Reviewing MLS at midseason
The New York Red Bulls' Thierry Henry has been the first-half MVP
In a weak year for impact rookies, the Crew's Rich Balchan stands out
D.C.'s Charlie Davies is a near certainty for Comeback Player of the Year
Round 17 in Major League Soccer is under way, which means the league rounds the halfway point this weekend. That's a fine time to start tracking league awards. Clearly, lots can change between now and November, but here's how races are shaping up for now.
New York's Thierry Henry: Yes, he's surrounded by quite a gang of talent. But so is Juan Pablo Angel in Los Angeles, and that guy isn't doing a thing this year. (Angel, by the way, was a hot preseason MVP prediction. Ahem. Let's just move on.) Henry is scoring, now with a league-leading nine goals. He's also drifting into the midfield to act as a creator. Look for more of that now that he and Dwayne De Rosario won't be bumping into each other in those playmaking areas. The Galaxy's Landon Donovan can still have something to say about it all.
Columbus' Rich Balchan: How different this award looks a year after such a deserving crop made the choice so difficult. The difficulty in 2011 lies in the lack of obvious options. Houston's Will Bruin made noise with an April hat trick, but he has struck just once otherwise. Center backs A.J. Soares (New England) and Perry Kitchen (D.C. United) were prized draft choices who have been OK but are hardly "there" yet. Portland's Darlington Nagbe, the No. 2 overall pick, nailed a real doozy just last week -- but that's his only strike in an injury-slowed launch to his pro career. That leaves the less-heralded likes of Balchan (drafted in the first round 12th overall), Chivas USA's fullback Zarek Valentin and Chicago fullback Jalil Anibaba. Balchan turned in some impressive performances at left back earlier this year. Lately, he's been holding his own as a holding midfielder. One more to monitor closely over the season's back half: Sporting Kansas City's C.J. Sapong, who has three goals, three assists and who has kept Teal Bunbury out of the lineup lately at Livestrong Sporting Park.
Philadelphia's Peter Nowak: Almost every MLS preview had New York running away with the East, rising well above the rabble of the rest of the field. If there was a challenge, perhaps it was going to come from Houston or a revitalized D.C. United. But Nowak made two key defensive replacements to go with his talented young roster, and what a breakthrough sophomore season this franchise is having. (Philadelphia is in second place by a point, but has two games in hand over the Red Bulls.) In Columbus, Robert Warzycha's completely renovated team continues to grind out results against the odds, so he deserves acknowledgment. Chivas USA's Robin Fraser had the formerly wayward Goats pointed in the right direction through early May. Then June brought a swoon, so we'll have to see on that one. Sporting Kansas City's Peter Vermes held things together just well enough over that 10-game road odyssey, and now SKC is well positioned for a playoff run. And in Dallas, the reigning coach of the year, Schellas Hyndman, has overhauled his side to stunning success following the loss of league MVP David Ferreira. So, this one is far from over.
New York's Jan Gunnar Solli: This will be another close one with lots of candidates in the mix. Solli has established himself as the league's premier right back, a quality defender who already has six assists while going forward. Any fullback who finishes in the 10-assist neighborhood is flat out getting it done, and Solli is on pace. Since two new clubs joined for 2011, a healthy supply of quality newcomers was inevitable. Three are at expansion Vancouver, starting with playmaker Davide Chiumiento. As for his teammates, striker Eric Hassli (everything that guy does is either ridiculous or awesome) and Brazilian attacker Camilo deserve watching. Philadelphia's newly established defensive bedrocks (center back Carlos Valdes and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon) will draw consideration. So will Red Bulls worker bee striker Luke Rodgers and Seattle attacker Mauro Rosales (who got off to a late start). Finally, Charlie Davies will continue to get the sentimental vote, but his goal total is padded by four penalty kicks, and that diving stunt from a few weeks back will cost valuable style points.
Portland's Jack Jewsbury: This isn't actually a league award, but maybe it should be based on "Captain Jack" and his campaign at Jeld-Wen Field. His expansion Timbers aren't doing too badly, all things considered. Jewsbury's leadership, his progress as a linkman and his sharp set-piece deliveries are major reasons why. Elsewhere, Chivas USA's Nick LaBrocca keeps hitting for timely, quality goals. LaBrocca always provided quality minutes in his days at Colorado but had bigger names in front of him. Then he got lost in Toronto's revolving door. Now he's finally settled, and he's making it happen.
D.C. United's Charlie Davies: Barring any more notorious swan dives, the striker from RFK will claim this one going away. In terms of overcoming devastating injuries to resurrect a career in peril, no one else comes close. He has produced for Ben Olsen's team regardless of where those goals came from.
FC Dallas' Kevin Hartman: If the award could be re-named, "Most Heroic Goalkeeper Under Ridiculously Relentless Siege," Toronto's Stefan Frei would be a shoe-in. As it is, and as valiant as Frei has been while backstopping the league's worst defense, awards rarely fall to someone near the bottom of league stats. So, congratulations to Hartman. RSL's Nick Rimando has been steady, as always. Philadelphia's Mondragon is a great penalty area commander, but his legs have lost a little spring and he's not the shot stopper he was in younger days. Nothing wrong with Donovan Ricketts' performance in L.A.'s goal, but the Gold Cup absence followed by 4-6 weeks on the injury shelf is sure to dent his polling.
Real Salt Lake's Jamison Olave: Lots of the usual suspects are enjoying good campaigns. Tim Ream continues to improve at New York. (Things got really ugly along the Red Bulls back line when Ream and Rafa Marquez were subtracted for international chores.) Chad Marshall is always a Steady Eddie for the surprising Crew. Heath Pearce is having a big time at Chivas USA, where he has adapted quickly to center back. Meanwhile, Olave and central partner Nat Borchers chug gracefully along, doing their part to keep the RSL train more or less on the tracks while the offense struggles. Olave would be a repeat winner, but we've had those before; Marshall claimed Defender of the Year honors in 2008 and 2009.
Obviously, the award for the league's leading scorer isn't subjective. Henry is in the driver's seat with nine, followed by Davies, Donovan and Brek Shea with eight apiece. Half of Davies' total comes from penalty kicks, which probably won't keep rolling in at the same rate. So Donovan is probably the best bet to keep pace with and possibly lap Henry, never mind that preseason self-assessment that he's no longer a goal scorer. Playing possum a bit, Landon? Donovan gets the best odds because his eight strikes have come in just 11 matches, least among the league leaders. Shea is worth watching because he's on just a great streak, and because he was pulling emergency duty as a defender to open the season. So, some of his matches so far were spent on defensive patrol rather than on attack. Finally, circle Chris Wondolowski's name among the gaggle currently on six or seven goals; Like Donovan, he was pulling Gold Cup duty in June, so he has appeared in just 13 matches.
Goalkeeper: Kevin Hartman (Dallas)
Defenders: Jan Gunnar Solli (New York), Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake), Chad Marshall (Columbus), Heath Pearce (Chivas USA).
Midfielders: Landon Donovan (Los Angeles), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle), Juninho (Los Angeles), Brek Shea (Dallas).
Forwards: Thierry Henry (New York), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose).
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