Handing out off-beat MLS awards
Kei Kamara and CJ Sapong are the best celebrators, even going Gangnam Style
Eddie Johnson and Chris Rolfe have been revelations in their returns to MLS
Thierry Henry's Olimpico goal -- a corner-kick score -- was the best goal of 2012
As the last weeks of the MLS regular season progress, everyone with a pen (or laptop) wants to pick end-of-the-year award winners. It's what the casual fan craves for and it's traditional. It's also just way too easy this year.
MVP? Chris Wondolowski, no doubt about it. Goalkeeper of the Year? Jimmy Nielsen locked it up weeks ago. Rookie of the Year? This one's a bit tougher as Austin Berry has the lead with Darren Mattocks, Nick DeLeon and Matt Hedges on his heels. Newcomer of the Year? Saer Sene, even with his season-ending injury, though Patrice Bernier has certainly made a great case for himself. Coach of the Year? Frank Yallop, his record speaks for itself. Done.
So I decided to switch it up and give out awards to players who perhaps are overlooked a bit but nonetheless made a lasting impression in 2012.
Kei Kamara and CJ Sapong (Sporting KC)
Honorable Mention: Any defender who scored
Nobody seems to have more fun playing and scoring goals than Kamara and Sapong. It's always interesting to see what these two will come up with next. With their choreographed dances, costume props and acrobatic flips, the duo is creative and funny, but also in good taste. They did not disappoint once again Sunday, as Kamara and Sapong broke out a "Gangnam Style" dance after the latter found the back of the net. Celebrations aside, their play has given the Sporting KC faithful a tandem to be excited about for years to come.
As for defenders, I love seeing the reaction of a guy who has absolutely no idea what he's supposed to do after scoring. They usually resort to a) screaming and beating their chest, or b) running around looking for a teammate to jump onto. It's pure adrenaline, and I love it.
Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart (San Jose Earthquakes)
Honorable Mention: Antoine Hoppenot (Philadelphia Union)
MLS leading scorer Chris Wondolowski rightfully gets all the headlines in San Jose, but how many times this year has an Earthqaukes game recap led with "Gordon/Lenhart comes on to score winner" or "Gordon/Lenhart with injury-time equalizer?" They've made a penchant of coming off the bench to score, helping San Jose to MLS' best record. They brought the MLS equivalent of the Bash Brothers back to the Bay Area (except with more hair, and less juice). Both have no regard for physical harm to other's bodies, or their own, and will do anything to get on the end of a cross. Especially in the dying moments of a match. They have been so effective, Earthquakes coach Yallop recently found a way to start the duo together with Wondolowski.
Hoppenot came out of nowhere, most opposing coaches said, but Philly knew it had something special since Day 1 -- when he matched fellow rookie speedster Ray Gaddis stride for stride in a preseason 40-meter race. Hoppenot worked his way up the totem poll with strong outings in the Reserve League and is every defender's nightmare when coming on to run at tired legs at the end of games.
Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy)
After watching the Irish forward train earlier in the season and seeing how dangerous he is every time he steps on the field, one could only wonder, "How was this guy not on the All-Star team?" Well, he was gone about a month this summer for Euro 2012 as well as being on international duty for World Cup qualifiers, so his numbers took a bit of a hit. Even so, the 32-year-old has 15 goals and eight assists. His left-footed full-volley goal (his weak foot, by the way) over the weekend from no angle was simply world class. There is no denying how lethal of a forward Keane is. His creative and relentless movement up top is what makes him a threat to score or create goals in every game.
Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)
Honorable Mention: Ramiro Corrales (San Jose Earthquakes), Chris Rolfe (Chicago Fire)
A little over six months ago, it was not uncommon to hear people ask, "So what ever happened to Eddie Johnson?" After the star forward left MLS for Europe in January 2008, to English Premier League side Fulham, Johnson found it tough to excel in England the way he had in the States. After a series of loan spells, which saw him regain his form but never quite break into Fulham's plans, Johnson returned to MLS with the Sounders in February. He continued right where he left off in 2007 by scoring 14 goals in 25 matches this season. Johnson, a 2006 World Cup team member, also found his way back into the U.S. national team picture, receiving a well-deserved call-up from Jurgen Klinsmann this week.
Corrales has been in MLS since the very beginning. Since 1996, to be exact, when the San Jose Earthquakes were the San Jose Clash. And after 16 years in the league, Corrales is one assist shy of posting a career high. He helped San Jose to the brink of the Supporters' Shield. Rolfe, like Johnson, was a proven MLS stalwart who tried his luck in Europe before returning to the Fire this season. Many wondered what to expect from Rolfe after he battled injuries and fell out of the U.S. national team picture. But like Johnson, Rolfe re-established himself as the team's leading scorer. The Fire will rely on him heavily in the playoffs.
Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta (Columbus Crew)
Honorable Mention: Toss Up
No midseason additions completely changed the dynamic of a team like Higuain and Arrieta. In less than half a season, the duo has combined for 11 goals and 10 assists. Arrieta leads the Crew in goals (eight) and Higuain in assists (six). While big-name acquisitions like Tim Cahill, Alessandro Nesta and Kenny Miller have taken time to acclimate to MLS, Arrieta and Higuain look like they have been playing together for years and immediately earned teammates' trust. Higuain, in particular, gave Crew fans hope that their new Argentine playmaker can lead them back to the MLS Cup the way fellow Argentine Guillermo Barros Schelotto once did. They sit one point behind Houston for the fifth and final playoff spot in the East.
Many other teams also strengthened through late acquisitions, but how they will pay off remains to be seen. Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles made his debut in a winning effort last week before losing 2-0 to Chicago on Saturday. New York hopes he can be the answer in net the rest of the way. Houston's Boniek Garcia and Ricardo Clark found their stride and look to help Houston earn a postseason berth. D.C.'s trade for Lionard Pajoy has certainly paid off. The injury to Dwayne De Rosario made Pajoy a key figure in determining how far United will go. Dallas hopes its deal for a rejuvenated Julian de Guzman can help it sneak into the playoffs. L.A. and Seattle added veteran European midfielders for depth with the acquisitions of Christian Wilhelmsson and Christian Tiffert. On the other side, Chicago's most recent acquisition, Guillermo Franco, didn't do himself or his team any favors after receiving a red card for a nasty tackle just 16 minutes into his debut.
Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)
Even though this is a real award that MLS fans will be able to vote on, I still had to find a way to include Thierry Henry's Olimpico on my list. The degree of difficulty, the vision and the cajones it takes to try to score directly from a corner kick is something very few players can get away with. Normally when we see an Olimpico, the audience is left wondering if the player actually meant to do it or if it was a fluke cross that missed it's intended target. In this instance, there was no doubt Henry had seen Columbus backup goalkeeper Matt Lampson cheating off his line as there were no Red Bulls players in the vicinity. His celebration said it all. He pointed to his eyes as if to say, "I see you son ... stay on your line next time."
SI Now Live Friday December 20, 2013
SI Now: Olympians on Liberty Mutual, gearing up for Sochi