It’s that time of year again. July heat is upon us and most MLS teams have played half (or slightly more than half) of their schedule. International friendlies and the all-star games versus Manchester United are looming, so now is the ideal time to look back on the first half of the season and pick some of the highlights and low-lights. While this isn’t exactly a revolutionary new idea, I wanted to do a different take on a mid-season review. Contained below are the usual awards (best player, best XI, etc.) but I am also including a few (hopefully) unique and entertaining categories that will stir debate and help MLS fans enjoy a fairly comprehensive look-back on the first months of 2011.
Without further ado, my take on the 2011 MLS Mid-Season Awards:
Best Game: Los Angeles Galaxy 1, New York Red Bulls 1 on May 7
This game had all the hype – an ESPN audience with plenty of promotion, two of the top teams in MLS with the biggest star power, those stars actually playing in the match, and a sold-out LA crowd. And even though the match ended in a low scoring draw, this one had it all: a Thierry Henry goal early followed by a Donovan goal off a Beckham free kick and the controversy surrounding Tim Ream’s save of an apparent Donovan game-winner. This game more than any other probably has exemplified the MLS season.
Most Valuable Player: Brek Shea, FC Dallas
You can argue players like Thierry Henry who has more goals or Brad Davis who has been a critical component to his team’s offense, but when it comes down to it Shea is playing his best when his team needs it most. David Ferreira’s injury and Shea’s slow start (due to being out-of-position) had Dallas looking like it was going to sink to the bottom of a deep Western Conference. Instead, the exact opposite has happened. Shea has made Bob Bradley look like a fool for leaving him off the Gold Cup roster and is becoming the next young stud in MLS.
Least Valuable Players: New England Revolution Forwards
Andres Mendoza was a lock for this award until his recent scoring surge, so I am cheating a bit and giving the LVP to a bunch of players. While much has not been expected of the Revolutions’ forwards, there was some hope that playing in MLS last season would have them acclimated and ready for this season. Instead those (eight) players listed as forwards on the roster (and this does not include Shalrie Joseph) have scored seven goals in seventeen games. Beyond disappointing.
Most Exciting Player: Eric Hassli, Vancouver Whitecaps
Every time he takes the pitch/field, you never know the outcome. Will he score a wonder goal to help his team to a win? Or will he do something stupid and be red carded? You never know. He would garner serious MVP consideration if his team wasn’t so bad and he didn’t have red card issues, but he is without a doubt the player you want to watch on the field.
Most Surprising Team: Philadelphia Union
Most preseason prognosticators had the Union as an improving team with a good defense and no offense who would likely miss the playoffs. What the Union have become this first half are an improved team with a suffocating defense and a good enough offense who are legitimate contenders for the first seed in the East. Hats off to Peter Nowak for quickly molding this team in his image and making them good enough that they can win any game at any time.
Most Disappointing Team: Colorado Rapids
I struggled with putting New England here, but their fortunes have been trending down for the past two years. Colorado won the MLS Cup last season and returned virtually their entire roster. While that same roster was a wild card in the 2010 regular season, the team has enough talent to be a lock for a playoff spot. But now, sitting 5th in the West on 24 points, there is a chance that they could miss the playoffs even with expanded seeding. Injuries have been brutal to this team but even when moderately healthy they have struggled to play well. With CONCACAF Champions League looming, they facing a daunting task to grab even a wild card spot.
Best MLS Storyline: The Superstar League
After the disappointing debut of Henry for the Red Bulls last year, the annual David Beckham disappearance, and Landon Donovan playing in the EPL, the league’s attempt to attract world class talent seemed to have backfired. But now those three players are major contributors to their teams and the league has successfully lured some “name” U.S. players back into the league. While the Tim Howards and Clint Dempseys still play abroad, more marginal but dynamic players like Charlie Davies and Benny Feilhaber are no longer afraid to come back to the league. Expect this trend to continue.
Worst MLS Storyline: Career-Threatening Injuries
While the trend has slowed significantly over the past few months, MLS was lucky that this was not the season defined by superstar injuries derailing their teams. Within a matter of weeks Steve Zakuani, David Ferreira, and Javier Morales were all put out of action by reckless and aggressive tackles. All three were superstars in this league and while their prognoses seem good, this was a bad development for a league intent on being seen as less aggressive and more athletic.
Over-Discussed MLS Storyline: The Cascadia Fan Rivalries
I, for one, will be tuning into the Seattle-Portland match on ESPN this Sunday and look forward to the game’s atmosphere. But so many soccer commentators act like the fan support that these three Pacific Northwest teams have is unique in major league soccer. That kind of passion and support have been there for a long time in many different places with Bara Brava/Screaming Eagles, The Cauldron, Sons of Ben, 1906 Ultras and the numerous other groups that will leave angry comments in the comments section because they were excluded. I get it, they are new, shiny, and passionate but the media needs to realize that there are more than three dedicated fan bases in MLS.
Least Discussed MLS Storyline: Concussions
Logan Pause became the latest MLS player to announce he would wear headgear while playing due to a concussion. Increasingly players are sitting for extended periods because of this serious injury and one would have thought that Taylor Twellman’s concussion would have elevated this to a more seriously discussed issue. But I feel as though this is not getting the attention it is due, especially with its long-term consequences.
Biggest DP Signing Regret: Alvaro Saborio, Real Salt Lake
His knee injury could not have happened at a worse time, but the RSL player has really struggled this season due to that injury and seemingly a mental recovery from the injury. He is now up to three goals on the year but has not been the dominant player that may thought he would be.
Stupidest Robert Hay Preseason Prediction: Alvaro Saborio as the Golden Boot Winner
At least I didn’t pick Branko Boskovic as my Comeback Player of the Year…. um, wait, skip this part.
Coach of the Year: Peter Nowak, Philadelphia Union
Nowak gets the nod over Schellas Hyndman and Sigi Schmid because his team has been so consistently good this year. While the other two had rough starts to the season, the Union have been consistently at the top of the conference even when it seemed like they couldn’t score more than one goal.
Best Offseason Acquisition: Charlie Davies, DC United
This pick works on a couple of different levels. DCU needed a scorer and they needed one badly. Davies not only leads the team in goals but has opened up space for players like Chris Pontius and Andy Najar to continue to grow as offensive threats. Of course the loan to DC has helped Davies’ career as well, to the point where European teams are again asking about his availability for a transfer. So far a win-win for all involved.
Kasey Keller (Sea)
George John (FCD) – Jamison Olave (RSL) – Omar Gonzalez (LA)
Landon Donovan (LA) – Jack Jewsbury (Por) – Brek Shea (FCD) – Brad Davis (Hou) – David Beckham (LA)
Thierry Henry (NY) – Charlie Davies (DC)