MLS Awards: Which ones are on the mark?

By Paul Gardner

Interesting bunch, these MLS season-award winners. For a whole variety of reasons they reflect various happenings and attitudes within the league and its clubs.

Let’s start with the Castrol MLS Index winner: The award goes to Chris Wondolwoski of the San Jose Earthquakes, who beat out Seattle’s Alvaro Fernandez by 9.31 to 9.26.

Which sounds pretty damn tight to me. But some explanation of those figures is needed (not least for my sake). The Castrol people study the MLS players for the whole season, noting down a whole bunch of numbers designed to “objectively rank a player’s performance.” A record of a player’s passing skills, for example. Passes, yes, but passes that were completed, and then even more refined, passes that led to something happening.

You get the idea -- I would say that if all the criteria have been well thought out, the final index should tell us something -- if only in the comparative sense of matching one player against another. Alas, alas -- in this very award to Wondolowski, it does seem to me that the Castrolites have used a clearly silly criterion that has tilted the prize toward Wondo.

The basic stat is shots on goal; but they are then further assessed according to the distance of the shot -- with shots taken nearer the goal getting a higher point value, “as they represent a greater opportunity for success than those made from further away.”

That is so obviously nonsensical that I don’t need to point out why. But things are not made any better when you find out that the average distance of Wondo’s shots was 9.82 feet, while Fernandez lagged at 11.42 feet. So the award was decided by a shaky stat, and then by a differential that can surely have no significance other than a mathematical one.

Fernandez, maybe, has been jobbed here. Or maybe not. If the Castrol award is intended to measure not merely a player’s performance, but his effective performance, we have an interesting comparison here. Between a player like Wondo, who is all bustling activity, the sort of hyper player you’re definitely going to notice; and Fernandez who glides through games, apparently without enormous energy output, but who has a knack of being where should be when he’s needed. I imagine the Castrol people might have problems when it comes to measuring a knack statistically.

No need for marginal tiebreakers in the goalscoring contest. Wondo lost out here to Dwayne De Rosario -- both had 16 goals, but DeRo was way ahead, 12 to 3, in the assist column. DeRo’s triumph, while playing most of the season for D.C. United, a team that didn’t even make the playoffs, speaks for itself as a tribute to his value.

It also speaks loudly as a criticism of the Red Bulls, who made an almighty mess of signing DeRo and then quickly trading him on to D.C. -- in exchange for Dax McCarty! Quite simply ... unbelievable. The official explanation was the Bulls needed to free up money so that they could bring in goalkeeper Frank Rost -- as a DP. An explanation that only makes matters worse, as Rost did nothing to justify his presence. If you’re wondering why the Red Bulls collapsed so badly in mid-season, a look at the planning and thinking behind that fiasco should explain matters.

Talking of the Red Bulls someone, somewhere -- presumably at MLS -- saw fit to include Luke Rodgers on the list of candidates for the Newcomer of the Year. Are they kidding? Anyone who saw Rodgers’ behavior in the first few minutes of the decisive playoff game against the Galaxy -- in which, after scoring a nice goal, and then getting a yellow card, he came close to seriously injuring a spectator by crazily smashing the ball out of play -- will understand why Rodgers shouldn’t be on anyone’s awards list.

The newcomer award, quite rightly, goes to Seattle’s Mauro Rosales -- a Sigi Schmid discovery, I suppose, and a very, very, good one. A player who made Seattle a serious challenger for the title. When he was injured at the end of the season, when Seattle had to play the crucial playoff games without him, it struggled.

With Rosales, I think Seattle might have made the final. Which is why I would prefer the Coach of the Year to have gone to Schmid. Seattle with Rosales was always lively, full of good soccer, a pleasure to watch.

That was certainly not the case with Bruce Arena, the winner of the award, and his Galaxy which, busy grinding out 1-0 wins, was far too often just painful to watch.

Seattle did haul in one award -- the Goalkeeper award going to Kasey Keller. I’m not happy about that one, because I don’t think Keller had a good year -- he probably played on one season too long. But if we can allow the award to be tweaked slightly, and give it on the basis of his career -- and I feel that is what happened here -- then the award is merited 10 times over.

Omar Gonzalez thoroughly deserved his Defender award, not just for intelligent play, but also for managing to steer clear of a trap that has enveloped too many large-sized American defenders over the years: that of opting for a physical approach. Gonzalez -- and I’ve no doubt Arena deserves some credit here -- has played consistently with skill and intelligence.

Then we have the Comeback Player of the Year, who turns out to be David Beckham. It should be remembered that Beckham is being rewarded for ignoring the interests of the Galaxy by going to play on loan for AC Milan, during which his tedious efforts to pretend he is still a youngster resulted in a busted Achilles’ tendon. It is that self-induced injury, one that meant he missed most of the 2010 Galaxy season, that Beckham is being rewarded for recovering from. So, whatever happens this weekend, Beckham will, at last, have won something during five years in MLS.

The Rookie award to C.J. Sapong comes as close to being unanimous -- among supporters, journalists, and players -- as seems possible, so I’m not about to argue with that. What little I saw of him, he had one quality which is, I suppose, worth taking into account: he didn’t look like a rookie.

Also on that Rookie list, though four places below Sapong, was Darlington Nagbe of Portland. Nagbe it was who captured the Goal of the Year award with a superb volley against Sporting Kansas City. I have a lot of problems with the way that this award is decided (basically, by an online fan vote -- and I don’t think anyone can claim that is likely to be an objective procedure) -- but whatever way it might have been worked out, I think it likely that Nagbe’s goal was always going to be a potential winner.

Which leaves only the MVP award. Brad Davis? Or De Rosario? Or Brek Shea? Probably Davis, I’d say. There are the cynical, pragmatic reasons -- DeRo already has an award, or Shea is young enough to come up again, or Houston is a big underdog, so give it this much at least, or even a sympathy vote for a guy who started every game for Houston this season, only to be felled one game before the climax ... but the better scenario is simply that Davis had a hell of a year and was noticeably, in every Dynamo game that I saw, the guy who made things happen. Only Rosales, another injury victim, came close to Davis in being that influential to his team.

2 comments about "MLS Awards: Which ones are on the mark?".
  1. Marcus Pelletier, November 18, 2011 at 1:03 p.m.

    Mr. Gardner,

    How many of De Ro's goals were PKs?

    Thanks for playing...

  2. Kevin Sims, November 23, 2011 at 10:01 a.m.

    Surely the average shot distances were meant to be yards rather than feet. Any effort to quantify sport performance conducted in an interactive, qualitative context will be flawed. Figures lie and liars figure.

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