MLS midseason awards ... and some second-half questions
MLS has hit the midway point of the 2012 season, with almost all teams playing at least 17 of their 34 matches (only Philadelphia and Columbus will have yet to hit that point by the end of the weekend). This season has been marked by retroactive punishments, massive disappointments (Los Angeles, FC Dallas, Portland, Philadelphia and Toronto FC for starters), a pair of coaching changes, intensified rivalries, another expansion team, another new soccer-specific stadium and another class of big-name international talent -- both young and old -- making waves in North America. Here is a look at our midseason award winners and three emerging storylines to keep an eye on for the final half of the season:
Wondolowski's 14 goals are the most in MLS, but that alone does not tell the story of his MVP candidacy. Half of those tallies are game-winning goals that have come when first-place San Jose needed them the most, and he even missed a couple of San Jose's games for U.S. national team duty, doing all of his damage in 17 matches. For someone who was hardly on the starting lineup radar let alone international radar just three years ago, Wondolowski's three-year goal-scoring run is bordering historic proportions. His uncanny ability to get himself free in ideal spots to finish from close range means that he should become the first MLS player to break the 20-goal barrier since Landon Donovan did in 2008 -- and he should break it comfortably.
Following in a long line of unreliable goalkeepers before him, Meara waded through some early slip-ups to become a rock behind a defensive unit that has constantly been changing because of injuries. His command of the box and confidence to come off his line when necessary are two of his most impressive attributes, and his ability to bounce back from an occasional blunder is uncharacteristic of such an inexperienced goalkeeper of his age. The Red Bulls have searched far and wide for an answer in goal for years, even going the Designated Player route last season with Frank Rost. As it turns out, they just needed to head to the Bronx.
During a season in which more accomplished players like DPs Kris Boyd and Hamdi Salihi were brought to the league to score goals and steal headlines, it has been the Impact's robust engine Felipe who has been the most impressive among the new crop of players. A consistent two-way player with a high work rate and a wicked blast from long range, the 5-foot-9 Brazilian has teamed with Canadian veteran Patrice Bernier to make up one of the more effective central midfield tandems in the league. With three goals and five assists, his hard work has been rewarded with tangible production.
Most prognosticators had the Earthquakes finishing either in one of the final playoff slots out West or out of the playoff picture altogether on the heels of a drab 2011 campaign. Instead, they sit atop the Supporters' Shield standings with perhaps the deepest roster in the league and one that Yallop has played like a masterful puppeteer. No team has been better equipped to suffer through injuries, international absences and suspensions, and in a league where all three play a large role in teams' fortunes, San Jose has proven to be up to the task regardless of whatever adversity or in-game deficits come its way.
Having star players get sold to European clubs is nothing new for the Houston Dynamo, but the 2011 MLS Cup finalists are close to losing one of their more indispensable players. With European scouts -- most prominently from Stoke City -- watching Geoff Cameron with high levels of interest, the Dynamo might have to adjust on the fly while being resigned to the fact that another key contributor is headed for the exits. Houston has decent-enough depth to wade through a transfer and still contend for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, but losing Cameron for the long haul puts serious doubt to its viability as a title contender.
Potentially following in the Europe-bound footsteps of past Dynamo stars Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden, Cameron has not had a dominant season amid all the speculation, but with his physical tools, athleticism and technical ability being what they are, he has not hurt his European stock with his play on the field. There is always the issue of Cameron, who turns 27 this week, securing a United Kingdom work permit, but given the fact that both Robbie Rogers and Alejandro Bedoya were able to do so with their resumes within the last year and the fact that Cameron has been a national-team fixture over the last six months and has appearances in recent World Cup qualifiers, he would figure to get approval.
Roy Lassiter's single-season MLS record of 27 goals has stood since the league's inaugural season in 1996, but it is conceivable that his record falls considering Chris Wondolowski's season-long run of form.
The fact that Lassiter accounted for his goals in just 30 games will always be looked upon as one of the greatest individual feats in league history regardless of whether the record gets broken. Considering where Wondolowski currently stands (14 goals scored, 15 games remaining), he would have to average almost a goal per game the rest of the way to break it. When looking at what Wondolowski has been able to accomplish down the stretch the last two seasons, though, that is far from an overambitious challenge. He scored eight goals in the final nine games last season and 10 goals in the final eight games in 2010 to wrestle the Golden Boot away from Edson Buddle. With the myriad of ways that the Earthquakes are able to find Wondolowski in scoring positions, it's far from out of the realm of possibility that he becomes the league's new single-season scoring king.
Much of the Los Angeles Galaxy's early struggles were pinned on the defense being vulnerable without reigning MLS Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez roaming in the center. Now that Gonzalez has returned from a torn ACL way ahead of schedule, that theory will be put to the test.
Sure, it will take Gonzalez some time to regain his match fitness and peak form, so anyone looking too much into the Galaxy's July 4 loss to Philadelphia upon Gonzalez' return likely needs to exert a bit more patience, but with him back in the mix added to that already loaded roster that has underachieved during the opening half of the season, Los Angeles is poised for a second-half surge. All that matters for any club is just making the playoffs and taking it from there, as some recent champions have shown. With Gonzalez having a few months to regain his fitness and form and the Galaxy playing better overall, it's looking more and more like their early season swoon can indeed give way to a place in the postseason. Who would want to go up against the battle-tested, star-studded Galaxy with a healthy Gonzalez in a playoff series? It's a scary proposition.