MLS Awards: Sporting Kansas City anchor Opara is top defender

The proliferation of three-man back lines by clubs and national teams around the world has not been much copied in MLS, which for most of its existence has featured teams playing four in the back.

The reliance of a team on its defenders, and the centerback pairing in particular, remains one of the most important keys to MLS success. The MLS Defender of the Year Award has been dominated by centerbacks and this season the list of leading candidates includes several international central defenders along with the domestic group.

In 2017, MLS has finally seen the player Ike Opara can be. Opara was taken as the No. 3 overall pick in 2010 by San Jose, but his physical gifts did not translate into confident, reliable play. His progress was constantly nullified by injuries such as the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered playing for Sporting Kansas City in 2014.

Aside from a kick to the head by FC Dallas forward Max Urruti in July that caused a concussion, he’s been healthy this season. In his 30 games, he’s averaged 1.7 tackles and 2.3 interceptions per game, scored three goals, and completed 86.2 percent of his passes. His steady, solid play and that of central partner Matt Besler has enabled SKC to register one of the lowest goals-allowed averages in league history (0.85).

One of the main reasons for Vancouver’s revival this season has been the reliability of Costa Rican international Kendall Waston. Red-carded three times in 2016, he avoided being sent off at all in 2017 and finished tied for second on the team in goals with four. He also averaged two interceptions per game.

The defensive goalscoring honor, however, is a runaway for Justin Morrow. He has scored eight goals, including a hat trick, playing further up the field. Morrow has also recorded 2.5 tackles per game and an 84 percent pass completion rate.

Toronto FC helped break the four-man mold last season when head coach Greg Vanney shifted to a three-man back line and went all the way to the MLS Cup final.  His system often uses former outside backs Morrow and Steven Beitashour as wingbacks, with centerback Drew Moor joined by a pair of teammates on the back line.

Vanney has built enough depth into the team that Nicolas Hasler has played a lot of games in place of Beitashour and the head coach can use any three of five players, as well as Morrow, in the back trio. He will also play four in the back depending on the opponent, player absences, and other conditions.

Chris Leitch shifted to a three-man back line when he replaced Dominic Kinnear as Quakes head coach halfway through the season but a few heavy defeats on the road prompted a shift back to the four-man alignment. One of his stalwarts has been Bundesliga veteran Florian Jungwirth, who has played centerback and defensive mid in the different formations utilized by Leitch.

New York City FC’s defensive record is not an accident. Only three teams have allowed fewer than its 43 goals and for that, ever-present centerback Alexander Callens deserves much credit. He’s the only field player to play every minute of the 2017 season and while doing so he scored two goals, logged 2.3 interceptions and 4.4 clearances per game, and completed 85.9 percent of his passes.

Also among the elite, again, is three-time DofY winner Chad Marshall of Seattle. The Sounders were third in fewest goals allowed (39) and along with two interceptions per game Marshall connected on 90.3 percent of his passes, second only to Darlington Nagbe.

Seven of nine assists were registered by Joevin Jones playing left back and Marshall’s Seattle teammate is the one of the league’s most dangerous players coming out of the back.
Winner: Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City). Runner-up: Justin Morrow (Toronto FC).
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