Steve Birnbaum

Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

The impossible annual task of choosing an MLS Best XI

Leave a comment

Forget about a functional XI when you’re putting together an MLS Best XI.

That’s true in most leagues, to be fair, but the offensive firepower in MLS puts up gaudy numbers as silky attackers are given a bit more free reign than their used to in previous leagues.

Consider that two players eclipsed the 30-goal mark in Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with the latter doing it in under 30 matches. Josef Martinez also came close in 29 matches.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Playoff Power Rankings ]

Those players are enough to form a trident for your Best XI, and they come from loaded units.

Then there’s midfielder Maxi Moralez of NYCFC with his 20 assists in 2434 minutes.

Vela had double digit goals and assists, an achievement met by Carles Gil (New England), Alejandero Pozuelo (Toronto), and Nani (Orlando City).

They all can’t make it.

So we’ll build from the back, and likely punish the fullbacks thanks to a remarkable group of attackers.

Here is who is getting my vote.

Goalkeeper

The backstop is always a tricky choice. Bill Hamid and Brad Guzan led the league in clean sheets with 14, but only the former will warrant consideration here. The Galaxy’s David Bingham led the league in saves and saves inside the box, while also stopping a pair of penalties.

Both join Portland’s Steve Clark, Vancouver’s Maxime Crepeau, and New England’s Matt Turner as advanced stat darlings.

For me it comes down to Hamid and Bingham. The former had far superior defenders, but I can’t get past DC United’s 38 goals allowed to the Galaxy’s 59. Maybe it’s the hockey fan in me thinking of it like the Jennings Award, but that’s my tiebreaker.

Defender

I’m gonna start with DC again here, and the Black-and-Red have two players deserving of a place: Frederic Brillant and Steve Birnbaum.

Here’s why I’m opting for the latter: On the SofaScore list of the Top 20 rated defenders in MLS, minimum 25 games, all but two were dribbled past 11 times or more: Orlando’s Lamine Sane and Birnbaum.

Birnbaum’s number? Two.

You read that right. In 3032 minutes this season, he was taken twice.

Other contenders include:

— Ike Opara, who had another remarkable season and didn’t miss a beat in switching from Sporting KC to Minnesota.

Bastian Schweinsteiger in Chicago dropped from the center of the park and was very strong.

— Miles Robinson of Atlanta was exceptional, especially given his age, while Ryan Hollingshead had the best advanced statistical season of any back on WhoScored. Jorge Moreira gets that nod on SofaScore. And spare a thought for Keegan Rosenberry, who intercepted 16 more passes than anyone else in MLS (82) but still can’t get a call from the USMNT.

Everybody else

We named the prime attackers in MLS at the top of this post. You’d like to add Nicolas Lodeiro and Diego Valeri.

Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye from LAFC have been difference makers behind Vela. In-beom Hwang was marvelous more often than not but on a terrible Vancouver team.

But there’s one name I believe qualifies as the least-heralded star in MLS.

Minnesota United’s Jan Gregus needs to be on this team. I don’t think he will because his goal and eight assists don’t pop off the page and the Slovakian national team doesn’t get as much love as center midfield partner and well-established bulldog Osvaldo Alonso.

Gregus was fifth in MLS in interceptions with 1.9 per match, 2.2 key passes, and crafts an awfully nice looking long pass. You could argue that he was the key to Minnesota’s fourth seed.

The Best XI

So here’s my team. We’d be destroyed out wide, but would probably score 10 goals a game so man would we entertain?

Bill Hamid (DC)

Robinson (ATL) — Birnbaum (DC) — Opare (MIN)

Gregus (MIN) — Atuesta (LAFC)

Lodeiro (SEA) — Moralez (NYCFC)

Vela (LAFC) — Ibrahimovic (LAG) — Martinez (ATL)

Bench: Bingham (LAG), Brillant (DC), Gil (NE), Pozuelo (TOR), Przyzbylko (PHI), Valeri (POR), Schweinsteiger (CHI)

Might there be a surprise name in Berhalter’s Gold Cup USMNT?

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Gregg Berhalter is fully aware that this summer’s Gold Cup is his first true showcase tournament, and so it won’t be a surprise if there are no real surprises on his roster.

That will be announced soon, but of course there’s a chance Berhalter does elect to bring a new name into the fold.

He may not use that player in a meaningful situation, but taking a hopeful along for the ride is not unusual (It happens at World Cups all the time).

It would make the most sense if such a call-up were to come from MLS, which will be in full flow when the Gold Cup arrives on our shores.

As usual, the best performers in MLS this young season have mostly not been American. While kids are playing more often, the influx of money into the league has clubs buying known entities or sexy foreign prospects rather than showing love to its youth (Paxton Pomykal and Djordje Mihailovic not withstanding).

Not only that, but the leading American goal scorer so far is 30-year-old CJ Sapong (4), while Benny Feilhaber and Chris Pontius are the only Yanks with a pair of primary assists.

Which brings us back to a name we mentioned earlier: Pomykal. The 19-year-old was one of FC Dallas’ next big things and through nine appearances is their current pretty big thing.

With attacking midfield having some supply but needing depth, Berhalter could well consider a call-up for the teenager. Pomykal has two goals and an assist, and is the second-rated American in MLS according to advanced stats site WhoScored. He could also be called up to the U-20 side as a key piece, so keep that in mind.

Two more names to look at are DC United center back Steve Birnbaum and Houston Dynamo creator Memo Rodriguez. Birnbaum is 28 and has been capped before, and could be an “older” piece for Berhalter’s back line currently led by John Brooks and Matt Miazga, but the center backs do appear set.

Rodriguez is pretty interesting, too, with four goals and an assist in 538 minutes. He’s also posted decent numbers in dribbling and key passes for Wilmer Cabrera’s revitalized Dynamo.

Villa free kick rescues point for NYCFC against DC United

Alex Menendez/Getty Images
Leave a comment

New York City FC hadn’t lost a home match heading into this week, and thanks to David Villa the club avoided a second straight defeat at Yankee Stadium.

[ MORE: American youth Will Vint joins Atlanta United academy ]

New York City FC and D.C. United finished level, 1-1, on Saturday after the Spanish international scored a brilliant free kick late in the match to level the game.

Steve Birnbaum’s second-half header past goalkeeper Sean Johnson from close range had given D.C. the lead in the 58th minute, but Villa finally broke through after many missed opportunities prior to that for NYCFC.

Both teams were missing several key pieces in their lineups, particularly NYCFC, who saw nine players sidelined due to injuries, suspensions and international call ups.

D.C. fielded a team of just 15 players on the day, while NYCFC had six substitutions available on the rainy day.

NYCFC extended its winless streak to seven of its last eight matches, however, Villa’s heroics did secure a point for the hosts.

Domenec Torrent’s team boasting an overwhelming 19 shots on the day, however, the club’s scoring struggles continued during their losing skid.

For D.C., the club sits five points out of the East playoffs with eight matches remaining.

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
2 Comments

We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?

Four players that improved their USMNT stock after January camp

Kent Horner/Getty Images
1 Comment

It’s hard to take too much stock in what occurs during January camp and the ensuing friendlies, but with a new manager in place and crucial matches upcoming for the U.S. Men’s National Team the last few weeks have certainly provided some clarity for Bruce Arena’s side.

After an underwhelming effort draw against Serbia to end January, the USMNT rebounded against Jamaica with a win in a more complete effort.

Here’s a look at four players that lifted their standing with the USMNT since Bruce Arena’s return.

Benny Feilhaber

The Sporting KC man obviously wasn’t a favorite of Jurgen Klinsmann’s during his time as USMNT manager, however, Feilhaber proved that he deserves a place within the U.S. roster moving forward and put pressure on Sacha Kljestan for a hold on the starting attacking midfield position. His vision in the buildup to Jordan Morris’ goal was spot on and Feilhaber controlled the attacking flow in a positive way for most of the Jamaica match.

Dax McCarty

The Chicago Fire midfielder has probably had the craziest few months out of any USMNT player, but McCarty handled himself with class as he was transitioned from one club to another. Although he didn’t see the field against Serbia, the veteran center mid controlled the middle of the park well against Jamaica and linked up well on several occasions with Feilhaber. His defensive presence is something that could potentially be crucial for Arena’s team moving forward, particularly in March when Jermaine Jones is suspended for the Honduras encounter.

Walker Zimmerman

The young center back only missed on seven of his passes in his national team debut against Jamaica, and Zimmerman’s confidence for FC Dallas certainly showed. While Zimmerman faces the challenge of getting past veterans in the pecking order like Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez, the 23-year-old has proven at club level that he can hold his own defensively and score critical goals in attacking positions when thrown into the box.

Steve Birnbaum

Serbia and Jamaica didn’t pose the biggest threats in the attacking third, but the D.C. United defender was strong in both matches, and more importantly Bruce Arena saw Birnbaum as fit enough to go the full 90 minutes against each opponent. With Geoff Cameron’s availability uncertain ahead of WCQ’s resumption, the 26-year-old could be in line to slot next to John Brooks in the center of the U.S. back line.