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Warshaw: Who are the MLS award favorites heading down the stretch?

Most Valuable Player

WILL WIN: Josef Martinez

Martinez broke the MLS single-season goals record with a fourth of the season remaining. He’s made defenders around the league look like high school honorable mention players. He’s the major headline of the likely Supporters’ Shield winner. I don’t think the voting will be close.

SHOULD WIN: Miguel Almiron

I’m a sucker for the valuable part of the award. My criteria involve:

  • An outstanding season > A particularly unique lift to the team’s level > Playing for one of best teams in the league.

Martinez obviously offers an immeasurable amount to Atlanta United, but – for me – Almiron provides more. If you were to take Almiron off of Atlanta, Martinez would suffer more than Almiron would if Martinez were not there. Everything we love about Atlanta – the speed, the energy, the I-can’t-take-my-eyes-off-the-screen-because-something-might-happen – starts with Almiron in the middle of the field. He’s been both outstanding and irreplaceable for the most exciting team in the league.

As Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo recently said on The Bill Simmons Podcast, however, narratives matter in an MVP race. Annihilating a major record is a hell of a narrative. Martinez will win the award, and I have absolutely no problem with that, but my vote will go to Almiron.

HONORABLE MENTION: Ignacio Piatti, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Diego Chara, Nico Lodeiro, Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Coach of the Year

WILL WIN: No clear favorite, but I’d bet on Tata Martino winning.

Atlanta control their fate to win the Supporters’ Shield and pass Toronto FC’s record-setting 69-point season in the process. Martino’s not only a clear favorite because of the players at his disposal – everyone expected Atlanta to challenge for trophies – and a big part of winning end of the year awards is performance-compared-to-expectation.

Another potential winner, to provide comparison, is Philadelphia’s Jim Curtin. The Union are 16 points behind Atlanta, but Philly are in the playoffs and nobody expected (well, almost nobody …) expected that. Curtin has exceeded expectations, if only to a fourth-place finish thus far.

Without a decisive winner among the coaching ranks, assuming Atlanta doesn’t blow it down the stretch, I suspect voters will go for the guy who sets a record.

SHOULD WIN: Bob Bradley

The man didn’t have a roster nine months ago. His players had never met. LAFC didn’t have a style of player or chemistry to build from. All 20-some guys who showed up the first day had to put the practice field’s address into Google Maps. In the same way people didn’t expect much from Philly, few saw LAFC making the playoffs.

Now the Black-and-Gold are looking at a top-three finish in the conference and potentially a Knockout Round bye, while also playing entertaining soccer. How many coaches in the league could have achieved that?

HONORABLE MENTION: Jim Curtin, Oscar Pareja, Peter Vermes

Newcomer of the Year

It's hard to argue against the impact Ibra has made this year | USA Today Sports Images

WILL WIN: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

He’s played 25 games; he’s contributed 30 goals (21 goals, 9 assists).

If Ibra gets an assist in either of the last two games, he will become just the third player in MLS history to record 20 goals and 10 assists in a single season (Sebastian Giovinco 2015, Diego Valeri 2017).

SHOULD WIN: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

The idea that Ibrahimovic should win MVP is insane; the LA Galaxy have massively underachieved this year, and while Ibrahimovic has been amazing, the star player deserves some blame if the team falls flat. But the guy has obviously been unreal and deserves to win something, and I’m less precious about the Newcomer award.

I was tempted to list Carlos Vela for his overall contributions in lifting LAFC so quickly, similar to my Bradley pitch. But Vela’s 11 goals and 10 assists seem paltry compared to the Swede’s numbers.

HONORABLE MENTION: Carlos Vela

Rookie of the Year

Corey Baird is the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors. | USA Today Sports Images

WILL WIN: Corey Baird

The three major contenders this year?

  • Corey Baird | 29 games, 20 starts, 7 goals, 4 assists
  • Chris Mueller | 28 games, 20 starts, 3 goals, 6 assists
  • Mark McKenzie | 17 games, 16 starts at center back for a playoff team

There hasn’t been a truly standout rookie in 2018 the way Julian Gressel popped on the scene in 2017. But Baird has been the best of the group.

SHOULD WIN: Corey Baird

If McKenzie hadn’t gotten hurt and missed eight games recently, he would probably get it. He’s helped the Union to the 8th-fewest goals conceded in the league and overachieve expectations. But as is, he’s only played half of the games this season. Baird has been consistent throughout the year and played a key role in Real Salt Lake's playoff push.

HONORABLE MENTION: Mark McKenzie, Chris Mueller

Goalkeeper of the Year

Stefan Frei deserves to take home his first Goalkeeper of the Year award. | USA Today Sports Images

WILL WIN: Stefan Frei

Leads the league in fewest goals conceded (tied with the New York Red Bulls, but Luis Robles missed a few games due to injury). Even when Seattle stunk to start the year, and opened with a 3-9-3 record, Frei always kept them in games: Seven of those losses were by just a single goal, and five were 1-0 defeats. Frei kept the team treading until they could get back above water.

Annual awards can sometimes act as lifetime achievement honors, too, especially when the race is close and especially if the player hasn’t won the award yet. Nobody other than Frei has become a clear frontrunner, and Frei has yet to take home a Goalkeeper of the Year award. He’s been deserving before, he’s deserving now, and I’d be surprised if the voters didn’t give it to him this year.

SHOULD WIN: Stefan Frei

HONORABLE MENTION: Evan Bush, Tim Melia, Zack Steffen, Luis Robles

Defender of the Year

Aaron Long has had a career year for the New York Red Bulls. | USA Today Sports Images

WILL WIN: I'm … not sure. No clear favorite.

SHOULD WIN: Aaron Long

My three finalists include Long, Atlanta’s Michael Parkhurst, and Seattle’s Chad Marshall. Parkhurst and Marshall each anchor one of the league’s top teams (Atlanta rank fifth in goals conceded, while Seattle rank first, tied with the Red Bulls); each would be a worthy winner. But Long has had a tougher task this season. Atlanta and Seattle spent stretches of their games sitting deep and remaining compact as a group. It’s easier for a center back to defend when his team is compact around him.

The Red Bulls, though, almost always press and intentionally stretch themselves defensively more than any other team in the league. Consequently, they ask their center backs to do more than any other defenders in the league. In the recent game against Atlanta, for example, Long had to match up against Tito Villalba, with 20 yards empty in front of him and 60 yards open behind him. RBNY held Atlanta scoreless in the 2-0 victory. Their system — and the subsequent league-leading defense and Supporters’ Shield push — is only possible if Aaron Long and his center back partner Tim Parker can cope with incredibly difficult tasks.

HONORABLE MENTION: Michael Parkhurst, Chad Marshall, Kemar Lawrence, Tim Parker, Matt Hedges, Jonathan Mensah.

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