It’s award season!
Okay, not officially quite yet (sorry). But we did poll the MLSsoccer.com editorial staff to project how year-end awards could go now that we’ve passed the 2021 season’s halfway point.
That’s right: Most clubs are past the midway mark as we somehow (checks calendar) approach Week 19 this weekend? For a variety of factors, clubs have played anywhere from 16 games (hello Inter Miami, Colorado) to 19 games (hello New England, Philadelphia) so far this year. It’s been a busy one.
And a reminder: This is pure prognostication, not ironclad predictions. Things have a funny way of changing quickly around these parts.
Landon Donovan MLS MVP
Other votes: None
Yeah, this one isn’t too surprising. Even if you’ve sorta, kinda, not really been paying attention to MLS this year, you’ve surely caught wind of how dominant Carles Gil has been for the Supporters’ Shield-leading New England Revolution.
Most glaring of all, the Spanish No. 10 (who wears No. 22) has a league-leading 15 assists and 75 key passes. He’s at, or near the top, of several other categories, which all reinforce how he’s a wizard on the ball and creates chances at will. Gil’s also tossed in two goals for good measure.
The only demerit could be Gil’s out with a muscular injury that New England’s staying pretty tight-lipped about. It doesn’t seem like it’ll be a long-term thing, but any prolonged absence could open the door for someone else to seize the MVP mantle.
Defender of the Year
Other votes: Andreu Fontas (SKC), James Sands (NYC), Antonio Carlos (ORL), Jonathan Mensah (CLB)
Yeimar nudged narrowly past Fontas for the midseason lead. It’s a deserving advantage for the Seattle Sounders center back, considering how he’s been borderline dominant for the Western Conference powerhouse and Supporters’ Shield contender this year.
The Colombian defender leads the league in interceptions (56) and has won 66.4% of his duels, shining in the Sounders’ new defensive scheme. Those efforts helped Seattle start the season with an 8-0-5 record, which set an MLS record.
Since arriving last year from Unión de Santa Fe, Yeimar’s been nothing short of spectacular. And when paired alongside the likes of Nouhou Tolo and Xavier Arreaga, his skill set only becomes more apparent.
Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year
Other votes: Matt Turner (NE), Joe Willis (NSH)
There’s been a fair amount of ink spilled (is that still a saying?) about Austin FC’s final-third shortcomings pre-Sebastian Driussi and Moussa Djitte, but don’t lose sight of how dependable Stuver's been this year. He’s single-handedly kept the expansion club in games, and will surely play a prominent role if they climb toward the Western Conference playoff conversation.
It turns out that the 30-year-old, after spot minutes with New York City FC and the Columbus Crew, just needed a chance at the starting role. Sporting director Claudio Reyna and head coach Josh Wolff offered exactly that with a deal before the new year.
Now, Austin FC fans might feel miffed Stuver wasn’t named to the 2021 MLS All-Star Team roster. We hear you and see you, as do the folks at Extratime.
Newcomer of the Year
Other votes: Jonathan Bond (LA), Rubio Rubin (RSL), Leon Flach (PHI), Santiago Sosa (ATL), Rayan Raveloson (LA)
When Fabio was signed by the New York Red Bulls in February, it was done with little fanfare. He joined on loan from Brazilian Serie B side Oeste FC, plus had a previous loan stint at a second division team in Japan. Not exactly the résumé that'll turn too many heads.
But the 24-year-old forward has been a pleasant surprise with three goals and six assists through 18 games. They're not jaw-dropping numbers, but he's formed an important partnership up top with Patryk Klimala and impressed the RBNY brass enough to see his loan get extended through the end of the 2021 season.
The biggest factor working against Fabio is that RBNY find themselves in a rut and could be in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2009. Perhaps a big Secondary Transfer Window coup can seize the spotlight?
AT&T MLS Young Player of the Year
Other votes: Tajon Buchanan (NE), Jose Cifuentes (LAFC)
He’s also offered a centrifugal force to FCD’s offense (read Matt Doyle's weekend column for more), allowing others like Jesus Ferreira, Szabolcs Schön and Paxton Pomykal to thrive. Opposing defenses simply must take account of the 18-year-old Texas native, so far as he’s pushed DP striker Franco Jara to a super-sub role.
Boosted by what's essentially a U22 award, could we see Pepi head overseas during the winter? There's been transfer speculation around him, and moves from midfielder Tanner Tessmann (Venezia), right back Bryan Reynolds (AS Roma) and Chris Richards (Bayern Munich) show how well-regarded FCD's academy is among scouts.
Golden Boot presented by Audi
Other votes: Chicharito (LA), Gustavo Bou (NE)
This prediction is stat-driven, and it's hard to argue against Ruidiaz, though his 11 goals and one assist technically put him in second place behind New England Revolution striker Gustavo Bou at current rate. The Argentine sharp-shooter has 11 goals and three assists, nudging ahead on a tiebreaker.
But, and to steal a phrase from MLSsoccer.com's Tom Bogert, Ruidiaz is an assassin in front of goal. The Peruvian striker won two Golden Boots during his Liga MX time at Morelia, and he certainly could win this year if Nicolas Lodeiro is fully fit and back providing service (he sure looks to be, folks).
The X-factor here is the health of LA Galaxy star Chicharito. He's missed a few games through injury, which could afford Ruidiaz the breathing room to pull away. We suspect that Bou will have something to say about that, though.
Comeback Player of the Year
Other votes: Daniel Salloi (SKC), Josef Martinez (ATL)
We won't sugarcoat it: Chicharito's first LA Galaxy season wasn't the best. He finished with two goals through 12 games (seven starts) and was hampered by injuries, plus the human side of the COVID-19 pandemic we all confronted. Mexico's all-time leading scorer, at least on the field, fell short of expectations.
But the star striker has roared back in 2021 to the tune of 10 goals and one assist through 10 games, figures that are bound to rise once he shakes this nagging calf injury. Chicharito is playing with joy again and seems fully bought-in to what the Galaxy are chasing under head coach Greg Vanney, whose tactics allow the 33-year-old to thrive.
Daniel Salloi and Josef Martinez certainly both fit the award's definition of "an MLS player who has overcome injuries and/or adversity in order to achieve success." But for the moment, Chicharito leads the way.
Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year
Other votes: Robin Fraser (COL), Wilfried Nancy (MTL), Bruce Arena (NE)
When the injury hits just kept on coming, surely the Seattle Sounders would regress and slip from the top tier of MLS clubs. Plus, there were already steady questions back in preseason about how they'd look after a slower offseason – projections that now look shortsighted in hindsight.
Instead, Schmetzer guided the Sounders to an MLS record 13 games unbeaten to start the year and instituted a change to a system with three center backs and wingbacks. He's pulled all the right levers, all while seeing Lodeiro, Stefan Frei and more miss long periods to injury, plus confronting international duty for the Roldan brothers. Oh, and Best XI forward Jordan Morris hasn't featured whatsoever after tearing his ACL while on loan at Swansea City.
The Sounders have suffered a slight dip in form around the season's midway point, but they're getting back healthy and seem poised to challenge for more silverware. Schmetzer, an MLS Cup-winning coach in 2016 and 2019, deserves plaudits.