End-of-season awards are always fun for fans and players alike.
For fans, it’s a chance to see some of their favorite players get rewarded for standout seasons. For players, it’s a chance to add some individual silverware to their resumes after a long and grueling season. Also for players, awards can carry financial benefits depending on the bonus structure in their contracts.
One of the challenges with these awards is that everyone uses a different criteria for how they measure merit. Some give the Landon Donovan MVP award based on its literal meaning — which player was absolutely crucial to their team’s success to the point that if you removed them, the team would be unrecognizable. Others, like myself, prefer to view the MVP award along the lines of “player of the season” and believe it should go to whoever the best player was, regardless of if they were surrounded by several other stars who could have kept the team afloat if they weren’t there.
The best example of this difference occurred last season with LAFC. Carlos Vela was clearly their best player, but you could argue that Eduard Atuesta was just as valuable because, aside from dictating their tempo and connecting their defense to attack, he was a big reason Vela got all of those chances.
Even in a year with deserved finalists, there are always players who may feel snubbed – it’s impossible to avoid that. Nonetheless, here are some players that I feel deserved to be finalists:
Landon Donovan MLS MVP: Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
I know Zimmerman is up for Defender of the Year, but he should also be in the MVP discussion as well. The reason is simple: the team he joined conceded less than a goal per game, in an expansion year no less, and the team he left conceded almost two goals per game after having the best defense in the league last season.
LAFC have largely done everything right in their short history, but trading Zimmerman looks like one of the rare wrong moves they’ve made. He immediately gave Nashville the defensive leader that every successful team needs. His game isn’t fancy or flashy, but you will notice when he isn’t there. That’s the same quality the great Chad Marshall possessed and it can often be taken for granted. Zimmerman commands the back line really well by ensuring that his teammates are connected and positioned exactly where they should be, he’s dominant in the air and quicker than he looks across the ground — another Chad Marshall quality.
As a bonus, he’s also an offensive threat on set pieces. He scored three goals this season but could have gotten a couple more due to his ability to attack the ball. If you take the MVP award at face value, I don't think you can name three players above Zimmerman. Nashville, as organized and disciplined as they were, would have shipped a lot more goals if he wasn’t back there anchoring things.
Newcomer of the Year: Joao Paulo (Seattle Sounders)
It’s difficult to argue with any of the three finalists, but I think Joao Paulo has a very strong case for a few reasons.
First, he’s a big reason why Nico Lodeiro spent less time dropping deep to find the ball this season compared to other seasons. His ability to play-make from deep allowed Lodeiro to take up higher positions where he does his very best work. Joao Paulo significantly improved the Sounders’ buildup from the back and ball retention in the defensive half.
Second, he proved to be better offensively than we anticipated. As expected, he got stuck into tackles and loved the physical side of things, but he also displayed great ability in the final third. He had a great assist on a cross to Jordan Morris against LAFC earlier in the year, and he scored a fantastic goal off a brilliant strike against the Vancouver Whitecaps in a 3-1 win. He proved to be a phenomenal two-way player.
His strongest case is that this was the first year the Sounders didn’t look like they missed Osvaldo Alonso in the center of the park. Ozzie may well be the best defensive mid in MLS history and was always going to be tough to replace, but Joao Paulo has plugged that hole both on and off the ball in a way that no one has before. He joined the defending champions and improved them – that is very hard to do and it’s why he should be a Newcomer of the Year finalist.
Young Player of the Year: Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC)
Toronto were much better when Akinola was on the pitch, and there were so many reasons why. His versatility was a big plus, meaning he was very good playing down the middle, but was equally comfortable and effective when he played as a right winger. It’s easy to notice the pace and power because it’s frightening, but there's so much more to his game. At the MLS is Back Tournament, he often looked like a man among boys with how he used his body and speed to place himself in dangerous areas, and perhaps more impressively, he displayed a composure in front of goal that betrayed his youth.
I’m not someone who runs to the stat sheet first, because I prefer to go with the eye test and then allow the stats to either back up or inform what I am seeing. Akinola definitely passes the eye test, but he lit up the stat sheet as well. Nine goals from 11 starts (15 appearances) in a stop-start season is impressive by anyone’s standards, but when you look at the type of goals he scored, the accomplishment becomes that much more impressive. There were goals due to pace and power, but we also saw clever little chips, smart finishes, goals that required finesse and goals that resulted from good link-up play. He did it all this season and should be a finalist for Young Player of the Year.