With the 2009 Major League Soccer season less than a week away, Goal.com broke down the top 25 players in the young North American league. Boasting a combination of upcoming talent and returning stars, the league promises more improvement in the upcoming season.
Note: This list includes only outfield players. Goalkeepers, though perhaps the strongest position in MLS, have been cut. Also dismissed are players who are unlikely to play in MLS for the majority of the 2009 season, including Jeff Parke and David Beckham.
Without further delay, Goal.com's MLS Top 25:
25. Brian McBride (Chicago Fire): He may be a year or two past his prime, but McBride is one of the most technically sound strikers in Major League Soccer. A true target player, McBride does everything well, but is no longer spectacular in any aspect of his game. Still, a healthy Brian McBride should be a force for Chicago in 2009 if he is provided with decent service from the midfield.
24. Brian Ching (Houston Dynamo): Ching is well known for his ability to play as a target striker for the U.S. national team, but is highly underrated for his work in Houston. Ching is a constant threat on in the air and has much better skills on the ball than many pundits give him credit for. In 21 matches in 2008, Ching netted nine times, a respectable scoring rate for any striker.
23. Bakary Soumare (Chicago Fire): Slotting in alongside Wilman Conde, Soumare forms half of an imposing defensive pair. The Malian has all the attributes you'd want in a defender: he's strong, fast, good positionally, marks well, and tackles with venom.
22. Taylor Twellman (New England Revolution): Twellman would be higher on this list if not for a series of injuries that ruined much of his 2008 season. Twellman will come into the 2009 season needing just one goal to reach the 100 mark. The New England striker is well known as one of the best finishers in the league and possesses a fearlessness in front of goal.
21. Wilman Conde (Chicago Fire): The Geico cave-man lookalike is a towering presence in the Chicago backline. Despite pushing for a move to follow coach Juan Carlos Osorio to New York, Conde stayed in the Windy City in 2008, and breezed through the season as part of the league's best defense. In addition to his defensive resolve, Conde has the invaluable ability to play the ball out of the back and link play.
20. Bobby Boswell (Houston Dynamo): Boswell is a rock solid player who deserves to be mentioned among the league’s elite. The 6’2 defender rarely loses a challenge and controls his area of the pitch as well as any center back in MLS. His big frame and surprising speed might have the 25-year-old on some European scouting lists very soon.
19. Kenny Cooper (FC Dallas): Cooper came in second in the 2008 goalscoring charts, and attracted legitimate attention from European clubs in the process. The powerful striker likes to drift wide and use his touch and pace to create chances, as well as put them away. He's also the object of numerous fan calls to start for the US national team, though he has yet to impress on that level.
18. Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake): He's got a soft, hippie demeanor off the pitch, but the sight of his dreads on the field tell opposition players they are in for a combative match. His ball-winning abilities and physical presence allow the more silky RSL midfielders to go about their games.
17. Steve Ralston (New England Revolution): The MLS original is the type of player that any coach or fan would love to have on their team. A consummate professional with the versatility to play anywhere in the midfield, Ralston took his game to an even higher level in 2008 when he stepped into an attacking midfielder role and led the New England Revolution in scoring.
16. Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City Wizards): Conrad is widely considered one of the best defenders in the league, with just cause. The Kansas City Wizard mainstay can do just about anything any manager would ask of a center back, and contributes even further as a constant threat when attacking set plays.
15. Ricardo Clark (Houston Dynamo): Few guys dominate midfields by themselves, but Clark is one of them. His all-action displays in the heart of Houston's midfield have been the platform the rest of the team is built upon for years now. He tends to be a tad hotheaded, but, when on his game, will batter opposition midfields into submission.
14. Chad Marshall (Columbus Crew): The 2008 MLS defender of the year surely earned his accolades. He marshaled a championship team, combining pace and power with sound defensive positions and choices. Coming off an injury-plagued 2007, Marshall bounced back with some venom to dominate attacks in 2008, and score a few crucial headers himself.
13. Jaime Moreno (D.C. United): Bolivian captain Moreno is a dangerous attacker that still has the ability to terrorize defenses with his unique skill set. The MLS’s all-time leading scorer has the ability to break teams down on the dribble, the strength to muscle defenders off the ball, and, most importantly, a knack for scoring goals.
12. John Thorrington (Chicago Fire): The energy provided in the midfield from live-wire Thorrington is absolutely crucial to the team, especially with the aging Blanco and McBride in attack. A box-to-box midfielder, Thorrington does it all: gets back in the defense, pushes through the midfield, and creates goals.
11. Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids): There a very few holding midfielders in MLS that can rival Pablo Mastroeni. The Colorado Rapids captain since 2004, Mastroeni is a disruptive force in the middle of the field with his strength in the tackle, tactical awareness, pace, and high work rate, but also has the ability to spring into the attack after winning the ball.
10. Luciano Emilio (D.C. United): Luciano Emilio just joined MLS in 2007 and is already one of the most feared strikers in the league. His size and pace would be enough to trouble defenders, but he also has the touch one would expect of a Brazilian veteran. D.C.’s success in 2009 could revolve as much around Emilio as anyone.
9. Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake): Morales earned himself a four and a half year deal last season, as Real Salt Lake fretted losing their playmaker. Sitting atop their midfield diamond, his finesse and vision provided 15 assists last season, as he led RSL to the Western Conference final.
8. Dwayne De Rosario (Toronto FC): Canadian international De Rosario has been a staple in MLS, and in MLS Cups, for the better part of a decade. Whether it be with the San Jose Earthquakes, the Houston Dynamo, or the All-Star Team, everything he touches turns to wins. He'll be hoping that his powerful late runs and flair on the ball will translate in his hometown of Toronto.
7. Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Chicago Fire): Love him or hate him, Cuauhtemoc Blanco ranks among the best players in MLS history. The Mexican legend still has the ability to make the best defenders look foolish at times, but his best attribute is his distribution of the ball. Cheeky flicks and perfectly weighted passes from Blanco set up more than a few goals for Chicago in 2008, and 2009 will likely be no different.
6. Darren Huckerby (San Jose Earthquakes): Darren Huckerby didn't join the league until mid-way through the 2008 season, but made an immediate impact for the San Jose Earthquakes. Cutting in from the left flank with blistering pace, he can go for goal himself or lay off for other attackers, and opposition defenders struggle to come to grips with the former Norwich City player's plethora of attacking options.
5. Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA): 2008 was a breakout year for Sacha Kljestan, as he took the creative reigns at Chivas USA and broke into the USA national team setup. With an ability to play in a multitude of roles, Chivas have come to rely on the 23-year-old's playmaking ability as the basis of their attack. He's got a sizzling free kick in his arsenal, as well as a languid ease on the ball.
4. Juan Pablo Angel (New York Red Bulls): Juan Pablo Angel is the most clinical and efficient striker in the league. At 33 years old, he still has the physical ability to put his vision and reading of the game to use. The veteran finisher will go down as one of MLS's best designated player signings ever.
3. Shalrie Joseph (New England Revolution): Joseph is undoubtedly one of the best midfielders in MLS. His tireless work rate and ability to distribute the ball quickly and accurately to all parts of the pitch is almost unmatched. Joseph is also a fierce tackler and fiery competitor who has the ability to take over single matches or entire competitions, as he did in the 2008 SuperLiga.
2. Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy): U.S. soccer's golden boy has been blazing past, through, and around defenses for years. A move to Bayern Munich in Germany petered out in the summer, but that just means more embarrassment for MLS defenses in 2009.
1. Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Columbus Crew): Schelotto has proven his quality since coming to MLS in 2007 with his deft passing and incredible field vision. The reigning MVP was without a doubt the number one reason for Columbus winning the 2008 MLS Cup and will be key to the Crew attack again in 2009. Schelotto’s touch on the ability to deliver the right ball at the right time is truly world-class.
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