If there is a time-honored tradition in sports, it’s constantly failing to give the proper respect to heroes who don’t make the highlights. In soccer, those heroes are the defensive midfielders. Everyone gives googly eyes to the forwards, but forgets who got them the damn ball. It’s easy to admire a nice cake until you take a bite and the uncooked moosh sticks to your mouth.
Then I remembered… the
fine folks at MLSsoccer.com gave me a pen and a platform.
So we are doing an entire article giving props to the top defensive midfielders around Major League Soccer throughout 2019.
Let’s start with the young buck … Jackson Yueill. I’m not sure anyone who watched Yueill play from age 1-21 thought he would be a “defensive” midfielder, but, alas, here we are. He got Matias Almeyda’d. This year, he’s been able to pair his unique comfort on the ball with bite and defensive awareness. He’s been a beast in one-on-one battles within Almeyda’s man-marking system and was the key facilitator for a San Jose Earthquakes team that kept the most possession in the league. He’s also had a few of these in him, too...
Jonathan dos Santos
Then you have the established stud … Jonathan dos Santos. It’s been a weird year for the Galaxy – every year feels weird for the Galaxy these days – but you can’t blame it on JDS. It’s easy to overlook the Mexico international because he makes everything look so natural. He gets the ball in a tight situation and looks so unbothered that you wouldn’t know it was a key moment. He reads second balls so well that it never looked like a 50-50 chance to begin with. Zlatan Ibrahimovic might be the king of the Galaxy, but JDS is the prime minister who keeps the trains running.
The old guard
Sticking in the Western Conference ... if you thought Ozzie Alonso and Diego Chara would regress after hitting 33, you thought wrong. Both are running around like it’s 2013. Alonso helped turn Minnesota from one of the worst defending teams in league history into the third-best defense in the Western Conference. Chara has been his usual self for Portland, scooting up and down the field and eating up second balls like a Roomba eats chip crumbs on hardwood.
Speaking of getting better with age ... 34-year-old Haris Medunjanin has been the best metronome in the league. The guy has so much chill on the ball that he could cool a bottle of champagne. You weren’t wrong, either, to worry about his ability to play in a high-intensity defensive scheme. Yet here we are, heading into the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, and the Philadelphia Union have the No. 3 seed in the East. Medunjanin had a challenge in front of him and he met it.
Unfortunately, Orlando City didn’t meet their own goals … but you can’t blame it on Sebastien Mendez. Mendez was a standout performer through the first two-thirds of the season before injuries slowed him down. He offers a nice foundation for the Lions moving forward into 2020.
Like everyone else in the East, Orlando have to find a way to catch New York City FC … because Alex Ring is a boss. NYCFC have turned out to be the best team in the East, but it was a combustible situation early in the year. They were a struggling team in a volatile market. Maxi Moralez, Alexandru Mitrita, Anton Tinnerholm, Ronald Matarrita, Heber and Valentin Castellanos is a weird mix of players and individuals – not to mention Dome Torrent’s constant tactical adjustments. Ring has tied the whole thing together. They are balling out, and the favorites to meet…
... LAFC in the final, because the Black and Gold have had the best defensive midfielder in the league, Eduard Atuesta. (Okay, it helps that LAFC have Carlos Vela, too.) Atuesta has been the best player in MLS in 2019 not named Vela, Josef Martinez, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (I’d listen to arguments for Maxi Moralez, but my vote goes to Atuesta). The 22-year-old Colombian has been amazing. He’s covered ground and won tackles like Chara, facilitated possession like Darlington Nagbe, and played through balls like Nico Lodeiro. He’s so damn smooth, too. To think, he wasn’t even a sure-fire starter in 2018 and came off the bench in LAFC’s playoff loss to Real Salt Lake. He’s gone from rotation player to the best defensive midfielder in the league in nine months.
Here’s the question Atuesta needs to address, though. He hasn’t won big games like others on the list have. Alonso put together one of the most impressive performances in league history in 2016 (pushed along by Michael Bradley, who was also excellent) to help the Seattle Sounders lift their first MLS Cup. Chara has a championship of his own. JDS was the best player in a Gold Cup final. It’s one thing to boss a game in Week 14 of the regular season; it’s another task to go head-to-head with dos Santos in the playoffs.
My goodness, is it beautiful when those matchups get going. There’s nothing like watching two winners in the middle of the field go at it. They’re fighting for rhythm, manipulating the intensity, slowing down the pace, picking up the pace, stopping attacks, starting attacks and aligning the pieces. They make the machine click.
Give the defensive midfielders their due.