Luciano Emilio is front-runner for MLS honors

Kudos to MLS for adding a new award category this year, a prize of far more interest to fans than the internally driven Executive of the Year and the like. (Incidentally, for filling nearly every seat for the entire season at BMO Field, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is the hands-down choice. Well done. Runner-up is that ticket-seller extraordinaire, David Beckham.)

The Newcomer of the Year is open to all players who joined the league in 2007. It is not restricted in any away -- as is the Rookie of the Year Award to first-year professionals -- and is an obvious adjunct to the league's adoption of the Designated Player option. So important have some newcomers been to their teams this season they deserve serious mention as MVP candidates as well.

Yet since only a few teams have exercised the DP option, both the Newcomer and the MVP awards may not go to DPs. Several players acquired through traditional mechanisms have done just as much, or more, and overall, this fleet of new players is the best crop since the league actually began operations.

"Aside from the first year of the league, when you had [Carlos] Valderrama and Marco [Etcheverry] and all those players, I think this has been the best crop of foreign players who have come into the league," says Crew head coach Sigi Schmid, who lured Guillermo Barros Schelotto from his beloved Boca Juniors to MLS. "We know the American players are improving every year and with this caliber of foreign players, there's a good mix of athleticism and skill on a lot of the teams."

DPs Juan Pablo Angel and Claudio Reyna have been instrumental to the Red Bulls' success, but the success hasn't been all that instrumental. At least not yet. RBNY is 11-10-4; last year's record was 9-11-12.

If it finishes say, 13-11-6, that's an increase of six points (in two fewer games played), a decent upgrade yet nothing sensational. Angel and Reyna will vie for team MVP honors but even Angel may be a longshot for the league award.

The most important RBNY newcomer down the stretch may be keeper Ronald Wattereus. Nagging injuries and positional issues plagued some of his performances earlier in the season but he's been sharp the past few games.

In D.C. Luciano Emilio is a frontrunner for both the MVP and Newcomer awards.

He's poised to become the first player in five seasons to hit the 20-goal mark, since Carlos Ruiz (24) and Taylor Twellman (23) in 2002, and if he stays in MLS -- he's already made noises about moving on -- could threaten the 44-goal mark Stern John set in consecutive seasons before heading overseas.

With Emilio and fellow Brazilian non-DP Fred, plus a few lineup tweaks by Coach Tom Soehn, D.C. has already matched its 15 wins of last season with five more games to play.

As for the MVP votes, those might be split up between Emilio and Christian Gomez.

Emilio's most serious challenger for Newcomer honors may be Maykel Galindo, who leads Chivas USA in scoring yet just as importantly brings passion and pace to every game he plays.

His story is a classic tale of courage and perseverance, a man who left the Cuban national team in Seattle during the 2005 Gold Cup, and a great example of the opportunities offered by MLS, despite its flaws.

Another non-DP, Colombian Juan Toja of FC Dallas, is one of the most dynamic midfielders to hit MLS since Peter Nowak. He's so raw he leads the league in fouls committed yet is also tied for the team lead in scoring with six goals and on his day can dominate midfield.

If Toja finishes strongly FCD can reach the conference final in spite of its defensive woes and the difficulties of Pablo Richetti to hold down a starting spot, especially with the arrival of Brazilian DP Denilson and on-loan countrymate Ricardinho.

DP Cuauhtemoc Blanco came to MLS in midseason and his impact on the field has been second to only D.C.'s duo of Emilio and Fred.

At age 34, he can't dominate as he did a few years ago, but he can complement teammates as well as take on the burden himself. His arrival has sparked crowds at Toyota Park and around the league yet his true impact may not be known until next year as he and his teammates, along with fellow newcomers Wilman Conde and Paulo Wanchope, get into the mix.

Kansas City brought in Argentines Carlos Marinelli and Eloy Colombano yet their most influential newcomer has been rookie Michael Harrington, who has played in all but one game. Marinelli's influence has waned in the second half of the season, as has Schelotto's in the past month.

RSL coach Jason Kreis went KC and DC one better and brought in three countrymen -- Argentines Fabian Espindola, Matias Mantilla, Javier Morales -- for the final portion of the season. They won't win any individual awards, but if they help transform RSL from a train wreck into a competitive team they'll be a success.

Speaking of being competitive, if powerhouse Danny Dichio had stayed healthy, TFC would be hovering on the fringe of the playoff race and he'd be in the running for Newcomer honors. Captain Jim Brennan has played several positions to fill holes in a constantly riddled lineup.

Beckham? Let's not go there. Some bad luck and a bad decision or two blew up yet big gambles carry huge risk. Nor should we mention Mexican striker Daniel Osorno, who has played only 39 minutes for the Rapids. He replaced Panamanian Roberto Brown, who scored two goals in his first four games but soon disappeared. Andy Welsh (Toronto)? Thanks for coming.

The Newcomer of the Year Award voting is an interesting sidelight, but the newcomers who excel during the next two months will shape the playoffs.

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