By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 15, 2012) US Soccer Players -- When Landon Donovan floated a cross to Dan Kennedy’s back post - perfectly placed, just where an unmarked Juninho could side-foot it out of midair, redirecting it into the net for LA’s third goal of the game - he officially passed DC United legend Jaime Moreno for fourth-place all-time on the MLS career assist list. After adding a fourth assist on a set piece goal by Omar Gonzalez, Donovan tied the record for single-game assists, passed Moreno to take over fourth-place on the all-time list alone, and continued his progression up the ranks of Major League Soccer’s greatest offensive players.
What makes Donovan notable in League annals is that his gaudy assist numbers are just one-half of his track record. Donovan sits second on the all-time goal-scoring list with 124, coincidentally (or perhaps not), behind Moreno.
Both players managed to score large numbers of goals while at the same time providing a steady stream of passes to their teammates that resulted with the ball in the net. Donovan and Moreno represent two of the League’s most complete offensive players. Both effective at multiple positions, difficult to mark out of the game, and able to shift from score to provider and vice-versa if their scoring touch leaves them or passing options are absent.
Up and down the MLS all-time assist leaders chart that Steve Ralston tops are players who not only played provider, but also scored themselves at impressive rates. True playmakers, the prototypical number ten romanticized as the linchpin of any good attacking team, are few and far between.
Carlos Valderrama, still the League’s archetypal playmaker eight years after his retirement, scored just 16 goals in his MLS career but amassed 114 assists. Valderrama didn’t score because he rarely got close enough to goal to do so. His role was farther downfield, orchestrating the offense with perfectly weighted passes to attacking midfielders and forwards. Without knowing anything about Carlos Valderrama the player, it would be simple to surmise what he did and how he did it by seeing that his assist total that was more than seven times that of his total goals scored.
DC United legend Marco Etcheverry comes closest, at least in terms of all-time statistics leaders, to Valderrama’s orchestrating brilliance. El Diablo set up 101 goals (giving him an average of nearly 13 assists per year) in his MLS career, but scored just 34 times in eight seasons.
Valderrama and Etcheverry then, as long-tenured number tens, represent a breed of player rarely seen in MLS. Much more common are attacking players who worked much closer to goal. Players like Cobi Jones and Chris Henderson, who managed to setup and score at ratios close to one and a half assists for every goal.
Jones collected 91 assists in his MLS career, Henderson 80. Also at 80, tied for tenth in League history, is Marcelo Cienfuegos, the LA Galaxy’s playmaking star in the early years of MLS. Cienfuegos was a playmaker, make no mistake, but his first few years in MLS were marked by an ability to score as well as assist. At his peak in 1998, Cienfuegos scored 13 goals while providing 16 assists.
Perhaps, that was a function of the League’s relative strength at the time, or simply Cienfuegos choosing to go for goal in a manner contrary to his instincts. His selflessness, perhaps more than he might have otherwise exhibited with a fully formed club, helped LA to early success in the new League. The supporting casts of those nascent MLS teams could leave a lot to be desired, and finishing could be frustrating. Players who arrived here with reputations as playmakers first and foremost found themselves thrust into more well-rounded—or even score-first—offensive roles by necessity. Cienfuegos is the rule, Carlo Valderrama the exception.
Donovan’s performance against Chivas USA, one in which he collected more assists in one game than he did in all of 2011, came without David Beckham in the lineup. When Beckham is there, Donovan is freer to make runs towards goal, with Beckham behind him carrying the passing burden.
LA usually has multiple adept attacking options, allowing Donovan to change responsibilities as needed. When Beckham was a constant presence during LA’s championship year last season, Donovan’s assist totals dipped. With Beckham missing, Donovan morphs into a willing provider rather than a targeted goal-scorer.
The MLS all-time assist chart is littered with players who could both pick a pass and score when asked. Stick around long enough - like all-time leader Steve Ralston, who managed to score 76 goals to go with his record 135 assists, putting him squarely into the Jones/Henderson category of offensive midfielders - and the numbers will come. Ralston owns the assist record thanks to his talent and the 378 games he played as a member of the Mutiny and Revolution. For comparison, the inimitable Valderrama collected his 114 assists in just 175 games. Ralston’s status can’t be questioned, but it’s interesting to note the very different paths taken by the top two players on the list.
Eventually, Donovan may catch Valderrama. Reaching Ralston will be much more difficult, but not impossible. If Donovan stays in MLS, he could pass number three on the list, Preki, as early as next season. Donovan’s ascension to the top of that list - alongside names like Preki, Moreno, and Ralston - speaks to Major League Soccer’s historical emphasis on players strong on both ends of the scoring play. This is a League that prefers attacking midfielders that can be both passer and scorer, provider and finisher, initiator and terminus.
When we talk about the best passing midfielders to ever play in MLS, Valderrama immediately leaps to mind, not just because he was so good or because he’s second on an all-time list, but because players like him are so rare across the history of the League. When we think of the best offensive players overall, it’s the goal as well as the assist.
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