By Ian Lamberson (@ahandleforian)
It was a pretty light weekend in Major League Soccer featuring a match seeking to answer that age old question “what happens when the opposite of an immovable object meets the opposite of an unstoppable force?” The answer? Colorado wins 2-0, I guess. That match will probably be remembered more for the altercation following the final whistle which featured two players being showed red cards FIFTEEN minutes into stoppage time so I guess Colorado and MInnesota aren't’ best friends now, which could be problematic as previously they seem to be the only destinations that would actually want some of the other’s lackluster players. I sure hope they work it out. I’ve got $5 on a Franz Pangop for Yannick Boli trade.
But also, Oh my god DC United are just so irresistible right now. It’s like watching Michael Jordan in that flu game but instead of Michael Jordan it’s more like BJ Armstrong and instead of the flu it had something vaguely to do with raccoons. I predicted a few weeks ago that this team would find its way to the postseason and I’m feeling more and more confident about this every week. Watching people eat their crow flavored Pot Noodle about Wayne Rooney has become appointment viewing during office hours. To say Rooney has been a revelation is only true if you’re one of these people who have apparently never once watched Wayne Rooney play soccer. You aren’t seeing some surprising late career renaissance version of a softer more reflective Rooney, you’re getting the same bullish kid in a dad’s body with an innate ability to grab a game by the scruff of its neck and drag it wherever he wants.
We’re getting to end of the season time and we all know what that means: SIX ADDITIONAL MONTHS OF PLAYOFFS, I exaggerate but really, there’s a lot still to go. No, what it really means is that we’re fully in end of season awards time, so let’s unpack some narratives and see where we stand.
Goalkeeper of the Year
Who will win: Stefan Frei
Who should win: Stefan Frei
But what about: Nope. Stefan Frei
I started with this one, because it’s a slam dunk. Frei is tied for the league’s best GAA, has the league’s best save percentage and is crushing the competition for xGA-GA. He has the highlight stops to go with it, and is one of the main reasons behind Seattle’s annual resurgence. Thankfully fans don’t get to vote on this one, so we’re safe from another Brad Guzan travesty, and I expect the usual suspects to finish behind him in the polls (Luis Robles, Tim Melia, maybe Zach Steffen)
Defender of the Year
Who will win: Michael Parkhurst
Who should win: Aaron Long or Chad Marshall GRAHAM ZUSI
But what about: Graham Zusi (see below)
Michael Parkhurst seems to have narrative juice right now because: Atlanta. I wouldn’t be completely surprised to see Chad Marshall or Aaron Long win, but this one tends to go on narrative because quantifying defenders is difficult and also nobody really pays that much attention to them unless they’re messing up. Atlanta have been somewhat tidy in the back considering how much effort they expend on attack. Parkhurst has anchored that defense for two seasons now, and acquiring him has to be one of the best of many good personnel decisions for Atlanta’s front office.
Marshall is arguably (I won’t argue with anybody who doesn’t show up to this fight without Eddie Pope so don’t even @ me) the best central defender in MLS history and even though you expect him to slow down every season, he still manages to not only hang with the young ones, but still be genuinely better. He’s less tackle oriented than the other guys I’ve mentioned but his ability to read a game and make interceptions as well as his dominant aerial ability set him apart. He’s even added three goals to his team’s cause as well. Seattle are currently tied for the least amount of goals allowed this season with the New York Red Bulls which brings us to:
Aaron Long is so good and he’s only 26 which is still very much in the pre-apotheosis for a central defender’s career. Stats-wise, he looks very solid as well, comparing favorably to Marshall in the tackling department while not being as aerially prolific. He’s also chipped in with three goals and two assists.
I don’t see Marshall winning this one with the two Supporters’ Shield competitors still duking it out and the Sounders defensive unit already being honored through Stefan Frei.
Does anybody else deserve a mention? Matt Hedges probably deserves a shout, but I’d be surprised to see it. Jonathan Mensah anchors a Columbus backline that posts the league’s best xGA. Graham Zusi and Kemar Lawrence have been quietly excellent this season but outside backs have never gotten much consideration for this prize and unfortunately I don’t expect that to change this season. Tim Parker and Kim Kee-hee have both also had outstanding seasons and make up the other half of the league’s two stingiest defensive partnerships, but if I were a betting man I think it’s Parkhurst, Marshall, and Long that will be getting the votes.
EDIT: Ok everybody in ASA is annoyed at me for just sort of passing Zusi off just because as I correctly pointed out: “there’s no chance that Graham Zusi is winning or even making the top five of voting”. You know what though? They’re right. So I’m going to make a special case, a PLEA if you will for the inclusion of outside backs in this award and specifically one Graham Zusi, the best outside back in the league. So here’s the case for Graham Zusi: Defender of the year.
First some facts.
Graham Zusi plays defender. He’s eligible.
Graham Zusi is to statistics what a bull is to a china shop. He’s the older kid at school that just likes to playfully reach down and muss our neatly coiffed hair. It messes us up and we may grouse but deep down we love him for it.
How many outside backs you got making the top ten for total passes in Major League Soccer? One. He’s just there hanging out behind Bastian Schweinsteiger and Wil Trapp. NO BIG DEAL? Tell that Haris Medunjanin, Alexander Ring, and Nicolas Lodeiro who all have less passes than him.
Oh, and they’re good passes too. With an expected pass percentage of 77%, Zusi has completed a cool 80.4%. That makes his pass score (a stat that measures the number of passes over/under the expected number) the seventh best in the league.
You want touch percentage? Zusi is the seventh highest in the league. A right back. Seventh highest. You want some real talk? 12.9% is a an awful lot for any defender to be touching the ball much less an outside back. 12.9% is the same percentage as influential midfielders like Felipe or Saphir Taider. 12.9% is more than Maxi Moralez. It’s more than Wil Trapp (Trapp really needs to get on Zusi’s level). If we were to restrict these comparisons to players with over 3000 minutes this season, Zusi would probably win them all because he’s one of only six outfield players to hit that mark. That’s right. Graham Zusi does it all and he doesn’t take days off.
You need more? Let’s talk xA. 7.2 total this season. I don’t even have to tell you that beats every defender by nearly double. It’s also better than Miguel Ibarra, Kaku, Sacha Kljestan, Hector Villalba, and Albert Rusnak. I bet Rusnak didn’t bring that up when he was negotiating his fat new contract.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this is all great but this is an award for defending.
You want defensive stats? Sure. Remember ALL of those centerbacks I said would likely be involved? Zusi is as good or better than any of them when it comes to tackles and interceptions. He loses out a bit on clearances and blocks, but that’s because he’s an outside back.
So to summarize, Graham Zusi is the only player you should be voting for Defender of the Year. He’s got the tackling and interception stats of the league’s most celebrated center backs, and is an influential and productive member of Sporting Kansas City’s attack. It’s time for us MLS voters to crawl out of the primordial ooze of believing that only center backs are important and embrace the newly enriched and fertile soil of talented two way outside backs. In the modern game even centerbacks are asked to get forward and to be part of the build up. Graham Zusi is the missing link and he’s been staring us in the face for years. Vote Graham Zusi. Vote Progress.
Comeback Player of the year:
Who will win: I have no idea. This award makes very little sense.
Who should win: I have no idea. This award makes very little sense.
But what about: I’m sorry I really have no idea. The criteria for this award is vague at best.
Being that this award is presented almost entirely on the strength of narrative, it should be the award I am the most qualified to select, but honestly I have no idea what they want. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do here. It looks like I have a choice between guys like Gyasi Zardes who is coming back from… having a bad coach? Playing badly? And Felipe Gutierrez who was injured earlier this season and is already coming back? This happens every year. The award recipient is chosen amongst a collection of players that have suffered injury or gone through a fallow period in their career. I really think this should be limited to injuries, but since it isn’t, well… I have a great candidate in mind. Are you ready for this:
Comeback Player of the Year: Justin Meram
Think about it, ok? If Zardes can be nominated as “coming back” from a weird LA Galaxy situation why can’t we give some props to a guy that was playing on this Orlando team for a few months. The fact that he was able to LITERALLY come back from Orlando to Columbus and become great again is an inspiration to all of us and especially players like Dom Dwyer and Sacha Kljestan (It’s not too late guys! Just look at Justin!). If you have a better idea let me know, but I’m feeling pretty strongly about this one.
Landon Donovan Most Valuable Player Award
Who will win: Josef Martinez
Who should win: Josef Martinez
But what about: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Josef Martinez is obviously and deservedly going to win MVP for reasons I really shouldn’t have to expound upon and so I won’t. And yet. Now people are talking about Zlatan. This was actually a thing last week and it really goes to show just how goldfish brain MLS fans can be. Martinez goes a few weeks without scoring and Atlanta lose a match, and all of a sudden we’re all that dude in the distracted boyfriend meme.
I know that some of this is attempting to twist the definition of “most valuable player” to mean “most important player to their respective team” instead of the commonly accepted definition of “the most valuable player in the league that year.” This is at best a shaky limb on which to perch and yes LA would be completely at sea without Zlatan but the thing is that even with him they’re still not exactly home and dry are they? If we’re going by the crazy labyrinthine definition of “most valuable player to their team compared to other players to their respective teams” then I think we’ve lost our way a little bit. Every year we have this argument.
“The Red Bulls would be fine without Bradley Wright-Phillips, where would NYCFC be without David Villa?”
“Diego Valeri has had a good season sure, but where would NYCFC be without David Villa?”
“Yeah Giovinco led a really great team to an MLS Cup, but where would NYCFC be with David Villa?”
Maybe I’m hanging out with too many NYCFC fans, or maybe David Villa is just really good. Both can be and basically ARE true. While I do think the idea of an award that awards the best player relative to their team is certainly an interesting concept for an end of season accolade, I don’t think that’s what the MVP has historically been.
No, it’s going to be Josef Martinez. It should be Josef Martinez. Zlatan has been incredible and will get the newcomer of the year award. If there are infinite alternate realities and parallel universes, there are many in which everything in MLS is exactly the same but Josef Martinez and Atlanta aren’t a thing. In these infinite universes lots of things will be the 2018 MLS MVP winners:
A turtle named “Tim the amazing soccer playing Turtle”
Someday we may achieve the technological capabilities to move between said realties and when we do you should definitely go visit the ones where Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the 2018 MLS MVP (and also the turtle because honestly I bet that’s just amazing), but until then you’re stuck in this one where it just isn’t going to happen.
Rookie of the Year:
Who will win: Corey Baird
Who should win: Corey Baird
But what about: I have not heard one credible word for any candidate other than Corey Baird because there isn’t one.
This is another easy one. 2018 has been a great many things but a banner year for MLS rookies is not one of them. Chris Mueller will probably be the runner up just because he’s got minutes, but I’d give the runner up slot to Mark McKenzie who has broken into the starting lineup of a playoff team. Anyway, congratulations Corey Baird.
Newcomer of the Year:
Who will win: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Who should win: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
But what about: Carlos Vela
Yes we shall award the “More man than meme but still a lot of meme” that is Zlatan a trophy. I’m inclined to vote for someone else out of sheer spite and annoyance at the overexposure to Chuck Norris facts style jokes about Zlatan that have permeated every corner of MLS Twitter for the last nine months, but credit where it’s due. Zlatan has been astounding, scoring two of the years very best goals while also single handedly keeping the Galaxy from complete and utter shame. They may still come up short on a playoff spot but it won’t be the fault of the Swede who has 21 goals and five assists to go along with being basically the only positive thing about one of MLS most storied franchises. The Galaxy need to sort an awful lot out, but the 37 year old forward who is playing on a TAM contract looks like he’s probably got some more gas left in the tank and should be brought back next season whatever the cost.
If Zlatan weren’t a thing, then certainly Carlos Vela would be the favorite to win. LAFC have enjoyed a stellar debut campaign and Vela has been the brightest light in a high wattage organization. 13 goals and nine assists is a banner year for any MLS player, let alone in one’s opening season. Unfortunately the award will go to one of the cross town rivals, but LAFC will be in the playoffs so you tell me who won.
Coach of the Year:
Who will win: Tata Martino
Who should win: Tata Martino
But what about: Bob Bradley? Ben Olsen?
Tata Martino has put together the league’s most exciting team and its biggest draw for both live and televised appearances (I haven’t researched the TV thing, but I’m just going to assume it’s true because I don’t want it to be, and also every other national TV game was an Atlanta home match). They look on track to scoop up a Supporters’ Shield in their second year of existence and are odds on favorites to lift MLS Cup sometime in May of next year I think (they really, really need to shorten the postseason).
Under Martino’s watchful eye, Atlanta have morphed from their fun but deeply flawed 2017 form, in to a complete unit that can and frequently does comprehensively dominate the competition. Martino’s prospects are certainly buoyed by Jesse Marsch’s midseason departure as RBNY are seemingly the only team that can make Atlanta look bad. I wonder if Marsch and Chris Armas could run on one ticket. That would be tough to not vote for, but sadly, I don’t believe it’s allowed.
If you’re looking for a vote that’s less obvious, you could do a lot worse than Bob Bradley. LAFC are going to the postseason in their debut campaign and if you think that’s easy to do just ask almost every other expansion team. Not only are LAFC going to the playoffs, but they currently sit as a pretty good pick to make MLS Cup. Expectations for LAFC were either very low or very high depending on whom you asked in the offseason, but somehow this ragtag bunch of millionaire celebrity owners have put together a team that’s capable of hanging with any other side in the league. Bradley hasn’t just been styling on the bunny slopes either. The midseason loss of Marc Anthony Kaye and Laurent Ciman would have sent most MLS teams spiralling, but Bradley kept the ship right and true and it’s still pointed, sails unfurled, straight at a championship. Whether or not it arrives remains to be seen, but we’re all about the journey here at ASA.
Even less obvious but still an arguably fair choice is Ben Olsen, and if you had told me eight months ago that I’d be writing this paragraph I would have laughed in your face and subtweeted you for being dumb. DC United’s season has been unusually awkward to say the least. Waiting on a new stadium had them play the first half of the season without a true home, and their record reflected that. With Roon-inforcements (yep, not even sorry) on the way, and a buffet of home matches to close out the year waiting, Olsen had to mark time and leave DC United in a position to make a late postseason push. He did just that and here we are a couple of weeks out from the second half of the season (I kid, but really I can’t say enough how much they need to shorten the postseason), and DC United are above the red line and no longer treading water so much as doing 360 can openers off the diving board while we all watch and clap gleefully. Rooney, Lucho Acosta, Russel Canouse, and Paul Arriola are all legitimate stars in this league now, and even though they’re unlikely to go all of the way, they have in recent weeks defeated Atlanta and played RBNY to a draw so it’s not unfathomable that those 360 can openers may rock a few boats.
The MLS Best XI
This tends to get silly as the voting public tends to try and make something that vaguely resembles a cohesive team, but the league’s finished product is often some weird Dr. Frankenstein’s Monsterified version of a lineup in order to include popular players. I’m going to guess the league’s best XI looks something like:
DEF: Chad Marshall
DEF: Michael Parkhurst
DEF: Aaron Long
MF: Miguel Almiron
MF: Darlington Nagbe
MF: Carlos Vela
MF: Maxi Moralez
FW: The Zlatan
FW: Josef Martinez
FW: Bradley Wright-Phillips
Whereas, I would go with:
GK: Stefan Frei
DEF: Kemar Lawrence
DEF: Chad Marshall
DEF: Aaron Long
DEF: Graham Zusi
MF: Alberth Elis
MF: Maxi Moralez
MF: Miguel Almiron
MF: Carlos Vela
FW: Josef Martinez
Sorry BWP, I love you man. It just wasn’t meant to be this season.
Ok that’s all of them. There you have my predictions/corrections for all of the end of season awards. I left off Humanitarian of the Year because I’ll really need to do a lot more research before making a selection on that and it seems like the kind of thing that wouldn’t play well to be snarky about. It is pretty astonishing how many deserving nominees there are and just goes to show what an amazing community MLS can be when we aren’t sniping at each other over the functionality of video review.
I’m sure that many of you disagree with a lot of my assessments, and that’s fine because it’s quite likely that you don’t get a vote and I do. Boo-ya.
See you next week.