First XI: Game Breakers

Landon Donovan's decisiveness makes him a Game Breaker.

Photo Credit: 
John Todd/MLS/WireImage.com

who was discovered by Tom Fitzgerald in '98 -- was the first cold-blooded striker the league had seen. Who knows? Maybe we'll be seeing him again in the coming years.

8. Clint Mathis, 2000. Luis Hernandez was supposed to be the star of the times when Mathis was shipped to Metro from Los Angeles in 2000. Sorry. Clint went on a tear like the league had never seen before, putting up 13 goals and 13 assists in 20 starts. While his signature goal -- the 60-yard slalom through Dallas -- did not come until 2001, it was in 2000 when everything Mathis shot seemed to hit the net. In his four seasons in New Jersey, MetroStars never lost a game when Mathis scored.

7. Mamadou Diallo, 2000. He became a much-maligned character in his latter years in MLS, but when Big Mama burst onto the MLS scene in 2000, he was ungodly. The Mutiny played with just Mamadou up top (though Carlos Valderrama was never too far behind) and the big guy went on a scoring rampage, plowing his way through defenders and powering shots past 'keepers. Things started to go bad for Diallo when his contract was loaded up with goal-scoring incentives. He was already extremely focused on goals, but that financial factor seemed to put him over the edge with his teammates.

6. Ralph, 2003. After dealing Josh Wolff to Kansas City in a salary cap move, the Fire drafted Nate Jaqua, hoping he could give them some depth at forward. Then Ralph showed up and changed the entire complexion of the Chicago attack. Fast and hard to knock off the ball, Ralph clicked with Ante Razov and the Fire rolled through the 2003 regular season. His goals were usually powerful shots, reminiscent of John, and his tenacity around the net makes him a handful for defenders for the full 90 minutes.

5. Peter Nowak, 1998. The best transition point guard ever in MLS, Nowak's solo runs did not always result in goals for himself (though he did complete a few on his own for the Fire). Nowak was more likely to dish the ball off at the final second. Still, if you look at most of Peter's 26 career league goals in MLS (he never took a penalty), you'll see they were usually the product of a man on a mission. Nowak also, for my money, had the best goal celebrations ever in MLS. No T-shirt messages. No funky dances. Just pure, unbridled joy.

4. Landon Donovan, 2003. He's become the New Nowak in MLS, an expert at taking a sliver of an advantage and turning it into a goal for the Quakes. It's Donovan's decisiveness that makes the difference, whether he's carrying the ball himself or making a run into open space. We saw it for the USA last week, as well. Fox Sports World's Christopher Sullivan compared him to Roberto Baggio, circa 1994. Now that's a game breaker if ever there was one. Donovan just keeps getting better.

3. Preki, 1996. Could've been any number of years for Preki, but I'll go with the inaugural season for the Wiz, when he showed all of MLS that even though he was an "indoor" player, he could deal on the big field. His shooting back then was so precise and the signature cutback move was still a little bit of a novelty. He was unstoppable.

2. Diego Serna, 2001. He drove everyone crazy, including his coach and his teammates, but in 2001 with Fusion F.C., Diego Serna was a true force in MLS. He was a raging bull. A steamroller. And, with Alex Pineda Chacon as his running mate, he was also a crafty playmaker. Serna had 15 goals and 15 assists during that magical year at Lockhart and had MLS defenses on its collective heels the entire time.

1. Carlos Ruiz, 2002. This is not just a response the all the angry e-mail I received last week. Ruiz is The Man. No one loves scoring goals as much as this guy. And without anyone looking up stats for me, I'll say he's already scored more clutch goals (defined by me as late goals in close games) than any striker in MLS history. Ruiz is not known so much for dribbling and taking defenders on, but his work to get open is what makes him so difficult to contain for 90 minutes.

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to jbradleyespn2003@yahoo.com and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.


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