The regular season officially rounded the midway point and is now inbound. With it is a chance to name an early Best XI and point out some tactical trends that have defined 2011.
It’s harder to put an All-Star team together in soccer than any other sport, as national-team managers from around the world learn anew almost constantly. Below is our crack at an All-Star squad that not only has talent, but also has complementary skills and would work well together.
GK: Donovan Ricketts (LA) – Quietly, he was on track to have the single greatest season of any MLS keeper in history, topping Pat Onstad’s 2007. Then fate — and Khari Stephenson — intervened.
RB: Jan Gunnar Solli (NY) – The ultimate good soldier, Solli was brought in to play midfield but kept his mouth shut and learned a new position because his team needed it. His six assists speak to the danger he creates on the overlap.
CB: George John (DAL) – FC Dallas started throwing up zeroes once John got healthy, and it took him 19 tries before he finally had a lousy game. His positional sense is rock-solid, he doesn't commit dumb fouls and he’s a threat on set-pieces. Plus he learns from his mistakes: After crapping out against RSL at the weekend, he was great on Tuesday in FCD's 2-0 US Open Cup win.
CB: Jeff Parke (SEA) – Parke plays clean, his distribution is great (consistently above 85 percent), and he’s dominant in the air defensively. He’s also stopped being “unlucky” — in the past, nobody had more shots deflect off of them for goals, or slips leading to penalties.
LB: Todd Dunivant (LA) – Upon trading him away from New York in 2007, Bruce Arena famously quipped that the Stanford man was “One of the 13 best left backs in the league.” The manger’s opinion seems to have risen in the intervening years.
DM: Daniel Hernandez (DAL) - The Texan has been the best and most important player on the league’s best team this year. He doesn’t cover as much ground as he once did, but he reads the game better than anyone and understands the subtle art of showing for the ball. For a team that's been in flux since the day after MLS Cup, he's been the one constant.
RM: Landon Donovan (LA) – Remember a few months ago when Landon said he wasn’t really a goal-scorer anymore? Funny in retrospect how many of us believed him. Honestly, there’s not much left to be written about this guy — he just does what it takes to win.
LM: Brad Davis (HOU) – Davis was probably the league’s MVP through April, but Houston’s misfiring forwards have sabotaged his campaign. It shouldn’t matter, though — he puts the ball on a platter any time he gets an inch of space, and unlike the old days puts in yeoman’s work off the ball and defensively.
CM: Nick LaBrocca (CHV) – People all around the league are making an All-Star push for LaBrocca, which is as it should be. He understands the concept of momentum: Once you start backpedaling, he doesn’t stop to let you catch your balance. It’s how he’s found space for six goals on the year.
FW: Thierry Henry (NY) – New York fans thought they had a corpse. Through 15 games last year and the first four-and-a-half of this season, Henry couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Since then he’s slammed home nine goals and four assists in 12 games, and shown that he's still got the fire in his belly.
FW: Conor Casey (COL) – Yeah, he’s not going to be a sexy pick. But he will be a winning pick, and that’s what we care about here. Just look at Colorado’s record with him in the lineup, at the way he can single-handedly steal a point (like the game at Sporting), and at the way everyone around him plays better when he’s on the field. Casey is as fundamentally sound as anyone in the league.
Coach: Schellas Hyndman (DAL) - No matter how many players they lose to expansion, injury or call-ups, Dallas keeps winning. Hernandez, John, Ugo Ihemelu and Kevin Hartman are a big reason why. But so is the coach. Schellas is adaptable, calm and patient. It's reflected in his team's attitude on the pitch.
That’s my Best XI for the first half, and if you look real hard, you’ll see that it’s not quite a diamond-four midfield. Let’s call it a 4-1-3-2, and use that as a jumping-off point for a brief rundown of the leaguewide tactical trends of the last four months.
1) Teams are copying Real Salt Lake, not Colorado
There were worries among some that the Rapids’ “pragmatic” approach to the game would be the tactical choice du jour after 2010’s MLS Cup triumph. It hasn’t been the case, as few teams are using a “forward destroyer” like Pablo Mastroeni, and instead are looking toward a diamond-4 or a 4-1-3-2 midfield alignment that RSL brought into vogue.
Philly brought Veljko Paunovic out of retirement to make theirs work. Columbus finally found a way to put Emmanuel Ekpo's considerable talent to use, unshackled because of Rich Balchan's stellar rookie campaign. Juninho lets David Beckham run all over the pitch, and it goes without saying that Osvaldo Alonso provides cover for whoever's lined up in front of him in Seattle's midfield — usually Erik Friberg these days.
2) The flat-four midfield is dead
Two weeks ago, there were four teams playing with a flat-four midfield: Vancouver, Portland, San Jose and Chicago. Portland finally scrapped it last weekend. Chicago are probably going to scrap it this weekend with the addition of Sebastián Grazzini, while San Jose and Vancouver just made big trades that should affect their respective midfield formations.
Philly, Columbus and DC all came into the season playing a flat-four and dropped it. DC went with a diamond-four against New York last weekend and had perhaps their biggest win of the year.
Houston, on the other hand, have started using the flat-four, but I have a hunch that’ll be a temporary thing.
Point is, though, not one team in the top-half of the table has played without a pivot this season. It’s the most important spot on the pitch, and managers know it.
3) Wingers live again
Donovan and Brek Shea are both primarily midfielders, and both amongst the league’s leading scorers. Chris Pontius and Andy Najar run wild on the wings for United. Justin Mapp is revitalized in Philly. Álvaro Fernández has been fantastic since Steve Zakuani’s injury, Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards are having All-Star caliber seasons, and Mauro Rosales may be the newcomer of the year.
If you’re not getting offense from your wings, chances are you’re not getting offense.
4) The 4-3-3 is nice in theory
But on grass it’s been awful. Peter Vermes finally scrapped it in Kansas City, and Aron Winter is banging his head against a wall trying to get it to work in Toronto. If he’s successful, it’ll be the first functional 4-3-3 in MLS history.
And if that’s the case, we’ll definitely have something to talk about for the end-of-season awards.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.