SA Midseason Awards: Nikolic, Paunovic head list of Chicago candidates

By Ridge Mahoney

There are clear frontrunners for a few of the major individual awards presented annually by Major League Soccer, and other categories are wide-open.

The official voting for such awards is split between three groups: current MLS players; MLS staff members, including coaches, technical directors, PR directors, and business officers; and media members with a track record of regular league coverage. The same voting mix is used for the MLS Best XI.

Fan voting in MLS is limited to the All-Star Game and goal and save of the year, and it will be interesting to see which players are named by Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic, who will coach the All-Stars against Real Madrid Aug. 2. Two Fire players -- Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger --  have been voted by fans to the “first team” of 11 named last week, and those two players as well as a few teammates will be in the chase for the individual honors as well.

For the six major awards listed, we will follow the league format that names three finalists and will also rank them in order of preference.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER. The past two winners -- Sebastian Giovinco (2015) and David Villa (2106) -- are in the hunt once again. This year the goalscoring prowess of Nikolic, who leads the league with 16 goals, revives the scenario of two years ago, when Giovinco drew considerable support as MVP as well as Newcomer of the Year. (Eventually he won both, as did Emilio Luciano in 2007 as the first Newcomer of the Year.)

Giovinco captured the Golden Boot two years ago as well, so Nikolic could be primed for a double or treble. Or Nikolic might be passed over as MVP, as he’s also on an excellent team. With Giovinco, Toronto FC in 2015 did qualify for its first postseason but barely, in sixth place.

Schweinsteiger, without piling up amazing stats (2 goals, 5 assists) has upgraded the Fire to a championship contender. Like Villa, he’s simply an amazing meld of skill, vision, spirit, and instinct, a truly world-class player in every sense.

If Nikolic ties or beats the league scoring record of 27 goals, he’d seem to be a shoo-in for MVP. Yet when Bradley Wright-Phillips of the Red Bulls tied the record in 2014, he didn’t make the cut of the three finalists. And the second half of the season tends to count for more than the first half when voters ponder their choices, so if Nikolic regresses to the mean and finishes with a goal total in the low 20s, somebody else could beat him out.

Nikolic isn’t nearly as flashy or dynamic as Giovinco and Villa, but he’s extremely clever and seems to glide onto the ball before he caresses it and/or strikes it. Compared to Villa (12 goals on 79 shots), he’s more efficient (16 goals on 68 shots). Giovinco (9 goals, 4 assists) has relinquished some of the creative burden to another newcomer, Victor Vazquez, who is tied for the league lead with 10 assists.

After Giovinco and Villa, other standout candidates are Diego Valeri of Portland, Max Urruti of FC Dallas, and Romain Alessandrini of the LA Galaxy, which has been decimated by injuries in its re-tooling season.

In a normal year, Fire winger David Accam (10 goals, 7 assists) would be in the mix as well. The Atlanta duo of Josef Martinez (9 goals) and Miguel Almiron (8 goals, 8 assists) cannot be overlooked.

Our picks: 1. Nikolic. 2. Villa. 3. Alessandrini.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR. See above, and after Nikolic and Schweinsteiger, especially in the cases of Vazquez, Alessandrini and the Atlanta duo, but for different reasons.

Injuries have limited Martinez to nine games, so he’s scoring at a clip of a goal per game, which is better than Nikolic and everybody else. If he’s healthy and scoring goals through the second half of the season, he will draw a lot of votes. Almiron is living up to his reputation as one of the most exciting young (22) attacking players on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, but he’s not producing much away from home.

Vazquez has added a creative spark to a team that had just about everything else and last year lost the MLS Cup final on penalty kicks. Alessandrini leads the Galaxy in goals (8) and assists (7), excellent numbers for a team riddled by injuries and inconsistency.

Last year's winner, Nicolas Lodeiro of Seattle, was a midseason signing. Most teams used up their acquisition assets during the primary window, but with 2018 expansion team Los Angeles FC flush with allocation funds and delving into the market, a team could acquire enough additional GAM and/or TAM to land a game-breaker.

Our picks: 1. Martinez. 2. Nikolic. 3. Vazquez.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR. Without a standout attacker to take this category by storm – see Jordan Morris (2016), Cyle Larin (2015), Tesho Akindele (2013), Andy Najar (2010) -- voters might look for outstanding prospects in the back line, as per Sean Franklin (2008), Omar Gonzalez (2009), and Austin Berry (2012).

There are two rookie defenders racking up a lot of minutes and the kudos heaped upon Nick Lima of San Jose and Jack Elliott of Philadelphia are well-deserved. Yet a very important piece of the Atlanta midfield is Julian Gressel, who is a stabilizing force capable of contributing offensively (3 goals, 6 assists) and plays with the calm and savvy of a veteran. He’s also battling for playing time, so by racking up 15 starts in his 19 appearances he’s responded well to competition within the squad.

Lima has played both outside back slots in a four-man defense and as a wingback in a 3-5-2 formation unveiled by head coach Chris Leitch, who replaced Dominic Kinnear two weeks ago. He’s got a bright future as does Elliott, an Englishman who like Gressel (born in Germany) is of foreign descent.

Our picks: 1. Gressel. 2. Elliott. 3. Lima.
COACH OF THE YEAR. Though its record last year didn’t reflect any great improvement, the Fire clearly progressed in its first season under Paunovic, so the fruits of this season’s remarkable record (11-3-5) were planted in late 2015 when he was hired.

He’s followed the proven process of finding good talent on other MLS rosters -- Juninho, Dax McCarty, Matt Lampson, Luis Solignac, Arturo Alvarez -- while keeping the players who can contribute, such as David Accam, Brandon Vincent, and Matt Polster, and bringing in the necessary upgrades from abroad. Commitment from the front office to sign a star like Schweinsteiger as well as find players such as Nikolic, Michael de Leeuw, Johan Kappelhof, and Joao Meira is paying off tremendously.

By orchestrating a significant turnaround in Houston Wilmer Cabrera is a bonafide candidate. He’s revived the career of Erick “Cubo” Torres and introduced talented players to the league such as Alberth Elis and Adolpho Machado.  The Dynamo’s miserable road record is a drawback but there’s no question of the dramatic change triggered by Cabrera’s hiring.

Patrick Vieira with New York City FC has built upon a solid debut season in MLS by benching Andrea Pirlo for long stretches and bringing in a very underrated cog in Maxi Moralez. Keeper Sean Johnson, who struggled during his last few years in Chicago, looks refreshed and confident.

There’s also good work being done by 2016 winner Oscar Pareja (FC Dallas), Peter Vermes (Sporting Kansas City) and Jim Curtin (Philadelphia).  Gerard “Tata” Martino may get a lot of votes if Atlanta parlays the arrival of keeper Brad Guzan into a strong late-season surge.

Our picks: 1. Paunovic. 2. Cabrera. 3. Vieira.
DEFENDER OF THE YEAR. On course to set league records for fewest goals allowed per game and shutouts, Sporting Kansas City is inevitably drawing attention for this category as well as Goalkeeper of the Year.

But it’s not U.S. international and 2012 winner Matt Besler who’s creating all the buzz, but his partner Ike Opara, who after seasons of inconsistency caused by injuries – foot problems, broken ankle, ruptured Achilles’ tendon, groin strain – has finally melded good health with consistent and occasionally spectacular play, such as this Goal of the Week winner from late June:

It’s his rugged, reliable defending that has complemented nicely the savvy and skill of Besler, whose clever ball over the top set up Opara to score that goal. SKC is certainly defending well as a team; it has allowed only 14 goals and has permitted opponents the fewest shots (183) in 20 games. Opara’s stats are solid: 3.8 clearances, 1.8 interceptions, and 1.6 tackles per game (according to

Also bagging a couple of goals so far this season is Galaxy defender and 2016 runner-up Jelle  Van Damme, who netted against the Quakes in their league meeting July 1 as well as on Monday in the U.S. Open Cup. He was suspended for the Galaxy’s 6-2 drubbing by Real Salt Lake but its overall defensive performance has not been good, so voters may look elsewhere.

Three teams have conceded an average of one goal per game, including FC Dallas, so that may aid the causes of 2016 winner Matt Hedges and FCD teammate Walker Zimmerman (fourth in the final tabulation last year). If TFC and Chicago continue to be as stingy and Opara goes through a rough patch, this category could open up for the likes of Drew Moor or Johan Kappelhof, respectively.

Offseason signing Florian Jungwirth is doing some good work for the Quakes but was overpowered (and maybe fouled) as Van Damme scored in the Open Cup. Still, he reads the game very well, covers a lot of ground, and is an excellent passer.

Outside backs don’t the notice they should yet still Greg Garza is worthy of mention for his defensive diligence and crossing prowess for Atlanta.

Our picks: 1. Opara. 2. Van Damme. 3. Hedges.
GOALKEEPER OF THE YEAR. Nine shutouts in 20 games give SKC keeper Tim Melia and his mates a shot at the record of 16 set in 2000 by Tony Meola on the same team with a different name.

Melia is doing a lot more than just mopping up the few spills of a strong defense. He seldom gives up a soft rebound, is confidently snagging shots as well as crosses and through balls, and every so often pulls off the spectacular save that infuriates opponents. He’s fifth in the league with 60 saves that include three penalty kicks, one short of the league record for a season held by his former RSL mentor Nick Rimando.

After riding the bench for two seasons with Real Salt Lake and playing six games during the last three MLS campaigns (2012-14) of Chivas USA, Melia took over at SKC when Andy Gruenebaum and Eric Kronberg left via the Re-Entry Draft. For SKC he’s given up only 72 goals in 70 games. That is damn good.

Two keepers besides Melia (0.70) are conceding less than a goal per game: Matt Lampson (0.64) of Chicago and Jesse Gonzalez (0.93) of FCD. Like Melia, Joe Bendik of Orlando City has played every minute; he’s faced the most shots (102) and though his GAA is a bit high at 1.45 he’s second in saves (68) and is one major reason the defensively challenged Lions are above the playoff line.

Poor, shellshocked Bill Hamid of D.C. is leading in saves (73) and last year’s winner, Andre Blake of Philly, is tied with Johnson for sixth in GAA at 1.18.

Our picks: 1. Melia. 2. Bendik. 3. Blake.
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