Selecting Major League Soccer's All-Star team on merit, not reputation
There's no doubt that the Major League Soccer All-Star Game is as much about selling the league with big names as about rewarding the best first-half performances with selections to the team. One needs not look further than commissioner Don Garber's picks -- Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard (the latter replaced by Dax McCarty due to injury) -- to understand that reality. When named to the All-Star team, neither had played a minute for his new MLS team.
The weight given to the fan vote is another indication that this isn't necessarily a game meant to feature the best of MLS in 2015; this is no slight to the general MLS fan base, but All-Star voting is almost always about popularity, not performance. There's a reason the first XI as picked by the masses includes almost exclusively U.S. national team stars and marquee designated players.
But what if the MLS All-Star team didn't bend to marketing concerns? What if it was just about what players had done on the field so far this season? What would that team look like?
Here's one attempt at a starting XI based on that very criteria. While the MLS All-Star team voted in by the fans is an extremely attacking 3-5-2 lineup, I've opted instead to go with a slightly more balanced formation that makes room for a few players who wouldn't be considered otherwise. Let's call it a 4-4-2 diamond.
Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid, D.C. United
Hamid is injured at the moment, which is likely the only reason he wasn't named to the All-Star squad as picked by coach Pablo Mastroeni. The D.C. United keeper is a major reason his side sits atop of the standings in the Eastern Conference. While stats for goalkeepers can often be misleading, Hamid leads the league in save percentage and goals-against average for keepers with a minimum of 15 starts.
If we need to name an injury replacement for this imaginary team, Vancouver's David Ousted would get the nod.
Right-back: Alvas Powell, Portland Timbers
Portland's Powell is among the most athletically gifted fullbacks in MLS, but he shouldn't be pigeonholed as just another speedster motoring up and down the flank. Just 21, Powell is solid defensively (he ranks very high in tackles per game) while being good enough on the ball to represent a threat for the Timbers going forward. He provides a wide option for Portland's creators and hits a decent cross when he receives the ball in those areas. His soccer IQ is improving rapidly, while his physical gifts enable him to play both ends of the field to good effect.
Center-back: Laurent Ciman, Montreal Impact
The imposing Belgian wasted no time getting acclimated in his first MLS season. Throughout the Impact's MLS campaign and CONCACAF Champions League run (which doesn't really count for determining All-Stars, but can't be entirely forgotten, either), Ciman has been a consistent, resolute figure at the back. Rarely out of position and good with the ball at his feet, Ciman has launched himself into the discussion of "best center-back in MLS" despite playing just 17 games for Montreal.
Center-back: Kendall Waston, Vancouver Whitecaps
When Waston arrived mid-2014, he immediately stepped into a hole in the Whitecaps' lineup and made a marked difference. With his name in ink on the team sheet each and every week, the Costa Rican has kept up that level of play in 2015, providing the physical defensive presence at the back for a team threatening to win a trophy this season. Waston dominates in the air, puts his big frame to good use to block shots, and breaks up opponent's attacking moves at a league-elite level.
Left-back: Chris Tierney, New England Revolution
Left-back is a notoriously thin position in American soccer circles. That said, there are a handful of candidates for the spot this season. The honor ultimately goes to New England's Tierney, a solid two-way player for a strong team that leans on him to provide both possession and service via his excellent left foot. Tierney is among the more underrated players in MLS, playing as he does on a team that is noted for its wealth of quality attackers.
Defensive Midfield: Darwin Ceren, Orlando City SC
This team isn't being lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond only to get Ceren some recognition, but heaping some praise on the Orlando City midfielder is part of the equation. The 25-year-old Salvadoran has anchored the OCSC midfield expertly this year, doing a good enough job that he made the very talented Amobi Okugo expendable. Ceren is in the top 10 in pass completion percentage and tackles for an expansion team making a run at a playoff spot.
Left midfield: Fabian Castillo, FC Dallas
The Colombian has eight goals and six assists for what is currently the league's hottest team. Castillo is a nightmare for defenders on the counterattack with his speed and technique, and while still growing into himself at 23, he finally looks to be the type of elite-echelon MLS player his talents always promised he could be. In a team built to take advantage of those talents, Castillo has been a consistent top performer in 2015.
Right midfield: Ethan Finlay, Columbus Crew
It would probably be enough to say that Finlay leads the league in assists and leave it there. Although the stat itself can sometimes fail to tell the context of goals created, there's no arguing that the winger has been among the best in MLS at setting up his teammates. Finlay is among the best in the league at hitting accurate crosses and possesses a smart passing eye that make him multidimensional. His seven goals bely his finishing and understanding of when to make opportunistic back-post runs.
Center midfield: Benny Feilhaber, Sporting Kansas City
Feilhaber is an obvious choice to start at the top of our diamond and was rightfully voted to the Fan XI. The midfielder is the hub of Sporting's attack, creating chances with his deft passing game after game. Most impressive about Feilhaber's season to this point has been his consistency; he rarely drifts out of games or puts in a below-par performance. Pointing to stats, Feilhaber is second in assists with 10 to go along with seven goals.
Forward: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC
Giovinco is a total lock to be an All-Star for both the real team and this all-merit side, and he is probably the league's MVP at the moment. His 10 assists have him tied with three others (including Feilhaber) for second in the league, and his 13 goals have him all alone in second behind Kei Kamara. Giovinco has been undefendable in his first MLS campaign. More than a few times, the Italian has single-handedly salvaged one or three points for Toronto.
Forward: Kei Kamara, Columbus Crew
Kamara is another obvious choice who overlaps with the real All-Star squad, mostly on the back of his league-leading 15 goals. In his first year back in MLS after an English sojourn, the Sierra Leonean forward is everything coach Gregg Berhalter could have asked for to lead the Columbus line. Kamara's massively improved center-forward play is augmented by his ability to create shots off the dribble to make him an extremely dangerous man in front of net. Kamara is a major reason for Finlay's fantastic season and vice versa.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.