(Editorial) – With Major League Soccer teams having between five and seven games left in the 2016 regular season, it’s time to start looking at potential winners for season awards. Who are the contenders and dark horses for the 2016 MLS Defender of the Year award? Let’s break it down.
2016 MLS Defender of the Year Contenders
Jelle Van Damme, LA Galaxy
Jelle Van Damme came to the LA Galaxy in the off season with some big shoes to fill. The 32-year-old has been exactly what the Galaxy needed in a replacement for Omar Gonzalez. The 2016 All Star has done nothing but meet and exceed expectations as a physical do-it-all center back. He’s great in the air in and around the box. Van Damme’s one weakness is his habit of stepping up to challenge attackers on the ball a bit to far away from goal. When he misses, it leaves his team shorthanded at the back.
Still, his presence has helped clean up for the mistakes his young teammates, Brian Rowe and Daniel Steres, make at times. Van Damme is a physical force and he’s also a good passer out of the back. The Galaxy currently have the fourth best Goals Against in MLS. The other Muscles from Brussels is a big reason for that despite several issues elsewhere. Van Damme is a guaranteed nominee for MLS Defender of the Year. For me, he’s the favorite to win it.
Drew Moor, Toronto FC
Yes, Drew Moor might not be the third best player on his own team. Still, Toronto FC gave up 58 goals in 2015. They’re on pace to give up just 35 this year. Moor was their big off-season acquisition on defense. He has helped the Reds get nine clean sheets this season. He’s done that with goalkeeper Clint Irwin only starting 15 games due to injuries. They’ve been much more organized in the back all season long, and Moor is a big part of that.
That said, I don’t see Moor wining the award. TFC has the second best Goals Against right now, but they also have Giovinco, Jozy Altidore (who’s been balling out lately), and Michael Bradley. I don’t see voters giving the award to a guy who isn’t one of the best players on his own team.
Axel Sjöberg, Colorado Rapids
This pick might seem a little mystifying, but that sums up the 2016 version of the Colorado Rapids. Axel Sjöberg is only 25-years-old and he’s been the most valuable defender on the team that’s had the best defense all season long. He leads defenders in clean sheets this season with 11 (tied with teammate Sam Cronin for the lead overall). At 6’7″, he’s great in the air and can go toe-to-toe with almost any forward in the league.
Sjöberg stepped up big time when Bobby Burling went down was out for six weeks with a knee injury. He was excellent before Tim Howard showed up. He’s been just as good if not better with Howard behind him.
Dark Horses And Honorable Mentions:
Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman, FC Dallas: If there was an award for the best two defenders on the same team, they would win it hands down. Hedges and Zimmerman might ultimately suffer in the Defender of the Year nominations because they play with each other. The above mentioned players have all had rotating casts or youngsters around them. These two are great together. They’re a big reason Dallas could win a treble this season. Because of the award structure, they just don’t jump off the page as much.
Steve Birnbaum, D.C. United: Jewish Messi might be the best aerial threat on both sides of the ball in MLS. He’s scoring goals to keep United in the playoff race. That said, it’s hard to make an argument for these season awards when a player’s team doesn’t make the playoffs. Birnbaum’s fought valiantly this year, but if United miss the playoffs it will be tough for him to get consideration.