly winning free kicks (and a penalty) in those dangerous areas. Since suffering a 4-0 defeat on opening day, Tata Martino’s side is unbeaten in their last six games (five wins) and moved to within a point of Eastern Conference- and Supporters’ Shield-leading New York City FC.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was rendered completely ineffective and he — dare I say it — was little more than a passenger for the vast majority of Saturday’s game. Jonathan dos Santos picked up an injury during warmups, forcing Baggio Husidic into the starting lineup, and that did LA no favors when it came time to slow Atlanta’s momentum through the center of the field (which was the entire game).

Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England RevolutionFULL HIGHLIGHTS

If you had New England sitting above Columbus in the standings at any point this season, let alone after eight weeks, please proceed to the cash-out window immediately. Brad Friedel‘s bunch has played some pretty passable, if unexciting, soccer thus far and have picked up points in five of their seven games played. They’ve even won four points from their first three games away from home, which is two-thirds of the way to matching last season’s paltry haul of six.

Saturday’s 2-2 draw in Columbus saw the Revs come from behind twice to secure a well-earned and deserved point. Cristian Penilla has flown under the radar with regard to impact signings of the offseason — the Ecuadorian has two goals, including the stoppage-time equalizer on Saturday, and four assists in his first seven MLS games — and Diego Fagundez appears to have finally been handed the keys to the Revs’ attack with Lee Nguyen banished to the periphery (but still not traded away).

Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado RapidsFULL HIGHLIGHTS

Tim Howard was sent off after 20 minutes for handling the ball outside his penalty area — how great is that multi-million-dollar contract looking now? — yet Colorado so nearly held on for an away point against their Rocky Mountain Cup rivals. Alas, RSL scored three times in the final eight minutes of regular and stoppage time, helping the final score to match the lopsided nature of the preceding 60 minutes:

29 shots (10 on target), compared to just 12 (o on target) for Colorado; nearly 71 percent of possession; 571 passes, to just 228. The lopsidedness goes on and on.

Albert Rusnak scored a stunning free kick to complete the scoring, but was still upstaged by Damir Kreilach’s first MLS goal which came just three minutes earlier.

RSL have alternated wins and losses in each of their last six times out, which spells bad news for a suddenly important Friday night trip to Vancouver to face a Whitecaps side that 1) they beat at home earlier this month, and 2) has lost three straight, by a combined score of 10-1.

Elsewhere in MLS

Sporting KC 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union

Three things: VAR blunders; LAFC’s flaw; RBNY’s kids

AP Photo/Julio Cortez
1 Comment

Another Saturday full of MLS action is in the books. Here are three things we learned today…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Defending is MLS has been… well, we’ll just say, not great through two weeks, but that’s resulted in tons of goals — some great, some pretty comedic — if not the highest possible quality of soccer.

[ MORE: MLS 2018 season previews ]

A bonus point, right off the top, for maximum visibility…

VAR is… struggling… still

If video-assistant refereeing has been implemented to correct “clear and obvious errors” by a referee, what’s the point of spending all the money required to operate VAR if you’re not even going to have a look at what will likely go down as the most egregiously blown call of the season — even including those that are reviewed and corrected?

Let’s very quickly review the possible offside offenses in the build-up to the above goal: Steven Beitashour is only offside, but far enough offside that consulting the video replay would pretty clearly confirm he’s offside by a foot or more; Latif Blessing’s entire body is ahead of the ball, though the assistant referee’s view of the diminutive Ghanaian is obstructed by Beitashour and/or goalkeeper Nick Rimando — this is understandable, but also precisely the situation for which VAR was invented. If any of the four referees are unable to make the correct call for any variety of reasons in a moment that is truly game-changing (that’s their criteria), VAR is a simple solution.

Whether the center ref must currently choose to look at the replay on his own accord or at the behest of his video assistant, there should be a mandatory viewing of the replay if the video assistant indicates a clear and obvious error has occurred. No center ref should possess the power to wave away his assistant’s advice. If this is what occurred between Baldomero Toledo and Juan Guzman Jr., Toledo shouldn’t take charge of another MLS game for a good, long while.

RSL would have remained level with Los Angeles FC at 1-1 had Toledo spent two seconds looking at the footage, and the game could have played out very differently.

On the game’s other questionable refereeing decision (WATCH HERE), your periodic reminder that contact with an opponent isn’t required to have committed a foul:

Expansion teams no longer look like expansion teams

Speaking of LAFC — all VAR controversies notwithstanding — they were simply irresistible and downright unplayable at times during their 5-1 rout of RSL to collect their second away win (over legitimate MLS Cup contenders) in as games as they’ve played in team history.

Diego Rossi has three goals in two games (to go with three assists, meaning he assisted on every goal he didn’t score on Saturday); Carlos Vela bagged his first goal in MLS; Marco Ureña is far more dynamic and versatile than anyone could have known; and Latif Blessing has proven a game-discombobulating livewire. It’s all coming up Bob Bradley‘s boys these days.

However, tonight I’d like to note that RSL weren’t without ample opportunity to put up four or five goals of their own. It was something of a cakewalk through the heart of LAFC’s midfield for Albert Rusnak, Jefferson Savarino and Joao Plata, and had RSL’s composure been a bit higher in and around the penalty area, this game would have blown away the insanity that was Chicago Fire 3-4 Sporting Kansas City. The likes of Ola Kamara, Mauro Manotas and Josef Martinez will feast upon these chances.

Benny Feilhaber is a supremely talented player who also happens to be 33 years old and has never (successfully) played as part of a deeper midfield-two — a role which requires a ton of defensive work, positional discipline and a fair bit recovery speed and instincts — and Mark-Anthony Kaye is a 23-year-old rookie with 180 minutes of pro experience under his belt playing alongside Feilhaber. Laurent Ciman is fantastic at center back, which is great, because he’s going to have to be if Bradley persists without a veteran defensive midfielder to protect Ciman and Walker Zimmerman/Dejan Jakovic.

Who really runs New York?

The commonly accepted belief coming into the season was that New York City FC were the vastly superior side from the Empire/Garden States, that they were the ones with the chance to knock Toronto FC off their Eastern Conference perch. That’s likely still very true, but you might just be able to put Jesse Marsch’s New York Red Bulls right alongside them.

After impressing in CONCACAF Champions League play midweek, the Baby Bulls (eight starters under the age of 25, and six under 23) rotated their lineup and destroyed the Portland Timbers in their league opener on Saturday, to the tune of 4-0. 17-year-old Ben Mines, 23-year-old Carlos Rivas (times two) and old man (32 — being facetious here) Bradley Wright-Phillips, who came off the bench, scored the goals. Play your kids, indeed.

23-year-old playmaker Alejandro “Kaku” Romero, for whom the Red Bulls paid more than $6 million this winter, made his MLS debut and tallied his first assist in the process. And still, Vincent Bezecourt (24) and Sean Davis (25) were arguably the best players on the field, as they terrorized Diego Valeri and Co. to the tune of 9 tackles won, 4 interceptions, 21 recoveries and 4 clearances, while Valeri, the reigning MVP, completed just three passes inside the final third.

Portland, it should be said, are completely and hopelessly lost without Diego Chara on the field.

Sporting KC built for the road (again)

The first two weeks of the season have a couple things abundantly clear for Sporting Kansas City fans: there’s no playmaking no. 10 to speak of on the roster, and they’re still seeking more any contributions from their starting striker. Also: the midfield is exhausting to watch — let alone play against — but that’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation for a Peter Vermes-coached team.

Felipe Gutierrez has, in 180 minutes, shown himself to be a cut above most any opposition midfielder he’ll come up against this season. The Chilean international was Sporting’s lone bright spot in last week’s 2-0 loss to NYCFC and followed up his strong debut with a pair of goals, including the game-winner four minutes from full-time, against Chicago on Saturday. An elite level of defensive industry was expected, and Gutierrez has delivered.

Where he lacks, of course, is the part of the game where he’s required to see, and play, the final ball into the box. He is, after all, an all-action no. 8 and a semi-regular fixture for Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile — so, again, what do you expect? Gutierrez was the late-arriving third or fourth man into the box on just about every occasion Sporting managed to hold up play and create a chance from inside 20 yards.

For this reason, among others, Sporting are fantastically assembled to meet opponents head-first like a battering ram away from home, when there’s a bit more space to play into and a willing combatant — they thrived in moments of chaos against Chicago, particularly the cool heads of Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi. At home, though, they’re going to struggle once again when visiting sides sit inside their own defensive third and force Sporting to break them down.

MLS 2018 Roundtable: Winners, scorers, and the big picture

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
Leave a comment

There are a lot of questions ahead of the debut of MLS 2018, subtitled Operation Barco, or Save The Crew, or Toronto Lives Long Enough To Become The Villain.

[ MORE: Predicting the MLS standings ]

Let’s get right to 15 questions with five of our encouraged staffers.

1. Who wins the Supporters Shield?

  • Andy Edwards: Real Salt Lake — Too much talent from 1-20, arguably the hottest team to finish the 2017 regular season, and I’m all-in on Mike Petke being one of the five best coaches in MLS. If Alfredo Ortuño can get even 10 goals this year, to go with the production of fellow starters Albert Rusnak, Joao Plata, Jefferson Savarino… watch out.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Toronto FC. Another dominant season coming up as TFC’s dynasty has another chapter.
  • Matt Reed: Toronto FC. Sorry for the lack of creativity, but they’ve still got the best roster in MLS and been to MLS Cup each of the last two years. Hard to pick against them.
  • Dan Karell: The defending champs are back and better than ever, and in the still weak Eastern Conference, they can run away with the league again.
  • Nick Mendola: It’s hard to go against TFC, especially with Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco free of summer international commitments. I think that makes the stresses of the CONCACAF Champions League focus, which could put TFC on the Club World Cup stage, less of a problem.
2. Who wins the US Open Cup (imagine predicting this correctly)?
  • Andy Edwards: Red Bulls
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Chicago Fire. Because, why not?
  • Matt Reed: Sporting KC because even though they aren’t the best team on paper, they always seem to find magic in this competition. Also, they’re one of the few clubs
  • Dan Karell: Chivas USA? Kidding. But let’s just say it’s the Seattle Sounders.
  • Nick Mendola: Sporting KC. Always.
3. Top seeds in the East and West
  • Andy Edwards: Toronto and Real Salt Lake
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Toronto and Seattle
  • Matt Reed: Toronto and Portland
  • Dan Karell: Toronto and FC Dallas
  • Nick Mendola: Toronto and Vancouver
4. First team out in the East and West
  • Andy Edwards: D.C. United and Houston Dynamo — DCU will be the most improved team in the league, and the new-stadium boon will be very real for them, but the East is really good and really deep.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Philadelphia Union in the East. Colorado Rapids in the West.
  • Matt Reed: New England Revolution and San Jose Earthquakes
  • Dan Karell: New York Red Bulls and LAFC
  • Nick Mendola: Philadelphia and San Jose.
5. Most goals
  • Andy Edwards: Ola Kamara. The service he’s going to get from the like of the Cuatro Santos, Romain Alessandrini and Sebastian Lletget (remember him?) is going to be unfair.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Sebastian Giovinco will probably rip it up once again this season. If he doesn’t score at least 20 goals I’d be hugely surprised. David Villa will be there and I think Nemanja Nikolic will be right up there too.
  • Matt Reed: Ola Kamara
  • Dan Karell: Ola Kamara
  • Nick Mendola: Hate to make this a 4/5 situation, but Ola should really feast. The only way he misses out is if the LA goals are spread evenly between GDS, Alessandrini, and others.
6. Most assists
  • Andy Edwards: Romain Alessandrini
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Probably Giovinco too, although I expect Sacha Kljestan and Carlos Vela to be high up in terms of assists too.
  • Matt Reed: Miguel Almiron
  • Dan Karell: Sebastian Giovinco
  • Nick Mendola: Victor Vazquez
7. Will a coach be fired in season, and who’s the favorite?
  • Andy Edwards: Carl Robinson — Despite where Vancouver finished last season, it felt like they were massively overachieving all year long, and some of the underlying numbers back that up. I don’t trust Robinson to unleash the likes of Yordy Reyna, Cristian Techera, Kei Kamara and Alphonso Davies and allow them to the freedom they need on the attack.
  • Matt Reed: I think at least one manager will be fired, however, with all the turnover that occurred in 2017 there may be a little more room for managers to work with this season. Adrian Heath would be the leader in the clubhouse though. It’s certainly not fair to put the second-year Loons coach on the hot seat, but after his side gave up 70 goals a season ago and defensive improvements don’t appear on the horizon, there could very well be a repeat of the club’s troubles at the back in 2018.
  • Dan Karell: I don’t think so, but if one would be fired, it’s Adrian Heath at Minnesota.
  • Nick Mendola: Normally I’d suspect FC Dallas’ boss could be in trouble given the tumult there, but Oscar Pareja is well-liked there. Then there’s Adrian Heath, but the club did okay the trade for his son. I love Ben Olsen, but is patience thin if DC doesn’t sort it out at the new building? Fact of the matter is I don’t believe any coach is in imminent danger. Forced to select: Heath.
8. Which “outsider” is the most intriguing hire: Anthony Hudson at Colorado, Brad Friedel at New England, Mikael Stahre at San Jose, Remi Garde at Montreal, Giovanni Savarese at Portland?
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
  • Andy Edwards: It’s gotta be Savarese for me, because with all due respect to the other organizations mentioned, none of them offer the same kind of resources — or come with the kind of expectations — as Portland. Anytime that job — or Seattle, or Toronto, or Atlanta — comes open, it’s instantly the most interesting story in the league, for me.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Brad Friedel at New England is the most intriguing. Having spoken to him during his time in the Premier League, you always felt he was made for management. Years of prep will see him slot in seamlessly.
  • Matt Reed: Definitely Friedel because of his lack of coaching experience. Outside of managing youth USMNT teams there’s really no track record for the former goalkeeper, and with the Revolution coming off of two consecutive seasons without playoff appearances and a tricky Lee Nguyen situation, Friedel has his work cut out for him.
  • Dan Karell: To me it’s Gio Savarese. We have players making the jump from the USL or NASL to MLS, but a manager making that jump is rare. It will be fascinating to see how he does in Portland.
  • Nick Mendola: I could make a case for any of the above besides Freidel, but only because I don’t like to go with the crowd. Savarese is fascinating, I like that word use by Dan. He’s been incredible for the Cosmos, but they spent a ton. On the other hand, I’ve developed a Caleb Porter bias and believe Portland was too unsteady given its talent and has offloaded an enigma in Darlington Nagbe. Anthony Hudson, however, is a terrific story and could really bring something special to Colorado.
9. What is Major League Soccer’s biggest challenge right now?
  • Andy Edwards: Finding minutes for young Americans, given the mass influx of foreign players on TAM deals ($500,000 to $1.5 million). With the majority of teams now a decade into owning and operating their own academies, now should be the time where they reap the rewards of all that time money. But, instead, young Americans are buried on just about every depth chart around the league.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Being able to give the young American and Canadian players a chance to shine given the influx of higher caliber players due to TAM. That is a huge challenge for MLS moving forward.
  • Matt Reed: For intense fans there’s no doubt that MLS provides an entertaining and quality soccer atmosphere, but it’s keeping the casual supporters intrigued over the course of a 10-month season that has become an issue for the league. One of the biggest challenges for MLS has become scheduling during the latter part of the season. The playoffs are exciting, but the gap that traditionally occurs due to the FIFA international window in November is a killer for any momentum that the league sustains come the postseason. The league needs to find a way to shorten the season slightly so that it doesn’t have to compete with these breaks because the product on the field is actually quite good, and improving on a yearly basis.
  • Dan Karell: On a macro level, it’s continuing to grow television viewership and getting people outside of MLS markets to watch games. On a micro or more short-term level, it’s continuing to raise the level of competition so MLS clubs can actually compete with their Liga MX counterparts.
  • Nick Mendola: Perception. Worldwide, the league is appreciated for its growth. Domestically, the distance between fan boys and those making money from the league and those who want to eviscerate the league at every turn betrays the many of us very much in the middle. Extremists, man (and woman).
10. What is its biggest success?
  • Andy Edwards: They’ve convinced every prospective expansion city that they need MLS more than MLS needs them, when, in fact, MLS is really just desperately chasing those nine-figure expansion fees.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Atlanta United were a great addition last season and you get the sense LAFC will have a big impact on the league this season, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. For all of the talk about promotion and relegation, you can’t argue with the fact that MLS has got its expansion teams spot on in recent seasons.
  • Matt Reed: The league’s ability to expand the Designated Player rule to three players per club has become massive. What was once seen as an opportunity for teams to bring in aging and “over the hill” players, DPs are now getting younger and more talented. Clubs have really honed in on foreign talent, particularly in South America, which has improved the overall quality of play drastically.
  • Dan Karell: I think at this point the biggest success is just lasting 23 years and continuing to grow year on year.
  • Nick Mendola: I believe Andy’s answer is worth rereading, agree or disagree, just for the giggles. But perception is huge: MLS has convinced enough people that USMNT prospects can succeed just as well here than accepting challenges at prominent 100-plus year old clubs. That’s mostly insane to me.
11. Are USMNT players still getting booed/rough receptions this summer?
  • Andy Edwards: Probably. Fans gonna be fans.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Probably to start the season, then a little lull, then around the World Cup I think it builds up again. Unfortunately as senior USMNT players, the likes of Bradley and Altidore will have to deal with the stigma of the 2018 failure for the rest of their careers. Fact.
  • Matt Reed: There will be a few stragglers here and there, but the overall animosity towards the players should subside by then.
  • Dan Karell: I think by June people will be apathetic and over it, but in the first few weeks of the season, I could definitely see some players getting booed. And it’s well deserved. It’s still hard to believe that ever happened.
  • Nick Mendola: Yup. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some fan bases, like USMNT-failure free Portland, come up with some golden chants. It’s a World Cup summer without the U.S., and it’s going to be weird. I don’t dig on the booing but there will be some entertainment in it.
12. Is Atlanta or New York City a bigger threat to Toronto? Or is someone else?
  • Andy Edwards: It’s one of the New York teams. I might actually be leaning toward the Red Bulls.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: I like Orlando’s rebuild a lot but I think Atlanta will make a deep run with Toronto, but injuries have to be kind to Tata Martino’s side this season. New York City FC will always be in the conversation with David Villa’s goals, but they have to shore up defensively and losing Jack Harrison is a blow.
  • Matt Reed: Atlanta was arguably talented enough to win the cup last season, and I could very easily see them taking the next step in 2018. Another team to watch out for is the New York Red Bulls, who will have a loaded attack of their own after adding Marc Rzatkowski and Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra.
  • Dan Karell: If Ezequiel Barco can quickly adapt to the U.S. culture and the MLS style of play, then yes, Atlanta could be a threat. But don’t count out Orlando City after all the moves made during the offseason. If that team can gel together, watch out.
  • Nick Mendola: Atlanta, if only because if Tata Martino did what he did with no MLS experience, imagine what’s in store for this year.
13. Who’s the most complete Cascadia Cup team?
  • Andy Edwards: Seattle, but that changes with one injury to either Chad Marshall or Roman Torres.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: I am intrigued by the Portland Timbers this season, but I think the Sounders have the edge, even without Jordan Morris.
  • Matt Reed: The loss of Jordan Morris for the season is a big one for the Sounders. They’ll still be in the thick of things for West this season, but I really like what Portland has done with its roster. Bringing in players like Andy Polo, Cristhian Paredes and Samuel Armenteros this offseason has provided Giovanni Savarese’s side with another dimension further up the pitch to go along with Diego Valeri and Co.
  • Dan Karell: That’s a great question. I think I would have said the Seattle Sounders but with Jordan Morris out for the season, I think the Portland Timbers get the nod.
  • Nick Mendola: First, let me note that the margins are extremely thin. I’m choosing Vancouver, but only because there will be some growing pains with Giovani Savarese on a very talented Portland team and Jordan Morris’ absence — while overhyped — will hurt Seattle’s depth.
14. Project 2018 for #SaveTheCrew.
  • Andy Edwards: Hoping for a fairytale ending here: Precourt keeps the team in Columbus, but only because he’s able to acquire a piece of land and a deal to build a stadium in Austin. He then sells the team.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: Try and keep things together as best they can. An awful situation and you feel for the management and players. Whatever happens this season, the Crew get a pass. That could mean a stunning campaign with no pressure on the players, or Columbus just drifting along. I’d bet on the latter.
  • Dan Karell: I think/hope that Anthony Precourt’s stadium search attempts in Austin will be stymied by the city, leading him to either back down from his demands in Columbus or eventually sell the team to a local consortium.
  • Nick Mendola: Ultimately, I think the team’s future is going to make the season a bit too combustible. Anthony Precourt needs to make the future plain and clear ASAP, because expecting players to just “get on with it” and keep running the way they did last season is bonkers. Then again, so is the entire relocation blueprint being followed right now.
15. Will a current MLS executive be the new USMNT GM? Will a current MLS name be the new coach?
  • Andy Edwards: Yes (Carlos Bocanegra), and no.
  • Joe Prince-Wright: I’d say Garth Lagerwey has the credentials for this job. He has been there and done it at Real Salt Lake and now Seattle and has a fine understanding of the inner workings of the American soccer market. Earnie Stewart would be a decent fit too, while Carlos Bocanegra seems to be out of the running and like Claudio Reyna they both have plum jobs with MLS franchises. As for the coach, I don’t think he will come from within MLS and the USMNT will wait until after the World Cup to hire.
  • Matt Reed: It’s been a short sample size down in Atlanta, but there has to be something said about what the club has been able to do in that small window of time. Carlos Bocanegra has quickly become one of the top executives in MLS by bringing in Ezequiel Barco, Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and more, while Gerardo Martino is a manager that players at any level would die to play for. Is it likely that both men will be named to the USMNT? Probably not. However, I’d love to see both named to the respective positions because they check off a lot of boxes.
  • Dan Karell: I actually wouldn’t be surprised if Jay Berhalter got the USMNT GM position. But I think Tab Ramos would be a good choice as well or Garth Lagarway. I would like to see the USMNT GM hire the best available person. So whether that’s Oscar Pareja or Peter Vermes (or Caleb Porter, who is a free agent), or Didier Deschamps, I want the best man or woman hired for the job.
  • Nick Mendola: I thought it’d be inevitable that the executive and manager would come from outside the establishment, but the implementation of new programs in the run-up to the election and the cosmetics being applied to the new GM search lead me to believe very little has changed (yet). I do think there’s the compromise of bringing Carlos Bocanegra on board, and then having Tata Martino as a back-up if nothing decent shakes free following the World Cup.

Filling out an MLS Best XI is harder than ever

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
1 Comment

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
Leave a comment

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.