Editorial (June 13, 2018) — Wednesday’s clash with MLS Supporters’ Shield leaders Atlanta United marked Columbus Crew SC‘s 17th game of the 2018 season. It’s hard to believe but that means the club’s 2018 campaign is officially halfway old. Gregg Berhalter’s group is certainly in the thick of the MLS Cup discussion, a welcome development for a hearty fanbase who are enduring a lot off the field.
Crew SC’s favorable position in the MLS table speaks to the quality of the current roster. Second-year goalkeeper Zack Steffen is in the midst of the best season of his career for both club and country. The club’s back line, long a persistent weakness, is suddenly a bastion of solidity as evidenced by its league-fewest 0.88 goals conceded per game. The midfield remains a well-oiled machine, contributing to Columbus ranking fourth in MLS in both possession percentage and pass accuracy. And the confluence of Federico Higuain’s continued playmaking ability along with a career revival from Gyasi Zardes has the Crew SC attack humming.
With that in mind, it’s midseason awards time. Five are up for grabs, none of which will center around a given position. Instead, they will recognize players for their year over year improvement, instant impact ability, their status as an invaluable part of the roster, etc. Another important aspect of these awards is that no single player can win more than one of them. Having elaborated upon those prerequisites, it’s now time to distribute the accolades.
2018 Columbus Crew SC Midseason Awards
Most Improved Player: Jonathan Mensah
The narrative surrounding Jonathan Mensah has done a complete 180 in the span of a year. No more than a few months after the start of the 2017 season, many were touting Mensah as one of the worst designated player busts in MLS history. It appeared that Berhalter’s gambit in spending DP money on a center back was going to backfire precipitously.
Fast forward to 2018 and the three-time Ghana World Cup veteran is a big reason why Crew SC is suddenly a defensive juggernaut. The triumvirate of him, fellow countryman Lalas Abubakar and MLS veteran Josh Williams has proven consistent and reliable. Of particular note with respect to Mensah’s game is his ability in the air. His 3.2 aerials won per 90 is second to only the New York Red Bulls Aaron Long among center backs who’ve logged at least 1,000 regular season minutes.
A variety of factors are at work in regards to Mensah’s improved play. Getting used to the manner in which MLS attacking players operate is one. He’s also become much more comfortable in Berhalter’s possession-based style. That’s remarkably evident considering him and Abubakar are the only central defenders in MLS with a minimum of 1,000 minutes played averaging 88+ percent pass accuracy. All of it makes Mensah the most deserving to earn most improved player honors.
Rookie of the Year: Luis Argudo
Making an immediate impact in MLS after playing collegiately is certainly a challenge. It’s even more so with the league’s newer player acquisition mechanisms, specifically targeted allocation money. What it means is that teams are increasingly prioritizing the bringing in of established, high salary players to stay competitive. As a result, it’s much harder to get regular minutes right off the bat as a rookie. The stats speak for themselves. Of the 81 players taken in the 2018 SuperDraft, only 20 have seen first-team minutes with a mere 15 getting a start of any kind.
That doesn’t mean the draft is completely bereft of starting caliber talent. And it’s still possible to find players who can contribute immediately in the later rounds. Luis Argudo is a prime example. Taken in the third round of this year’s draft, the Wake Forest product already has nine appearances and two starts under his belt during the regular season. He even played all 120 minutes in Crew SC’s penalty shootout loss to the Chicago Fire in the U.S. Open Cup. His versatility has been on full display. He’s played on the wing, as a central playmaker, and even as a free-roaming box-to-box midfielder during the Open Cup. He’s brought a unique skill set that’s augmented this side’s depth which makes him the best candidate for midseason rookie of the year.
Newcomer of the Year: Milton Valenzuela
This award is similar in nature to the MLS version. Essentially, it goes to the best non-rookie player who signed with a given club from abroad in the off-season. In Crew SC’s case, acquiring Milton Valenzuela from Argentinian club Newell’s Old Boys wasn’t easy. But the two sides eventually came to an agreement to send the talented left back to Central Ohio. 17 games into the season and it’s pretty clear that the young DP in Valenzuela is the best candidate for this award.
The 19-year-old with Argentina youth national team experience has been everything Berhalter hoped he’d be on the left flank. He’s a perfect compliment to fourth-year Crew SC fullback Harrison Afful. Both excel at pushing into the final third and contributing to the attack. The two have combined for two goals and three assists in 2018. Not only that, but Valenzuela is highly competent at tracking back and winning the ball. His 3.2 tackles per 90 are second in MLS among left backs with at least 1,000 minutes of game action. Simply put, the Valenzuela signing is paying obvious dividends, making him the ideal recipient of best Crew SC newcomer.
Comeback Player of the Year: Gyasi Zardes
Remember the Gyasi Zardes at right back experiment last year? That panic move from Sigi Schmid came as a result of his continued inconsistency in attack for the LA Galaxy. It led to the off-season trade that sent Ola Kamara out west with Columbus receiving Zardes and a boatload of TAM. Halfway through the 2018 campaign and Berhalter looks like Warren Buffett in terms of the value he’s received in that transaction.
Zardes is back in a big way this season. His 10 goals are currently second in MLS to the striker Crew SC went up against on Wednesday. That would be Atlanta United‘s Josef Martinez who boosted his total to 14 in the Five Stripes’ 2-0 win. It’s a testament to Berhalter’s system that the last three players he’s installed as the point man, be it Kei Kamara, Ola Kamara or Zardes, has excelled magnificently. For Zardes, his exploits are one of the great revival stories of 2018 considering it’s been four seasons since he’s finished with a double-digit goal haul.
— Fútbol MLS (@futbolMLS) June 9, 2018
Given the season he’s having, Zardes is certainly in the running for midseason MVP. But as mentioned at the beginning, you can only win one of these five awards up for grabs. Comeback player seems most prescient considering where he was a year ago. Plus there’s a certain goalkeeper who’s treating 2018 as his own personal coming out party for both club and country.
Most Valuable Player: Zack Steffen
The story of Zack Steffen is another crystalline example of Berhalter’s keen eye when it comes to finding undervalued assets. The Pennsylvania native came to the club after struggling to find time with German club Freiburg’s first team. It wasn’t for lack of talent that’s for sure. In the season and a half since he’s proven that and then some.
His first appearance on a grand stage arguably came in the knockout round of last year’s playoffs. Facing Atlanta United on the road, Steffen stood on his head both during the 120 minutes of regulation and extra time as well as during the penalty shootout. He continued to impress during Crew SC’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. Combined with the infusion of youth into the squad following the USMNT not qualifying for the World Cup, it’s a major reason why he’s regularly receiving international call-ups now.
Of course, what he’s accomplishing in 2018 is another reason. Steffen’s 0.69 goals against average leads all MLS keepers. Though it came to an end against Atlanta United on Wednesday, Steffen enjoyed a scoreless streak that ultimately lasted 535 minutes. It stands as the eighth-largest such run in MLS history. Four days earlier, Steffen was in Lyon, France, establishing himself as the USMNT goalkeeper of the future. His performance in net was a major reason why the Stars and Stripes escaped with a 1-1 draw against a French side expected to contend for the World Cup in Russia.
No. 8️⃣. All-time. In the entire history of @MLS.
— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) June 14, 2018
Though other players will ostensibly play a role, Crew SC’s title chances invariably hinge on Steffen continuing his impressive play. It’s why he’s as deserving as it gets for the midseason team MVP.