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Six Degrees: American Center Backs

Craig Mitchelldyer, Portland Timbers

1) The Timbers currently have four center backs on their roster. A Frenchman (Larrys Mabiala), a Croatian (Dario Zuparic), a Kiwi (Bill Tuiloma), and an American (Zac McGraw). Which of these guys do I think has the best chance to someday win MLS Defender of the Year? Despite not yet playing a single MLS minute, my money’s on McGraw.

Why? Simple: he’s an American center back.

2) For no good reason, I recently went digging around on Wikipedia, where I found their list of every MLS Best XI and discovered some interesting things.

Since the Timbers joined the league in 2011, the Best XI teams have listed 29 forwards. Four times, one of those forwards was American. That’s 14%.

In the same time period, 41 midfielders have made the Best XI team. 14 have been American, which is 34%. We’re definitely getting better.

But the defenders are where we Yanks really shine. Since 2011, 30 defenders have made the Best XI, and 19 have been American, which puts us at a tidy 63%.

MLS Best XI Defenders, 2011-2020

3) 63% American is impressive, but things get ludicrously American when we look at MLS Defender of the Year. Since 2011, there have been 10, all of them center backs and eight of them American. 80% of the MLS Defenders of the Year have been American center backs. 80. Eight zero.

MLS Defenders of the Year, 2011-2020

4) That’s the good news. The bad news? In the time period we’re talking about, only four American center backs have played significant minutes for the Timbers: Eric Brunner, David Horst, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, and Nat Borchers. And none of them for more than a year and a half.

5) What’s my point in all this? I guess I’m just wondering if the team should stop looking overseas for our next quality center back. Don’t get me wrong, I love Larrys and Zoop and Bill. I loved Ridgy and Futty and Paparatto and Pa Modou Kah.

But I can’t help wondering why we’ve never had a Chad Marshall, an Ike Opara, a Walker Zimmerman, a Matt Hedges, a Matt Besler, an Omar Gonzalez, or an Aaron Long. (Fun fact: we actually did have Aaron Long back in 2014, although at that point he was a rookie d-mid and hadn’t really found himself. Ah, what could have been...)

I’m wondering if maybe all the time General Manager Gavin Wilkinson spends searching for center backs in Europe and Africa and South America would be better spent searching in Florida and Arizona and Missouri. Instead of splashing TAM, GAM, Thank You Ma’am on the next big thing out of Senegal, maybe we should be drafting the next big thing out of Michigan State or UCLA or Virginia. Or maybe we should just go to one of the Big Academy Clubs like Dallas, New York, or Philly and trade for some of their young, not-yet-starting homegrown center backs. We got Eryk Williamson as a homegrown trade, and he’s worked out pretty damn well. Maybe we should do the same at center back.

Or, hell, maybe we’ve already got our guy. Maybe he’s Zac McGraw.

6) Is finding the next great American center back a simple thing? Of course not. Finding young talent is hard. Drafting college kids is hard. Navigating MLS’s homegrown rules and territorial rules is hard. Gavin could follow my advice, spend the next 10 years signing nothing but American center backs, and have none of them work out. At which point I’d look like an ass. (Or more of an ass, I guess I should say.)

But still... I can’t get that statistic out of my head. Since the Timbers joined MLS, 80% of the Defenders of the Year have been American center backs.

Maybe this is a train the team needs to get on.