By Ridge Mahoney
Voting for the major MLS postseason awards appears to be wide-open, and Coach of the Year is no exception.
Will it go to an incumbent with a proven track record (Sigi Schmid, Jason Kreis, Bruce Arena, Peter Vermes, Dominic Kinnear) who has overcome obstacles to record yet another strong season? Is a second-year man who has raised his game and that of his team (Oscar Pareja, Jay Heaps) the most deserving choice? Or has a newcomer in his first MLS season (Marco Schallibaum, Caleb Porter, Mike Petke) sufficiently impressed the voters?
Each category is a tough choice, never mind selecting the ultimate winner. Since the voting process concludes well before the playoffs -– in which mediocre regular seasons can be redeemed and excellent campaigns are sometimes scuttled – finish, the picks can take on a lame-duck feel, especially since one ill-advised coaching move can spoil the entire season.
Results, of course, are one of most important criteria but a cluster of teams bunched tightly together in the standings won’t indicate a clear choice. Any maybe that’s a good thing.
Last year, former Quakes’ coach Frank Yallop took the honor for steering San Jose (19-6-9, 66 points) to the Supporters’ Shield while scoring 72 goals, the third-highest total in league history. Yet Sporting Kansas City finished with just three fewer points (18-7-9) and posted the fourth-best goals allowed record all-time (0.79 goals per game). SKC’s point total was five points more than No. 3 D.C. United. And neither San Jose nor SKC reached MLS Cup, in which the Galaxy beat Houston for the second straight year.
So regardless of how the final few weeks shake out, there’s plenty to chew on regarding the other criteria. Assembling and developing a team, overcoming injuries and player departures, making midseason improvements, game strategy and man-management are all vital elements. Nicking talent off other MLS rosters and utilizing it effectively is a common thread of the most successful teams, and there have been many cases of such moves this season.
Of the incumbents, probably the nod goes to Kreis and Vermes. Their teams are vying for the conference title as well as the Supporters’ Shield and in the case of RSL, its head coach has masterfully engineered a major makeover. Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola and Will Johnson departed in salary-driven moves, and Kreis has filled the void with a wave of young players while retaining the team’s identity of tough defense and skillful possession.
Vermes’ roster has been relatively stable, yet he’s managed shrewdly the international commitments of Matt Besler and Graham Zusiand also compensated for Kei Kamara’s going on loan at the start of the season, returning briefly, and then heading back to England on a permanent transfer. He’s wisely used defender Ike Opara, acquired in a trade last year with San Jose, and used a loan arrangement to groom C.J. Sapong, who could be a valuable cog down the stretch.
Seattle’s season may hinge on Schmid’s management ofObafemi Martins, who sat glowering on the bench after being substituted last weekend, and Clint Dempsey’s ouchy hamstring. The Galaxy has overcome the loss of Mike Magee and the international commitments of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane through Arena’s handling of Gyasi Zardes, Jack McBean, Jose Villarreal and other young players. Arena also moved decisively to replace keeper Carlo Cudiciniwith Jaime Penedo.
The second-year contingent is led by Pareja. A wave of injuries early in the season forced him to field lineups short on veterans, and as those veterans have healed, they’ve found Chris Klute, Shane O’Neill, Dillon Powers, Deshorn Brownand goalie Clint Irwin hard to dislodge from the game-day roster.
Midseason acquisitions Vicente Sanchez and Gabriel Torres have further strengthened a pretty good team. Ecuadorian defender Diego Calderon was projected in preseason as a starter; a long-term knee injury and the death of childhood friend Christian Benitez have limited him to four games, and yet O’Neill’s emergence has softened Calderon’s absence.
Heaps has done an amazing job incorporating very young players into his philosophies. Diego Fagundez, 18, leads the team with 11 goals and is the youngest of a group that counts Juan Agudelo (20) and Kelyn Rowe and Andrew Farrell(both 21) among its key members. His work may bear its ripest fruit in 2014 and beyond.
Both Montreal and Portland have slipped from the top spots of the Eastern and Western Conferences, respectively, and so votes may slip away from, respectively, Schallibaum and Porter. Yet both have done commendable work.
Schallibaum’s sporadic run-ins with referees draw attention away from squeezing 18 goals out of 36-year-old Marco Di Vaioand managing the personalities of a half-dozen European veterans while also enhancing the contributions of Justin Mapp. Porter’s acquisition of playmaker Diego Valeri and melding his talents with those of Will Johnson, Darlington Nagbe, Rodney Wallace, Ryan Johnson and Diego Chara is a classic example of re-building a promising team that had gone sour under predecessor John Spencer.
The Red Bulls have apparently hit the jackpot with Petke, a rugged defender in his playing days and one of the few throwbacks to the team’s MetroStars existence that fans remember fondly. His swift benching ofThierry Henry is just the most publicized of many crucial decisions that have steered New York to its status among the league’s elite.
With a month to go, here’s how the contenders stack up: