Stejskal: Highlighting the top contenders for MLS Defender of the Year

Matt Hedges - FC Dallas - walkout

We’re scarcely a month away from the end of the MLS regular season, which means we’re beginning to close in on the 2016 award season.

Typically, we reserve most of our attention this time of year for the top goalscorers, assist men and goalkeepers around MLS. You know, the guys who are in the running for the Landon Donovan MLS MVP award, the forward positions in the Best XI and Goalkeeper of the Year honor.

Defenders, that lonely breed, tend to get a little bit ignored.

Not today.

Today, we’re taking a look at some of the top contenders for the 2016 Defender of the Year award. Only one of these players will take home the hardware come the end of the season, but all have enjoyed stellar 2016 seasons.

On to the breakdown:

Matt Hedges – FC Dallas

Hedges has had some injury issues this year, but there’s no better illustrator of his value to Supporters’ Shield-leading FCD than the eight regular season contests he’s missed in 2016.

In the matches Hedges has missed, Dallas are 4-4-0 with 10 goals scored and 17 goals conceded. That’s 2.125 goals allowed per match, a number that would be the worst in the league if extrapolated out over the course of a full season.

Dallas struggle in the back without Hedges, but they’re downright stingy when the 26-year-old center back is in the lineup. In the 22 games Hedges has played this year, Dallas have given up just 22 goals and have posted an 11-4-7 record.

A fringe US national team player already, Hedges could go a long way toward becoming a more regular call-up to Jurgen Klinsmann’s camps with a strong showing down the stretch for the Open Cup champions, who are pursuing the Shield and MLS Cup as they eye what would be a historic US/Canadian soccer treble. The runner-up in Defender of the Year voting in 2015, Hedges should have a good chance at taking home the award in 2016, though he could split some of the vote with his center back partner Walker Zimmerman, who’s had an outstanding year in his own right.

Jelle Van Damme – LA Galaxy

One year after Laurent Ciman won the 2015 Defender of the Year crown, Van Damme has a great chance to be the second straight Belgian to pick up the honor in his first year in MLS. Van Damme is the main reason LA haven’t skipped a beat without Omar Gonzalez, playing a huge role on a Galaxy backline that has given up the fourth-fewest goals in the league this season.

His ability to get the LA attack going might be even more important than his work in the back, however. The 32-year-old is unique among MLS center backs for the frequency with which he gets forward, perhaps a vestige of his days as an outside back in Belgium. He might serve the best long ball of any defender in the league, and his precision on those long passes has caused plenty of headaches for opposing backlines – not to mention contributed to his four assists thus far in 2016.

Best of all for Galaxy fans, Van Damme appears to be fully recovered from an injury that kept him out for two games earlier this month, and should continue to play a major role as LA battle for one of the top two seeds out West.

Drew Moor – Toronto FC

Moor isn’t the only reason Toronto have followed up a 2015 that saw them concede a league-worst 58 goals with a 2016 campaign in which they’ve given up the third-fewest goals in MLS, but is he perhaps the most important one.

After a long stint in Colorado, the veteran center back signed with Toronto as a free agent last winter. He was part of an offseason defensive overhaul for TFC, who also brought in goalkeeper Clint Irwin from Colorado and added fellow MLS vets Steven Beitashour at right back and Will Johnson at center midfield.

He’s been excellent for TFC, helping establish a legitimate defensive identity for a team that had never really had one before. He’s been a steady, calming presence in the back, appearing in 27 of TFC’s 29 MLS matches and playing every minute in all of them. Moor has also contributed three goals, including the winner in a big 1-0 home win against LA on June 18.

Axel Sjoberg – Colorado Rapids

The Rapids’ excellent defensive record – they’ve given up just 24 goals this year and have a shot at breaking the 34-game MLS record of 27 set by Sporting Kansas City in 2012 – should be credited to every player on the roster, all of whom place a huge emphasis on defending and defensive shape.

But this is an individual honor, not a team trophy, and Sjoberg has probably been the Rapids’ top defender this season. The giant Swede – he’s 6-foot-7 – has turned into a very steady performer for Colorado, teaming with center back partner Bobby Burling to limit opposing strikers as the Rapids have put the stranglehold on opposing attacks. I don’t think he’ll take home the top honors, but Sjoberg certainly deserves some recognition in the final Defender of the Year voting.

Honorable Mentions – Steve Birnbaum, Liam Ridgewell, Walker Zimmerman