Monday, July 4, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: July 6, 2:30 PM UK
10 of the best... MLS players
Lothar Matthaus. Hristo Stoitchkov. Roberto Donadoni. These are all names that are known in the corners of the world and everywhere in between.
If you were to name the best soccer players to ever grace Major League Soccer with their presences, you'd mention the aforementioned three right away, along with other international stars such as Robert Warzycha and Youri Djorkaeff. It'd be impossible not to also mention Tab Ramos, who is arguably the finest all-around player the United States has ever produced.
However, when comprising a top ten list of the best players in the history of MLS, it's an entirely different story. Longevity has to be taken into account, as does play within the league, as opposed to the player's international career or resume built before making the trek to the United States.
Every ounce of magic that Matthaus ever produced was done elsewhere, as the German legend's time with the MetroStars was a definite black mark on an otherwise magnificent career. Stoitchkov was 34 by the time he arrived in Chicago in 2000, and only had one very strong year during his time in MLS. Donadoni played well enough with the MetroStars in 1996 and 1997 to revive his international career with the Azzurri.
As for someone like Ramos, who played seven years for the MetroStars, it was a serious of injuries that took a toll on the ultra-creative midfielder and limited his time on the field for many of those seasons.
That's not to say that those who have shined in MLS over the league's first 10 seasons aren't well-known figures themselves. Led by two of the biggest signings in the history of the league in Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry, the following 10 players have impressed ESPN Soccernet the most through MLS history:
1. Marco Etcheverry
Where would D.C. United have been without this Bolivian maestro orchestrating the midfield during the side's three championship-winning seasons? Etcheverry was the ultimate number 10, as he was just as dangerous with the ball at his feet as he was running at the defense as a playmaker.
He was only named the league's MVP on one occasion (1998), but he was a finalist two other seasons (1997 and 1999). More importantly, Etcheverry was probably the one player opposing MLS clubs would have picked over all others during the league's first five seasons. He was that good. And if you were constructing the perfect MLS player, the easiest choice you'd have to make is to give him Etcheverry's left foot.
2. Peter Nowak
It's no wonder Nowak won an MLS Cup title in his first season as a coach for D.C. United in 2004. There hasn't been a player before or after Nowak who has demonstrated the type of leadership that this former Polish international displayed in his five seasons in MLS. In saying that, there's also never been signee in the history of MLS that made the type of impact that Nowak made in his first year with the Chicago Fire back in 1998.
After being recruited over to the U.S. by Bob Bradley, the center midfielder fresh off playing for five years in the German Bundesliga simply took over the expansion club as an extension of the coaching staff on the field and led Chicago to an MLS Cup title. Nowak went on to amass 26 goals and 48 assists for an even 100 points. He made the MLS Best XI three different times and was the team's MVP in three of his five years in the league.
3. Landon DonovanStill only 23 years old, the U.S. national team star has already won two MLS Cups, an MLS Cup MVP and has scored 38 goals and counting. What puts the Redlands, Calif., native on this list is his ability to come through in the clutch.
Even though he's only played in four-and-a-half seasons for the San Jose Earthquakes and now the Los Angeles Galaxy, Donovan has scored 10 goals and recorded six assists in 14 playoff matches. For the past two-and-half seasons, he's been not only the face of Major League Soccer, but also arguably the league's top player. He belongs on this list.
4. Carlos ValderramaHe probably could have kept playing forever. During his final years in the league with the Colorado Rapids, when he was hardly running at all, the midfield schemer was still giving off beautiful balls left and right and displaying a vision that was simply unrivaled in MLS history.
In the seven years that he and his recognizable mane of blond hair were in the league, Valderrama averaged 16 assists per season. The 26 assists he accounted for with Colorado in 2000 remain an MLS record. His best season, however, had to be the one he turned in during the inaugural year of MLS in 1996 when he led the Tampa Bay Mutiny to the best record in the league and won MVP honors for his strong play, which included four goals and 17 assists in 23 games.
5. Eddie Pope
Probably the most dominant defender in the history of the league. The powerful 6-foot-1 centerback made an impact with D.C. United from the moment he stepped into the league as a rookie out of the University of North Carolina in 1996. On a side chock full of goal-scorers, it was Pope who saved the day with a header in overtime to give D.C. United the inaugural MLS Cup title during that season.
Since then, he's won two additional MLS Cups with D.C. United, has been voted into the MLS All-Star Game in ever year of its existence and has made the MLS Bext XI on four different occasions, and with two different clubs after earning the honor as a MetroStar in 2004.
6. Jaime Moreno Just when it looked like it was time to stick a fork in him, the Bolivian striker proved he was far from done. In scoring 7 goals and registering 14 assists, Moreno probably should have won his first league MVP award. Instead, he settled for his fourth MLS Cup title.
With 87 goals through the end of June, the shifty striker trails only Roy Lassiter (88) and Jason Kreis (currently at 95) on the league's all-time leaders list. Moreno's back woes from 2002 and 2003 appear to be behind him. He's also still only 31 years old despite being a 10-year MLS veteran and the scoring record will seemingly be his in due time.
7. Jeff Agoos
Say what you will about his up-and-down career with the U.S. national team, but "Goose" has always produced in MLS. As the backbone of the defense both as a member of D.C. United and the San Jose Earthquakes, the strong, left-footed back has won a total of five MLS Cup titles.
The University of Virginia product has been named to the league's Best XI on three different occasions and was the MLS Defender of the Year in 2001 - the same year that he led a young group of Earthquakes to their first MLS Cup championship in his first season with the team.
Still chugging along at 42. The Kansas City Wizards midfielder is a part-time player now and he's coming off a season that saw him miss four months due to a broken leg. However his place in this list was secured already after his unbelievable MVP campaign in 2003.
In that season, Preki turned back the clocks and scored 12 goals to go with 17 assists to lead the league in scoring. In all, the left-footed magician has won two MVPs, and has been named to the league's Best XI on four different occasions. His 78 goals through the end of June rank him sixth all-time in MLS.
9. Steve Ralston
There's never been a point in his 10 years in the league that he's been the top midfielder in MLS. However, there's hardly been a time when he wasn't the best player at his position. As a right-sided midfielder, Ralston has caused matchup problems for nearly every team in the league.
The bending balls he's repeatedly sent in that usually seem to curve past a defender's head at the last second to an on-running striker in the box are his signature. The 30-year-old New England Revolution fan favorite has made three MLS Best XI during his time in the league, and is currently the league's all-time leader in minutes played.
10. Jason Kreis
It's impossible to leave the league's all-time leading goal scorer off such a list. While his name isn't as well-known as several other strikers around the league who played on better teams and saw a lot more action with the U.S. national team, Kreis has always found a way to make a difference in MLS.
After nine standout years with the Dallas Burn, the former Duke University striker has upped his goal total to 95 with Real Salt Lake. The best year that Kreis ever had in MLS came in 1999 when he led the league with 18 goals and 15 assists to take home MVP honors. Had he played with someone like a Valderrama or a Nowak, there's no telling what sort of numbers he would have put up in his prime.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.