By Joseph Lowery – (@JoeInCleats)
The Major League Soccer All-Star Game is a divisive topic among MLS fans. Some think of it as an opportunity to showcase the league’s top talent on a big stage against a renowned international club, giving the league added global traction. Others think of it as an unnecessary attempt to replicate an American sports tradition. Regardless of how you feel about the MLS All-Star Game, we can all agree that there is one thing that would make the All-Star break significantly better: an “MLS Five-A-Side Game™”.
A five-a-side match between some of the best in in MLS would add a level of fun to the All-Star festivities and give players a chance to show off their small-sided skills. Let’s break down what this five-a-side match could look like. Both the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference get one All-Star style squad to face off against each other in this fictional match, based on three rules used in the roster selection process to keep things fresh and fair:
- A team cannot have multiple players from a single MLS team (i.e. the East squad cannot have Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron).
- Both teams must have managers from the current MLS player pool.
- Each team must play a 1-2-1(ish) shape with a goalkeeper, one center back, two midfielders, and a forward.
In this article, we are going to look at the Western Conference squad and examine just how their players would try to take down the East, whose roster will be revealed tomorrow. Obviously, you are going to have different opinions on which players should have made each roster, but that is part of what makes All-Star games so polarising: everybody has their own idea of who should make the cut. These are my picks based on nothing more than my own personal preferences and my totally rational fear of swarms of Atlanta United fans.
Though not involved in the selection process, each person who reads this mini-series has a big role in the first ever MLS Five-A-Side Game™. After both rosters have been published, a Twitter poll will be up on Major League Shocker’s Twitter account (@MLShocker) to decide the winner of the Five-A-Side Trophy™. Make sure to vote, and may the best team win.
Now it is finally time to release the official (but really completely unofficial) Western Conference Five-A-Side roster.
Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders)
With his size, length and ability to makes saves like this one…
Stefan Frei is the perfect five-a-side goalkeeper. Frei makes acrobatic stops on a regular-sized goal, so imagine the pain he would cause opposing attackers on a small goal. In addition to his saving ability, Frei has also been the best statistical goalkeeper in Major League Soccer this season. According to American Soccer Analysis, Stefan Frei is outperforming his expected goals against (xG is a metric that measures the likelihood of any shot resulting in a goal) by 8.40 goals. That number is more than any other keeper in MLS.
While the eye test might lie, the numbers don’t: 6’3” Stefan Frei is the perfect man to guard the net for the Western Conference five-a-siders.
Centre back: Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City)
When the designated defensive anchor for your five-man squad can also score goals like this one, your team is already off to a solid start:
In addition to pulling out the occasional SportsCenter Top 10 golazo, Ike Opara is a terrific defensive centre back. With his mobility, range, and tackling ability, Opara is perfectly equipped to cover ground in the back for the Western Conference. Opara is also very comfortable with the ball at his feet – if you play for Peter Vermes in Kansas City, you have to be. Opara is the distributive defensive star that the West needs.
Midfielder: Diego Chara (Portland Timbers)
The sheer joy of seeing Diego Chara dominate the centre of a small-sided match might be too much for me to handle. A true disruptive force in midfield, Chara is exactly the type of player the Western Conference needs to destroy any sense of rhythm that the East will attempt to generate. Any time the ball comes through midfield in a normal MLS match on a normal field, it seems like Diego Chara is perpetually waiting to win it and start a quick counter attack; on a smaller field, that ball-winning skill will be multiplied ten-fold.
Oh, and don’t forget that Chara can absolutely rip one:
Midfielder: Carlos Vela (LAFC)
An MLS five-a-side game would be simply incomplete without Carlos Vela. Vela is the smoothest player on the ball in Major League Soccer: he has fantastic close control, and can place the ball anywhere, either via a shot or a pass.
His accurate shooting ability will come in especially handy in this five-a-side match. With smaller goals to shoot on, players will need a high level of precision to beat the opposing goal keeper. If anyone is set up to succeed in this game, it is the ever-precise Carlos Vela.
Forward: Darwin Quintero (Minnesota United)
Darwin Quintero doesn’t play as a single striker for his club. Instead, he usually plays underneath Christian Ramirez in a role that allows him to get more time on the ball than a centre forward normally would. If Quintero is not a lone forward, why is he playing as the most advanced attacker for the Western Conference Five-A-Side squad? Because Darwin Quintero has the most important small-sided skill: ball control. Statistically, Quintero is the best dribbling centre forward in Major League Soccer, averaging 4.4 successful dribbles per game.
Even more important than stats, Quintero is just downright fun. You cannot leave a guy who scored a goal like this one off the roster:
Manager: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo)
This managerial pick was easy. In addition to being 60…70…78(?) years-old, DaMarcus Beasley is also one of the best American defenders of all time. Beasley has been around and has had the opportunity to learn the game all over the world. Between his advanced age and experience, DaMarcus Beasley is the obvious choice for Western Conference manager.
Now that we have gone through the roster and the coach, here is a visual depiction of how the West will line up in their battle against the East:
Stefan Frei will hold down the goal, while Ike Opara roams the defensive area in front of him, occasionally charging forward to hit a volley or score a bicycle kick. Diego Chara is going to stay central, levelling any opposing players who attempt to come through midfield. With defensive cover behind him, Carlos Vela has freedom to move across the width of midfield to find the ball and combine with trivela-king Darwin Quintero. Manager DaMarcus Beasley has everything sorted out for his first match in charge.
That is the official Western Conference Five-A-Side roster. Keep your eyes peeled tomorrow for the Eastern Conference roster and get ready to place your vote for who would win the MLS Five-A-Side Game™ on Twitter: @MLShocker.