Carlos Ruiz. Aurelien Collin. Ozzie Alonso. Dema Kovalenko. Blas Perez. Felipe. Steven Lenhart.
What emotions do those names drum up inside of you? It largely depends on which club you support. LA Galaxy and FC Dallas fans almost certainly have a soft spot for Ruiz. Seattle (and Minnesota) are ride or die for Alonso. Earthquakes supporters unabashedly (see what I did there?) love Lenhart.
The rest of the league? Ehhhhhhhh, not so much. The inspiration for this column comes thanks to Doug Bradley, who dropped the following email in the Extratime Mailbag, and got me thinking about the first of, I hope, many all-time MLS XIs brought on by quarantine boredom.
Could you do an all-time MLS Loathed XI in an upcoming podcast? This would be the team made up of the most hated players from MLS history; the guy you love on your team, but hate on another team type. The captain is Hristo Stoichkov.
Loathed is a strong word. I prefer the “love him on my team, hate him on another” definition, so we’ll go with that. My method was simple: I combed through my own memories (2006 on), crowdsourced from MLS Twitter and got some feedback via text from people who know this league's history like the back of their hand. Let me know who I missed in the comment section! Hristo Stoichkov doesn’t appear in my XI, but he's the honorary captain of this squad.
If you’ve got an idea for another all-time XI – Designated Players, Homegrowns, all-name team, Argentines, literally anything – hit me up on Twitter (@andrew_wiebe) or text or contact Extratime with your takes, prompts, roasts, whatever at 401-206-0MLS or firstname.lastname@example.org.
GK: Jimmy Nielsen
Sporting KC supporters worship Casino Jimmy, and for good reason (#PaintTheWall). Opponents weren’t nearly as fond of the goalkeeping theatrics, penalty-kick shenanigans, time-wasting and often-brash public comments. If Sporting were mediocre, nobody would have cared. Instead, with the Dane between the pipes, they became a defensive juggernaut and Nielsen backed up his smack talk.
LB: Joe Franchino
There was something about those early 2000s Revs teams, as this list shows, that got under people’s skin. Franchino wasn’t one of the stars, per say, but plenty of folks dropped his name in my mentions. Again, it helps the Revs were good (and I needed a left back). Franchino was hard-nosed, unafraid of a tackle and didn’t back down from anyone, including his own teammates. In 2006, he was involved in an infamous training ground fist-fight with Revs teammate Clint Dempsey.
CB: Aurelien Collin
Dig back in your memory banks. Can you see it? I’m talking about Collin’s incredulous face as he argues with the referee after a hard, reckless and perhaps-completely-unnecessary challenge. Maybe it’s even his smug grin after dunking a set-piece goal. Just like Nielsen, Kansas City supporters loved his personality. Just like Nielsen, it drove opponents absolutely crazy.
CB: Nick Garcia
OK, no more Kansas City players. I promise. Sorry, Roger Espinoza. Garcia is a throwback to the Wizards era. Again, the team was successful – MLS Cup, MLS Cup runners-up, U.S. Open Cup and Supporters Shield titles – and Garcia was the I’ll-do-whatever-I-have-to-do-to-stop-you central defender on those teams. That’s a nice way of saying some folks thought he sometimes crossed the line.
RB: Troy Dayak
Thought about slotting in Jay Heaps here, a very good, very annoying to play or root against right back on a good team. I went with Dayak because everything I’ve ever heard about him is that he’s the sort of defender who lived in the back of attackers' minds. As in, “Should I take a touch here? This dude might crush me.” I’d love having that fear factor on my team. I’d be triggered if it was on the other side.
D-MID: Osvaldo Alonso
I believe Ozzie belongs here, but you could easily swap in Kyle Beckerman or Diego Chara and I wouldn’t complain. All three are physical, unapologetic ball-winners. Beckerman and Alonso add frequent trash talk to the mix, while Chara smashes you quietly and with a smile. All three play for good teams and have picked up their fair share of yellow cards. All three were the frequent target of curse words from the opposing fans. All three are beloved in their own city.
I don’t think I need to explain this one, do I? Even Felipe agrees.
I embrace and agree with you. 👊🏼— Felipe Martins (@FeliMartins8) March 31, 2020
CM: Dema Kovalenko
Better have your head on a swivel when you play against Kovalenko. Former Fire teammate C.J. Brown put it well: “A 50-50 challenge is usually 75-25 for him.” As for his opponents and opposing fans, here’s what Soccer America contributor Paul Gardner wrote about Kovalenko during the 2010 playoffs: “How many more broken legs does it take before ‘a battler’ becomes ‘a thug,’ before ‘aggressive’ becomes ‘vicious?’ For my part, I see no reason to wait for another tragedy. I’ve seen enough of Dema Kovalenko to feel perfectly comfortable in calling him a dirty player.”
ATT: Clint Dempsey
Dempsey was a fighter, figuratively speaking, but also sometimes literally. He played angry. He made #$%@ happen, as Bruce Arena famously said. He broke some bones. He didn’t give a #$%@. Go read Matt Pentz’s incredible piece at The Athletic, which is full of awesome Deuce stories. If he’s yours, you love him. If he’s not…
FWD: Steven Lenhart
He was a one-man wrecking crew. Two, if Alan Gordon was on the field. Even Gordo says there were days where he went back and forth between love and loath for his strike partner. Lenny relished the mano-a-mano side of the game, and he won most battles he went into, both physically and mentally. He didn’t mind a little campiness, either. Remember Steven Lenhart wig night? What about the twerk celebration? The Goonies were a hateable team, and Lenhart was a big reason why.
FWD: Carlos Ruiz
C’mon, it’s Pescadito. The man was born to be a villain, all in the most entertaining way. He embellished, he was demonstrative, he scored big goals, he inspired the normally mild-mannered Ricardo Clark to kick him in the chest. He’s the captain of this team.
BENCH: Blas Perez, Landon Donovan, Diego Chara, Kyle Beckerman, Jay Heaps, Mike Petke, Jaime Penedo
Donovan is the name that probably stands out for you. Just think back on his young-punk phase, the acrimonious move from San Jose to Los Angeles and all the goals, winning and press attention. That’s more than enough to get him on this list. You either love him or you … don’t.