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THE HIGH FIVE: An abundance of U.S. central mids, emerging player markets impacting MLS, great American goalkeeping and more

Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer

1. Deepest U.S. position of the moment? You may be surprised

When it comes to world class goalkeeping, the United States has practically cranked ‘em out the way Apple cranks out iPhones. Or something like that.

Central defenders have frequently been a strong suit, too, going back two decades to when Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa were the big hammers, always on the hunt for a nail. There were times when the U.S. player pool was deep – well, maybe “deep-ish” – with good strikers, even if it wasn’t replete with great ones.  

When it came to influential central midfielders, well, let’s just say this was never a land of plenty. Generally, we have never looked at the player pool and declared it “spilling over” with impressive center mids. 

But are we seeing such a thing now? We aren’t talking about world beaters, necessarily. Andres Iniesta isn’t exactly looking over his shoulder at the Nou Camp, but the United States is relatively flush with good choices, at least. 

The sheriff, of course, is Michael Bradley. Behind him we still have the aging Jermaine Jones, who can still boss a game, even if he probably won’t hold that ability through World Cup 2018. Kyle Beckerman will remain “on call” through qualifying if any of the other candidates for holding midfield cannot step up in the clutch.

From there, check out a swelling list of candidates for various roles, the screening midfield spot, the connectors and the centrally stationed attackers.  

In the mix for more defensive roles are Danny Williams, Perry Kitchen, Will Trapp, Matt Polster, Alfredo Morales and Tony Tchani. Geoff Cameron has played their internationally and Tim Ream was an occasional choice as a “No. 6” for Bolton (before he moved to Fulham). Kellyn Acosta holds a central midfield role for FC Dallas, even if the 20-year-old homegrown man debuted Sunday as a left back, and his former midfield partner in the FC Dallas Academy, Emerson Hyndman(still not even 20 years old), has gotten back into the mix at Fulham.

Guys like Lee Nguyen and Joe Corona are gifted attacking midfield choices. Darlington Nagbe is a possession specialist who can also supply that sweet, sweet pass that breaks down a back line.  

You could put Alejandro Bedoya into the list of choices to assist with central attacking or possession, although he always seems more comfortable out wide. Same for Graham Zusi, who can and has manned interior positions at Sporting Kansas City, although U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann has deployed him almost exclusively out wide.

Mix Diskerud remains a bit of an enigma, adequate at any of the midfield roles, although so far unable to “wow” internationally at any of them.

And we haven’t even mentioned guys that plenty of us would like to see in the picture, although Klinsmann seems to have moved on. That list includes Benny Feilhaber, Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan.

2. Early odds on MLS Cup winner 2016

Anyone else surprised that, according to the early MLS championship odds, six teams have a better chance to lift MLS Cup 2016 than Seattle? I see the same problems around CenturyLink that everyone else sees, but there’s still a lot to like about this team. In particular, I see a stacked front line in that 4-3-3 that manager Sigi Schmid seems intent on trying. And at their best, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins form the top 1-2 offensive punch in MLS. When they start feeling it, we get “straight up street ballin’ ” as they say.

And what if Jordan Morris is “all that?”  

Best odds on the board are, in order: New York Red Bulls, LA Galaxy, Portland, Columbus, Dallas and Vancouver. That all seems logical enough – except for maybe the Seattle placement. 

By the way, the best bet to make a buck if you find yourself in Vegas in the coming weeks: Sporting Kansas City at 20-1 or maybe New England at 25-1.

3. More tales from the short MLS offseason 

Major League Soccer’s comically (but for many of us, mercifully) short off-season is fascinating for all kinds of reasons. This year, we have two more ingredients to enjoy in our off-season stew.

First is the evolving economics of soccer around the world, and how they are impacting MLS. As other leagues develop they will drive prices up for talent that MLS clubs covet. 

This story in the New York Times is all about how China’s current shopping spree on the Brazilian player market, combined with the slumping economy and ongoing financial issues of clubs in the South American soccer stronghold, are inflating prices for Brazil’s abundance of talent.

This one may only indirectly impact MLS; but another league has scored a direct hit on one MLS club. The growing Qatar Stars League is relatively new in the world’s game, and this week one of its teams picked off Sporting Kansas City’s striker Krisztian Nemeth.

Although he mostly lived in Dom Dwyer’s shadow last year – especially as Dwyer was coming off that breakout 22-goal season in 2014 -- Nemeth was no peripheral figure around Sporting Park. The Hungarian international contributed 10 goals and 6 assists for Sporting KC last year; those numbers are roughly what Fabian Castillo has done at FCD each of the last two seasons.  

Nemeth could especially be a handful when used as a target striker, although he was more often deployed out wide, as SKC already had Dwyer as first choice in that highest position on the field. Nemeth earned $250,000 for 2015 and according to Kansas City manager Peter Vermes was offered a generous raise for 2016. It wasn’t enough, apparently, as Nemeth went for an even bigger cash grab in Qatar. It’s not the first time a player has left MLS for a lesser known, but higher paying league – and it won’t be the last.

The other interesting story is still unfolding, and it involves AC Milan’s Antonio Nocerino, who happens to represent one of the main ingredients of any successful MLS team.

When you break down MLS clubs’ salary structures, most winning teams have three basic ingredients: a couple of real difference makers (usually Designated Players), solid mid-level contributors sprinkled around the park (usually on mid-level salaries) and then younger players or strategically chosen journeymen who fill up the starting spots, provide depth, etc.

Nocerino, an AC Milan man but mostly a marginal figure at the San Siro, would tip toward the higher end of that “mid-level” element. Still, at 30 years old he would likely become a dependable, productive MLS man. Think Juninho in his good years at Los Angeles, Felipe at the New York Red Bulls or maybe even Kyle Beckerman at RSL. 

It really never can be said enough: teams that win in MLS need these mid-salary guys. Recall that Portland just won an MLS Cup with a healthy assortment of them; Nat Borchers, Diego Chara, Adam Kwarasey, Darlington Nagbe, Max Urruti and Rodney Wallace all fell officially between $165,000 and $260,000 on the books. 

Nocerino is likely to tip the salary scales at a slightly higher level – if he gets here. And it’s a big “if,” which is where we get into chewy center of this budding imbroglio.

He is front and center in a squabble between D.C. United and Orlando, one in which MLS headquarters is now refereeing. MLS has ordered the Florida team to stand down on its pursuit of Nocerino; United had already claimed Nocerino’s “discovery rights.”

It will be interesting to watch this one play out, as one club has potentially compromised another club’s bargaining position. See, Major League Soccer’s entire strategy on salary cost containment is based on minimal competition between clubs for player services. It is an absolute bedrock of the league’s business plan, and it’s always a contentious issue in players union negotiations. That’s why MLS headquarters won’t be happy with one team driving up the price on a player destined for elsewhere in the league.

Keep an eye on how this one plays out, especially as Orlando City and manager Adrian Heath have previously been fined for tampering.

4. Great goalkeeping not just a U.S. product

I noticed some low level Twitter consternation when reports surfaced that Spanish goalkeeper – check that … make it “Spanish goalkeeping great” – Iker Casillas may be inbound for NYCFC. The gist was thus: America produces great ‘keepers, so why would any MLS club look beyond our shores for guardians of goal?

Frankly, that represents “old school” MLS thinking. The world has changed.

It is certainly true that the United States has faithfully produced the surest of hands, going back even before MLS was a thing. But it’s not like the United States has a monopoly on steady-eddy goalkeeping. It might surprise you to know that three of last six MLS Goalkeeper of the Year winners were from lands beyond. (In fairness, every winner prior to 2010 was from the United States.)

It’s as simple as this: as MLS has expanded, the pool of outstanding U.S. goalkeepers has become slightly diluted. Yes, there are still plenty of outstanding American ‘keepers. And there are plenty of American ‘keepers just below that elite level, but who still grade out with high marks. Further down the scale, there are oodles of good, solid American ‘keepers.

But if you’re an MLS club, and if the economics of a foreign signing aren’t totally out of whack, why in the world would you settle for “good, solid” when you could have high quality? Or why would you settle for “high quality” when you could have “outstanding?”

If you examine MLS goalkeeping in 2015, the picture of an evolving player market comes into focus. Vancouver’s David Ousted finished second in balloting for 2015 Goalkeeper of the Year. He’s Danish. (So is Jimmy Nielsen, who won the honor in 2013 in addition to claiming MLS Cup with Kansas City.)

Adam Kwarasey, who was born and grew up in Norway but plays internationally for Ghana, was outstanding in goal for current MLS Cup holder Portland. Panamanian No. 1 Jaime Penedo was doing great in goal for the L.A. Galaxy before he left in a contract squabble, a happening that proved fatal to the Galaxy’s title defense. (It wasn’t just rickety ‘keeping from his replacement, Donovan Ricketts; the Galaxy back line went a bit pear-shaped in 2015, too.)

How about this: statistically speaking, four of last year’s top five goalkeepers are foreign or likely to represent foreign lands internationally. (Lookin’ at you, Jesse Gonzalez.) 

There will always be quality goalkeeping coming from the United States; that won’t change. But the evolving player acquisition mechanisms, particularly the newest device, Target Allocation Money (TAM), means teams can target something better if they aren’t lucky enough to snatch a top American in goal. MLS commissioner Don Garber has said the current focus is improving the “middle of our rosters,” positions 5-8 or so. “That’s what the TAM program is all about,” he said. 

If you have Nick Rimando, Bill Hamid, Luis Robles, Sean Johnson or one of the other top U.S. goalkeepers, well, great! If not, today’s MLS provides a bit more money to upgrade from lands beyond.

5. The Little Five

5a. If you saw the U.S. win over Iceland, and if you happen to be a Toronto FC fan, you are getting positively giddy about 2016. Because TFC men Jozy Altidore and (especially) Michael Bradley looked quite sharp. That’s in addition to having the best player in MLS in 2015, Sebastian Giovinco. And then a bunch of other stuff we talked about last week.

5b. On the one hand, you wouldn’t mind if it was cold as a meat locker for the March 29 Olympic qualifier in Frisco between the United States and Colombia. On the other hand, a nicer evening as the United States and Colombia battle for a place in the Rio Olympics would presumably create a more substantial home field edge (because more locals would come cheer the Yanks). Either way, history says temps on that date will be mild rather than extreme; temperatures typically vary between 54 and 70 degrees on March 29 in North Texas, and have very rarely dipped below 42, according to the numbers. The bigger threat at that time of the year? Severe thunderstorms.

5c. If you believe that “conflict sells” in sports, the LA Galaxy just keep building its case for the “team that everyone loves to hate.” Ashley Cole and Nigel De Jong now joining the Galaxy? OK …  

5d. Anybody else see the irony in Steven Gerrard calling Cole’s signing a “master stroke?” See, just a few months ago, Gerrard admitted that he wasn’t prepared for Major League Soccer’s particular challenges. So … now he’s suddenly an expert on what makes an ideal MLS signing? OK …

5e. On the one hand, it is clear why D.C. United added 34-year-old Marcelo Sarvas: given the tenuous statuses of Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud, and since Colorado is keeping most of the veteran midfielder’s salary on its books, United got a central midfielder it desperately needed. But my, oh, my! Ben Olsen’s team is already among the league’s oldest. To get Sarvas with a reduced salary cap hit would make sense as a depth provider for a lot of MLS teams. D.C. United just doesn’t seem like one of them. From Black and Red United (which also pointed out the upsides to adding Sarvas in that linked piece): “United's expected lineup would likely be comprised of more players over 30 than under 30. For a team that has seemed to run out of gas in the fall two years in a row, it's a notable concern.”

Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for World Soccer Talk and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.

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