Bogert: Handicapping the 2019 MLS awards races

It's award season time. 

With about two and a half weeks left in the MLS regular season, and ballots opening on September 24 before closing the day after Decision Day presented by AT&T, individual hardware will soon be doled out.

What's it look like? Here's your primer, along with my ballot. But first, a couple of quick thoughts:

  • I reserve the right to change some of these votes pending the final handful of MLS games, particularly in the closest races.
  • We kept it to top five for the candidates' section. For a number of awards, particularly Newcomer and Defender, there could have been 12 dudes to highlight. They're tight, and I'm sure there'll be votes for those outside the top five. 

Landon Donovan MLS MVP

Vela celebrates one of his many goals | USA Today Sports

The candidates: Carlos Vela, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Josef Martinez, Maxi Moralez, Eduard Atuesta

Vela and LAFC burst out of the starting blocks to the season on a rocket ship and rarely slowed down. More on him below, though. 

If not already wrapped up by the Mexican superstar, it appears to be a three-horse race as Martinez and Ibrahimovic have surged forward late in the season. Martinez set a new record by scoring in 15 consecutive league games while Ibrahimovic has now scored 53.1% of the Galaxy's goals in 2019. Each of the superstars have 26 goals this season, two behind Vela's league-leading 28.

Moralez, leading MLS with 18 assists for the East-leading NYCFC, has been one of the league's best. Ditto for Atuesta, second in the league in passes completed while ranking high in tackles and duels won, has been vital for LAFC. My guy Andrew Wiebe calls it a hipster pick, and you know, fair enough. 

The favorite: Carlos Vela

League's leading goalscorer? Yep. Already in the record books? Yep. Best player on the best team? Yep. Does that best team look quantifiably worse without him? Yep. 

Vela has 28 goals and 15 assists in 27 games. That's north of 1.5 goal contributions per game. That's madness. 

My vote: Carlos Vela

Don't overthink this, don't let the torrential downpour of goals by Martinez and Ibrahimovic flood opinions and don't let recency bias (Josef's outlandish 15-game scoring streak, Zlatan's 10 goals in his last six games and Vela's two-game injury absence) have an outsized influence on your choice.

Vela leads the Golden Boot race and might break the league's single-season goal record of 31, set by Martinez last year. He already has the most goals plus assists in a single season. He leads the runaway Supporters' Shield-leading LAFC. As if to completely emphasize the totality of his candidacy, LAFC lost one and drew one during his brief time on the sideline with that injury, removing the ambiguous definition of "valuable". He's the most valuable player by every conceivable thought exercise.

Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year

Bradley looks on | USA Today Sports

The candidates: Bob Bradley, Matias Almeyda, Jim Curtin, Dome Torrent, Adrian Heath

Bradley has helped lead LAFC to the brink of history, with the Supporters' Shield long a foregone conclusion. Unlike last year, there will be no Decision Day drama in awarding that accolade. 

Almeyda inherited largely the same roster that finished bottom of the league in 2018 and has turned the Quakes around to a potential playoff team, one that has played scintillating soccer at times. Heath, too, took a team that finished far below the playoff line in 2018 and helped grow them to a team above the playoff line.

Curtin is leading Philly to their best-ever regular-season finish, without a huge budget. Torrent and NYCFC are closing in on topping the Eastern Conference the season after club legend David Villa departed.

The favorite: Bob Bradley

For as much that has been made of LAFC's talented squad, Bradley has had a huge hand in individual growth. The likes of Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eddie Segura and others weren't wildly sought after players but have flourished under Bradley. He also switched Latif Blessing from winger to a dynamic central midfielder, one of the best positional changes in MLS this year. 

My vote: Bob Bradley

If LAFC set a new league record for points, Bradley is the obvious choice. LAFC need eight points from their last four games to make that a reality. If not, it cracks the door open for larger interpretation, particularly pending how the season ends for Philly and Minny. 

Still, though, Bradley's ability to make the very most out of all players on his roster, while positively managing stars like Vela and Diego Rossi, is a unique trait. 

Newcomer of the Year

Heber's trademark celebration | USA Today Sports

The candidates: Heber, Carles Gil, Eddie Segura, Brian Fernandez, Cristian Espinoza

A loaded category, there is no shortage of players to debut in MLS this season. More on Heber and Gil in a moment, though.

It's an award that naturally skews toward attacking players, though LAFC center back Segura is among the candidates. The Colombian is second among defenders in recoveries and fourth in passes completed.

Fernandez landed like a meteor in MLS, scorching hot from the second he made his debut though has slowed down lately. Espinoza has been integral to Almeyda's revolution in San Jose and is tied for sixth in MLS in assists. 

The favorite: Heber or Gil

The two favorites, Gil and Heber have both been awesome in their first seasons in MLS.

Gil has nine goals and 14 assists while starting each of the Revs' 30 matches this year, and was productive under Brad Friedel as well as Bruce Arena. Heber, meanwhile, has 14 goals and four assists in 20 appearances (17 starts) for NYCFC and appeared to wrestle the lead away from Gil before picking up an injury.

This one is going to go down to the wire.

My vote: Heber

If I had to submit the ballot today, I'd have to pick Heber. NYCFC's splits with/without the Brazilian, though improved this month in his absence, are too strong to ignore on top of the counting stats and panache he plays with.

NYCFC are 12-2-3 (2.3 PPG) with 2.1 goals scored per game when he starts but just 4-3-6 (1.4 PPG) with 1.5 goals scored per game without him in the starting XI. If Gil gets hot again over his side's last four games, this could change.

Defender of the Year

Ike Opara with Minnesota | USA Today Sports

The candidates: Ike Opara, Miles Robinson, Walker Zimmerman, Kai Wagner, Maxime Chanot

Another category with a number of players deserving recognition, as well as being a notoriously difficult award to dole out, Defender of the Year is crowded again.

Opara was the crown jewel of Minnesota's defensive overhaul this offseason and has been worthy every penny of TAM they sent to Sporting KC, who have looked in disarray defensively without him. Robinson's breakout season has helped restore Atlanta near the top of the East while Zimmerman anchors LAFC, who have conceded the league's fewest goals. Wagner's two-way excellence has been key for Philly's all-action style and rise to second place in the East, though a fullback has yet to win the award.

The favorite: Ike Opara

Minnesota conceded 141 goals in their first two seasons in the league but now, with Opara, Ozzie Alonso, Vito Mannone and Romain Metanire on board, have let in 40 goals over their first 30 games of 2019. They'll be somewhere around 25 goals better than 2018 and a playoff place to boot. 

Zimmerman and Robinson aren't too far off. 

My vote: Ike Opara 

The circumstances in which the Loons have improved while SKC fell apart is too big to ignore with Opara. The higher Minnesota finish en route to their first-ever appearance in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, the stronger Opara's resume is. 

Goalkeeper of the Year

Matt Turner in full focus | USA Today Sports

The candidates: Sean Johnson, Brad Guzan, Vito Mannone, David Bingham, Matt Turner

Perhaps the most crowded award category, Goalkeeper of the Year can be viewed across multiple prisms. 

Guzan leads the league in shutouts (13), Johnson anchors the league's third-stingiest defense while aiding in their possession-based ethos, Bingham leads the league in saves (132), while Bill Hamid is second (118). Mannone has been a catalyst in Minnesota's defensive turnaround from one of the league's worst to one of the league's best and Turner has helped keep the Revs above the playoff line with heroics. 

The favorite: Is there one?

Nope. There are a number of deserving GKs, but not one that is a clear-cut favorite the same way Vela is in the MVP race.

My vote: Matt Turner

Quietly, Turner is having a phenomenal season in New England. And he didn't even get his first 2019 start until May 8. 

He leads the league in American Soccer Analysis' xG against minus goals against, by no small margin. It's a fancy way of saying he has let in a lot fewer goals than he should have. The Revs' defense is not great and Bruce Arena has regularly sported starting XIs that feature a number of attack-minded players. Turner has won his side more than a few points even if he doesn't have the shutouts he deserves (only three thus far). 

Comeback Player of the Year

Mark-Anthony Kaye looks on | USA Today Sports

The candidates: Mark-Anthony Kaye, Jordan Morris, Nick DeLeon, Jozy Altidore, Kevin Molino

A few players returning from injuries headline this award, 

Toronto, who won a treble in 2017 but missed the playoffs in 2018, have leaned on Altidore (and DeLeon) this season. The American center forward has 10 goals and six assists in 2019 thus far, after injuries limited him to just six goals and one assist in 2018. DeLeon, meanwhile, has come back from knee surgery and changing teams to make 29 appearances for TFC this year. 

Molino started the season slow in his return from injury and has emerged as one of Minnesota's key attackers as they near the playoffs, with three goals and four assists this season.

As for Kaye and Morris...

The favorite: Kaye or Morris

Two leading players on their teams, Kaye and Morris have bounced back from their injuries and picked up form right where they left off. 

Morris has nine goals and a career-high seven assists for the Sounders this year, while Kaye has added four goals and eight assists from the midfield for the LAFC juggernaut. 

My vote: Mark-Anthony Kaye

Another vote for LAFC. 

Kaye's dynamic, two-way presence gives him the edge over Morris. LAFC's midfield trio is one of the most feared in the league and Kaye is at the heart of that, covering a ton of ground with Blessing and Atuesta to allow LAFC to play with controlled chaos. 

Rookie of the Year

Brenden Aaronson in action with Philly | USA Today Sports

The candidates: Hassani Dotson, Andre Shinyashiki, Brenden Aaronson, DeJuan Jones, Chase Gasper

Regular players on a few of the best teams in the league, Dotson and Aaronson are bound to play meaningful minutes in the playoffs. 

Dotson's defensive presence in midfield, or wherever the Loons need him, has been useful for Heath. He strikes a ball as well as anyone in the league, too. Aaronson, meanwhile, appears to have outright won a starting role from Designated Player and key offseason acquisition Marco Fabian, as the 18-year-old has started three straight games. He has 25 appearances for the Union.

Shinyashiki leads all rookies in goals with seven and is a key played for the Rapids, and a general nuisance for defenders. Jones and Gasper have played regular minutes for playoff teams as well.  

The favorite: Ever-changing

A few weeks ago, it might have been Dotson. A week and a half ago, it might have been Shinyashiki. Today, it might be Aaronson. 

My vote: Brenden Aaronson

Just like with Newcomer, this is written in pencil, not pen (or whatever the digital equivalent to that suddenly outdated analogy as this is consumed exclusively on screens). 

Aaronson's role with the Union, a top three team in the East, gives him the slight edge over Shinyashiki's goals and performance. Aaronson adding a handful of contributions in big games over the last few weeks didn't hurt, either.

Series: 

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