Now that we've passed the turn and are heading down the "back nine" of the MLS regular season, it seems like a great time to tee up some predictions for the league's individual awards.
Just to make it clear, these picks are all pure prognostication regarding who the voters will honor at season's end and not about who I'd tab as current front-runners. As with Emmy winners and how the weekend weather will unfold, my personal preference is sadly irrelevant. With that out of the way, there's nothing to do but a bit of midseason limb-stepping.
Landon Donovan MLS MVP: Alejandro Pozuelo
This race remains wide open among at least a half-dozen contenders, which makes calling a winner now rather speculative. Seattle's trio of attack stars will probably split votes (though I'd tell you that Jordan Morris should be their primary candidate for this award). The same can be said for Orlando City's wingers (though I'd tell you that Chris Mueller should be their top contestant here).
It's hard to ignore Diego Rossi and Gyasi Zardes, both of whom disorganize backlines for fun and dependably add goals. Still, I keep coming back to Pozuelo, as there’s simply no close second to his final-third maneuverings this season. The Toronto FC playmaker’s been the coolest cat on the MLS block.
Defender of the Year: Jonathan Mensah
Wide backs simply don't win this award; it's an unwritten rule that’s followed religiously. This isn’t the only thing that kept me from typing Ruan's name above, but it was a big factor. That's not to say that Mensah wouldn’t be a deserving winner. The center back’s been ever-present in a stifling Crew SC defense (five GA in 13 matches) and is dominant in the air (he wins nearly 80% of his aerial duels!) for a defense that’s powered them atop the Supporters’ Shield race.
Goalkeeper of the Year: Andre Blake
This might be the toughest call of all by a fair margin. Both Pedro Gallese and Eloy Room are arguably close enough to expand the race over the season’s final 10 games, but I'm going to treat this like a three-dog fight. As Blake, Sean Johnson and Matt Turner are essentially even in the goal-thievery department, I had to find other ways to separate them. It didn’t go smoothly.
All three backstop teams that play in tight games where the margin for error is small. Each has a slight advantage to boast in different areas, too. Blake is the strongest at dealing with air traffic through his area, Johnson is the best with the ball at his feet and Turner is the one who narrowly leads the league in xGA-GA (expected goals allowed minus goals allowed). In the end, I went with the Philly Union netminder because the buzz from his richly-deserved MLS is Back Tournament goalkeeping award may stick in/sway voters’ minds.
Golden Boot: Diego Rossi
Why did I pick the LAFC ace ahead of Raul Ruidiaz and Gyasi Zardes? It's not because he currently leads them by two and three goals, respectively. It's not because he’s within shooting range of cracking the top 10 goals-per-minute campaigns in MLS history. No, I went with Rossi because his team is playing catchup, while Seattle and Columbus should sit comfortably enough near the top of the table to give their strikers a bit of rest down the stretch.
Assist leader: Alejandro Pozuelo
I can find reasons to back any of the other five players with at least six helpers (Brian Rodriguez, Saphir Taider, Darwin Quintero, Pedro Santos and Jan Gregus). I also can’t count out a late rally from Nicolas Lodeiro or Diego Valeri. But again, nobody seems quite as strong a choice as Pozuelo, who’s currently first with eight assists. Sooner or later, some of those chances he creates for Jozy Altidore are going to start finding the net.
Newcomer of the Year: Lucas Zelarayan
This category, in years past, has often presented a clear and obvious choice. No such luck this time around. We have a case of "nobody has separated from the pack,” where Gonzalo Higuain could even net the award after playing fewer than 10 games, should he rapid-fire Inter Miami into Eastern Conference contention. Yeah, it's that wide open. His presence could also be the fuel that propels Rodolfo Pizarro to the winners' podium.
Alan Pulido might make a run at the prize if he can rediscover his scoring boots. Pablo Piatti is also in decent position for a late charge. Nevertheless, I'm going with Zelarayan, who’s back from a short injury layoff and looks primed for a strong finishing kick.
Rookie of the Year: Henry Kessler
Unless something entirely dramatic happens the rest of the way, this will be a two-horse race — and a pretty good one at that. A couple weeks back, one might have thought that Orlando City forward Daryl Dike was poised to comfortably sail home, but he's cooled off since then. Besides, it was always going to be tough to beat out Kessler, who’s been a key figure at center back for a Revolution team that owes its winning record to defense.
Comeback Player of the Year: Kevin Molino
My initial thought was "C'mon, this has to go to Kevin Molino!" Then I checked his profile page and realized that he actually played a little over 900 minutes across 17 appearances after returning from major knee surgery last season — more than I remembered it being. Other injuries nagged him throughout the year and his form was clearly down, but did the Loons midfielder play too much in 2019 to be a proper candidate for this honor in 2020? With all due respect to injury comebacks of Kyle Duncan and Milton Valenzuela (not to mention the form resurrections of Robin Lod and Romell Quioto), I'm going to say no.
Coach of the Year: Oscar Pareja
With profuse apologies to Jim Curtin's (Philadelphia) continual improvement, Caleb Porter's (Columbus) clockwork performances, Brian Schmetzer's (Seattle) reliable excellence and even Gary Smith's (Nashville SC) pragmatic scrappiness, there's really no contest here. After five years of futility, Orlando aren't just on a collision course with their first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs berth. No, they look like a rock-solid bet to earn a postseason home game or two. Like Patti Labelle back in the day, the Lions have a brand new attitude. Pareja deserves that composer credit.