Wondolowski, Sporting Kansas City headline my MLS award picks
When it comes to MLS preseason predictions, in-season judgments and postseason-award voting, there is an admitted lack of accountability for the media. Seldom are the accuracy of the predictions reexamined months later. In fact, accountability and transparency is something that needs examination across all facets of MLS. Whether it is the league's Disciplinary Committee trying to maintain consistency with its punishments over the the year, or referees rarely having to explain controversial calls, an extra dose of accountability across the entire soccer landscape would be a refreshing addition to the discussion.
With that said, I have no problem looking back to my preseason predictions and discovering that I picked Toronto FC forward Danny Koevermans to win the Golden Boot (In his defense, he was on a goal-scoring tear until he tore his ACL on the Gillette Stadium turf. He still would not have caught Chris Wondolowski's single-season-record-tying 27 goals.). I selected Seattle playmaker Mauro Rosales to win league MVP (with 13 assists and a boatload of intangibles, he remains one of the most valuable players in the league, but he clearly was not the top dog in 2012) and picked Portland forward Kris Boyd to be Newcomer of the Year and San Jose to not even make the playoffs (Yeah ... about that ...). I did manage to go out on a massive limb and pick the Los Angeles Galaxy to lift the MLS Cup (Was there anybody who didn't?), and even though that looked unlikely at the start of the summer, the preseason favorite has found its peak form at the right time as David Beckham gets set to ride off into the MLS and Los Angeles sunset.
So, in the continued interest of full disclosure and accountability, here is my ballot for this year's MLS awards. For each individual award, the league requests media to vote for a first and second choice, but we will expand to three places for the purposes of this column (The fact that the league has already announced some of its winners had no correlation with the following picks. They were all submitted by the league's voting deadline). Let the discussion begin:
Wondolowski scored 27 goals, which tied Roy Lassiter for the most in league history, and Wondo should get his due officially at MLS Cup week in Los Angeles when the league crowns its MVP. But Wondolowski's campaign has been essentially complete for months. Zusi was the spark for the Eastern Conference's top team, with his league-leading 15 assists and five goals meaning he had a hand in 20 of Sporting Kansas City's 42 goals this season. Even though Thierry Henry was downright heroic at points during the season, Keane just is not getting the widespread recognition he deserves for his fantastic year. With 16 goals and nine assists, Keane was arguably the best forward in the league for the last few months and was a catalyst for the Galaxy's resurgence. Do the Galaxy win last year's cup and potentially this one without Keane's services? It's hard to imagine.
Playing for a team that conceded just 27 goals this season, Besler was the steady rock in the back. Plenty could make the case that Auerlien Collin was a more integral part of the club's back line, but the Frenchman was more susceptible to the major mistake and much more card and foul prone than Besler, whose work culminated in a U.S. call-up for the August friendly in Mexico. The Notre Dame product took tremendous strides in becoming as solid and consistent a central defender as there is in the league. As for Bernardez, as dominant as he was at times (and he will get his recognition if you scroll down), he also was prone to some costly mistakes, and San Jose's defense as a whole became less and less reliable as the season wore on. Borchers, meanwhile, turned in another stellar, if not flashy, campaign for RSL and showed his individual class on multiple occasions when center-back partner Jamison Olave was out of the lineup with injuries.
Berry stepped into the Fire's starting lineup because of injuries to Arne Friedrich and Cory Gibbs, and he never looked back. Starting 28 games and playing every minute of every one of those games, Berry was a consistent presence in the back for the Fire and played beyond his years in his initial season as a pro. DeLeon started the season on fire and ended it in the same manner, scoring and setting up some important goals for a team that, like Chicago, returned to the playoffs after a lengthy absence. Hedges, like Berry, seized his opportunity upon stepping into the Dallas lineup and did his part to get Dallas from the depths of the Western Conference to the cusp of a shock playoff berth. Chicago and Dallas both have rocks to build around in the back for the foreseeable future. So where is Darren Mattocks on this shortlist? The Vancouver Whitecaps' Jamaican forward likely has the most international potential of the rookie class and was the most dynamic rookie at times -- his sky-high effort to head home a goal in Toronto was just spectacular -- but in terms of consistency and playing at a high level over long stretches, Mattocks was a cut below some of his fellow freshmen.
San Jose's turnaround from afterthought to dominant force happened for a number of reasons, but Bernardez's inclusion on the back line was certainly one of the major ones. The Honduran used his combination of strength, finesse, comfort on the ball and powerful shot from range to give the Earthquakes a new dynamic. Garcia, another Honduran international, was arguably the top in-season acquisition in the league and has brought an element to the right side of the field that Houston sorely needed. He made the Dynamo more balanced, prolific and deadly on the counterattack and is a major reason why the club is in the MLS Cup final for the fourth time in seven years. Gspurning stepped in for Seattle legend Kasey Keller and more than held his own, as the 31-year-old Austrian filled one of the biggest voids across the league with class and confidence.
It's hard to pick against the numbers, and Nielsen turned in a statistic-lover's dream season for Sporting KC. With 15 clean sheets and a 0.79 goals-against average, no keeper was more difficult to beat, and Nielsen was also one of two players in the league to play every minute of the season (Colorado defender Drew Moor was the other). Plenty can be attributed to the stout defense in front of Nielsen, but that's not to take away from the White Puma's campaign and ability to organize and communicate with his unit. On the other end of the statistic spectrum, Kennedy's season, by the numbers, was horrendous, with his 1.69 GAA second-worst among regular starting goalkeepers (only Toronto's Milos Kocic at 1.74 was worse). But anyone who watched Chivas USA throughout the season saw the heroic efforts the MLS All-Star turned in time and again, preventing games from getting out of hand and single-handedly preserving or winning points for the Goats when the club's anemic attack continuously failed to do its part. Gruenebaum, meanwhile, stepped in for the injured William Hesmer and was the backbone behind the Crew, keeping the club in the playoff hunt with many of his league-best 124 saves until Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta relieved some of the pressure on him by scoring goals with regularity.
The league and award voters either don't understand the traditional meaning of this award or have no problem taking the meaning of the word "comeback" literally. Who the award should go to is a player who was in the league the previous year, underwent a hardship, either physically or mentally, and returned with his game at an extremely high level. No disrespect for Seattle's All-Star forward Eddie Johnson, but "coming back" from England to play well in MLS is hardly in the spirit of the award. Alan Gordon did miss a large chunk of 2011 with injuries, so his inclusion among the league's finalists makes some semblance of sense. That being said, Pontius returning from a broken leg to turn in a career year with 12 goals and help D.C. United to the playoffs for the first time in five years was certainly award-worthy. So, too, were integral playmakers Ferreira and Morales returning from their long-term injuries suffered early in the 2011 season and rediscovering their form. Let the record show that if Seattle's Steve Zakuani had been able to receive more playing time this season, he would have been a lock for the trophy.
Like Wondolowski, Yallop had this honor sewed up long ago, but not after withstanding a late charge from two Eastern Conference bosses. Yallop took a non-playoff team from a season before and transformed it into an offensive juggernaut and Supporters' Shield winner, with the help of some savvy front-office moves and career years from his entire stable of forwards. He deserves credit for keeping the team dangerous from the start of the season until the end, with the Earthquakes never really having an extended down period. What Olsen was able to do in bringing D.C. back to the postseason, especially after Dwayne De Rosario went down with his injury, was remarkable in just his second year on the bench. Few can match the impact of his in-game substitutions, and his ability to grow as a coach really shined in 2012. Vermes took Sporting KC to the top spot in the East and a U.S. Open Cup championship, and his ability to motivate his players to turn in the hardest-working, most pressure-packed 90 minutes in MLS from March to November deserves a nod.
For Alonso, no defensive midfielder covered more ground, made more tackles and made more of an impact than Seattle's honey badger. McCarty, when kept in that holding midfielder role and was not pulled wide for New York, was as steady as they came and was a ball and tackling hawk. De Rosario may have missed the final seven games of the season with a sprained MCL, so it's easy to forget how good of a year he had. The reigning league MVP scored seven goals and had 12 assists, having a hand in 36 percent of D.C. United's attack and joining the league's 100-goal club in the process. Few are as valuable to his team as De Rosario was and continues to be for D.C.