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SI Soccer Roundtable: 2013 MLS awards, surprises, Turkeys and more

 

Graham Zusi and Javier Morales Sporting Kansas City star Graham Zusi and Real Salt Lake maestro Javier Morales will go head-to-head in the MLS Cup final. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

 

The 2013 MLS season is a game away from being in the books, with Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake set to do battle for the right to host the Anschutz Trophy at Sporting Park on Dec. 7.

Even before a champion is crowned, though, the first post-David-Beckham-era MLS season can be looked back upon as a loaded campaign. Portland raised the stakes not just in Cascadia, but in the Western Conference as a whole; Two new expansion franchises were announced, one in New York and one in Orlando; Landon Donovan returned to the field and also to some of his best form after his playing hiatus; Clint Dempsey returned to the USA from the Premier league; The New York Red Bulls captured the Supporters' Shield (not so Metro) before fizzling out in the playoffs (OK, that's so Metro). And so on, and so forth.

The latest SI.com panel discussion (or shall we say, The Greatest Podcast On Paper ™)  is centered around postseason accolades and some of the more notable moments from the league's 18th season. Let's get it started:

 

Mike Magee Chicago Fire forward Mike Magee is one of three finalists for the 2013 MLS MVP award. (Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

 

Who is your MLS MVP?

Grant Wahl: Mike Magee, Chicago Fire. I prefer to call this award “Player of the Year” rather than “MVP” to avoid lame arguments about what “valuable” means. Magee was the best MLS player in 2013, period. His stats were terrific (21 goals, 4 assists), and Magee carried two teams (Chicago and L.A.) on his shoulders this season. L.A.’s decision to trade him for Robbie Rogers turned out to be one of the most lopsided trades in league history. Normally, it would be hard for me to consider a player whose team missed the playoffs as Player of the Year, but Magee’s personal on-field record (with L.A. and Chicago) would have put him in the postseason. Just a career year all-around for an MLS stalwart who deserves this accolade.

WAHL: Toronto FC has used Drake to recruit players

Brian Straus: Chris Wondolowski made it easy for us in 2012. This year, there’s no obvious winner, and that ‘V’ complicates matters further.

This isn’t an award presented to the “best” or “most outstanding” player – if it was, Robbie Keane would have a stronger claim. There are intangibles attached to the honor. Context matters. An MVP should inspire. He should alter the face of his team. Context is why Vancouver’s Camilo Sanvezzo, who led MLS in scoring with 22 goals, wasn’t even a finalist. And it’s why Mike Magee should win it.

Everyone recognizes what the 29-year-old attacker brings to the table. He’s technically gifted, dedicated, clutch and so frequently willing to do the extra work that makes his teammates better. Magee had a career year in 2013, tallying 22 goals and four assists and making his first All-Star appearance. The primary rub against his MVP candidacy was that the Fire didn’t make the playoffs. If that’s Magee’s fault, it’s because he scored a hat trick against his future club in March while a member of the L.A. Galaxy, not because of anything he did once he wore Fire red.

Chicago was 2-7-2 without Magee. It was a club whose big-name signings were failing and whose coach was desperate for answers. Then came the Magee-Robbie Rogers trade in late May. The Fire went 12-6-5 with their new hometown hero, a pace that would have produced the best record in MLS over a 34-game season. Magee had 15 goals in 22 matches with his new club after netting six in 10 for L.A. He was durable. He was expected to be a leader. He bore more of the attacking burden with his new team (no other Fire player scored more than four goals all season). Yet he flourished. Chicago became a contender.

Keane is a great player. He’d be a fine MVP. Tim Cahill, Diego Valeri and Marco Di Vaio had stellar seasons. But Magee, who finished 2013 as the Galaxy’s third-leading scorer, deserves it.

Alexander Abnos:  I actually don't think the debate on the "MVP" nomenclature is lame at all. It's an argument that needs to happen, not just in MLS but in all U.S. sports - the MVP rarely awards the one who is actually most valuable to their team, and that's kind of ridiculous.

Personally, I like the dictionary definition of "MVP." It denotes worth, not necessarily talent or skill. There's a lot to be said for that; however, there's also a lot to be said for a simple "best player" award. I don't see why we don't just have both. But that will likely never happen, so I'm forced to select the player that had the most impact to his team. And that player is Mike Magee.

The reason why is pretty simple, and can be explained graphically. Here, via the MLSSoccer.com results map, is Chicago's first 11 games of the season, before they acquired Magee: 

FireResults1

And here's the next 11: 

FireResults

That's a lot more green Ws, huh? In fact, the Fire had more losses (seven) in their first 11 games without Magee than they had the entire rest of the season with him (six). I can't in good conscience argue that Magee was MLS' best player this year, especially if Robbie Keane is nominated alongside him. But looking at the results, it's hard to argue that he isn't the most valuable.

CREDITOR: Former MVPs De Rosario, Ferreira up for grabs

Avi Creditor: I'd love to deviate from the majority, but it's got to be Magee. He transformed Chicago and saved the Fire's season (although the club ultimately came up short of the playoffs, which doesn't make it as much of a slam dunk as it may seem). Why he hasn't gotten a sniff from Jurgen Klinsmann, more so for the Gold Cup and no matter the USA's new-found forward depth, remains a mystery.{C}

 

Caleb Porter Caleb Porter guided the Portland Timbers to the best record in the Western Conference in his first season at the helm. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

 

Who is your MLS Coach of the Year?

Wahl: Caleb Porter, Portland. The rookie coach transformed Portland from a team with a minus-22 goal-differential in 2012 to a league-best plus-21 in 2013. That’s nothing short of incredible—and reason alone to name Porter Coach of the Year. Huge credit to another rookie coach, Mike Petke, for guiding New York to the Supporters Shield, but Petke had Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and one of the league’s highest payrolls working in his favor. Porter helped rebuild the Timbers with shrewd acquisitions (Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, Donovan Ricketts) and a commitment to building a new team identity around pressure and possession. It’s one thing to want that and quite another to execute it. Porter has Portland thinking big about the future.

Straus: Porter and Jason Kreis did masterful jobs in 2013, and Oscar Pareja certainly deserves plaudits for his work in Colorado. But Petke is the coach of the year. Not only did he lead the once dysfunctional New York Red Bulls to the first major trophy in the its star-crossed 18-year history, he did so with zero job security and no guarantee that the club’s big-name players would fall into line.

Portland was invested in Porter. He had some wiggle room in his first year. Kreis’ word is law in Salt Lake. Meanwhile, Petke was the default choice in New York, which couldn’t land any number of preferred foreign candidates. Despite his very short leash and next to no mandate, he brought the best out of several key players and had the courage to assert his authority following a dust-up with Thierry Henry. Petke helped Cahill find his groove, helped the Red Bulls improve in back and inspired a culture change at a club that needed one.

Abnos: It's a very, very tough choice between Petke and Porter for me: two first-year head coaches at the professional level who had profound, transformative impacts on their teams.  Either would be a worthy winner, but at the moment I'm leaning toward Petke. He had bigger personalities to deal with, a generation more of misery to overcome, and he had to manage all that as his club's backup plan at the position.

Creditor: Let's start by saying there is a slew of talented young coaches in MLS, and that is fantastic news. Petke, Porter, Pareja and Kreis all lifted their teams to new heights. Pair that with veteran American coaches like Bruce Arena, Dom Kinnear and Peter Vermes each keeping their teams in contention, and the stability factor across the board appears to be growing. That said, Petke narrowly edges out Porter and Pareja for me, as he changed the RBNY culture and guided the club to a Supporters' Shield. Not bad for a last-resort option with no prior head coaching experience.

Who is your MLS Best XI?

Wahl: Goalkeeper - Nick Rimando; Defenders - Young-Pyo Lee; José Gonçalves; Matt Besler; Chris Klute; Midfielders - Will Johnson, Tim Cahill, Graham Zusi; Forwards - Mike Magee, Robbie Keane, Marco Di Vaio.

Abnos: Goalkeeper - Rimando; Defenders -  Lee, Goncalves, Olave, Seth Sinovic; Midfielders - Dax McCarty, Zusi, Diego Valeri; Forwards - Magee, Keane, Camilo Sanvezzo.

Creditor: Goalkeeper - Rimando; Defenders - Olave, Goncalves, Klute; Midfielders - Johnson, Valeri, Javier Morales, Cahill; Forwards - Magee, Keane, Di Vaio.

CREDITOR: Tidbits from the 2014 MLS schedule release

Who was snubbed from the finalists lists?

Straus: “Snubs” are a good thing. You’d hope that any league has more than three MVP-caliber players, more than three stalwart defenders and more than three coaches doing a good job. I’d be concerned if there weren’t any snubs.

There surely have been years where Oscar Pareja would’ve been recognized for his work with the Rapids. Diego Valeri and Tim Cahill certainly were valuable. New England Revolution defender Andrew Farrell had a very good rookie campaign and Jámison Olave was a rock in back for the Red Bulls. Colorado’s Clint Irwin was a revelation in goal and could have been a newcomer of the year nominee (if there was a best MLS player on Twitter award, he’d definitely be a finalist). But none of them were "snubbed." There’s a lot of competition and they just didn’t get the votes.

Abnos: For all the attention Matt Besler gets for Sporting KC's recent defensive dominance, I think Aurélien Collin deserves just as much. Collin's physicality and deceptive quickness allows Besler to excel alongside him, and his aerial presence on set pieces is always a lot for teams to deal with.

Creditor: Jamison Olave not being a finalist for Defender of the Year is an absolute joke in my opinion. As vastly talented as Omar Gonzalez is, there is no chance he was a top-three defender in MLS this season. Sadly, awards, and finalists for awards, often get doled out based on reputation. Olave already had a reputation as a beastly defender, so that fact, combined with his difference-making season in the back for Supporters' Shield-winning New York (which did not win without him once this season), wasn't enough to make him a finalist is simply stunning to me.

 

Clint Dempsey U.S. national team captain Clint Dempsey pulled a shocker by leaving the Premier League to sign with the Seattle Sounders this summer. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

 

What was your biggest surprise of the 2013 season?

Wahl: D.C. United’s horrific league performance (three wins in 34 games) has to be one of the all-time stunners in MLS history. This was a team that got to the MLS semifinals last year and figured to be even better this season. Thoroughly bizarre when you look back to what people were saying (including me) back in March.

Straus: A well-known pro and established U.S. international made global headlines when he announced his homosexuality in a moving blog post and retired abruptly at the age of 25. But he changed his mind three months later and signed with his hometown club, becoming the first openly gay active male athlete in a major U.S. team sport. His return depended on the transfer of his rights via a blockbuster trade that sent a key veteran contributor back to his own hometown club, where he proceeded to score 15 goals in 22 games and emerge as an MVP favorite.

Which part of that story did you see coming? The Robbie Rogers/Mike Magee saga had all the twists and turns of a movie script. It featured one surprise after another.

Abnos:  I was pleasantly surprised by the emergence of the New England Revolution, in particular playmaker Kelyn Rowe. With second-year manager Jay Heaps putting his faith in young players, I assumed it would take another season for them to gel and find their confidence in a professional setting. Instead, they become one of the most watchable teams in MLS, and Rowe's string pulling at the top of midfield (seven goals, eight assists) is a huge reason for that. Based on this year's momentum, I can easily see Rowe having a Graham Zusi-like breakout season in 2014.

Creditor: Clint Dempsey returning to MLS. Did anyone see that coming? Like in the next four years? That had Beckham-esque shock value. It also kicked off in a similar manner to the start of the Beckham era: Hype, pomp and no results. Give it time. Dempsey is too good and Seattle is too committed for the partnership to not thrive.

Close 2nd: Manchester City and the New York Yankees teaming to fund New York City FC. Typically there are rumblings regarding something that major, especially with the MLS NY2 project constantly at the forefront. That the league was able to keep a lid on its new big-money partners was pretty impressive.

In keeping with the Thanksgiving theme: What or who was your Turkey of the Year?

Wahl: Jorge Vergara, Chivas USA owner. What has happened to the Chivas USA franchise is truly sad, and the blame can fall entirely on one man: Vergara, the buffoon in charge of Chivas USA who is a first-rate embarrassment to Major League Soccer. It’s not just that Vergara’s decisions have decimated Chivas on the field and ruined a once-promising youth academy. He has also created a climate that is hostile to those who don’t speak Spanish or have the “right” ethnicity in his mind. The sooner MLS can rid itself of the Vergara albatross, the better.

Straus:  This “honor” should be named for Vergara and retired.

From the discrimination lawsuits – “If you don’t speak Spanish, you can go work for the Galaxy” -- to the clumsy roster and front office purges, and from the shambolic handling of the HBO Real Sports expose to the myopic adherence to an unsellable brand, Vergara found a new definition of “rock bottom” in 2013. The mission statements and personnel change, but the abysmal results and paltry crowds remain. Chivas USA has ceased to be a serious professional sports franchise. It’s now simply an asset that appreciates in value thanks to the league’s growth and in spite of Vergara’s mismanagement.

Abnos: At the risk of piling on Chivas USA, I have to say Mario De Luna. Mostly for this incredible finish:

Creditor: I'll just leave it at Chivas USA as a whole. One year after being within a game of hosting MLS Cup, D.C. United turned in a historically futile season (mitigated some by winning the U.S. Open Cup), and still managed to not be the biggest catastrophe. And with that gloriously positive note, we'll leave you...until next time.

Thank you, as always, for reading, and have a happy Thanksgiving everybody!

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