Le Toux, Stephens and Backe headline MLS midseason awards
Sebastien Le Toux might become the biggest surprise MVP winner in MLS history
Michael Stephens, the last pick of the first round, has been a rookie revelation
Hans Backe's Red Bulls already have more wins and points than they did last year
This period of late July and early August is hardly the sweet spot for MLS. Everyone is still a little hangdog about the World Cup being over. And if there's some bounce to be found, most of it goes to the wealthy foreign sides now barnstorming the United States amid much pomp.
But MLS will have its moments of acclaim once again. Some will come in November as the league announces its yearly honors. Here then is a quick look, just before next week's All-Star break, at who sits in the driver's seat for these awards.
Most Valuable Player: This puppy is wide open. One rather unheralded figure may eventually have a hard time holding off the more decorated types, but Philadelphia's hard-charging Sebastien Le Toux may be the best player at the moment. He's certainly doing as much for his side, the expansion Philadelphia Union, as any other figure for any MLS team. The Union have 18 goals; their Frenchman has scored or assisted on 14 of them. If Philadelphia can somehow accelerate into the playoffs, and assuming Le Toux keeps mashing the pedal, this unlikely tale may become the league's biggest MVP surprise.
Also in the MVP running: Juan Pablo Angel has overcome a slow start to lead the league in goals (nine). Trouble is, based on Thierry Henry's peppy performance in his Red Bulls' debut, Angel may not be the best striker on his own club by year's end, much less the league's top man. Meanwhile, Dwayne De Rosario's timely goals keep boosting Toronto's offense. Dallas' David Ferreira and Seattle's Fredy Montero are dark horses. So is L.A.'s Omar Gonzalez, although center backs are always going to struggle in MVP bids simply because of their position.
Rookie of the Year: You expected the Los Angeles Galaxy's right-sided midfielder to have a bunch of assists this year. It's just that you expected his name to be David Beckham. Instead, Michael Stephens has started 13 games there, and he's been quite the rookie revelation. The last pick of the first round (out of UCLA) has a goal and seven assists, while energetically doing his part on a defense that could well set a league mark for fewest goals allowed.
Also in the ROY running: Red Bulls center back Tim Ream looked good early and has only occasionally stumbled. Striker Danny Mwanga is enjoying good times for the Union, and Andy Najar may be the best player at D.C. United, according to coach Curt Onalfo -- who does understand what that says about the rest of his team.
Coach of the Year: If Hans Backe can get the Red Bulls to the playoffs, we should forget Coach of the Year and just name the man mayor of the Big Apple. Just past the halfway point, the Red Bulls already have more wins and points than the team did all of last year. And he's done all this before the DP reinforcements arrive, so no one can say he "bought" the improvement.
Also in the Coach of the Year running: Peter Nowak has done an outstanding job assembling and building his expansion side in Philadelphia. The record doesn't look outstanding at the moment, but remember that the team front-loaded its schedule with road games. Toronto FC's Preki has rebuilt his side into one that is painfully hard to score on. And speaking of "hard to score on," Schellas Hyndman finally has Dallas paying more attention to defense, which is why the club has just two losses through half the season.
Newcomer of the Year: Red Bull's Joel Lindpere will have the same obstacles for this award that Shalrie Joseph always has in his legitimate MVP bids: It's difficult to make an impression as a holding or a two-way midfielder. These guys do some defending (but not as much as a standout center back) and some attacking (but not as much as a high-dollar striker or an influential creator). Still, if we're picking the newcomer doing the most for his side, Lindpere is the guy.
Also in the Newcomer of the Year running: Real Salt Lake's Alvaro Saborio is making quite an impression at Rio Tinto, helping everyone to forget about the loss of Yura Movsisyan. He leads the champs with seven goals and is second in assists with four. If the Costa Rican international enjoys an equally productive second half, he could even find his way into MVP conversation.
Saturday at Red Bull Arena: It's that odd time of year where the best matches really aren't the MLS contests (or anything, in fact, with true competitive value.) Rather, there is a smorgasbord of friendlies involving high-profile, highfalutin global brands. To wit, Henry scored in his Red Bulls debut Thursday against Tottenham. Bravo! Now let's see how he follows against the new money of English Soccer, Manchester City. City is one of the teams that we know is aggressively pursuing Landon Donovan. For now, the Blues will just have to make due with the luminaries currently in uniform.
Saturday at Crew Stadium: It's not that the Houston Dynamo are so far behind in the playoff race. It's just that while others are finding the summer groove, Dominic Kinnear's team can't seem to kick-start the doggone motor. Houston's last win in league play came May 22, if you can imagine that. And that was against D.C. United, the team with the fewest points. Things aren't getting any easier for Houston, smack in the middle of a hectic run. Kinnear's side will play its seventh game in July (including Open Cup and Champions League matches) when it faces the East-leading Columbus Crew in Ohio. The Orange have found their way into the playoffs each year since moving to Houston in 2006. They had better light a fire under it or that streak will go "poof!"
Saturday at BMO Stadium: New TFC signing Mista got his first action for the Reds in a midweek friendly against Bolton. Now Toronto's latest candidate in its long search for a reliable, high-potency striker could see his first MLS minutes, against FC Dallas. It's a worthy test: The FC Dallas defense hasn't allowed more than one goal in a match since April 22.
Saturday at Rio Tinto: Struggling Chivas USA may get a look at its new player, Sal Zizzo, and Real Salt Lake may get its first look in some time at one the club hasn't seen in a while. Kyle Beckerman is training again and may get on the field as the champs play host to the Goats in Utah.
Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium: Manchester United continues its U.S. tour against Kansas City. This isn't exactly a who's who of Man U, as all the World Cup players remain away on extended break. Still, there are enough lineup regulars around, and officials in the Midwest have sold more than 40,000 seats to the venue that Kansas City called home for 12 years until 2008. This will be the last game for Alex Ferguson and his side before next week's All-Star Game in Houston.
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