Hot Stove Best XI
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has a better seat for MLS matches than I do. Each week, I'm positioned on the sideline, behind the goals, in the tunnel, or in the locker rooms and coaches' offices watching and absorbing all things MLS.
So, after watching 30 regular-season matches in person (an assist to a well-used DVR for the Direct Kick package) -- and seeing more fouls, cards and tackles than I can remember -- here's my Best XI for the 2007 MLS season.
Brad Guzan, Chivas USA -- Has any goalkeeper in MLS history improved as quickly as Guzan? The highest-drafted goalkeeper in league history (selected No. 2 overall in 2005) has gone from rookie laughingstock -- ridiculed for flailing efforts and penalty-box mismanagement -- to the best keeper in the league.
Guzan's 13 shutouts in 27 matches are the second most in league history, and his 0.93 GAA was second only to Pat Onstad's in the regular season. He has great size and feet, with an improving knowledge of the position to go along with strong natural instincts. If you need further evidence of Guzan's improvement, Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are keeping very close tabs on Guzan.
Honorable mention: Pat Onstad (Houston), Matt Reis (New England).
Eddie Robinson, Houston -- Robinson is the best defender on the best defensive unit in the league (23 goals allowed). He has earned the respect of opposing strikers and coaches and goes about his business in such a way you hardly know he's there (although opposing forwards say otherwise). His fitness level, efficient play on the ball and will to win are a big reason Houston feels poised for a repeat MLS Cup title run.
Jimmy Conrad, Kansas City -- We've heard all the stories about his journey as a player and all the wisecracks and jokes from Conrad himself. However, he's simply one of the best center backs in the league. His leadership and toughness, along with his sheer determination, have set him apart. He continues to get better every season and is in the prime of his career.
Michael Parkhurst, New England -- A question I'm often asked is, "Is Parkhurst really that good?" And my answer is always the same, "Yes, even better!"
Parkhurst is steady, calm under pressure and an almost flawless reader of the game. His physical gifts won't blow you away, but when you factor in his tactical smarts and soccer IQ, he makes it look easy, which is the calling card of any great defender. The sky's the limit for Parkhurst, who seems to be soaking up the mentoring from coach Steve Nicol, who also happens to be one of Liverpool's all-time greats.
Honorable mention: C.J. Brown (Chicago), Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA), Wilman Conde (Chicago), Ugo Ihemelu (Colorado).
Sacha Kljestan, Chivas USA -- Better get used to his name as Kljestan is now officially on the radar. Finishing tied for second in the league with 13 assists is one thing, but putting together solid performance after solid performance is another as he has become one of the most consistent midfielders in the league. He has a great first touch and superb vision and is an accurate passer, fit and strong, and tough in and out of tackles. In short, Kljestan has all the tools to be a complete two-way midfielder for years to come.
Juan Toja, FC Dallas -- My first-half league MVP was slowed after the All-Star break thanks to an ankle injury and the oppressive Texas summer heat. However, that didn't keep other MLS coaches from raving about his ability and talent level all season long. Toja's standout performances already have made him one of the most dynamic foreign midfielders ever to play in MLS.
The 21-year-old Colombian is skillful and nifty with the touch. He's also just as capable of riding through tough challenges as he is likely to score from an impossible angle after a clever touch. His quick smile and fun-loving personality already have made him one of the more recognizable players in the league (who will forget Toja wig night).
Ben Olsen, D.C. United -- I made a case for Olsen to be league MVP earlier this season. Not all that outlandish when you stop and consider that Olsen is the captain of the best team in the league and was at his absolute best when D.C. went on its summer run that led to a second consecutive supporters' shield.
Olsen was a big reason D.C. didn't panic after its 0-3 start and went on to lose just 4 more games after late April. Although not the fastest, strongest or quickest, Olsen has been the key to D.C.'s success this season.
Shalrie Joseph, New England -- The season started with Joseph in hot water with the Krafts over a contract dispute. It has finished with Joseph inking a new multiyear deal worth $1.5 million and the club on the hunt for its first double. Joseph and the Revs finally won a final Oct. 4 (beating FCD for the U.S. Open Cup), which took some of the sting out of back-to-back MLS Cup final losses. Even more impressive than Joseph's short and long passing game is the professional approach he displayed going about his business this season on the field. Not once did he let his contract status affect his play, and the Revs are not the same without his towering physical presence in midfield.
Landon Donovan, Los Angeles -- Sure he gave up the armband to David Beckham (who wouldn't?), but make no mistake, Donovan is still the straw that stirs the Galaxy's drink. He's one of the few players in the league with double-double potential (8 goals, 13 assists) each season, and there's no attacking player more feared and respected than Donovan, who is always on top of the opposing scouting list. Whether with pace, skill or cunning, Donovan can beat you several ways deployed up top or slotted in the midfield.
Honorable mention: Jesse Marsch (Chivas USA), Cuauhtémoc Blanco (Chicago), Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Columbus), Steve Ralston (New England), Dwayne De Rosario (Houston), Christian Gomez (D.C. United).
Juan Pablo Angel, New York -- Angel gets my vote for 2007 MLS MVP and is the odds-on favorite to win the award when the league presents the award Nov. 15 at the ESPNZone in Washington, D.C. Angel has been better than advertised, exceeding expectations, and is a pro's pro. Watching him play is a real treat. Angel is the smartest forward in the league and the best in the air, and his finishing has been breathtaking at times. Making an even more compelling argument on his behalf are his numbers. He has 19 goals and four assists in just 24 matches -- and 10 of his goals have tied or won the game for the Red Bulls. Sounds like an MVP to me.
Luciano Emilio, D.C. -- Scoring 20 goals in any league in the world is an impressive tally, and Emilio has made it look very easy at times in his first season. The Brazilian is the first player in five seasons to hit 20 goals. Although the strong team around him in D.C. hampers Emilio's MVP candidacy, his spot as the first choice forward for the Best XI is secure. After his slow start that mirrored the team's struggle out of the gate, Emilio caught fire and never looked back in claiming the Golden Boot award for this season. Honorable mention: Ante Razov (Chivas USA), Taylor Twellman (New England), Eddie Johnson (Kansas City).
Allen Hopkins covers Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer for ESPN. Look for Allen patrolling the sideline during "MLS Primetime Thursday." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.