All 20 teams are beyond the midpoint of their seasons and there are only three months remaining in the eight months of MLS, but the All-Star Game is a symbolic convergence and so a good time to reflect and also look head.
It’s quite possible that significant players will emerge from those registered to play during the secondary North American window of July 8-Aug. 6, yet as was the case last year for Jermaine Jones, whose August debut spurred a Revs’ run to the MLS Cup final, they are normally excluded from the end-of-season awards.
As such, here’s a rundown of the major MLS categories as well as one whose addition to the league lineup is long overdue.
MVP. This might evolve into a two-horse race if it hasn’t already, with Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber and Toronto FC forward Sebastian Giovinco racking up impressive performances week after week. Galaxy forward Robbie Keane is certainly doing enough to retain his 2014 award and Crew SC striker Kei Kamara can’t seem to stop scoring goals and is also picking up a fair number of assists. Sounders Clint Dempsey and 2014 finalist Obafemi Martins are both worthy of consideration, as is David Villa, but unless one of the top two goes completely off form or is injured, this could be a binary decision.
Feilhaber’s resolute defensive work hasn’t blunted his offensive prowess, and like Giovinco, he too is capable of spectacular moments such as the blistering shot he put into the top corner last week in a 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake. Yet MLS has seldom, if ever, seen an attacker as inventive and dynamic as Giovinco, who is also a prime candidate to win Newcomer of the Year. He’s one of the most mesmerizing players in MLS, ever.
The Atomic Ant also gets extra credit for MVP-specific criteria, since he’s a crucial piece of TFC’s transformation from perennial flame-out to contender, whereas Feilhaber is an important piece of a team that has been good for some time.
But still we’re going to hedge. The vote goes to Feilhaber and Giovinco gets the top spot for Newcomer.
Top three: 1. Feilhaber. 2. Giovinco. 3. Kamara.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR. Canadian international Cyle Larin took a huge lead about two months ago and is about the lap the field. His pace, strength and stamina are impressive yet he’s also quickly learning the nuances of timing and angling of runs. His hat trick last weekend in Orlando City’s 5-3 loss to New York City FC leaves him just two short of Damani Ralph’s league record of 11 goals as a rookie in 2003.
Fatai Alashe is a key member of the Quakes' midfield and Matt Polster is also getting regular playing time for the Fire.
Top three: 1. Larin. 2. Alashe. 3. Polster.
GOALKEEPER OF THE YEAR. The Save of the Week award usually goes to the most spectacular stop and worthy as those saves are of praise, they are not always the product of good goalkeeping. A keeper who stays on his line rather than challenge as he should may be forced into a save he might have prevented in the first place, and organizational difficulties can also provide opponents with unwarranted chances.
In Vancouver, (David) Ousted is short for Outstanding. He burst onto MLS last year with a remarkable run of consistent, occasionally spectacular performances, yet despite leading the league in shutouts (13), didn’t even crack the top four in GOTY voting. This year he’s been solid every week and has a long list of highlight-reel repulsions.
A great season by Bill Hamid earned him the 2014 award, and though he’s in excellent form again in 2015, injuries have limited his minutes. They are locked in a tight battle with the Sounders’ Stefan Frei, Colorado’s Clint Irwin, and RSL’s Nick Rimando. Irwin has rebounded from a subpar showing last year and he’s one of three goalies -- Hamid and Frei are the others -- with a goals-allowed average of less than 1.00 (Ousted is right at that figure). Hamid (82 percent) and Frei (80) are the leaders in save percentage.
Top three: 1. Ousted. 2. Hamid. 3. Irwin.
DEFENDER OF THE YEAR. Here’s another category that might be claimed by a newcomer: Belgian centerback Laurent Ciman is showing Impact fans and those around MLS what they might have seen had former Montreal defender Alessandro Nesta had arrived a few years earlier in his career.
Ciman is not of that quality, but he’s rugged, smart, intelligent and good with the ball. He also scored his second goal of the season last weekend to sink the Sounders, 1-0. According to whoscored.com, he’s tied for second in the league with 4.6 interceptions per game. Past winners Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez are among several centerbacks in contention.
The Timbers’ roller-coaster season probably rules out Alvas Powell from this award, but he’s the leader among defenders with 4.4 tackles per game and a force going forward. And if you think all the praise for young Red Bulls defender Matt Miazga is a bit much, he’s tied for the league lead in aerial duels won (4.9 per game) and is tops in clearances (8).
Top three: 1. Ciman. 2. Besler. 3. Miazga.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR. Midseason arrivals Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Giovani Dos Santos and Andrea Pirlo are disqualified, yet there’s still an impressive field of candidates.
Giovinco is an electrifying presence, a dynamo of quickness and speed who can slice between defenders or blow past them one-v-one. He’s scored from distance with both feet, chipped keepers with aplomb, and is the closest thing to an unstoppable force this league has ever seen.
Kaka is a delightful spokesman for the league and in a different way than Giovinco, lights up just about every game he plays in. There are very few criticisms of Villa among the fan base and press corps who follow New York City FC. Octavio Rivero has cooled off after a torrid start but with him in the lineup the Whitecaps are tough to beat.
Top three: 1. Giovinco 2. Villa. 3. Kaka.
COACH OF THE YEAR. In MLS, even good teams can hit bad skids -- the Revs and Sounders are perfect examples -- and this award often goes to the team making the greatest improvement. That is a restrictive condition, since a coach who cranks out good results every year -- Sigi Schmid, Peter Vermes, Dominic Kinnear, Bruce Arena, Jason Kreis -- are often shortchanged in favor of a transformational season that turns around a bad team.
Heaps upgraded the Revs into an MLS Cup finalist last year but didn’t win the award. This year, the ascension of FC Dallas gives Oscar Pareja a strong push and Vancouver's Carl Robinson is getting a lot of praise. Frank Klopas will attract votes if Montreal makes the playoffs. And if the Galaxy seems poised to win
yet another title when the voters make their choices Mr. Arena just might carry the day.
Top three: 1. Pareja. 2. Robinson. 3. Vermes.
YOUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR. This category covers any young player – the age can be about 23 – who doesn’t fit the MLS definition of a rookie, which is a player in his first year of professional soccer. It’s the ideal way to acknowledge an academy graduate or draft pick or young acquisition who has excelled regardless of when his pro career started.
Landon Donovan and Taylor Twellman, to cite just two examples, were never eligible for the Rookie of the Year award because they signed with pro clubs overseas before starting their careers in MLS. Eddie Gaven, who signed with MLS at 16 and was forced to retire prematurely at 27, would have been eligible for more than one-half of his career.
If the age limit is 23, here are some worthy candidates of that age or younger: Joao Plata, “Cubo” Torres, Gyasi Zardes, Diego Fagundez, Kellyn Acosta, Fabian Castillo, Kekuta Manneh, Dillon Serna, Marky Delgado, Matias Laba, Jose Villarreal, Luis Gil and Olmes Garcia, along with Powell and Miazga.
As the list shows, MLS and its teams have accumulated an impressive array of young talent and this might be the most hotly contested category as the league continues to grow. (Last year could have been a real dogfight between Zardes and Hamid, for example.) There could also be Homegrown Player of the Year.
Top three: 1. Castillo. 2. Miazga. 3. Plata.