First XI: Matching 'em up
Why pick just XI when you can pick XXII? In the spirit of the Sierra Mist All-Star Game, which returns to the East vs. West format for the first time since 2001 (Thanks Real Madrid!), this week's First XI goes with some old school newspaper-style matchups. Obviously, these won't be the starting teams come the end of the month, but we thought it would be more fun to go head-to-head, 11 times.
11. Joe Cannon and Henry Ring: After watching Cannon put on a show on the Fourth of July for the Colorado Rapids, he's my obvious pick out West. He flat out stole that game for the Rapids, who were under intense New England pressure for most of the night. Ring has been solid most of the year for the Chicago Fire and is forgiven now for his clearing-pass blunder vs. L.A. He was also let off the hook for Worst Goal Allowed when Jonny Walker did his best (worst?) Rene Higuita imitation for the MetroStars on Saturday. EDGE: Cannon
10. Chris Albright and Frankie Hejduk: Props to Albright for making the transition to right back for the Los Angeles Galaxy. He seems at ease out there, running up and down the flank, much more comfortable than he ever looked around the net. His defending could be better, but as a work-in-progress right back, he's already one of the best the U.S. has to offer. Hejduk has played a little in midfield and in the back for the resurgent Columbus Crew, but with so few teams in the East playing four in the back, we were forced to think outside the box a bit here. EDGE: Albright.
9. Nat Borchers and Jim Curtin: Here are a couple of old school defenders. Borchers has helped the Rapids become one of the toughest teams to score on in the league, and also provided a huge goal in the Rapids come-from-behind victory over the MetroStars a week ago at Giants Stadium. Curtin has performed admirably for the Fire, though he surely misses his sidekick Carlos Bocanegra. EDGE: Push.
8. Jimmy Conrad and Ryan Nelsen: The Kansas City Wizards always seem to find a formula that works defensively, and with players like Conrad stepping into key roles and playing big, it's easy to see how they do it. Nelsen is D.C.'s captain and leader. His comment last week about Freddy Adu ("you can't just ask for playing time") was classic. In terms of both defending and passing, Nelsen is emerging as the class of MLS central defenders. EDGE: Nelsen.
7. Nick Garcia and DaMarcus Beasley: We've been decrying the lack of outside defensive players in MLS for some time now, so we'll just make a statement here. Garcia is a workmanlike player who has shown he can play on either side and give you a good day's work for the Wizards. Beasley? He's had a downer of an MLS season for the Fire, so as punishment, I'm sticking him in the back while also wondering if this will become his spot overseas. EDGE: Garcia.
6. Kerry Zavagnin and Clint Dempsey: Zavagnin is such a fixture for the Wizards, you can sometimes forget just how solid his game is. Chicago's version of KZ, Jesse Marsch, has been out all season and you can see how dearly a player like this can be missed. Dempsey is quickly emerging as one of the most exciting players in the league. I've got him slotted in here as a deep midfielder, but I know from watching him play for the New England Revolution, when a scoring chance is developing in the box, he's going to be somewhere sniffing for a goal. EDGE: Dempsey.
5. Ronnie O'Brien and Dema Kovalenko: A matchup that Don King would love. O'Brien, the hard driving Irish midfielder and Kovalenko, the man who took him out a year ago. Both are having outstanding seasons. The Burn's O'Brien is a joy to watch in the transition game as he can dribble and deliver at a high speed. United's Kovalenko is thriving under the tutelage of his old midfield mate, Peter Nowak, who seems to know what drives him. EDGE: Push.
4. Landon Donovan and Eddie Gaven: These are the two midfielders I love to watch run with the ball. Donovan always seems to have a pre-conceived idea how he's going to create a scoring chance while Gaven seems to make it up as he goes along. Donovan will surely score more goals the second half of the season for the Earthquakes. The MetroStars' Gaven will only get better. EDGE: Donovan.
3. Andreas Herzog and Amado Guevara: A couple of cagey imports. Herzog's left foot reminds me of Hristo Stoitchkov's. He can wander around the field for a long time, not getting any touches, but watch out when he's able to set up a pass or shot on that peg. Like a golfer who can create all types of shots, the Galaxy's Herzog can spin the ball any way. Guevara has had a fantastic first half for the MetroStars, delivering great passes, long and short, and stepping up to score a big goal from time to time. EDGE: Push.
2. Davy Arnaud and Jeff Cunningham: Arnaud is finishing like a mad man, hitting corners just for fun. What a find for the Wizards. Cunningham, as always, is a one-man gang. When he sees a seam, watch out. As the Crew have sorted things out defensively and gained confidence they can absorb pressure and win games, Cunningham's been key. EDGE: Arnaud.
1. Carlos Ruiz and Alecko Eskandarian: These are the men scoring the most goals for the two first-place teams in the Galaxy and United. Ruiz just has a knack. If he hangs around the league long enough, Jason Kreis' newly-minted goals record will not hold up for long. Eskandarian is making all the right runs and his teammates are finding him in those spots. Esky has also displayed some very nice finishing with both feet. EDGE: Ruiz.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff 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 its clubs.