We – myself, Jonah Freedman, Nick Rosano and an assist from Dan Haiek – debated several midseason award winners on this week’s March to the Match, and I only had time to half-make a point that I feel needs making.
The point is this: When it comes to the award for “Most Improved Player” (which as Jonah pointed out isn’t actually an MLS award, which led to my having an off-mic yelling fit, and now it’s going to be my own special award that I give out in this column and perhaps send a basket of cookies to the winner), there are several different levels. And it’s important to understand that:
1. Having a “Most Improved Player” award is important. MLS is a selling league, and if the players aren’t improving, then something’s gone wrong.
2. Some levels are harder to reach than others.
Point No. 1 is self-explanatory, and applies to every league in the world to one degree or another, as well as to every team in the world save for those owned by oil billionaires or districts of Spain.
Point No. 2, however, deserves some fleshing out.
First, we’ve all seen rotation players get their chance and win a significant role. Sometimes it ends up being an out-of-nowhere, picked-him-up-off-the-scrap-heap story. Sometimes it ends up being a this-guy-is-finally-making-good-on-his-potential story. There are a few other ways, the most common one being a guy just growing into a role, like Mike Magee did in LA.
One way or another, it happens every season for about half the teams in the league, and we’ll call it “Level 1.”
Between the Lines: Patrick Nyarko
Getting to Level 1 isn’t easy, of course, but it’s easier than going from a starter to an All-Star. That happens much less frequently. There are only a few guys who can claim it each year, and when they reach that level – Level 2 – you tend to nod and say “This guy’s bringing it every single game.” Patrick Nyarko and Matt Besler, to name two, got there last season.
Both are still stuck there, though, because getting from Level 2 to Level 3 is the real jump. That’s when a guy who was really, really good turns into a guy who you can count on to show up and be one of the very best players on the pitch every time out.
Last year we saw Brad Davis, Omar Gonzalez and Osvaldo Alonso make that jump (Brek Shea tried, but flamed out by September). It was, quite frankly, awesome to see so many good players become great players.
But at the end of the year all the “Most Improved” talk centered around a Level 1 guy – Dominic Oduro – who finally got his shot in a system that made the most of his talents.
Not to knock Oduro’s accomplishments – 12 goals is always a nice haul – but it’s much harder to do what Davis, Gonzalez and Alonso did. It’s almost unfair to compare the two levels of improvement.
So I won’t. I’m going to hand out three different midseason Most Improved Player awards: One for Level 1, one for Level 2 and one for Level 3.
Most Improved Player: Level 1
Justin Morrow, San Jose Earthquakes
Morrow was a combine standout back in 2010, a guy who came into the event with no real position (he played left midfield in college), and left with no real position, but somehow impressed everyone anyway.
Frank Yallop & Co. gave him 18 months to marinate in training, then threw him in at left back midway through last season. He proved up to the task for the most part, and was one of my sleeper picks for a breakout season.
He’s had it. Morrow is one of the first names on the team sheet, filling in admirably at central defense (despite standing just 5-foot-9) when the Quakes suffered a spate of injuries, and excelling at left back when he’s gotten chances to play there. He doesn’t put up the gaudy numbers that right back Steven Beitashour does, but he adds smartly to the attack and is one of the best defensive fullbacks in the league.
Honorable Mentions: Collen Warner (M, Montreal), David Estrada (M/F, Seattle), Perry Kitchen (M, D.C.), Gershon Koffie (M, Vancouver), Jack McInerney (F, Philadelphia), Tony Tchani (M, Columbus), Ashtone Morgan (D, Toronto)
Most Improved Player: Level 2
Will Bruin, Houston Dynamo
I kind of unthinkingly awarded Bruin the trophy during the podcast, but now I’m taking it back. Bruin’s made a significant leap in his sophomore season, already nearly doubling his goals total (nine in 2012; five in 2011) and playing a more vital role in the Houston attack.
His first touch is also wildly underrated – he’s one of the few big men in the league who can use it to skin a defender instead of taking the touch away and shielding the defender. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s most impressive, and a club he didn’t have in the bag last year.
Bruin’s also improved at shot placement, the calling card of all top strikers. Both last season and early this season he was simply ripping it, usually right into a goalkeeper’s chest. He’s picking his spots better now.
But he’s not made the jump to Level 3 yet. Bruin can still drift in and out of games, and sometimes seems reluctant to use his size and strengths to bully defenders. If (when?) he does that, he’ll have moved to Level 3.
Honorable Mentions: Benny Feilhaber (M, New England), Brandon McDonald (D, D.C.), Steven Lenhart (F, San Jose), Dax McCarty (M, New York), Andy Gruenebaum (GK, Columbus)
Most Improved Player: Level 3
Chris Pontius, D.C. United
Pontius was in the running for this award last year before a clumsy tackle (by him, for what it’s worth) ended with a broken leg, six months of rehab and another year of no postseason for United.
Between the Lines: Forward thinking in D.C.
Now that he’s fully fit and functional, he’s become something of an unstoppable force, one of the very best player on the field every time he takes the pitch, and the type of guy who has an impact even when he's not playing particularly well – see his game-winner against Philly a couple of weeks back.
Yeah, Pontius' numbers are the same as Bruin’s, but he’s done it in 400 fewer minutes and been comfortable literally anywhere in the attacking third. He’s also second in the league in game-winning goals behind Chris Wondolowski (who’s hit Level 4, which is subtitled “**** you, I really am this good!”), and is probably the league’s deadliest player in one-v-one situations at the moment.
The argument against Pontius is, “He’s surrounded by so much talent that he doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting!”
And it’s true. But the essence of improvement is playing even better when the talent around you improves. Pontius has done that, becoming the biggest scoring threat on a team well in the Supporters’ Shield hunt.
Honorable Mention: Marvin Chávez (M, San Jose)
Anyway, it’s a point that I thought needed to be made. Any team in the world can sign new talent, but the truly special teams can take the talent they have and make it better. That’s what has happened with Pontius, and why he’s the recipient of this prestigious, fictional, midseason award.
Matthew Doyle write the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.