We all know Major League Soccer's big names, but this is for the grinders who turn zero points into three even though you won’t see their names on the back of many jerseys in the stands.
February 27, 2013
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Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders)
We’ve never seen him put on the goalkeeper gloves, but Brad Evans has done just about anything else on a soccer field and done it well. He began out his youth career as a forward, transitioned to a sweeper role under a different coach, and has played everywhere in between since. The Sounders can rely on Evans to lend an assist from the wing, score a penalty, lock things down as a defensive midfielder, or slot in on the back line when necessary.
While his play often slips by unnoticed, Evans doesn’t think the lack of a regular position has kept him from more frequent national team duty. In fact, he believes it was one of the reasons for his recent call-up to the national team’s January camp and subsequent qualifier in Honduras: “It was one of the first things that Jurgen said is it’s one of the reasons you’re in here because you’re very versatile. When I played with Bob Bradley, it was at right back. If anything, it says a lot about our national team that each position is three, four deep. You’ve got to find yourself a way to fit in. If that means at right back? It’s right back.”
Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls)
At some point a player is dubbed ‘underrated’ so often he becomes, well, ‘rated’. Yet McCarty, the league site’s pick for Most Underrated Player of 2012, remains largely unnoticed on a team full of international superstars. Frequently, however, he really is the difference between the Red Bulls winning a match and losing.
McCarty pops up all over the pitch no matter where he’s lined up in midfield and can play centrally or on the wing. Yet he’s still struggling to break into Klinsmann's rotation. “If I get a chance to prove myself, I will prove myself in front of them,” he told Soccer By Ives’ Dave Martinez prior to his omission from the January camp. “If not, then you just got to keep plugging away. Obviously it’s not easy to see rosters get named and not be part of them, but hey, that’s just more motivation for this year.”
Off the pitch? He’s just the man. His tweets are frequently found in ASN’s Tweet of the Week round up and his interaction with fans further endears him to the Red Bull faithful.
Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution)
Nguyen wasn’t flying under anybody’s radar when he was a star with storied youth club Dallas Texans and his performances in the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship earned him a move to PSV Eindhoven. He never caught on at the Dutch side and ended up bouncing around Vietnam for a few years before returning to MLS. Now, after being one of the Rev's few bright spots last season, Nguyen looks to build off that campaign and make a strong return from the shoulder injury that ended it early.
This preseason there were no signs of lingering problems and he was sometimes deployed as a forward. He attributes his versatility to the various stops he’s already made. “I think that had a lot to do with when I was young. With my club team, I played underneath the striker, I played out wide. Playing in Europe as well, playing at PSV, playing in Vietnam, they played me in different roles,” he said. “I think I was able to come here and translate that into different positions. For me, it just doesn’t matter as long as I’m helping out the team in whatever way possible, it’s great.”
There are plenty of areas in which Nguyen can help, and if he can pick up where he left off last season, he’ll certainly be well appreciated in New England.
Mike Magee (LA Galaxy)
Even Magee’s name conveys a blue-collar mentality. To say Magee hasn’t had that name in the headlines often would be an understatement, but even surrounded by stars like David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane, Magee has quietly kept LA’s championship machine humming.
In fact, one of those superstars recently pondered why Magee doesn’t get more love, with Keane questioning why Magee doesn’t get attention as a potential national team player. “Why has he never played for America? Has he been overlooked? Has he been considered? Have people mentioned him? Has the press mentioned him? No?,” Keane said to Brian Straus of The Sporting News. “Because he’s in this league as well. He does well in the league. When you play in America, to get someone rom your league, why not give people like him a chance?”
Magee could get some publicity at the start of this season with Beckham gone and Donovan in limbo. And a call-up might not be the worst idea. After all, he has shown he can score against international keepers.
Danny Cruz (Philadelphia Union)
Cruz arrived late to the game, playing American football before finding success with the rounder form when he tried it to stay in shape. The former running back rose quickly, though, playing in the U-17 and U-20 World Cups for the United States and in MLS Cup after joining Houston Dynamo. Yet, there’s still not much buzz surrounding Cruz.
“I think sometimes I get lost in the mix, and that’s OK,” Cruz said. “When you look at how long I’ve been in the league, how many games I’ve played in, this year I’ll play my 100th game, and I think if I can stay healthy and contribute I’ll be able to get a little more recognition. If the team’s winning, that’s what’s important.”
Cruz has a chance to play significant minutes this season in Union manager John Hackworth’s first full season with the club. Cruz says none of his coaches ever overlooked his talents, which include the ability to play as a fullback or nearly anywhere in midfield, but Hackworth specifically has a gift for communicating what he wants out of his players.
Jay DeMerit (Vancouver Whitecaps)
A decade ago, DeMerit was just a kid from Wisconsin rising up the English beer leagues. He ended up playing in the Premier League and starting for the United States in the 2010 World Cup. Now that he’s back in MLS, there’s a tendency to view him as one of the old guys, but at 33 years young, DeMerit is still terrorizing attackers. With the Whitecaps’ inexperience going forward, the center back has plenty of work to do and has remained one of the best in the league at his position, yet he hasn’t seen national team duty since returning to North America.
It’s possible that era of DeMerit’s life is over, but with the American center back situation in flux, his phone might be ringing for a Gold Cup cameo or even some emergency Hex duty.
Sam Cronin (San Jose Earthquakes)
Cronin started 30 matches for San Jose last season but got very little love for the team’s successful season. In fact, someone who didn’t know better might think his only contribution was being the victim of David Beckham kicking a ball at him while he stayed on the ground a bit too long.
In reality, Cronin, who told ASN he wishes he was a little faster, makes up for his lack of speed by craftily controlling the pace of the game in midfield. That helped San Jose’s outside players speed down the outside and feed Chris Wondolowski, Alan Gordon, and Steven Lenhart. “I’m a lot more fit coming into this year than I was last year,” he said after a preseason friendly earlier this year. That’s bad news for opponents hoping the Quakes will fall off this season.
Seth Sinovic (Sporting Kansas City)
The consistency of Sporting Kansas City’s back line got a lot of talk in 2012 with the unit setting a record for most minutes without a shot on goal allowed early in the season and keying a long unbeaten run during the summer. Sinovic’s contributions are overshadowed by center backs Matt Besler, the Defender of the Year last year, and Aurelian Colin, the colorful French player who, like Besler, was named to the Best XI. But the local boy has plenty of speed that’s an asset when he pushes up, and if you’re looking for grit? Well, he’s got that too.
Luckily, you don’t need your hands in soccer. Sinovic has recovered from those injuries and should contribute as Sporting look to get past the Dynamo this season in the Eastern Conference. Sinovic scored in the second leg of their playoff series in 2012.
Chris Rolfe (Chicago Fire)
Rolfe was the Chicago Fire’s leading scorer in 2005 and 2008 but left the league in 2010 to head for Denmark. He returned to the Fire last season and made an impact, especially after fully recovering from an ankle injury and getting integrated with the team. He scored six of his eight 2012 goals in August or September. That includes braces against the Union and the Crew that lifted Chicago to victory.
Rolfe might not be overlooked by Section 8 or any other Fire fans, but you didn’t hear his name often in broader circles last year. This year, with essentially half a season and a full preseason behind him, Rolfe’s name will certainly return to the national conversation if he scores like he did at the end of last season.
Jon Arnold (@ArnoldcommaJon) is a writer based in Arizona and is ASN's CONCACAF correspondent.