The end of the MLS regular season means many things. For some, it means a time for reflection, a time to assess the roster and prepare for next year. D.C. United is all too familiar with that situation. Not this year though. This year, United is among the league's elite, getting set for postseason play.
The end of the regular season also means that its time to vote for the yearly MLS Awards. The writers at Black And Red United did a good enough job pretending to be actual members of the media this year, so we've cast our votes and would like to share them with you now.
MLS MVP (Benuski)
This is one of the easiest choices that we had to make. Chris Wondolowski's incredible run, in which he still has a chance to break the all time scoring record in MLS, is the clear MVP. But even besides the 26 goals, Wondolowski has been able to contribute 7 assists as well, meaning that he had a direct hand in 33 of the team's 71 goals. Wondolowski is the platonic ideal of a team player, and deserves this award.
On the far other end of the scale sits Thierry Henry. And had he played a full season at this level, he may very well have been able to win the MVP. As people have said, he may be the most talented player in league history; everyone would agree that he has more natural talent than Wondolowski. But when he is petulant and pouting, he can take more away from his team than any other player too. Good Thierry Henry could be the MVP of the league, but when combined with Bad Thierry Henry, he falls well short.
Defender of the Year (Chest)
He's not the guy that gets all the attention along Sporting Kansas City's back four - that would be respecter-of-cats Aurelien Collin - but Matt Besler has been nothing short of masterful as the brains of the best defense in MLS. Yes, KC's goals against are in large part a function of their team-wide commitment to defending, but even teams that break their pressure find that Besler and his fellow defenders are already a step ahead. Besler should be on the USMNT radar, especially since he has the skill on the ball to play out of the back and enough speed to have played left back earlier in his career.
In MLS we often value more athletic center backs because they make the eye-catching big tackle or block, but the rarer skill set is the player who is smart enough to snuff plays out before they require any last-ditch heroics. That's Besler to a tee. My runner-up, meanwhile, is an even mix of both styles: Carlos Valdes from the Philadelphia Union. Valdes routinely looks like a one-man gang defending, as he copes with the inexperience around him and the attack-first mentality of both fullbacks. Despite being a below-average team all season, the Union managed a respectable defensive record all year long, and that's largely down to the work of Valdes.
Comeback Player of the Year (AMT)
The award obviously goes to David Beckham for overcoming such set-backs as yellow cards, bad officiating and relentless transatlantic flights to London. I kid! This one has to go to United's own Chris Pontius, who broke his leg late last season (in what was otherwise his best professional performance to date) and has returned to turn in the best campaign of his career: team-leading 12 goals, 4 assists (good for a T-3rd on the squad) and the captain's armband down the stretch. Thanks in no small part to Pontius, the same team that went down the tube after losing him last year has gone unbeaten this year since losing defending MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario. To my mind there's nobody even close to Pontius in the running, but my second-place vote goes to Beckham's L.A. Galaxy teammate Omar Gonzalez, whose return to the lineup has put the Gals on a major hot streak entering the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Goalkeeper of the Year (Stephen)
Jimmy Nielsen of Sporting Kansas City had the good fortune of playing behind the best overall team defense in the league. While this certainly was an advantage for him, his excellent play led the league in wins, shutouts, and minutes played, while also resulting in a top two goals against average and top three saves percentage. Add in the fact that he has this season’s first and third longest shutout streaks, and now is the league’s all-time goals against average leader, and Nielsen gets our nod for Goalkeeper of the Year. Michael Gspurning of the Seattle Sounders comes in second with the league’s best goals against average and second best saves percentage (following only D.C. United’s Bill Hamid who put together a superb season as well). The only negative for Gspurning is that he played only 21 of 34 matches in the regular season due to injury, too few to overcome Nielsen’s great year.
Newcomer of the Year (Chest)
It might seem odd to pick a player who only joined midway through the season, and whose team has lost an edge down the stretch, but to me the best player to come into MLS this season is Houston Dynamo midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia. It's not just because I have been saying someone in MLS needed to bring him in for years now (don't worry, I won't hurt myself patting my own back). Garcia is arguably the best player for Honduras as well as the Dynamo, neither of which is an easy task. He has the complete package: Ideas, skill, speed, toughness, awareness, a wide range of passes, and he's a threat to score as well. The fact that he can play right midfield, central midfield, or as a wide forward in the 433 Houston has since ditched simply adds to Garcia's resume. When you see a player described as "electric" or a "live wire," you should think of Garcia. If we were putting together an MLS all star team designed to entertain first and foremost, Garcia would be an easy First XI selection.
Second place could have gone to some great center backs like Arne Friedrich or Victor Bernardez, or to New England Revolution striker Saer Sene (whose torn ACL derailed an 11 goal season and probably kept him from winning this award). However, I'm going to roll with Patrice Bernier of the Montreal Impact. Once Bernier figured out MLS, and once Jesse Marsch figured out what to do with the Quebec native, Bernier ran one of the best midfields in MLS. His goal total is rather inflated by the crazy number of penalty kicks the Impact got this year, but I've always taken the position that penalty kick goals are still goals. More than that, though, I've been impressed with Bernier's top-notch first touch, his spatial awareness, and his work ethic. Bernier's classy style of play personifies the intricate passing game Montreal aspires to, and if he plays this way in 2013 they'll be able to turn it into more than a 7th place finish.
Rookie of the Year (AMT)
This season has presented a remarkably strong rookie class, but the Rookie of the Year award has really come down to just two players: former University of Louisville teammates - and roommates - Nick DeLeon and Austin Berry. I write this before the weekend's showdown between DeLeon's D.C. United and Berry's Chicago Fire, and a lot of voters will wait until they see the result of that match-up to make their decision, but my mind is made up: Nick DeLeon deserves the honor. He came on earliest and strongest with springtime performances that pushed Chris Pontius to the bench. He hit a bit of a wall midseason with an injury, but it wasn't enough to stop him from turning in his most energetic and valuable performances as the season winds down. Not to mention the fact that he has broken the D.C. team record for goals by a rookie, topping slouches like Santino Quaranta, Freddy Adu and Andy Najar. Berry's had an absolutely fantastic rookie campaign, helping Chicago establish a decently solid (if not spectacular) defense, but DeLeon's late surge has put him over the top for me.
Humanitarian of the Year (Benuski)
Before this week, most people would have had no idea for whom to vote in MLS's Humanitarian of the Year award. But the news that Chris Seitz donated bone marrow to leukemia patient, knocking him out for the rest of the season, is the kind of thing for which these awards were made, and rightfully so.
But let us not forget all of the players who are out in the community, working with children and families on a regular basis. That's why, for second place, I chose D.C. United's own Stephen King. From his nomination statement "During the 2012 season, Stephen has conducted more than 20 individual and team appearances ranging from visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to running clinics for kids in under-served areas of the city. It is not uncommon for Stephen to do multiple appearances in one day." This kind of dedication to the community is why United for DC is well known as a model for sports charities throughout the city. Let's remember to thank Chris, Stephen, and all of the dedicated athletes why work in our communities across the country.
Coach of the Year (Stephen)
Produce the best turnaround from 2011 of any team in the league (from 14th in the overall table to 1st), and you are in the conversation for Coach of the Year. Develop a high-flying offense and a team culture that never quits, and you are on the short list for this award. Win the Supporters Shield, and the award is yours. Frank Yallop of the San Jose Earthquakes did all three this season, so he gets our vote as Coach of the Year slightly ahead of D.C. United’s Ben Olsen. But, let’s not shortchange Olsen. His team had the second biggest turnaround of any this season, and Olsen didn’t have the benefit of putting his team on autopilot during the year. From the high-flying early season team that surprisingly put itself in first place in the Eastern Conference, to the defensive-minded, grind-it-out team that clawed its way back into the playoff picture after Dwayne De Rosario went down with injury, Ben Olsen proved he has the goods to be a big time coach.
Referee of the Year (Martin)
Its nice of MLS to recognize that among all the crappy referees in the league, there are three referees that are less crappy than all others. That's why Silviu Petrescu, Baldomero Toledo, and Armando Villarreal are nominated in this category. Its actually kind of an interesting commentary on the league that I have the ability to vote for any of 46 different players in the MVP category, but that only three referees are even worth considering for the Referee of the Year award. Anyway, I'm voting for Villarreal because I've honestly never heard of him, which means that he either doesn't suck, or isn't actually an MLS referee, each of which would be respectable statements that Toledo cannot make.
Best XI (Martin)
This is where I let the true Homer in me come out, mostly just because I can. So even though I didn't vote for him as my Goalkeeper of the Year, I'm putting Bill Hamid in my Best XI. Because there's no MLS goalkeeper I'd rather have in my lineup right now than Hamid. United would not be in second place in the East without him, and might not be in the playoffs without him either. Hamid made several critical stops down the stretch this season, and has shown maturity that's often unseen in a 20-year old.
I also included Dejan Jakovic in my Best XI as one of the central defenders. Since reclaiming his starting job from Emiliano Dudar, Jakovic is finally living up to his potential as one of the best defenders in MLS the second half of this season. He's been using his athleticism for much more than just making speedy recoveries, winning every header in his vicinity and anticipating with intelligence. The rest of my back line is filled up with a pair of Sporting Kansas City defenders in Aurelian Collin and Matt Besler, with Victor Bernardez also slotting in.
To continue my homerism, I've also named both United wingers in my Best XI. Chris Pontius has had a truly prolific season from the left side of midfield for United, while Nick DeLeon has complemented the team well as a versatile rookie that can be productive on the opposite wing. My midfield also features Graham Zusi and Osvaldo Alonso in the middle.
As much as I'd like to put Lionard Pajoy in my Best XI, I don't want to lose all of my readership. So instead, I went with two more obvious choices in Chris Wondolowski and Alvaro Saborio, both of whom carried their teams by scoring goals in bunches.