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Joseph’s versatility invaluable

He’ll be right in the middle of it for Revolution again

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / March 26, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Shalrie Joseph has set standards for defensive midfielders in Major League Soccer. Since joining the Revolution in 2003, he has shown how a combination of skill, strength, vision, and the ability to distribute the ball can change the dynamic of a team. There has not been anyone in the league more consistently spectacular at providing a defensive anchor and transitioning to offense from the position.

But Joseph might have cost himself money by becoming an all-around performer.

Last season, called into service as a striker, Joseph produced a team-leading eight goals. He started six times at forward and moved into the slot in the second halves of other contests. Had Joseph been a full-time forward, though, he doubtless would have scored in double figures. Had Joseph joined MLS as a striker, he might well be on the way to triple-figure scoring after seven seasons.

Instead of finishing things off, though, Joseph has been in the middle of the action, setting up for the front-runners. Joseph has been crunching opposing tough guys whose touches might not be precise enough and, the next instant, lithely dancing away from opponents to start counterattacks.

Much of soccer’s glory is in the scoring, but Joseph is content with the constant chaos in the center. In midfield, Joseph does not have to depend on anyone to get him the ball. If he wants it, he goes and gets it. And when the bal l is his, he can pretty much do what he wants with it, whether that means holding onto it until his team regains composure, or launching a 70-yard pass to a speedy winger.

Yet, the question remains. What if Joseph just wanted to score, instead of thinking defense first? He might well be earning more than his $400,000 annual salary (two years remaining on his contract).

Joseph finally figured into the league’s MVP voting last season, lifting a Revolution team that had lost Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman to injury. Joseph finished behind Landon Donovan (Los Angeles) and Jeff Cunningham (FC Dallas) in the voting. Some disputed that result, wondering how Cunningham could have been ahead of Joseph when FC Dallas did not even qualify for the playoffs.

The answer, of course, would be that Cunningham scored 17 goals. In fact, had the Revolution not needed Joseph to move up front he might not have been in MVP consideration at all.

“I think he’s the best player and most valuable player in the league,’’ said Joseph’s agent, Ron Waxman. “The last three years, he’s the only one in the league to make the Best 11, and that’s very tough to do in the midfield position.

“The most incredible thing about him is you can put him virtually anywhere on the field. The team needed him at centerback and he played there and he was tough and terrific, even though he was playing with a mask because he had a broken nose. He’s played all over midfield and with different midfield players. If they are short of strikers, he’ll go up front and score goals.’’

Joseph performed with a broken nose and a hairline fracture of his cheekbone in the 2006 season. He probably should not have been in the lineup, but he was clever enough to avoid having to head the ball and agile enough to dodge opposing elbows.

But Joseph’s most resourceful performance might have been in the 2005 MLS Cup final in Dallas.

“He shouldn’t have been playing in that game,’’ Waxman said. “He was not pain-free for two months after the game. His foot was [in a cast] and he had suffered a concussion in the game. Only Shalrie would have been playing, but there is no way he should have been on the field.

“He’s an intense warrior and off the field he’s a great guy, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. You never hear anyone saying anything negative about him. All the teams that complain about him would love to have him on their team.’’

Joseph, though, seems to be listening to medical advice these days. After sustaining a hip strain in training last week, he sat out the Revolution’s final preseason game, a 2-1 win over the Carolina Railhawks in Cary, N.C. And his status has not been determined for the Revolution’s opener tomorrow against the Galaxy in Los Angeles.

“I’ll see how it feels,’’ Joseph said before departing with the team. “First game, it’s better to be preventive, be smart about it.’’

Joseph seems eager to start the season, though most of the players who have joined him for a strong run in recent seasons have departed. Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Andy Dorman (St. Mirren), Jeff Larentowicz (Colorado Rapids), and Ralston (AC St. Louis) are gone. This season, the Revolution will likely line up in a 4-4-2 formation, Joseph flanked by Pat Phelan or Joseph Niouky Desire.

“I want to be one of the great players in the league and I look forward to that challenge of being one of the dominant players in the league,’’ Joseph said. “I’m going to work hard and do what the team needs.

“With Pat in middle, or Des alongside me, I try to push forward a lot more, get opportunities to create chances. I try to get shots and score, whatever the team needs from me. I’m going to have to be more fit, hold the ball and get forward and join the attack. Pat’s been seeing how Jeff and I have been doing it the last couple years and he’s ready to step in.

“It will be a great scene opening up at [the Galaxy’s] stadium, chaotic, something you look forward to. It’s going to be some great soccer, and we are going to go in there and try and steal a win.

“We’re going to be one of the dominant teams in the league, whether it be now or later in the season. We want to make a name for ourselves and play our type of soccer, and be a dominant team in the league.’’

The ’05 MLS Cup final was the first of three successive losing appearances for the Revolution. They have not reached the conference final since 2007, and the team is in transition.

“It’s probably the most disappointing part of my whole career, not winning a championship so far,’’ Joseph said. “We’ve been to the top so many times, and to not get one is frustrating. We have to put that behind us, keep pounding and, hopefully, it comes this year. But it comes from hard work and preparation.

“Like I said, if we start off well, then everything can happen for us.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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