The regular MLS season has reached its conclusion and it’s time to get opinionated and cajole the trolls out from under their bridges.
Yes, it’s awards time at First Touch – here are my chosen few victors of a few definitive titles for the best players in MLS 2017. I shall stick with a relatively routine format and choose winners and runners up in various categories, before unveiling the MVP for the season – A man who I believe has been in a league of his own this year – so there is no runner-up.
Let’s get this party started.
Rookie Of The Year:
Julian Gressel (Atlanta Utd)
Gressel has been the front runner in this category from the beginning of the season. He has made the transition from a stellar college career (four-year starter at Providence, 83 games, 30G 26A) with seeming ease. The German has provided suitable back up to the endless array of forward talent at Atlanta and chipped in with five goals and nine assists in 32 appearances. The kid has undeniable talent, one hell of an engine, and can play as a box-to-box midfielder or wide midfielder. Providing that he keeps learning and improving, the sky is the limit in MLS, and opportunities will probably arise in Europe. I’m looking forward to watching his career grow.
Abu Danladi (Minnesota Utd)
Danladi was the No.1 pick in the 2017 MLS Superdraft and I think he lived up to his billing. A kid playing in a poor team, he still managed to score eight goals and three assists in under 1400 minutes of football. With more minutes would have come more production, but I think manager Adrian Heath used Danladi wisely. Heath certainly knows he has a talent on his hands. With hard work in the off season and 2018 pre-season, this boy could have an even greater impact on MLS next year.
Newcomer Of The Year:
Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago Fire)
Nikolic has made the transition to a new continent, new league and new team without skipping a beat. He may have had a mini-slump a couple of months ago, but that only makes his goalscoring record even more remarkable. To win the Golden Boot in his first season deserves a hearty pat on the back. 24 goals in the regular season and Chicago are hoping Nikolic can propel them towards an MLS Cup win. This guy is the real deal in the penalty area and his first time finishing is exemplary. Fire fans will just hope they can hold onto Nikolic for a few seasons to come.
Alexander Ring (NYCFC)
Ring was a hit with me from the first time I saw him: he is my type of player; unassuming, hard working and covers every blade of grass on the pitch..and then some. Ring has stabilized the midfield for NYCFC and provided some much needed cover for a previously shaky backline. Not one to hit the headlines in terms of production (0G 4A), but a firm favorite with his fellow players. I guarantee he is a big hit with any coach, or manager, that he plays under, too.
Goalkeeper Of The Year:
Tim Melia (Sporting KC)
This category wasn’t even a contest this season. Melia has been exemplary all season and has saved his side numerous points, three penalties and is a big reason why SKC are play off bound. The biggest compliment I can pay Melia is that he didn’t make a single mistake (that led to a goal) that I can remember. A once journeyman goalkeeper has found his calling at SKC and with a huge improvement in his footwork is the perfect goalie to start the play in Peter Vermes’ much vaunted style of play. It was no surprise that SKC stuttered at the back end of the season when Melia injured his hamstring. Fans are praying that SKC hang on in the play offs until Melia returns.
Alex Bono (Toronto FC)
Bono has probably come to the fore quicker than anyone expected (barring Bono himself) for TFC. He has cemented his position as the starting goalkeeper at a very tender age, in terms of the position he plays. Usually a goalkeeper doesn’t mature until at least 28-32 years of age, so Bono has lots of growing room. Surely a future USMNT GK contender and certainly a player to watch carefully in 2018.
Defensive Player Of The Year:
Graham Zusi (Sporting KC)
Zusi has made the right-back spot his own for SKC this season and also sits second or third in the pecking order for USMNT. I believe that if he came to this position a little earlier in his career he would currently be number one at number two for USMNT. Defensive frailties haven’t been as evident as I thought for a player who has transitioned from such a forward thinking player into a defender. A solid performer defensively throughout the season for SKC, he has also provided a real attacking threat down the right hand side. He leads SKC with eight assists, while leading all defenders with overall chances created and chances created in open play. Zusi has become the archetypal, modern day right-back in a single season: a tough thing to do.
Ike Opara (Sporting KC)
No surprises that another SKC player graces us with his presence in the defensive category. Opara has been a rock all season alongside Matt Besler and Opara has also notched two game-winning goals and three overall. Bereft of injuries this season, Opara has shown his true worth for SKC with 30 starts and numerous MOTM displays (whether they be official, or not). A huge credit to Opara is the fact that he has survived two season-ending injuries in previous years and come back leaner, tougher and hitting top form.
Attacking Player Of The Year
David Villa (NYCFC)
Villa has been a breath of fresh air in a world of haggard, old players coming from Europe to pick up a last paycheck before being put out to pasture. Villa’s work rate is second to none, and his goalscoring record as good as ever. 22 goals and nine assists to date and don’t bet against him returning as strong in 2018. Take into account his call up to the Spanish national team recently and you have a player that everyone in MLS can look up to. A great player, of course, but a truly wonderful inspiration for every young player in the NYCFC dressing room.
Josef Martinez (Atlanta Utd)
Injury has robbed Martinez of an even better season, and boy didn’t he have a great one anyway? 19 goals in 20 appearances and Martinez only played 1528 minutes in the regular season: that’s one goal every 80 minutes. Don’t you just want this guy fit and in your starting line up? Goal crazy and always so hungry to hit the back of the net.
Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)
What more can I say, other than this guy carried the Timbers all the way to the top of the Western Conference. 21 goals and 11 assists in a team that conceded a massive 50 goals. Safe to say they would have struggled to hit the play offs without him. Timbers fans will be praying he stays fit for a MLS Cup push.
All that is left to say is happy watching for the play offs and may the best team not win…as seems to be the case so often. Unlucky Toronto FC fans!
And if you disagree feel free to hit me up @mattyjlawrence and I will inevitably ignore you.