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

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