MLS' best center-back tandems: Some love for the game's overlooked stars

Strikers will dominate the MVP debate, but what about the players tasked with stopping them?

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When it comes to talking soccer, of course it’s more fun to hold forth about strikers, to ooh and ah over those who score the goals.

No getting around it: Talking about center backs just isn’t as sexy.

But neither is the occasional discussion of proper oral hygiene or regular oil changes for your car, yet we all need to pay attention to these chores less evocative every now and again. Let’s face it, guys like Cyle Larin, David Villa, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco aren’t going to stop themselves, now are they?

A really great way to have really good team is starting with two rock solid center backs. FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City remind us so every week in Major League Soccer. Both teams have their flaws, for sure. And yet, there they are, right at the top of the Western Conference standings, and so much is about their center backs.

Let’s actually go next level in this conversation and not talk about a“center back, per se. Because here, more than perhaps anywhere on the field, we must talk about center back combos. The balance of skill sets, the shared understanding and the back line coordination between two center backs can mean everything.

Before we sort out the top central defensive duos, take note: some of these are tricky. Toronto, for instance, uses three along the back. Nick Hagglund and Drew Moor combine to create a highly capable core, except that Moor has been out and Hagglund will miss the next several weeks with a knee issue. Even if both are healthy, it’s tough to single out a top pair when you’re looking at three-man lines.

And as this is MLS, where results can be filed under “marginal significance” in until summer, some teams have yet to settle on their best central pairing. The champs’ back line in Seattle starts with Chad Marshall, of course. But Roman Torres looks heavy and slow, and newcomer Gustav Svensson looks like a better choice as Marshall’s partner – unless, of course, it’s Brad Evans. So, we’ll see.

Here are Major League Soccer’s top center back combos:

5. Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens, NYCFC

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

You know what they say about not letting “perfect” be the enemy of “good.” That’s where we are with New York City and these two, both relative newcomers to MLS. They both look about the same: guys in their mid-20s with earnest-but-modest professional resumes, but each fairly capable in MLS when they get sufficient protection in front of them. It’s certainly better than what NYCFC has had in its first two seasons, and the pair is holding off presumptive 2017 starter Frederic Brillant, the veteran Frenchman.

With NYCFC’s splendid front line (Jack Harrison and Rodney Wallace flanking the brilliant Villa), the back line needs to be solid, not spectacular. They need only aim for “don’t make a mess of things,” and that’s probably enough.

4. Victor Bernardez and Florian Jungwirth, San Jose (above)

This is mostly about Jungwirth, who has quietly been one of Major League Soccer’s top offseason additions. (It’s quiet because he may not even be the league’s best offseason center back addition. Read on to learn more about that.) Bernardez is 34 and hardly the dominant figure he was in the club’s Buck Shaw Stadium years. But Jungwirth, a veteran of Germany’s top two tiers, has been so steady, such a complete package at center back that he has singularly solidified San Jose’s back line.

At some point, however, you wonder if Dominic Kinnear’s team would be better to make the bold call and move midfielder Fatai Alashe permanently to center back, where he was playing earlier this year. With a seasoned, mentoring vet alongside, that could eventually yield one of the league’s top central pairings for years to come. 

NEXT: The pairs that anchor three contenders