Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Top 5 MLS Bargain Buys

I was working on a list Sunday night to continue the string of MLS Top 5'ers, but wasn't overly happy with it. I also started up a list Monday night, but didn't love that one either. And then, the league salary list was released on Tuesday and the perfect next topic fell right into my lap.

Everyone loves shopping for value, whether it's on the housing market, at the Albert Cuyp Markt or in the supermarket. Finding a great deal is a distinctly human endeavor, as is relishing the idea that we've allocated financial resources better than others.

I have not included rookies, because that's just too easy - especially in a year when so many newbies are making quick impact. Of course they are cheaper than the rest. But even without them, there are plenty of bargains to go around. So many that I'll top off this list with a bonus 23-man side (starting XI + bench) that would give 'em all a run for their considerably larger stacks of wage money at the low, low labor cost of only $2.55 million.

#5 - Nick Hagglund, Toronto FC

The 24-year-old defender rose to prominence in last year's run to MLS Cup, playing the hero more than once. Hagglund can win aerial battle, emergency defend on the run, move the ball forward efficiently and pose a real threat on attacking set pieces. And with Drew Moor out recently, the Reds also learned that he can marshal their three-man back line, all for just $110,000 in salary.

#4 - Axel Sjöberg, Colorado

The Rapids' Defender of the Year finalist earns just $123 grand per season, which would have been a bargain five years ago. Naturally, the beanpole center back is a force in the air, but he's also pretty smooth on the ball. His importance has become frightfully obvious to the locals since Sjöberg went down with an injury last month. Colorado has gone 0-3-1 without him, leaking eight goals in those four matches.

In fact, these sort of stats have been apparent since he arrived prior to the 2015 season. In his 47 regular season appearances for the club, the Rapids have conceded .72 times per. In the 24 he's missed, they've allowed 1.5 goals per game. Any other questions?

#3 - Christian Roldan, Seattle

I'd hesitate greatly to call the Sounders midfielder underrated, as most observers now realize how crucial he is to the champs' system. Roldan, however, remains a stupendous value at $137,000. Like Hagglund, he cemented his star credentials during the last fall's playoffs.

He's the guy who bridges the excellence of Ozzie Alonso and the danger of Seattle's big-ticket item attackers. Roldan links positive play, forces turnovers in the opponent's end, acts pressure valve, gets stuck in and pitches in with a bit offense.

#2 - Joevin Jones, Seattle

Is Jones the best left back in MLS? Perhaps. Is he the one most integral to his team's success? Probably so. Is the impending free agent so woefully underpaid at $97,000 that the Sounders best hurry with an appreciative extension offer or he'll shining overseas next year? Most definitely.

The Trindad & Tobago wide man almost seems to get better by the week. Not only has Jones become a terrific one-v-one defender and build hound, but did you know that he has eight assists (plus one forced own goal) in his last 18 MLS games, including the playoffs? That's an absurd helper rate for a wingback in this league. Hell, that's an absurd rate for an Eredivisie wingback. 

#1 - Cyle Larin, Orlando City

The Lions striker is the most pricey player mentioned in this entire post, and he's more than worth it. For just $192,000 in salary cap expense, Jason Kreis gets arguably the best lead striker in the league. Sure, there a handful of others in the debate, but who among them is surrounded by talent as humble as Orlando City's?

This season, the Canada star has six goals in six games, on just 15 shots. There's no Valeri or Kljestan here to create a bushel of chances, no Giovinco or Elis here to distract defenders away, not even a Lodeiro or Finlay to pump an endless supply of crosses into the box.

No, Larin feeds on scraps, yet feasts like a king. And when you think of his incredibly reasonable salary, remember this is not some unproven commodity. He came into the season with 31 goals in 59 league matches. All in all, I'd imagine it won't be long before he's providing value to a strong European side.

And now, on to the bonus value squad...

Here's the starting line-up: Gleeson ($115K); Rosenberry ($110K), Sjoberg ($123K), Hagglund ($110K), Joevin Jones ($97K); Azira ($116K), Roldan ($137K), Fagundez ($180K); Barrios ($100K), Larin ($192K), Asad ($150K).

Here's the bench: Gonzalez ($85K), Duvall ($71K), Zavaleta ($133K), Watts ($75K), Opara ($150K), Kemp ($120K), Artur ($99K), Medranda ($130K), Alex ($170K), Lennon ($53K), Badji ($65K), Jackson-Hamel ($65K).

- Greg Seltzer

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Pop A Corona

This slipped past me Friday night, as I was focused on the Toronto FC-Chicago match, but better late then never. Joe Corona nodded home the opener/winner as Tijuana maintained a slim Liga MX lead with a 2-0 win over Toluca.

- Greg Seltzer

Friday, April 21, 2017

Flank Stakes

The regulars here know I favor systems with wingers, and that I prefer to operate as one when playing myself. Obviously, I take this list very seriously.

There is no perfect recipe for a flank attacker. Some prefer to cut in and look for goals, some are more traditional cross-heavy types who aim to reach the touchline and yet others are some blend of those two descriptions. Many work the full length of their sideline, tracking back well and providing a pressure valve, whereas a select few get to shirk such responsibilities to focus on pinning defenses back. You get the idea; a winger can impact the game in so many ways, and that's why I love 'em.

This ranking ran a bit different than how I worked up the spine list, when I focused solely on line-up regulars. This time, I took stock of a team's entire wing stable. First, I ranked the starters separately, with a clear #1 choice shining through. Then, the depth crews served as tiebreakers for the rest of the picks.

As could be expected in the improved world of MLS, several clubs narrowly missed out on the list. Seattle and Portland were very close, but have little depth to speak of. Houston has plenty of that, but still fell a shade short, while the LA Galaxy's depth is largely unproven at this juncture. To boot, Chicago and Real Salt Lake weren't too terribly far off.

#5 - Montreal (Oduro, Piatti, Tabla)

Frankly, Nacho Piatti is nearly enough by himself to put the Impact in the list. He's the most goal-dangerous player not named Seba who is mentioned in this bit, and yet is enough of a playmaker to notch 23 assists in just over two campaigns worth of work. He's so vital to Montreal, that they've won just two of the 16 MLS matches he's sat out since joining up.

Of course, he's not alone, as book end Dominic Oduro is a speedy field-stretcher. Yeah, he's streaky as hell with production, but does have a flair for important goals. They also have teenager Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, who's already proven to be quite useful this season.

#4 - Colorado (Badji, Gashi, Gatt, Hairston)

This Rapids group hasn't accomplished much yet this term, but be patient. It's a talented stable with an excellent balance of skills, and Pablo Mastroeni would do well to have his team force-feed these guys. Veteran left-sider Shkelzen Gashi is steady in the build and capable of the big moment. Of all their options, he's easily the best long-range shooter. Dominique Badji, the speed threat on that side, is coming into his own. The 24-year-old has six goals and three helpers in Colorado's last 13 league games.

The Rapids have as much strength over on the right. Like Badji, Marlon Hairston is quickly growing in influence; he's been good for four goals and six helpers in his last 16 regular season matches. They also now have speed demon Josh Gatt, who could turn out to be a real steal. He has the wheels and moves to terrify any defender, and finishes well.

#3 - New York City FC (Harrison, McNamara, Shelton, Wallace)

Patrick Vieira's wing terrors are off to a great start this season. Not only have regulars Jack Harrison and Rodney Wallace already bagged four goals, but each is a force on the build and responsible defensively. The 20-year-old Harrison has what it takes to end up on a Best XI honor roll in the not-so-distant future.

Meanwhile, after starting most of last year's games, bench ace Tommy McNamara proved a couple weeks ago that he can also come to the rescue with a late winner. The Bronx boys also have Khiry Shelton coming off a strong 2016 campaign, but he's currently on the shelf until June. All in all, this stable has enough quality and potential to make plenty of European teams envious.

#2 - Toronto FC (Beitashour, Edwards, Giovinco, Morrow)

Okay, this one requires some explanation. The Reds are a rare exception due to their formation; they don't use stereotypical wingers, but definitely make offensive bank off their flank mechanations.

In yesterday's post, I stated that Sebastian Giovinco (otherwise known as the nest player in MLS) shouldn't really qualify as a spine member. He's also clearly not an out-an-out winger, but he does spend enough time operating wide, that I'll include him here. That decided... well, what else do I need to say? Dude is a stone cold killer.

As with Giovinco, wingbacks Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow earn a slightly inappropriate nod here. Sure, they do defensive work, but their main purpose on most days is to push the team forward down the sidelines and help create offense in the final third. Morrow is among the most productive wide backs in the league and his opposite is no slouch, either.

On top of all that, Toronto FC has an exciting young buck in Raheem Edwards. He's been pretty terrific in his three appearances this season and looks to be a real keeper with upside.

#1 - Columbus (Finlay, Hansen, Manneh, Meram)

And so we've arrived at the gold standard for flank squadrons. The Crew are the only team in the league with three pure wingers of All-Star caliber. And each of them is very different.

Early MVP candidate Justin Meram is a hybrid gem who likes to turn up in a variety of places in the final third. He's scores, he sets up chances for teammates, he is cool in the build and can make plays from every angle. Right-sider Ethan Finley is the pacy cross-master that can also find his own shot. The guy had six goals and nine assists on a bad team last term - and that qualified as a letdown season for him.

New addition Kekuta Manneh has yet to appear for the Crew, but he has a world of talent. He's a 21-year-old thrill-ride of a player that still has tons of room to grow. Columbus also picked up Niko Hansen in this year's SuperDraft. He's already proved me wrong, as I had him tabbed as a reach at #8. After hopping off the bench to strike a big late winner a few weeks back, the kid done well in starting ahead of Finlay and Manneh the last two games.

- Greg Seltzer

How does one say "Well, that's not right!" in German?

As the Chicago were were flying out for Friday night's big game at Toronto FC, a lady spotted the players and asked if she could take a photo with them. Then, umm, she asked a nice young man standing nearby to snap the picture for her... oops! 

- Greg Seltzer

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Top 5 MLS Spines

Those of you who were here from the beginning may remember that (aside from the hello message) this was the exact topic of the very first NSC post. That was back in 2008, when Columbus ended up raising MLS Cup at season's end. Alejandro Moreno bagged the opener, Chad Marshall hit the winner and Guillermo Barros Schelotto made me look good by claiming the MVP prize for his three assist.

Nowadays, the competition to make the list is much more fierce and those who do are packing considerably strong spines. New York City FC narrowly missed out this time, and their current group from net-to-other net (Johnson, Callens, Chanot, Ring, Pirlo, Moralez, Villa) would likely top the field offered nine years ago.

Because of the different formations used, some of these clubs have six players down the middle, and some have seven. All of them have enough power to win an MLS Cup in midfield, save it front of their own goal and decide it front of their opponents'. As with all such rankings for MLS these days, it was a very tough call separating the groups. Really, any of the teams below is capable of playing like the top dawg on a given day.

One last introductory note: I've included players who are on the shelf with short-term injuries, but for the moment have excluded those set to miss a couple months or more. And that's a big reason why FC Dallas also suffered a near miss. They would surely break into the top five when Mauro Diaz returns (or when Cristian Colman starts burying all his big chances, whichever comes first). Even as is, their sturdy backbone (Seitz, Hedges, Zimmerman, Gruezo, Acosta, Colman) is the envy of most teams in the league.

#5 - New York Red Bulls (Robles, Long, Collin, Adams, Felipe, Kljestan, Wright-Phillips)

Yes, the Energy Drinks have struggled out of the blocks this season, but I attribute that mostly to Jesse Marsch's odd desire to switch their formation to one that doesn't fit his selection. Now that they've finally realized that Bradley Wright-Phillips doesn't need much help leading the line and (more importantly) that Sacha Kljestan is wasted on the wing, comfy wins like the one they posted against D.C. on Saturday should return to being a regularity.

Aaron Long has been a revelation at the back, while the early excellence of Tyler Adams as a Dax McCarty replacement is less of a surprise. Those two have fit in very well, and their impact will likely be magnified once New York starts playing better on the flanks.

#4 - Toronto FC (Irwin, Moor, Bradley, Cooper, Vazquez, Altidore)

I know what you're thinking right now: "Hey, idiot, what about Giovinco?"

Well, considering how he so readily operates from wide channels, I don't really classify him as a spine member. A similar differentiation can be applied to steady defenders Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta. Don't feel sorry for the Reds over these classifications, though. Victor Vazquez has made himself right at home in their midfield triangle, which means the victories that have not come to them on the young season should soon start piling up. And because of the snazzy new clockwork offered by Michael Bradley's traffic direction, Armando Cooper's hassling motor and the new Spaniard's idea execution, an already warming Jozy Altidore could turn positively scorching in no time.

#3 - Portland (Gleeson, Miller, Ridgewell, Guzman, Chara, Valeri, Adi)

The Timbers, have clearly been one of the best clubs in the league so far this term. Part of the reason is how supremely balanced they are up and down (and across) the field. They get timely big saves from Jake Gleeson, while Roy Miller (if not also Lawrence Olum) have been decent enough stand-ins for the injured Ridgewell and the forthcoming center back buy to be named later. Of course, they really start to shine once we leave their back.

David Guzman has been a transformative addition, shielding the thus-far makeshift defense while also allowing Diego Chara to play it forward more often. Little needs to be said about Diego Valeri and Fenando Adi, who each stand one goal off Cubo Torres league lead in goals. The latter also tops MLS in shots on goal, which is reflective of both his strength/guile combo and the quality chances he's so often afforded by the midfield trio behind him.

#2 - Seattle (Frei, Torres, Marshall, Alonso, Roldan, Dempsey, Morris)

The Sounders juuuust squeaked past their nearby rivals to grab the second slot by virtue of their clear edge with the back three. Without Stefan Frei, Roman Torres and Chad Marshall throwing up walls, they are not currently the defending champs. And due to the slow start of their attack this season, they're much of the reason this team isn't embarrassingly propping up the West table right now.

The other part of that equation is the top-shelf work put in by Osvaldo Alonso and the sorely underrated Christian Roldan week after week. If Seattle's playmakers can get those other two fellas clicking, it's quite fair to wonder if the Sounders can become the fourth MLS team to log a title repeat. Hell, we already know a staggering start to the campaign won't disqualify them.

#1 - Sporting Kansas City (Melia, Opara, Besler, Sánchez, Espinoza, Feilhaber, Dwyer)

While everyone is busy patting the Missouri Azzuri's back over their defense, I say the real power in this side works the line down the middle of the pitch. Tim Melia is making a name for himself in goal. Ike Opara is healthy again and capable of shutting down almost any manner of attack. Matt Besler is, well, Matt Besler.

Like Guzmán, Sánchez has been a terrific addition that kinda flies under the radar. Of course, we all know what Peter Vermes gets from reliable hands Roger Espinoza, Benny "No Air" Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer. Like Seattle's spine attackers, Sporting's will surely produce much more as the season progresses. Long story short: this up-the-gut crew is of championship caliber, even if they haven't entirely shown it yet.


Tomorrow, we turn focus to the winger stables

- Greg Seltzer

Lucky Number Seven

Later, I will begin a week-long festival of MLS Top 5 Lists. For now, let's give a round of applause to FK Sarajevo winger Nermin Crnkić, who scored t to help his side reach the Bosnia and Herzegovina Football Cup final with a win at Mladost Doboj Kakanj on Wednesday. It was his career-best seventh goal across all competitions this term.

- Greg Seltzer