MLS Awards: Atlanta United's Martinez edges Nikolic as top Newcomer

It’s a crowded, confusing field for MLS Newcomer of the Year.

Any player in his first MLS season, other than those classified as rookies because they are in their first year in professional soccer, are eligible. Thanks to expansion along with aggressive scouting and sizable spending, the pool of newcomers grows in number and stature each season, yet 2017 might be the best crop ever assembled.

Of the fleet of new players brought to MLS by Atlanta United, the quantity and quality astound. All the Fire has done is land German star Bastian Schweinsteiger and the league’s top scorer, Nemanja Nikolic. The Galaxy’s lone bright spot this year is attacker Romain Alessandrini, and one could say that the main reason 2016 MLS Cup finalist Toronto FC ran away with the Supporters’ Shield this year was the addition of Victor Vazquez, who scored eight goals and led TFC with 16 assists.

For Minnesota United FC, Christian Ramirez handled the jump to MLS quite well by scoring 14 goals. Real Salt Lake’s search for a playmaker to replace Javi Morales led it to Albert Rusnak, who set up 13 goals and scored seven himself.

Yet the serious discussions start in Atlanta, where the exploits of playmaker Miguel Almiron (nine goals, 14 assists) can’t measure up to the amazing prowess of Josef Martinez. He scored five goals combined in his second and third MLS games, then sat out nearly three months with a hamstring injury suffered while training with the Venezuelan national team.

He’s since recovered from another injury to score 19 goals in 1528 minutes of play, which is the equivalent of about 17 games. So he’s scored, in effect, 1.12 goals per 90 minutes, the highest such mark in league history among players who have started at least one-half of the games in a season. All but one of his goals have been notched in his 17 starts and by scoring in Sunday in the 2-2 season finale with Toronto FC ended a two-game scoring drought, which ties his longest run without a goal in games he has played. In only seven of his starts has he failed to hit the net.

Poor Hector Villalba (13 goals, 11 assists) and Yamil Asad (7 goals, 13 assists). Since each team is limited to two official nominations they couldn’t even get on the ballot.

A clear second is Nikolic, who could well with the official MLS award after drilling 24 goals while playing 34 games. Among the top scorer he placed third with 0.73 goals per 90 minutes, a shade behind runner-up David Villa (0.77).

Not all of the influential newcomers are of the attacking ilk. Alexander Ring has been a great midfield addition for NYCFC, as has Haris Medunjanin in Philadelphia. Of perhaps a half-dozen additions in San Jose, centerback Florian Jungwirth has been the most consistently important. Injuries have limited the availability of Schweinsteiger but he's been a presence in every one of his appearances.

Yet of a very fruitful crop, these two are the pick of the harvest:
Winner: Josef Martinez (Atlanta United). Runner-up: Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago).

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