Donovan should headline MLS' Best XI lineup
It can be argued that despite three straight years of expansion, the level of play in MLS has remained surprisingly strong. One would think that the addition of Seattle and the previous addition of San Jose and Toronto would dilute the talent pool in the league. This year's Best XI should shake up to be one of the more impressive lists to date. Here's who I would nominate:
Goalkeeper: Chivas might be slumping, but don't blame Zach Thornton, who single-handedly led his club near the top of the table throughout much of the summer. Slimmer and quicker, the once thought to be washed up Thornton looks like a player with major staying power. Conceding just 0.79 goals per game, Thornton is now on track to shatter the league's previous record for the fewest goals conceded. While Kasey Keller is a feel-good story and Pat Onstad has been as steady as ever, Thornton has taken his game to another level and has clearly been the league's best in the nets.
Defense: The back line should include Bakary Soumare, but he made a summer move to US Boulogne in France, thereby negating his chance at the honor. Though the league is currently boasting a number of top young defenders, it is two veterans who are familiar faces around MLS that lead things off.
Kansas City's inspirational Jimmy Conrad has been one of the league's best central defenders this decade. Despite missing games due to the Gold Cup and suffering an injury in the tournament, Conrad has been nothing short of rock-solid in central defense for the Wizards.
He will be flanked by two other players from the Eastern Conference in this lineup. To Conrad's right will be Frankie Hejduk, the Methuselah of the league who shows no signs of aging. Still able to get up and down the flank, Hejduk is as valuable for his on-field performance as he is for his leadership as the Crew look set to snag another Supporters Shield. As a left back, William Conde has proven his worth. It wasn't too long ago that he was persona non grata in Chicago, but the Colombian back has shown a penchant to move well into the offense and his solid positioning has made him one of the league's most savvy backs.
Midfield: No player has been called on to do more this season than Shalrie Joseph, the ever-present Revolution midfielder who has played numerous positions this season due to New England's injury struggles. Having been denied a move to Celtic last season, Joseph let his play on the field speak for itself, consistently covering turf from box to box and quietly having his best season as a professional.
Lining up in front of him is the Galaxy's Landon Donovan, whose performance this past summer with the national team quickly helped him ascend to hero-like status. No player was more dominant this summer in MLS than Donovan, who is a top-five player in the league in scoring and also is a serious candidate for the goal of the year award. The pair should be joined by Kyle Beckerman, one of the few players from this summer's Gold Cup roster who seems to have earned a spot with the national team for qualifying. Beckerman has shown increased vision for Real Salt Lake this year, taking on more of an attacking role in the midfield while still getting "stuck-in."
The wing play in the league has not slipped at all, with the Crew's Robbie Rogers continuing to prove his worth and versatility for the defending league champions. Rogers has shown that he not only can strike a good cross but that he has improved his ability to take defenders on one-on-one.
It hasn't exactly been the career in MLS he thought it would be, but in just a handful of games this season, David Beckham has shown himself to be the truly world-class right-sided midfielder he was hyped to be. As impressive as he has been on the field at times, his ability to smooth things over in the locker room while helping to lead L.A. to their first playoff appearance in quite some time makes him a good choice. Though his numbers aren't gaudy, extrapolated over a season, Beckham would be a top-10 scorer in the league.
Forwards: It's been a great year in MLS for scorers. The Rapids have been spearheaded by league-leader Connor Casey up top, who seems to be scoring (15 goals) just about every game. Once considered a bust, Casey has once again worked his way into the national team picture and has shown incredible grittiness for the Rapids, often willing a result for the Mile High team. His partnership with Omar Cummings in the attack should create trouble for a handful for defenders come playoff time.
Casey's strength and raw power is foiled by the vision and guile of Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The former Argentine international has seen no drop in form over last year's MVP performance. While other forwards such as Jeff Cunningham and Fredy Montero are all deserving candidates, the simple fact Schelotto makes everyone else around him on the Crew better is proof positive of his impact in Columbus. He's not the MVP this year -- Donovan has been too good to not get the honor -- but he's still one of the league's best.
"Jimmy Conrad is a great captain. I thought he led their group very, very well. I wouldn't say that he was overzealous with his physical presence. He competes."
-- Colorado head coach Gary Smith following his team's 0-0 tie with Kansas City on Saturday.
Jeff Cunningham has scored or assisted in five consecutive games. Player of the month? It should be a lock. After a torrid September, he is now tied for the league's leading goal tally.
• Columbus has not lost at home in 22 games.
• Los Angeles' loss to the Crew on Saturday night was the Galaxy's first loss to an Eastern Conference team in a 13-game stretch.
• For the second time in less than a week, Connor Casey converted a penalty-kick goal against San Jose in stoppage to salvage a 1-1 tie for Colorado on Wednesday night.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and writes for the New York daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KDyer@RutgersInsider.com.