We’ve all played co-ed pickup at some point or another, but we’re taking things up a notch here. We’ve put together the ultimate competitive mixed starting XI, using players from all across the globe.
Two weeks ago, at Portland’s Providence Park, a football game was played. This wasn’t just any contest, though.
The game, an exhibition, was played for the benefit of UNICEF programs in Ukraine and neighboring countries. Tickets to the game were free, though attendees were encouraged to donate what they could, and/or to buy merchandise, the proceeds of which would also go to that worthy cause.
In another interesting twist, the two teams taking part — appropriately named “Blue and Yellow,” and refereed by Ukraine native Sergii Demianchuk — were comprised of members of both MLS’s Portland Timbers and the NWSL’s Portland Thorns.
The evening, which raised at least $435,000, consisted, of course, of the game itself, which ended 4-3 in Team Yellow’s favor, and was punctuated by a bonkers final five minutes in which over 40 players from both benches, most wearing warmups and sneakers, rushed the field in a mad (though fun) scramble to try to net some final goals before the festivities wrapped up.
The 85 minutes that preceded, in addition to offering plenty of good times for good cause, got me thinking: “What would the ultimate mixed XI side look like?”
As you might imagine, this isn’t the kind of question that one asks oneself without then, very quickly, falling into a rabbit hole. Rather than placing any sort of restriction on myself for the first iteration of such a team (I feel like this is a concept we might revisit), the entirety of club football, regardless of geography, was in play.
This is a side comprised of great players at or around the peaks of their respective powers, but don’t read this as a simple “best current XI.” Rather, this is the mixed XI that, based on how I imagine them actually playing together, I’d want fighting on my behalf against all opponents.
Thibaut Courtois (GK, Real Madrid)
Definitive declarations of goalkeeping superiority are tough. The stats can be rather misleading — a keeper who keeps a ton of clean sheets is likely at a top club and surrounded by lots of talent, while some truly excellent keepers concede a lot of goals because, at a lesser club, the last line of defense in front of you is sometimes little more than a series of turnstiles. Of course, we know the “who’s who” of the world’s best keepers, and have an idea of the characteristics that set them apart.
The consensus “world’s best keeper” title can be fleeting, however, since, on any given day, the odd mental lapse or technical error can leave even the game’s best looking like amateurs. More than players at any other position, elite keepers are constantly a stone’s throw from speculation over not just how good they are, but also whether they’re any good at all. (That may be a slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean.)
Which brings us to Thibaut Courtois. If you know my club allegiance — here’s a hint — you’ll know that I’d rather have gone in just about any other direction here. Alas…
It’s crazy to consider now that, in the immediate aftermath of his now-hilariously cheap €35 million move from Chelsea (who spent more than double that to replace him with Kepa Arrizabalaga), Courtois faced criticism, with Madridistas — renowned, of course, for their patience and nurturing — calling for Keylor Navas, who, in fairness, had just won the Champions League three times with the club.
However, less than four years on, and eight years after watching Los Blancos capture La Decima as a member of Atlético de Madrid, the 30-year-old Belgian is the world’s most consistently error-free keeper, and now a talismanic figure at the Bernabéu.
This kills me. But, at this moment in time, in the interest of maintaining whatever credibility it is that I’ve got, there’s only one choice here.
Trent Alexander-Arnold (RB, Liverpool)
Fast, athletic and versatile, deadly on attacking set-pieces, arguably the world’s best crosser, calm and composed on the ball, with the vision and skill to launch, sustain, or finish off an attack with any type of pass — long, short, vertical, cross-field, you name it — “TAA” is basically the platonic ideal of the modern right back.
Though different stylistically, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s collection of qualities are reminiscent of the greatest player in the history of the position: Peak Dani Alves. Now, I’d never choose anyone over peak Dani, but despite my best mental gymnastics, 23-year-old TAA gets the nod over the 39-year-old current Alves. Plus, the thought of him linking up with the others in the lineup was too enticing to pass up.
María ‘Mapi’ León (CB, FC Barcelona Femeni)
I contemplated trying to make a case for Mapi as the best female player in the world right now, period. The effort would have been made in good faith, but I ultimately couldn’t get there.
With all due respect to Alexia Putellas and the army of apex predators on FC Barcelona Femeni that she captains, one could argue, fairly convincingly, that Mapi León has been the most important member of Barça Femeni’s run to its second straight Champions League final.
Though she came of age with her local club, Prainsa Zaragoza (with whom she played her youth football and debuted as a senior player), Espanyol (for one season) and Atlético de Madrid (where she spent three seasons), it feels as though Mapi has only ever been, Carles Puyol style, at the heart of Barça.
Nearly five seasons into her Barça tenure, the first-ever paid transfer in Spanish women’s football (her 2017 move from Atleti was for a fee of €50,000), Mapi serves as defensive anchor, spark plug, and calming influence. Both in defense and while jumpstarting attacks from the back, she sets the tone for the best women’s side around.
Virgil van Dijk (CB, Liverpool)
Only so much explanation is needed here.
A ruptured ACL sidelined Virgil van Dijk for nine months and cost him the entirety of the preseason. And yet, once fit, he slotted right back into Liverpool’s back line and has since anchored what could still be the most successful season in the history of British club football.
Whether starting at his preferred left center back spot or on the right (which he can absolutely do), van Dijk’s combination of size, strength, speed, intelligence, instincts, poise, confidence, and free kick prowess makes him the quintessential defensive anchor.
Ashley Lawrence (LB, Paris Saint-Germain)
Pacey, skilled, and versatile (she’s played fullback and winger on both sides of the field during her career), Ashley Lawrence is one of European women’s club football’s under-the-radar stars.
Lawrence, who’s medaled twice in the Olympics with her native Canada (bronze in 2016, and gold in 2021), is not only an adept marker, but can coolly turn defense into attack, with her strength on the ball, skilled dribbling, incisive passing, accurate crossing, and the occasional goal.
Before heading off to claim Olympic gold, Lawrence was voted into the French league’s team of the season for 2021, after helping PSG reach a league title win and the semifinals of the Champions League.
PSG are now eyeing the top of the mountain. Of course, that last hurdle — finding some way to overcome both Barça Femini and Lyon — is an awfully tall one. But, with Lawrence on the pitch, they’ve got a chance — at both European glory and “household name” status.
Joshua Kimmich (DM, Bayern Munich)
Among today’s elite players, few are as effortlessly versatile as Kimmich. At Leipzig (with whom he made his senior debut in 2013), Kimmich was cast in an attacking role, and tasked with winning the ball in front of a high back four. He’s also played in deeper-lying roles, both as a defensive midfielder and as a right wingback in a German defense that needed all the help it could get.
In short, there’s almost nothing he can’t do. A willing runner and excellent tackler, Kimmich is also comfortable on the ball, as a dribbler, passer, or crosser, and can even chip in with a goal when needed. He’s basically what you’d expect of a supreme talent whose game is modeled after those of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Xabi Alonso, and Xavi.
In this group we’re assembling here, the 27-year-old German would fit perfectly in the role he occupies for Bayern Munich, at the base of midfield, both breaking up opposition attacks and sustaining ours.
Alexia Putellas (MF, FC Barcelona Femeni)
There’s a case to be made that, over the past two seasons, Alexia has more consistently sustained a greater level of dominance that any other top-tier player, male or female.
I just got through saying that Mapi León has been Barça Femeni’s most important player in recent months — and I believe that to be true — but Alexia is the player who makes Barça’s devastating engine purr. She starts attacks from deep. She brutally slices open defenses, via the dribble and all manner of passes. Even in traffic, she sees the entire pitch. She’s a world class finisher and a master of creating space where none seems to exist, with minimal exertion. Despite her near-sociopathic need to dominate regardless of time or score, she’s never out of control. Few players — even genuine greats — have ever owned the game so effortlessly.
More than anyone, she drew over 183,000 to Camp Nou for Femeni’s last two Champions League home games.
Trinity Rodman (MF, Washington Spirit)
I’ve said it before. Let’s paraphrase here:
Though Rodman has only one full senior season under belt, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NWSL draft is, in every meaningful way, is the platonic ideal for a superstar. Agile, explosive, technically adept, mature, unselfish, clinical, and supremely confident.
Despite a slow start (just one goal and one assist in her first six games), Rodman finished the 2021 NWSL season second in the league in total goal contributions (11; behind only Gotham FC’s Ifeoma Onumonu, who had 12) and, along with Onumonu, was one of two players to finish top-10 in the league in both goals and assists.
That was at age 19. That’s era-defining superstar stuff. Plus, who doesn’t want to see a midfield pairing of Alexia and Rodman linking up with…
Caroline Graham Hansen (RW, FC Barcelona Femeni)
In a team full of players that are so difficult to describe concisely without resorting to too much hyperbole, this entry was the toughest one to write.
I’ve previously nutshelled Carolyn Graham Hanson’s game thusly:
“She does the spectacular as well and as nonchalantly as anyone, and every subtle move is inch-perfect.”
I stand by every last syllable of that, but also feel like it somehow comes up woefully short. To watch her effortlessly — almost stoically — operate on the right wing, winning the ball, ghosting past defenders out wide, cutting in onto her left foot, feinting and shimmying while the ball sits still, is to a genius chuckling at the punchline to a joke that only she understands.
Erling Haaland (F, Borussia Dortmund)
Imagine Peak Jamie Vardy’s gift for blowing up a defensive game plan with a blinding, incisive run in behind a high defensive line. Now, make Vardy huge, stronger and faster, and infuse him with an even more thunderous finish. That’s Erling Haaland.
It’s an oversimplification, of course, but it’s true.
For as big and strong as Haaland is — and he is certainly both of those things — fascinatingly, the most devastating part of his game is his ability to perform the rather straightforward, but vital strikerly tasks of: spotting an angle, making an incisive run, and hammering home a finish.
Since the start of the 2019-20 season (when he joined Borussia Dortmund), he’s done this to the tune of 100 goals in 105 games for club and country. That he doesn’t turn 22 until July suggests…DAMN.
Now imagine deploying him as part of the hypothetical attack we’ve assembled here.
Lionel Messi (F, PSG)
With all due respect to Liverpool’s Sadio Mané (the choice here until the final moments), I’m not yet ready to assemble a Messi-less XI for which he is still eligible.
Maybe I’m nuts for opting for an almost-35-year-old whose best days are behind. Again, though, this is Lionel Messi. Some will point to his underwhelming impact with PSG and his shortfalls in the Champions League. Strictly speaking, they won’t be wrong, although…
In his last season at Barcelona, he was still good for 38 goals in 47 appearances. You can choose to believe that the greatest player in the history of the sport suddenly forgot how to play. Or, maybe, the perennial disappointment in which PSG traffics is so pure and un-stepped-on that even the indescribable, multi-generational brilliance of Messi had to take a back seat.
Plus, Messi could be 53 and washed, dried, folded and on the shelf, and you wouldn’t be able to get me to pass on the prospect of watching him, flanked by TAA, floating in behind Haaland, and playing through balls to (and receiving them from) Kimmich, CGH, Alexia, Rodman, and Haaland.