Climbing the Ladder: Predicting the MLS award season

As the 2011 Major League Soccer season enters the final quarter, speculation on the end of year award winners begins now.

Unfortunately, there aren't as many easy ways to evaluate individual player performance in soccer compared to the other major American sports, though happily that is changing with additions like the new MLS Castrol Index.

So if it’s hard to compare individual players with one another, that brings to mind an interesting question: What about the teams they played for? How have the teams of every major MLS award nominee and winner performed?

At right, check out the the average ranks for the overall table, goals scored (offense) and goals allowed (defense), and take that into account as we attempt to explain who might be in the running this year.

Coach of the Year

Award Winners: Average Ranks

Award Overall Offense Defense
Coach 2.33 3.93 3.47
Goalkeeper 2.93 5.47 1.87
Defender 2.80 3.93 3.07
MVP 2.13 2.80 3.53
Rookie 5.93 5.07 7.13

Given that they’re the only ones be judged solely on their records, it’s to be expected that the Coach of the Year nominee teams have the best overall performance. Only twice has a coach been nominated without finishing with one of the year’s top five records:  Bob Bradley in 2006, who engineered a rapid turnaround in Chivas USA’s second season, and Frank Yallop in 2008, whose expansion/returning San Jose Earthquakes team tied for the league’s worst record. However, they did do much better than the previous few expansion teams, which may have been the reason for the nomination.

This year’s coaching nominees could add to that total, since normally the voters like to reward large jumps in the standings. However, the top teams remain largely unchanged from 2010: LA, Seattle, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. That means the door may be open for DC’s Ben Olsen or Philadelphia’s Peter Nowak to become a finalist if history holds true once again.

Goalkeeper of the Year

Who’s going to win the Goalkeeper of the Year award for 2011? If history is any indication, it could very well be Nick Rimando or Faryd Mondragón. That’s because Real Salt Lake and Philadelphia are currently second and third in goals allowed per game, and in the 15-year history of MLS, the winner’s team has finished in the top three for defense every single time.

LA have the league’s best defense at the moment, but the injury to Donovan Ricketts means he’s unlikely to repeat as winner. If the Galaxy finish as the league’s best defensive team but didn’t have a best goalkeeper nominee, it would be a rare occurrence. Only three times has the league’s top defensive team failed to have their goalkeeper make the three finalists: 2002 LA, 2004 Kansas City and 2008 Houston. For all three, the starter missed at least six games.

Award Nominees: Average Ranks

Award Overall Offense Defense
Coach 2.56 3.76 3.16
Goalkeeper 4.13 5.80 3.31
Defender 3.24 4.18 3.33
MVP 3.44 3.44 5.18
Rookie 5.80 5.40 6.40

Defender of the Year

It’s interesting to note that while the defender and goalkeeper award nominees sport nearly identical average defensive ranks, the offenses of the top defenders were better. It appears that top goalkeeper nominees are more likely to have worse offensive support, which would make their teams more reliant on them, thus allowing the 'keepers to stand out more.

Looking at the winners; it’s more common for the top defender to come from a team that isn’t at the very top of the defensive stats. Four winners have come from teams who finished fifth or lower in goals allowed: Eddie Pope (1997), Carlos Bocanegra (2003), Jimmy Conrad (2005) and Michael Parkhurst (2007). That may give hope this year for a player like Chad Marshall, though he probably doesn’t need much more respect after already winning the award twice.

The most confusing defender finalist ever would have to go to Pope in 2004. He was nominated despite playing for a New York team that finished dead last defensively, a feat that may never be equaled. Though he spent time with the national team, it wasn’t a case of the team doing worse without them. They averaged 1.82 goals against in the 22 games he started vs. 1.13 goals in the 8 games he missed. As an established star, it may have been a case of his reputation helping him.

Most Valuable Player

MVP winners come from better teams on average than even the coaching award winners, even though the nominees as a whole came from teams who did worse. That’s because while players like Jeff Cunningham and Landon Donovan may have been nominated in the past playing for poor teams, in the end, the voters don’t seem to be recognizing them to be as valuable as a top player on a top team.

Much of the buzz this year has gone to Thierry Henry. If he’s up for the award against the likes of Landon Donovan and Brek Shea, it may be hard for him to win unless his team starts putting points on the board. Ex-MetroStar Amado Guevara did win the award despite his team's finish in the bottom half of the league standings back in 2004, the only time that’s happened. However, they still made the playoffs and were only nine points off the Supporters’ Shield winners in an incredibly even year.

Both the MVP nominees and winners have both come from teams with better offenses, which is no surprise considering the lack of recognition for defense in the MVP voting. Only two goalkeepers (Tony Meola 2000, Joe Cannon 2004) and one defender (Jeff Agoos 2001) have been named finalists.

Rookie of the Year

Finally, there’s the award for the best rookie, where often the teams most willing to give playing time to young, untested players are the ones who aren’t doing too well in the standings. Indeed, three of the last four winners are from teams who finished last or tied for last overall: Maurice Edu, Sean Franklin and Andy Najar. That’s encouraging news for a guy like A.J. Soares of the New England Revolution.


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