I’ve been asked to put my MLS awards predictions on the record the past few years. Here’s the tl;dr before we get into my 2021 picks/guesses/potential embarrassment.
In 2019, I went two for nine, correctly predicting Jordan Morris to win Comeback Player of the Year and Andre Shinyashiki for AT&T Rookie of the Year. In 2020, I went zero for nine, with some awful choices in hindsight, some because of injury — Josef Martinez (Golden Boot) and Carlos Vela (MVP) — and some — Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez (Newcomer) and Frank de Boer (Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year – that were truly regrettable.
Needless to say, I’d take two for nine again in a heartbeat.
If you haven’t already, allow me to suggest the Extratime prediction special from Monday. We went through every official category, plus a bunch we made up a couple years ago and dubbed the Continental Tire Awards. Just know I reserved the right to change my picks for this column.
Comeback Player of the Year: Josef Martinez (Atlanta United)
Superstars only this year in this particular award category, which tells you how much quality we were missing for much of 2020. Vela will be in this conversation, and so will Sebastian Blanco, Carles Gil and perhaps even Edison Flores.
I went with Josef Martinez because he truly had his 2020 season erased. Blanco gave us an MLS is Back Tournament MVP performance. Vela tore up the Concacaf Champions League at 70 percent. Gil almost led the Revs to MLS Cup. Martinez tore his ACL in Atlanta’s season opener and watched from afar as the Five Stripes season burned.
Now, has he looked like the Josef of old in CCL wins against Alajuelense? No, he’s looked a little tentative. Give him time. Comebacks take time, and Martinez’s is just beginning.
Other candidates: Carlos Vela (LAFC), Sebastian Blanco (POR), Carles Gil (NE), Edison Flores (DC)
Newcomer of the Year: Alexandre Pato (Orlando City)
If I was all about hit percentage, I’d have gone with Tomas Pochettino. He’ll have the shiny new stadium, the expansion bump and, if preseason is any indication, a bunch of marquee moments, deadball and otherwise.
If I was truly a risk taker, the choice would be Brenner, who has the price tag and pedigree to be a big hit but plays for Club Mystery Box. FC Cincinnati could be a playoff team! Or they could win another spoon! Nobody knows!
Instead, I’m going with my gut. Look, Daryl Dike is gone. Orlando City would be insane not to sell. Crazy things happen in this league, bless the soccer gods for that, but it shouldn’t happen this time. So Pato walks into a team that returns nine of 11 starters. He has the faith of Oscar Pareja and figures to be the main beneficiary of the Year 2 under Papi bump. Via Matt Doyle’s MLS Tiers of 2021 column:
If Pato can stay healthy, he can and, I think, will be truly productive again for the first time since the 2018 season in China. That’s a very real if, but I’m going out on that limb with no safety harness!
(Should I have gone with Ramon Abila? Gahhhhhhh, betting on Bebelo to feed Wanchope might have been the safer bet. Oh well!)
Other candidates: Tomas Pochettino and Cecilio Dominguez (ATX), Ramon Abila (MIN), Brenner (CIN), Alan Franco (ATL)
AT&T Young Player of the Year: Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids)
At 19, Bassett is the centerpiece for a playoff team. He’s got eight goals and six assists in a shade more than 2,000 MLS minutes. He’s made a big jump in all three of his professional seasons, including one marred by COVID-19 in 2020. Another “leap” would put him in the 15-20 combines goals and assists range. Hell, it could be even more if everything goes right.
There are about a dozen players waiting in the wings to see if they can match or surpass that and take this award, Clark included. That makes my #PlayYourKids heart sing.
Other candidates: Caden Clark (RBNY), George Bello (ATL), Tanner Tessman (DAL), James Sands (NYC), Gianluca Busio (SKC)
Defender of the Year: Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew)
You can win Defender of the Year one of two ways. First, be the star (as a center back) for your much-improved or surprise team. That’s how Walker Zimmerman and Ike Opara won the past two years. Second, be the best defender on the best team/defensive team in the league. That’s how Aaron Long, Opara and Matt Hedges won the award the three years before that.
Go back through history. Every year will fall under those two categories. It’s a tried-and-true method.
If you apply that method to 2021 — and account for possible vote/publicity splitting between center back pairings — you’re left with a clear favorite: Jonathan Mensah, who probably would have won in 2020 had the Crew’s defensive form stood up for the entirety of the season.
It didn’t and Zimmerman was the rightful winner, in my opinion. They’ll be Supporters’ Shield contenders this year and Mensah’s PR campaign is already rolling thanks to that MLS Cup run and the award chatter from last fall. This is a safe pick.
Other candidates: Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Aaron Long (RBNY), Walker Zimmerman (NSH), Alan Franco (ATL), Yeimar Gomez Andrade (SEA), Eddie Segura (LAFC)
Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year: Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
First, the obvious: bad defensive teams don’t produce award winners. You’ll notice that I included eight “other candidates” for this one. That’s a lot, but all are real possibilities.
That said, this is Matt Turner’s award to lose, and I am not just saying that because I have Matt Doyle in my ear a couple times a week. He makes “rub your eyes and blink repeatedly” saves look routine, the underlying numbers love him and the Revolution are going to be very good. Plus, Turner ought to get a nice PR bump in the summer during the Gold Cup.
Other candidates: Andre Blake (PHI), Pedro Gallese (ORL), Eloy Room (CLB), Stefan Frei (SEA), Dayne St. Clair (MIN), Sean Johnson (NYC), Steve Clark (POR), Tim Melia (SKC)
Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year: Giovanni Savarese (Portland Timbers)
This has been close to a Supporters’ Shield award for the past decade or so. Here’s proof.
2020: Jim Curtin (Philadelphia Union) ... won the Supporters' Shield
2019: Bob Bradley (LAFC) ... won the Supporters' Shield
2018: Tata Martino (Atlanta United) ... pipped to the Supporters' Shield, Armas took over at RBNY partway through season
2017: Greg Vanney (Toronto FC) ... won the Supporters' Shield
2016: Oscar Pareja (FC Dallas) ... won the Supporters' Shield
2015: Jesse Marsch (New York Red Bulls) ... won the Supporters' Shield
2014: Ben Olsen (D.C. United) ... worst to first in the East
2013: Caleb Porter (Portland Timbers) ... second bottom to first in the West
2012: Frank Yallop (San Jose Earthquakes) ... won the Supporters' Shield
2011: Bruce Arena (LA Galaxy) ... won the Supporters' Shield
Will the Timbers win the Shield? I’m not sure. I do know that international absences (Copa America, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying wear and tear) won’t hit them as hard as their competition.
Given Bradley won the award recently and the expectations on LAFC are already huge, I think this one comes down to Gio, Caleb Porter, Bruce Arena, Adrian Heath and Oscar Pareja. My gut (and CCL recency bias) says Savarese. Savarese it is!
Other candidates: Bob Bradley (LAFC), Caleb Porter (CLB), Bruce Arena (NE), Adrian Heath (MIN), Oscar Pareja (ORL)
Assist King: Emanuel “Bebelo” Reynoso (Minnesota United)
I don’t think this requires much explanation. The man had 14 assists in 16 games (12 starts). He had seven assists in three playoff games. He has a striker he knows well in former Boca Juniors teammate Ramon “Wanchope” Abila. He lives to make the final or second-to-last pass.
This is probably the prediction I feel best about, though a healthy Vela could scuttle it real quick!
Other candidates: Carlos Vela (LAFC), Alejandro Pozuelo (TOR), Cristian Espinoza (SJ), Mauricio Pereyra (ORL), Diego Valeri (POR), Tomas Pochettino (ATX), Carles Gil (NE)
Golden Boot pres. by Audi: Carlos Vela (LAFC)
Sooooooooooooooo I said Josef Martinez in the MLS Twitter prediction videos, but I changed my mind. After going 0-fer last year, I need some tap-ins. This is a tap-in. More aptly, this is a left-footed curler to the back post.
A healthy and motivated Vela is the best player and the best goalscorer in the league. He appears to be fit and healthy, and his preseason quotes have left no doubts that he’s motivated, individually and collectively. I figure LAFC will be the best attacking team in the league once again. That means Vela wins the Golden Boot once again.
Other candidates: Josef Martinez (ATL), Gyasi Zardes (CLB), Raul Ruidiaz (SEA), Robert Beric (CHI), Gonzalo Higuain (MIA)
Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player: Carlos Vela (LAFC)
See above. He said he wanted to win MVP. I trust him, and I trust Bradley will do what it takes to manage his load enough to get him through a full season. If Vela stays in the lineup, he’ll be the MVP.
Other candidates: Lucas Zelarayan (CLB), Carles Gil (NE), Bebelo Reynoso (MIN), Sebastian Blanco (POR), Josef Martinez (ATL)