Armchair Analyst: Castrol Index shows 2011 the Year of the Defender
So we can all agree that Nat Borchers has been the best defender in MLS this year, right?
Ok, maybe not. There are sure to be some Omar Gonzalez, George John and Futty Danso fans out there. Seriously, Futty’s in with a shout.
If the Castrol Index has shown us anything, it’s the importance of a dominant central defensive presence. The four mentioned are the ones who rate the best using Castrol’s methodology, and their team records back up the stats.
Portland took off once Futty got himself into the lineup. In Dallas, David Ferreira’s injury is (justifiably) the big news of the season, but John’s fitness should be the main concern. Once he got well, FC Dallas got good. Once he picked up a knock, they looked — however briefly — mortal again.
It's no surprise Greece are trying to cap him.
The story in LA is the same. Gonzalez missed the first few weeks and took a few more to get back up to speed. Since he’s been there, the Galaxy have been the league’s best and have now thrown four straight shutouts.
But it’s Borchers who’s been the best. He’s been solid from day one, his team’s boasting the lowest goals-against and highest points-per-game averages in the league, and unlike Gonzalez, John and Futty, Borchers hasn’t had a rock-solid defensive partner.
That’s not meant to be a shot at Jámison Olave, who has himself a very nice track record in MLS. But 2011 — even before the red card against Seattle two weeks ago — has not produced the same, self-assured defense from the big man.
So Borchers has been great, and he’s hardly doing it all by his lonesome, but the way he’s handled his increased responsibility on both sides of the ball has been outstanding. I mean that in the literal sense — Borchers’ play this season has been impossible to miss, even without the benefit of statistical analysis.
With statistical analysis, we get this: He’s among the league leaders in clearances, among the defensive leaders in interceptions, remains dominant in the air and completes nearly 90 percent of his passes.
Those aren’t the numbers of a defender merely having a “pretty good year.” Those are the numbers of a league MVP.
While 2011 has been a good year thus far for central defenders, it’s been pretty miserable for central midfielders. Osvaldo Alonso, at No. 22, is the highest on the list and the only true central midfielder in the top 30. The highest-ranked central attacking midfielder is Geoff Cameron — a guy who’s not really a central attacking midfielder (he plays in the middle of the “3” in a 4-1-3-2), and was moved to central defense this past weekend.
The Galaxy central duo of David Beckham — who began the season on the wing — and Juninho are the only pair of central midfield teammates to crack the top 40.
Part of that is due to long-term injuries to Ferreira, Javier Morales and Branko Boskovic. But another part, more of a long-term part, is the gradual shift of playmakers to the wings.
Landon Donovan, after all, was once considered a central player, spending a great deal of time in the central midfield and as a withdrawn forward before eventually finding his home on the flanks. Steve Zakuani was ranked No. 2 through April; once he got hurt, his replacement, Álvaro Fernández, took the baton.
Most of the other midfielders Castrol rates highly — Brad Evans, Dane Richards, Eddie Gaven, Marco Pappa, Ned Grabavoy — are generally more at home on the flanks despite the fact that, of the bunch, Richards is the only one who’s a real, honest-to-goodness winger.
In terms of a “pure” No. 10, a guy who sits behind two strikers and creates? There aren’t many in the league who fit that role, but of the ones that do, Nick LaBrocca of Chivas USA has been the best. Dwayne De Rosario is up there as well.
They’re the only two in the top 50. Attacking down the central channel is just not done like it was a decade ago.
That said, as the season progresses and teams get on the same page, more playmakers are likely to creep up the rankings. Youngsters like Corben Bone, Dilly Duka and Collen Warner are all getting a shot and have had, to one degree or another, impressive moments. If they fight their way into the starting lineup, and if Tom Soehn eventually caves and puts Davide Chiumiento at the point of a diamond midfield, LaBrocca and De Rosario may not end up being so lonely.
Five months from now, maybe we’ll decide that was the story of 2011.
But for now, it’s all about Nat.
WATCH: Castrol Index: Top 5 Players
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.