I don’t even know what to write for a lede here beyond “watching Kevin Cabral gave me an idea for a Twitter thread that I decided to turn into a column instead,” bringing back one former great on each club for this final stretch run of the 2022 season.
Now someone get me a time machine so I can make this stuff happen.
Ryan Raposo’s had a nice year but I’m going to go out on a limb and offer the opinion that Alphonso Davies represents a pretty significant upgrade at left wingback. Davies on one side, Julian Gressel on the other, with Ryan Gauld running the central channel… my god, any two strikers in the world would score in bunches.
I wanted to make an argument for central defense, and honestly the 2017 version of Drew Moor would be a pretty great upgrade.
Honestly the first name that popped into my head was Ilie, which… yeah, that’s got to be painful for Sporting fans, given how this year’s gone in downtown LA. But I think prime Ike Opara represents a bigger upgrade over basically anything they’ve had in central defense in the four years since he was traded.
Peak Ike was the best CB in league history. He was only really healthy for three full years, and he deservedly won Defender of the Year in two of them.
The Quakes have had a lot of great players at a lot of different spots, and they also have quite a few needs at a bunch of different spots. You could talk me into Landon Donovan, Dwayne De Rosario, Jimmy Conrad, maybe even Sam Cronin.
But I think the answer is actually Richard Mulrooney? He’s one of the great forgotten d-mids in league history – I spent a TON of time arguing that he should’ve been third on the US men's national team d-mid depth chart behind Chris Armas and Pablo Mastroeni back in the 2000s, and am still mad that he never got enough of a look – who anchored both of San Jose’s MLS Cup wins and their 2005 Supporters’ Shield before heading to Houston (with, obviously, the rest of the Quakes) and starting at d-mid again in 2007.
Just a quietly effective linchpin who made everyone else’s job easier for a great team over the course of almost an entire decade.
My initial choice was going to be Alvaro Saborio, but then I thought for a minute and figured out that an attacking midfield with both Javier Morales and Jefferson Savarino would create enough chances for literally any of the forwards currently on RSL’s roster to turn into 15-goal snipers.
They used to say “the team is the star” but I assure you, Javi Mo was the star.
But the real answer is Nat Borchers. He’s regarded as one of the best and most vocal backline organizers in league history, and it’s not a coincidence that the Timbers won their only MLS Cup the year they brought him in to steer the ship.
Given how they play – they’re a very low-block, counterattacking team – Borchers’ lack of open-field athleticism would be muted and his aerial dominance would be accentuated.
I think it says a lot about the Union, both past and present, that there isn’t an obvious like-for-like starter replacement. Maybe I could argue for peak Sebastien Le Toux over Julian Carranza, but… maybe not.
Given that, I’m bringing 2019 Ilsinho back for the super-sub sauce:
I’m kind of all over the place with this one. There’s an argument for the 2019 version of Nani, since Orlando have struggled to create from the wings. There’s an argument for the 2015 version of Kaka, since the lack of distribution from central midfield has forced Oscar Pareja to push Mauricio Pereyra back into a No. 8 role, which means they’re not getting as much as they could/should from the No. 10. And there’s an argument for prime Yoshi Yotun, who was so good in that No. 8 role – which then allows Pereyra to push back up. And, of course, there’s an argument for either Cyle Larin or Daryl Dike up top, since Ercan Kara is not setting the world on fire.
I’m going with Larin. And my sincere hope is that he’s back in the league somewhere next year as a DP No. 9 instead of wasting his prime years on the wing.
The easiest answer in the world should be Thierry Henry since he’s a one-man solution to both RBNY’s chance creation and finishing issues, but honest to god I’m not sure Gerhard Struber would know how to use him, or would even want to. The MLS version of Titi, you see, wasn’t all that interested in defending unless it was a particularly big game, and that doesn’t fly with Struber.
This also rules out some old greats like Clint Mathis and Amado Guevara, and even Juan Pablo Angel.
Know who it doesn’t rule out, though? Bradley Wright-Phillips. One of the greatest goalscorers in league history, and one of the greatest defensive forwards in league history.
I originally had “Taty Castellanos lol” as the whole entry, but since they don’t press as much under interim head coach Nick Cushing, the actual answer is David Villa. The Spaniard was still a very good defensive forward – he wasn’t Taty’s level on that side of the ball, though literally no one in league history is – while being an all-time legend and MVP in attack.
This doesn’t solve NYCFC’s issues in midfield and defense, but winning games 4-3 is more fun than fixing defensive issues anyway.
The best No. 8 in league history is Shalrie Joseph. Imagine the Revs, in their relatively new 4-2-3-1, rolling into the playoffs with Shalrie at the 8, 2021 Landon Donovan MLS MVP Carles Gil at the 10 and Matt Polster – one of the most underrated players in MLS – at d-mid.
They’d control every game on both sides of the ball. And they’d get the added bonus of Shalrie’s set-piece presence, which would have an outsized impact come playoff time.
Ok, since the Coyotes don’t really have a long enough history to play this game, I’m letting them draw from the defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny. And with that opening, they select… Carlos Valderrama!
A one-man solution to Nashville’s current attacking issues.
Ignacio Piatti was really only ever an inverted winger, and both he liked to work in the same spots where Djordje Mihailovic tends to set up shop these days.
Wilfried Nancy, of course, does not run a system with wingers – inverted or otherwise. He’s flipped between a 3-5-2 and a 3-4-2-1 basically all year, and there isn’t really a natural home for Piatti in the mix.
But he’s my choice anyway. He and Nancy and Mihailovic are all smart enough to figure out how to make it work.
Congrats to Ike Opara for being the answer for two different teams!
Here is my Ike take: If he’d had a reasonably healthy club career – enough to earn about 80 caps in between full seasons of club dominance – then the “Lost Generation” USMNT discussion would be a footnote, because Ike was levels above the guys who got the most US minutes at CB in the 2010s. And a healthy Ike would’ve been good enough to stop the defensive bleeding that cost the US the 2018 cycle.
So the Lost Generation would still be a thing, but instead of talking about how it cost us a World Cup appearance, we’d talk about how the group of ‘85-’89s were good enough to bridge the gap until the ‘95s and beyond could take over.
Anyway, plop Ike into the middle of this Loons backline and they’re one of the MLS Cup favorites.
If Landon Donovan was on one of those wings this team would have 70 goals and 55 points, neck-and-neck with LAFC in the Shield race:
You see, the thing about Landon was that his game scaled – he was actually a better chance creator on a per-90 basis in the Premier League (over the course of two loan stints there) than he was in MLS. He was, in other words, better when he was surrounded by better players. He was the ultimate ceiling-raiser, a guy who barely needed to touch the ball in order to rip a game apart.
He was also a chameleon who played like six different positions at a high level. But his best was as an inverted, playmaking winger, which makes him a perfect fit for Greg Vanney’s 4-2-3-1.
Even giving them access to Chivas USA doesn’t open up any massive upgrades. There’s an argument for Dan Kennedy over this year’s version of Maxime Crepeau, and there’s certainly an argument for dropping Sacha Kljestan into the midfield mix. If you want to go recent vintage, Eddie Atuesta’s an upgrade over Ilie while Walker Zimmerman is an upgrade over Jesus Murillo.
In the end, that’s probably the right call. Dominant center backs are worth their weight in gold in MLS.
I’m giving them access to the old Miami Fusion, which means GM Chris Henderson has the chance to select himself here. And there’s a good argument for Henderson, who was a speedy, playmaking, two-footed winger regularly in the Best XI discussion.
But I think the more responsible pick is Carlos Llamosa. One of the steadiest, most understated center backs of the league’s first decade, and he was Best XI in the Fusion’s semi-legendary, Shield-winning 2001 season.
He’d add a dose of guile and professional maturity to the middle of this backline.
Right now the issue is that they 1) can’t defend, and 2) can’t get enough playmaking on the field in Paulo Nagamura’s preferred 4-3-3, because there’s no real spot for Darwin Quintero in that set-up.
While I’m sympathetic to any argument for either Geoff Cameron or Bobby Boswell in the middle of that backline, and I think there’s always a good shout for Dwayne De Rosario no matter the team shape, the right answer is Brad Davis. Whether you play him on his natural left side or inverted on the right, he straight-up just solves that playmaking issue if you’re committed to using wingers.
There are three main ways to go with this one: d-mid, center back or right back.
No disrespect is meant here to Mauro Diaz, David Ferreira or Jason Kreis, but none of those guys really fits into Nico Estevez’s system. Diaz and Ferreira are/were pure 10s, while Kreis was a classic second forward. Those positions don’t exist for this version of FC Dallas, and since we’re thinking of this as a short-term fix, those guys don’t fit.
That means we’re looking at upgrades. Daniel Hernandez (d-mid) and George John (CB) are both in the mix. Reggie Cannon would be a great option, as Dallas are getting nothing from right back this year, and he’d bump them up a level on both sides of the ball.
But, after the way Ema Twumasi’s played the past few games, I’m changing my mind here and am going to go with prime Dax McCarty at the base of Estevez’s three-man midfield. One of the things that this team has struggled with this year is quickly moving the ball through the lines into either zone 14 or the half-spaces, and McCarty is maybe the best d-mid in MLS history at pinging those third-line passes in the pocket, in rhythm, to feet.
Best I can do is Andrew Gutman, I think? Put him at LCB in that back three – he never played there for Cincy, but he was excellent in that spot last year for RBNY and has continued to be excellent this year when played there for Atlanta – and, along with Matt Miazga, you’ve got a significantly upgraded defense for the stretch run.
Ok, now, I’m going to assume you’ve read it, and I’m going to assume that you’ve processed all of it. And in processing all of it you’ve come to the conclusion that… there’s really no spot in Wayne Rooney’s set-up for a true No. 10. And if that’s the case (it is), that means Marco Etcheverry does not fit.
But look at me: I. Do. Not. Care. We’re giving prime El Diablo back to D.C., and Wazza’s going to have to figure out how to use him.
Understand that, in virtually every way, Etcheverry was the model DP for this current era: a classic South American No. 10 who came here in his prime. He was 25 when he debuted in MLS, just two years after finishing in the top 3 of the CONMEBOL Player of the Year ballot, and if this league had a Jerry West-style NBA logo, my vote would be for Diablo.
In terms of need, I think the right answer would be to point to the right wing and say “2014-16 Ethan Finlay fits perfectly right exactly there.” Finlay was Best XI-caliber during the entirety of that three-year stretch, and he’d be a perfect fit running into that channel and hitting pullback after pullback for Cucho Hernandez this year.
And a point of interest: I’d argue this team has spent the past five years trying to find a Finlay replacement and just haven’t quite managed it. At his best he was really, really good.
But I’m giving them prime Chad Marshall instead. The Crew have become unexpectedly fragile at center back, especially 1) at the near post and 2) on set pieces. Marshall fixes both things, and upgrades their distribution to boot.
Flip a coin between current manager Robin Fraser and all-time legend Marcelo Balboa. While center back isn’t the weakest part of the team, either of those guys, in their prime, would represent a significant upgrade over what Fraser’s working with currently.
The same could go for Chris Henderson on the wing – hell, in a lot of ways, Henderson is the player that I’ve been hoping Jonathan Lewis would become.
The subtext in all of this is that the Rapids, in their entire history, don’t have the kind of dominant midfield chance creator this team really needs, one that would be an obvious choice here.
I went back and forth in my head a million times, but the answer is Ante Razov. At his apex he was a top three striker in the league, one who repeatedly found chances no matter how his teammates or the system around him changed.
He was just a classic, run-the-line center forward who had zero conscience about finding and taking shots, but at the same time was team-oriented enough to be a very good tertiary playmaker.
I think this Fire team needs that up top more than they need another winger, or the solidity that Chris Armas would provide to central midfield, or the dynamism Carlos Bocanegra would bring from the backline.
I’ll give them access to Tampa Bay as well, but since Nashville already got Valderrama with the first pick from the Mutiny, we’ve got to go down to Steve Ralston in the No. 2 slot.
Ralston was great as a right wingback in a 3-5-2 or right midfielder in a 4-4-2 back in the day. We never really got to see him as a winger because basically no one played with real wingers back then.
But he’d have fit well into what Christian Lattanzio’s trying to do on both sides of the ball, and would, I wager, immediately be one of the best wingers in the league. Think Cristian Roldan-level.
Since they’re too new to have any history I’ll give them access to that old Fusion side, at which point it becomes a very easy pick: They get Pablo Mastroeni at d-mid. Danny Pereira has done really well learning that spot in his second season, but Pablo’s one of the all-time MLS great No. 6s, and is the perfect ground-chewing answer for a team that can often get way too open.
Super tempting to go with Miguel Almiron, of course, but the biggest issue with Atlanta right now is in that backline.
Michael Parkhurst was so freaking good.