ESPN's Taylor Twellman had a rant this past weekend at halftime during the broadcast of Portland's 2-2 draw at FC Dallas, which sent them to their first MLS Cup. It was about the annual MLS Best XI, and to sum it up: The list is not representative of the best 11 players in the league, nor of the best 11-man team it's possible to create out of MLS players, nor of the best players at each position in the league this year.
I happen to agree with him.
I think that putting together teams of each of the above has merit and can be a fun exercise, but to me, the "Best XI" each year means the best players at each position throughout the course of the season. That means there has to be a d-mid (there was this year), and there have to be fullbacks (nope). The team also has to line up in a formation that's representative of how the league plays, and 20 out of 20 MLS teams use fullbacks. To ignore them entirely – even if it was an unremarkable year for fullbacks across the league – doesn't make sense.
For what it's worth, here's this year's official Best XI:
This really isn't bad. They'd get slaughtered defensively out wide, and there'd be a constant disconnect between the Dax McCarty/Benny Feilhaber line and the five-man attack of Ethan Finlay, Robbie Keane, Sebastian Giovinco, Kei Kamara and Fabian Castillo, but at least it makes a certain amount of sense.
Not enough, though. No compromises: #FullbacksArePeopleToo. So in what's becoming something of an annual tradition, here's my Best XI x3:
I think this is fairly representative of the best players in each zone this season, though with the league's shift from a 4-4-2 base to more of a 4-2-3-1, I could argue for dropping one of the true forwards and bringing in another central midfielder. Which of Giovinco or Kamara could you justify dropping, though?
The other compromise I made is putting Finlay and Castillo in there as true midfielders. These guys are both field-stretching wingers in real life, and would struggle to do some of the defensive and possession work that we see out of wide players in the 4-4-2 – guys like Sebastian Lletget or Shea Salinas. Yet I've seen enough of them to be comfortable enough with this set up.
And obviously the toughest spot to fill is right back. Beitashour was good but not great, which pretty much says it all about that position in 2015.
The only cheat I used here was putting Villa at left wing. He spent only part of his season there, playing much more frequently as a sort of False 9 and playing his best as a second forward in various two-forward set-ups. Nonetheless, I'm comfortable with him in this spot since he spends so much time attacking inverted on the left and remains a reliable worker on the defensive side of the ball.
For what it's worth: If I were to choose any one of these three teams to go out and get me a win against the Monstars, this is the group.
GK: Bill Hamid
LB: DaMarcus Beasley
CB: Matt Besler
CB: Matt Miazga
RB: Marvell Wynne
DM: Diego Chara
CM: Darlington Nagbe
AM: Mauro Diaz
RW: Krisztian Nemeth
CF: Obafemi Martins
LW: Robbie Keane
Yeah... I fudged it a bit on this one because Keane is clearly not a left wing. I'm not 100% confident that this XI would hold up defensively because of that – he'd spend a ton of time cutting inside and leaving the flank exposed.
A more representative pick would have been Montreal's Ignacio Piatti, but 1) He only moved out wide for the last couple of weeks of the season, and 2) Keane carried LA down the stretch pretty much single-handedly, and he needed recognition.
The Besler selection will, I'm sure, draw some comments. But bear this in mind: Sporting replaced their starting 'keeper, both starting fullbacks, Besler's partner in central defense and their starting d-mid either in the offseason or throughout the year itself. He was literally the only constant, the only holdover in a league where chemistry and continuity play outsize roles. He is, along with Borchers, the best organizer in the league – he makes the collection of talent a "team" – and since it's a team game, that needs some dap.
A couple more notes:
- Center forwards were incredibly influential this season, and three of the very best -- Bradley Wright-Phillips, Fanendo Adi and Cyle Larin– didn't make the cut. Those guys combined for 50 goals and 10 assists.
- "Second forwards" like Giovinco, Keane, Clint Dempsey, Chris Rolfe and Chris Wondolowski had strong years statistically, but the position has become something of a luxury. MLS teams have become shrewd about flooding the central midfield against 4-4-2 teams and cutting off the supply to the front lines. I expect Seattle and Toronto to switch to 4-3-3s in 2016, with Giovinco and Dempsey both playing inverted on the left.
- The No. 10 spot is overflowing. Guys who missed out include Kaka, Lee Nguyen, Javier Morales and Federico Higuain.
- In last year's column I left Waston and Jermaine Jones off my lists, penalizing them for arriving mid-season. In retrospect I regret that decision, and am attempting to rectify it with Drogba's inclusion in the second team. Dude was clearly the best player in the league from late-August onward.
- Defense matters. Villa got the nod ahead of Keane because he's a better, more active defender. Feilhaber and Kljestan produced spectacular performances on both sides of the ball – truly modern playmakers. And Wynne was clearly the league's best defensive right back, even if he didn't offer much going forward (though more than you realize in possession).
- Winning matters. Only three of my Best XI x3 missed the playoffs.