The 2013 MLS award season kicks off on Nov. 25, when the league will hand out the first of 15 honors spread over 10 days, wrapping up with the MVP award on Dec. 5. But as comprehensive as these accolades are, there’s at least one more trophy that could be added to the season-ending hardware haul: a Most Improved Player award.
When MLS was launched in 1996, two of its primary goals were to boost the game in the United States and provide a professional environment for American players to grow, improve, and hopefully, blossom into international-caliber players.
And from the get-go – starting with players like Eddie Pope and Chris Armas, and continuing through Carlos Bocanegra, Jimmy Conrad, Clint Dempsey and others – MLS has done just that. It’s arguably the most important accomplishment in the league’s 18 years.
Of course, not only American players have improved in MLS: Stern John, Yura Movsisyan, and Dwayne De Rosario, to name just three, fired their games in the MLS kiln.
Yet there’s no official nod to this important part of the MLS legacy – there’s no Most Improved Player award. Imagine the potential honorees through the years, in addition to some of the players mentioned above: Graham Zusi in 2011 and Chris Wondolowski in 2010, with competition from Edson Buddle, who’s searing start that season thrust him into the national team picture. All three of those players added depth to the US national team pool, and helped lift the level of the league.
So who would take home Most Improved Player this season?
The Winner Is …
Chicago Fire striker Mike Magee, in a landslide.
Magee has been a solid pro for years, and a deadly postseason contributor for Los Angeles in the past three seasons. But this year, the 29-year-old Chicago native took his game to another level altogether, scoring 21 goals and setting up four while almost single-handedly turning around the Fire’s season and carrying them to the brink of the postseason.
Except for his impressive rookie year of 2003, when he scored seven goals, Magee had never produced more than five goals before in a single season. Last year in LA, he finished with five goals and four assists in 29 appearances for the Galaxy.
His Wondolowski-esque leap forward this season has landed Magee smack in the middle of the 2013 MLS MVP conversation, rightfully so, and prompted many observers to wonder why he hasn’t been called in to the US national team.
The fact that Magee – who has never made an MLS Best XI and hasn’t scored more than five goals in a season since 2003 – became a bona fide MVP contender this season is proof that he’s the runaway Most Improved Player of the year.
Diego Fagundez, New England – The 18-year-old attacker (pictured right) is a solid second after a season in which he boosted his numbers from two goals and two assists in 20 appearances in 2012 to 13 goals and seven assists in 31 appearances this year. The Revolution’s first Homegrown Player is coming along very nicely indeed.
Will Johnson, Portland – He went from being a consistent and valuable role player for Real Salt Lake to becoming a team leader (he’s captain) and a box-to-box force in Portland, where he produced nine goals and five assists this year. Johnson had never topped three in either category before.
Rodney Wallace, Portland – Flourishing as a winger in Caleb Porter’s 4-3-3 system, Wallace bagged seven goals and six assists, both career highs by a wide margin.
Ned Grabavoy, Real Salt Lake – Fortunately for Real Salt Lake, Grabavoy was there to step into the void left by Will Johnson’s departure to Portland. The versatile, highly technical 30-year-old veteran turned in the best season of his career, scoring five goals and setting up five others. Grabavoy had finished goalless in each of the previous two seasons.
Soony Saad, Sporting Kansas City – The newly capped Lebanese international – who was born in Dearborn, Mich., and attended the University of Michigan – more than tripled his minutes this season and finished with four goals and four assists, up from zero goals and one assist in 2012.