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MLS awards, best XI a quarter of the way into the season

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Picking the major awards and a best XI through a quarter of the MLS season.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

We’re officially a quarter of the way through the MLS season, meaning it’s time for everyone to come out with early-season awards based primarily on the Golden Boot standings and the most recent player to score a hat trick (congrats on the MVP, CJ Sapong).

They are still fun to do, though, and they can be a good indicator of whose stock is rising and whose is falling.

Without further ado, quarterly MLS awards:

MVP: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC)

There is no sure pick for MVP at this point in the season. Two of the best teams in the league (FC Dallas and Sporting KC) don’t have an obvious star on the roster, and it’s becoming hard to pick a non-goalscorer for this prestigious award.

So we look to the Golden Boot race, which is currently led by Philadelphia’s Sapong and Houston’s Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres. Sapong plays for the worst team in the league and three of Torres’s seven goals were PKs, so sorry Union and Dynamo fans. Looking down the list, there are nine players tied for second with nine goals. Altidore of TFC is the standout.

He does have two PK goals, but he also has become one Toronto’s most-important players in their recent four-game winning streak with a deceivingly deft touch and brutal hold-up play that has helped his teammate Sebastian Giovinco nab five goals. Altidore also has three assists on the season, second-most of the players with five or more goals.

David Villa (six goals and four assists for NYCFC) has a very legitimate argument, as does Torres, Cyle Larin, and maybe even Maxi Urruti. Houston midfielder Alex has been great this year, and Sporting KC defender Ike Opara would have an outside shot if the award were voted on today. Chris Wondolowski and Diego Valeri have a combined goals and assists tally of nine this year, as well. Juan Agudelo has six goals for New England.

Looking deeper: Justin Meram and Romain Alessandrini both have four goals and four assists on underperforming teams; Romell Quioto’s been great in limited minutes; one could make the argument that Alexander Ring and Dax McCarty have been huge for their teams; and Miguel Almiron and Christian Ramirez have been really good on the expansion sides.

It’s a wide open field, and I haven’t even mentioned some other big contenders. Expect it to change by late July.

Honorable mentions:

1 David Villa (NYCFC)

2 Chris Wondolowski (San Jose)

3 Ike Opara (Sporting KC)

Defender of the Year: Ike Opara (Sporting KC)

I think this award is a bit more clear-cut, although there are certainly other real contenders. Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman are perennially in contention for this award in Dallas, and Opara’s center back partner Matt Besler is getting back to national team levels. Orlando’s Jonathan Spector has performed well, putting himself in contention for another award we’ll get to in a bit. Seattle left back Joevin Jones is deadly on the overlap, as is TFC wing back/center back Justin Morrow. You could even talk me into Florian Jungwirth or Antonio Delamea.

But Opara takes the cake here. He leads an SKC defense that allowed exactly one goal from open play before a 2-0 road loss in Minnesota (with Opara resting on the bench in a DGW). He hasn’t missed a runner or fell asleep on a set piece yet this year, and his athleticism in open space is almost unmatched among MLS central defenders. Look for his name on a future USMNT roster if he keeps this up.

Honorable mentions:

1 Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)

2 Matt Hedges (FC Dallas)

3 Joevin Jones (Seattle)

4 Vadim Demidov (lol nope)

Newcomer of the Year: Victor Vazquez (Toronto FC)

The second TFC player to get an award is Vazquez, the Spanish midfielder who leads MLS in assists with six (tied with Alex). He has provided the final third distribution and ball circulation that Toronto needed in their 120 minutes of scoreless MLS Cup Final last year, and that will not only help them in the regular season but also in the postseason, where just one good passing move or set piece (which Vazquez is very good at) could be the difference.

While it wasn’t especially hard to pick Vazquez for this award, there are a number of other newcomers who deserve recognition. Atlanta’s crew of Almiron, Josef Martinez, and even Yamil Asad have helped the expansion side find a quality start to the season, while Ramirez has six goals for Minnesota. Nemanja Nikolic is putting the ball in the net for Chicago. Spector has an argument, as does Delamea, Ring, and Houston’s Adolfo Machado.

Maxi Moralez has been great in a Vazquez-type role for NYCFC, while Alessandrini may well be the only positive for LA this year. Quioto and Alberth Elis are a joy to watch for the Dynamo, and Roland Lamah was a value find for FC Dallas. Ilie Sanchez has also been a quiet success for Sporting. Jungwirth is doing good work in San Jose’s central defense.

The jury’s still out on guys like Albert Rusnak, Cristian Colman, Haris Medunjanin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jonathan Mensah, Marco Urena, Danny Hoesen, and Fredy Montero.

Honorable mentions:

1 Nemanja Nikolic

2 Christian Ramirez

3 Miguel Almiron

Rookie of the Year: Julian Gressel (Atlanta United)

There are considerably fewer rookies who are weekly starters this year, but Gressel won a job in the preseason and has never let up for Atlanta United. Playing as a No. 8, the former Providence Friar is crucial in connecting Atlanta’s lines and protecting the front four defensively, helping them get opportunities in transition.

San Jose’s Nick Lima and D.C. United’s Ian Harkes have also been starters for their clubs. Columbus center back Alex Crognale has been injured of late, but the Crew have played considerably better when he’s on the field than they have when offseason DP signing Jonathan Mensah is. Brooks Lennon is playing 90 minutes every week for RSL (with a goal to show for it) and Josh Smith has been solid in spot starts for New England.

Honorable mentions:

1 Nick Lima (San Jose)

2 Alex Crognale (Columbus)

3 Ian Harkes (D.C. United)

Goalkeeper of the Year: Tim Melia (Sporting KC)

The keeper who’s given up a total five goals in 10 games naturally gets Goalkeeper of the Year. It’s hard to argue against giving Melia the award, as he’s continuously pulled off spectacular saves with reflexes, athleticism, and strong hands. Most importantly, he has been almost completely error-free, looking confident coming off his line and rarely taking a bad step.

Beyond him, Jesse Gonzalez is the clear number two. He took FC Dallas’s job right from Chris Seitz’s hands and has given up three goals in six games. Gonzalez, just 21, has impressive leaping ability and reaction time, and while he can be weak dealing with crosses (par for the course), he’s been better with calm, patient distribution.

Bill Hamid, who, for my money, remains the best keeper in MLS, constantly comes out and wins games single handedly for D.C. United. There isn’t a save he can’t make, and that puts him in contention for this award almost yearly. Joe Bendik has also been impressive in Orlando, and Montreal’s Evan Bush remains underrated.

It’s a crime of the highest caliber that Nick Rimando has never won this award, but he hasn’t been himself this year, and that goes beyond his forgettable howler in Minnesota.

Honorable mentions:

1 Jesse Gonzalez

2 Bill Hamid

3 Joe Bendik

Coach of the Year: Jason Kreis (Orlando City)

This is always an extremely tough award to decide. On one hand, you have coaches who have come into subpar teams and made the right adjustments to get results, while on the other hand you have coaches who are good every year and continue to manage well and put points on the board.

Jason Kreis falls on the former side, as does Houston’s Wilmer Cabrera and Chicago’s Velkjo Paunovic. FC Dallas’s Oscar Pareja (the best manager in the league by far), Toronto FC’s Greg Vanney, NYCFC’s Patrick Viera, and, to a lesser extent, Sporting’s Peter Vermes fall in the former category. Atlanta’s Tata Martino is in a different category, although you’ll have a hard time convincing me he deserves to be in this conversation.

Kreis takes it, though, thanks to his work in getting Orlando five home wins in their five games at their brand new stadium, and the successful implementation of the 4-4-2 diamond. He’s also had to manage most of the year without their second-best player, Kaka. His one road win helps him get in over Cabrera, who has the Dynamo roasting teams at home but falling flat on the road.

Pareja is great every year and never fails to impress me with his late-game tactical adjustments and willingness to test his depth and rotate his squad. Vanney has TFC revolutionizing how to use depth in MLS, and Vermes (despite his flaws in not rotating squad enough and not playing Saad Abdul-Salaam) has crafted the best defense in MLS. Patrick Viera has expertly adjusted his team to both play beautiful soccer and find success in the tight dimensions of Yankee Stadium. Tough choices.

Honorable mentions:

1 Oscar Pareja (FC Dallas)

2 Greg Vanney (Toronto FC)

3 Patrick Viera (NYCFC)

Quarterly best XI:

GK: Tim Melia (SKC)

CB: Ike Opara (SKC)

CB: Matt Hedges (FCD)

CB: Walker Zimmerman (FCD)

DM: Dax McCarty (Chicago)

CM: Alex (Houston)

CM: Kellyn Acosta (FCD)

CAM: Diego Valeri (Portland)

FW: Chris Wondolowski (San Jose)

FW: Jozy Altidore (TFC)

FW: Erick Torres (Houston)

Who could have predicted two Houston players and two Sporting KC players would make a best XI a quarter into the season?