It’s that time of year, isn’t it? The time of year where we decide which MLS players to award with our annual plaudits. It’s a little earlier than the rest of the nation does it, but I have a very good reason for that. The reason is that I figure if I can get these out earlier I can help influence the votes towards the candidates I believe are most deserving. Some of these will be easy. Some will be hard. I think this may be the most difficult best XI I’ve ever tried to pick. A lot of you are going to disagree with my choices. I’ve thought long and hard about it and decided that if this is an issue, then you’re welcome to write your own article. But seriously, a lot of guys this year that would get usually get these distinctions are going to get left out. That totally sucks for them but is a great sign of the improved quality of the league. Let’s go ahead and start with a spicy one.
Defender of the Year - Jorge Moreira - Portland Timbers
Last week I started to write an article about how and which players to describe as “underrated.” I wrote about 3000 words before realizing I hadn’t solved anything and should probably just let it go. I say this because I believe we legitimately have a scandalously underrated player in Jorge Moreira. Now, I know that a lot of you are going to say that outside backs don’t win this award. That’s true! But they should! And until they do, I’m going to do whatever little tiny bit I can to encourage it. This should be a stroll for Moreira though. He’s good at everything and I mean everything.
Outside backs tend to make their case with some dynamic attacking statistics, and while Moreira’s xA and xG aren’t elite, they’re very very good. And besides, this is a defender of the year award and that’s where Jorge really shines. He leads everybody in tackles per game. To be clear, I’m not saying he leads outside backs in tackles per game. I’m not saying he leads defenders in tackles per game. I’m saying he leads everybody in MLS, even all those ballhawk destroyers. How about Interceptions? Third best in the league. Now you might ding him on only having two assists even though that’s actually pretty good for an outside back (tied with many others for seventh amongst defenders) and he hasn’t matched Ryan Hollingshead or Kelvin Leerdam’s unusually high goal tallies with only two goals (tied with many others for third amongst defenders), but if you look at the entire picture I think that while there are many great candidates this year, there’s only one defender that has been this excellent at all aspects of their job. Jorge Moreira is your Ian’s MLS Defender of the Year and I won’t hear otherwise.
Other Staff Picks:
Harrison: Eduard Atuesta
Eric W: Jorge Moreira
Dummy Run: Eduard Atuesta
Drew: Ike Opara
Kevin: Victor Cabrera
Alex B: Romain Metanire
Cheuk: Miles Robinson
Jamon: Jorge Moreira
Ian’s notes: Kevin left this one blank and so I picked for him. Clearly inspired by my edgy and unorthodox selection of an outside back, Harrison and Dummy decided to break the wheel on this one. Now I feel like a guy who showed up to a party wearing an ironic Creed T-Shirt only to discover the only other person that showed up is literally Scott Stapp. I have never hated either of them as much as I do at this moment.
Rookie of the Year - Andre Shinyashiki - Colorado Rapids
I hope it doesn’t seem disrespectful to suggest that the quality of rookies coming into the league is declining, and even if it isn’t, I do think it’s somewhat obvious that their opportunities to make an instant impact undeniably are. The days of Superdraft picks coming out and contributing on their first day on the job in MLS may be behind us as clubs continue to embrace the homegrown player mechanism. With salary restrictions constantly being loosened and many MLS teams having a USL or other lower league edition, players picked out of the Superdraft aren’t making a lot of waves. That’s not to suggest that there isn’t talent in this year's rookie class. Indeed, the season’s rookie class has some very promising players. Brenden Aaronson, Hassani Dotson, Chase Gasper, and Frankie Amaya, have all gotten some solid and productive minutes, but one have stuck out to me so much as Andre Shinyashiki.
Obviously, that ball control and passing could use a little work, but look at the defensive effort he puts in! I think seven goals and two assists are going to be the most productive rookie numbers we see this season, so even if it’s not the most mind-blowing tally, I feel pretty comfortable giving this kid the nod. He’s got a bright future and Robin Fraser seems to know it.
Other Staff Picks:
Harrison: Andre Shinyashiki
Dummy Run: James Sands (Protest Vote)
Drew: Andre Shinyashiki
Eric W: Hassani Dotson
Kevin: Hassani Dotson
Alex B: Keaton Parks
Cheuk: Edwin Cerrillo
Jamon: Andre Shinyashiki
Ian’s notes: Dummy is protesting that James Sands shouldn’t be ineligible for winning this award just because it isn’t actually his rookie season. It actually does feel a little bad that his two throwaway appearances make him unavailable for selection, but rules are rules. I think Cheuk is just protesting me having asked him to fill these out. This is why you should all be glad that I’m the only one of this crew that is in the actual voter pool.
Goalkeeper of the Year: Matt Turner - New England Revolution
Before you click over to Twitter to yell at me, I need everybody to take a nice long deep cleansing breath here. There’s one thing I have learned about MLS fans and that is that almost to a person, they adore their team’s keeper. I get it. They’re usually really nice guys. They work hard. They stop goals. They deal with MLS defenses. Generally speaking, there’s usually a runaway favorite for GKOTY. Tim Melia deservedly won it two years ago. Stefan Frei was the most overqualified candidate I’ve ever seen for the award last season but somehow Zack Steffen won it. This year? There isn’t really a runaway favorite. BUT LOOK!
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I can see arguments for David Bingham or Daniel Vega. If anybody wants to vote for them, I will respect that decision. The same goes for Steve Clark who has come out of nowhere and been incredible in the back half of the season. If your heart belongs to Steve Clark, your name will not be written in my journal of judgment.
But like, it’s Matt Turner. It just is. I know that you’re going to look at his minutes and say that he’s only got half of the minutes of the other guys. I understand that this can be a concern, I really do. I’d be lying if I said this fact did not also give me pause. However, can we blame Matt Turner for Brad Friedel’s humiliatingly bad management? Also, the fact Matt Turner has managed to cobble together the highest TOTAL G-xG in half the minutes is actually incredibly impressive, but shot-stopping is only one part of the holy trinity of keeping goal. This is where I probably let things get a little bit too complicated.
My colleague @thedummyrun made this weirdly 80s themed ternary plot to show us who is the best “all-around goalkeeper”. You’ll find that person’s name resting somewhere towards the middle of the pyramid. Here you’re making a really good case for David Bingham. Bingham definitely has better-looking distribution and command of area numbers than Matt Turner. Hamid is also looking good here. So is Steve Clark, but, let’s keep in mind that Steve Clark’s played a LOT of home games in his main stretch as the starting goalkeeper. If you’re one of those guys that thinks distribution trumps shot-stopping in the modern game, I’ve got good news in that regard as well. Matt Turner is also… NOT BAD… at that either! He has the sixth-lowest expected pass success percentage amongst qualifying GKs and manages to exceed it. He also has the sixth-best pass score amongst GKs in our dataset this season. If you’re looking for the most accomplished passing/distribution guy this year, you’re probably looking at David Bingham - and again, I do not blame or judge you for voting in that direction. The command of the area metric that Dummy has proposed is an interesting one. Essentially it’s counting claims/punches per headed attempt. I can’t think of any way to do it better, so while it’s probably not perfect - it does give us a little sense of what’s going on in that regard. Matt Turner’s numbers in this particular area would appear abysmal.
Ultimately, there is a lot to consider and no clear-cut winner so I’ve got to make a call and for me, it’s Matt Turner. Is he the perfect keeper? No. Not yet, but goodness he’s pretty damn good. Yeah there’s the whole “command of area” thing. Why don’t his low numbers there sway me to vote elsewhere? Well, because of my thinking that the whole purpose of commanding the area is to prevent goals from being scored. I don’t think the three categories should be weighted equally. While it’s interesting to look at to see how Keepers go about their job of stopping shots from going in the goal, shot-stopping is their main job and simply put, there has been nobody in MLS as good as Matt Turner in 2019. Also, learning how to control the penalty area at a professional level is difficult, takes time and practice, and is something a lot of young keepers struggle with. Turner is still very much at the beginning of his career and the future looks bright. If a keeper’s ability to stop shots more than makes up for other deficiencies, that’s good enough for me. Even with any foibles on crosses, consider that the defense in front of Turner is one of the worst on offer and he still manages to let in fewer goals than guys like David Bingham.
As it currently stands, New England remains on the very edge of the playoff picture. If Matt Turner isn’t in goal, I don’t think they’re anywhere near it. You give this guy a full season next year and I think he’ll be even more qualified for this award next time around. Also, get this guy to a national team camp. Brad Guzan? What is wrong with us a nation?
Other Staff Picks
Harrison: Matt Turner
Dummy: David Bingham
Drew O: Matt Turner
Kevin Minkus: Nick Rimando (Lifetime achievement award)
Eric W: Steve Clark
Cheuk: David Bingham
Alex B: Matt Turner
Jamon: Matt Turner
Ian’s notes: I’d actually be totally cool with Nick Rimando getting it as a lifetime achievement award. David Bingham doesn’t exactly make me swoon and Matty Turner has a lifetime ahead of him. I’d also just accept giving to Stefan Frei this year because he was so unbelievably screwed last season.
MVP - Carlos Vela - Los Angeles Football Club
Do I even need to explain this one? He has crushed almost every metric we have. He is having the most dominant offensive season in MLS history. I don’t think it’s fair to say that LAFC wouldn’t be a great team without Carlos Vela, but I don’t know that they’d be as far ahead of everybody else as they are if he wasn’t part of that squad. There are other great players having a great 2019, but there’s nobody else even remotely within earshot of the MVP conversation.
Other Staff Picks
(Everybody just picked Carlos Vela obviously)
Newcomer of the Year - Heber - New York City Football Club
Surprise surprise. Another tough one. Pozuelo inspired legitimate awe in me when he first came onto the scene in Toronto but he’s cooled off a good bit. Christian Espinoza is a wizard at creating chances for San Jose. Carles Gil is better than any New England Revolution player has any right to be, and yet I’m going with Heber. The main reason for this is that prior to Heber’s arrival, NYCFC were struggling. They had the league’s best #10 this season playing as a lone striker, and Alexander Ring miscast in a weird CAMish sort of role. With Heber’s arrival, they were able to move those guys back their best positions and NYCFC went from being an awkward cause of concern to the best team in the league not named LAFC. It’s not just his effect on the team though. If we cut Vela, Josef, and Zlatan down to size a bit by taking penalties out of the equation, Heber is the most prolific goalscorer in the league this season (0.80 goals p96). If there’s any cause for concern for Heber it’s that his goalscoring numbers are really outpacing his xG numbers. The other shoe could drop and a regression to the mean would be highly detrimental to NYCFC’s championship hopes. That being said, we have players who are outpacing their xG all of the time now. I think Heber is one of those guys. He’s a very clever striker who consistently finds himself pouncing on mistakes and getting into dangerous positions. Given a longer timeline, I expect his xG to go up more than his actual scoring will go down and his xMetrics are still extremely good. His open play xG+xA p96 is the 9th best in MLS and a good bit higher than any other first-year player. Not only that, but as far as forwards go, Heber manages to do some defensive work as well. He’s fifth in tackles amongst forwards and first in clearances in his positional group. Not really a super important thing, but I felt like mentioning it.
Other Staff Picks
Dummy Run - Heber
Harrison Crow - Nani
Drew O - Alejandro Pozuelo
Kevin - Carles Gil
Eric - Carles Gil
Cheuk - Carles Gil
Alex B - Heber
Jamon - Heber
Ian’s notes: Seeing Harrison do a 180 and pick Nani is the most surprising thing about this whole venture. Nani should almost get a special end of season award just for that.
Coach of the Year - Matias Almeyda - San Jose Earthquakes
Yep. I didn’t pick Bob Bradley. I know this. I know a lot of you are going to think I’m a big, dumb, idiot for this and maybe you’d almost definitely be right. It is pretty crazy not to pick Bob Bradley. Bob Bradley has masterminded the most impressive team and season we’ve ever seen in this league. So why am I punching Almeyda’s number? Because on this award I’m voting with my heart and not my spreadsheets like all these other nerds that work here are. See... Bob Bradley took a great team and made them God tier. Almeyda took a bad team and made them one of the most exciting and competitive teams in the league. This isn’t to say Bradley didn’t do work. He did. That’s still not an easy job, but he restored a well cared for Lambo while Almeyda turned a rusty pile of junk into a gorgeous Corvette. Look I don’t know anything about cars so if that doesn’t make any sense just fill in the cars that would. You know what I’m getting at.
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Look at that! Pretty impressive turnaround for a little less than a million bucks. If he had brought in a whole new squad I don’t think I’d have been impressed, but most of the guys turning out every week were in the lineup last season too. Look at the players that Magnus Eriksson, Jackson Yueill, Nick Lima, and Vako have become. He’s even properly metered an aging Wondolowski and gotten incredible value from him. The biggest regret I’m going to have on this list is not just going ahead and giving this to Bradley. But in my heart of hearts, it’s Almeyda. He brought in a unique style and completely changed the fortunes of a club that was in a terrible place. You just can’t ask for better than that from a new manager.
Other Staff Picks
Harrison - Yes
Dummy - Bob Bradley
Drew O - In terms of takes, it’s Friedel (RIP). In terms of soccer: Bob Bradley
Kevin - Bob Bradley
Eric W - Bob Bradley
Cheuk - Bob Bradley
Jamon - Matias Almeyda
Ian’s notes - Ok I get it. I should have picked Bob Bradley, but I won’t be cowed by the Bob Bradley lobby. You’re all sheep. That’s what you are. Just a bunch of pathetic sheep.
The Best XI
The second string of this team would be better than just about any other MLS best XI we’ve ever seen. So commiserations to the likes of David Bingham, Ruan, Steve Clark, Raul Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro, Saphir Taider, Miles Robinson, Ulysses Segura, Diego Rossi, Latif Blessing, Anton Tinnerholm, Alexander Ring, Roger Espinoza, Judson, Carles Gil, Ryan Hollingshead, Matt Hedges, Michael Barrios, Kacper Pryzbylko, Haris Medunjanin, and really all of the Philadelphia players who have been outstanding this season as a unit, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Steve Birnbaum, Maxime Chanot, and just a ton of others. MLS is starting to get really really really good, and so doing this is going to keep getting harder and harder.
Well, that’s it for the xN end of season awards! If you have any comments or concerns you can get them to me by writing them down on a napkin and throwing it up into the wind. If they’re meant to find me, they will.
Thanks for reading!