Editorial (January 24, 2019) – Earlier this month at the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, Commissioner Don Garber announced that the MLS Coach of the Year Award would be named in memoriam of the late Sigi Schmid, the winningest coach in MLS history. This is just the second MLS season award to be named after someone, the MVP award being named after Landon Donovan in 2015.
Who every MLS Season Award should be named after
This got me thinking about who MLS could name its other season awards after. Other sports have a long tradition of naming awards after the legends of the game, the giants who’s shoulders upon which current winners stand.
Almost every NHL award is named for a player or coach who helped grow the game in the early years of the league. Every player award is named after one of the first greats at that position or of the quality the award represents. There’s no NHL Goaltender of the Year Award. It’s called the Vezina Trophy, named after Georges Vezina, the best goaltender of the NHL’s early years.
College football is almost the exact same. There is no College Football Player of the Year award. It’s called the Heisman Memorial Trophy, named after John Heisman an innovator of the game who coached for over 30 years.
MLS has existed for almost a quarter century, which is long enough to at least begin this thought experiment: Who could MLS name its other season awards after? Let’s try to answer this question.
Defender of the Year: Chad Marshall
Center back Chad Marshall has been named Defender of the Year three times, one of just three players to win it multiple times. He’s been the centerpiece of successful backlines at both Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders FC, winning an MLS Cup at both clubs. With the nickname Air Marshall and Dad paying homage to his skill defending crosses and his impact shown in the Chad Marshall Theorem, his pedigree speaks for itself.
He’s hands down the best defender to spend his entire career in MLS and he’s proven himself in multiple eras. There are other center backs who’s MLS legacy could overtake his by the time they all retire (Matt Besler and Michael Parkhurst come to mind).
Goalkeeper of the Year: Nick Rimando
Nick Rimando‘s been one of the best and most consistent goalkeepers in MLS history, yet he’s never actually won Goalkeeper of the Year (he is a three time runner up). At 39-years-old and with Real Salt Lake unlikely favorites for a trophy in the near future, he probably won’t get one before retiring. It is ironic to name an award after someone who never won it. But I’m sticking by it.
Along with Kyle Beckerman, Rimando has been the face of RSL for the past decade. He’ll retire with pretty much every goalkeeper cumulative stat record in MLS all time. He’s still capable of making big saves. Like Marshall, his longevity should increase his legacy. And he’s done it all while being 5’10”.
Newcomer of the Year: Diego Valeri
This one’s a bit harder to pin down than the previous two because it’s impossible to win the award multiple times and the Newcomer of the Year either becomes MLS mainstays or leave the league. The award’s also only existed since 2007. Does one judge these players based on their first year alone or their entire body of work in MLS?
Diego Valeri is my pick for a few reasons. First off, he was the center piece of the Portland Timbers in 2013, leading them to a first place finish in the Western Conference and the club’s first MLS Cup playoff appearance. While bigger names have won this award in the past for individual seasons, they didn’t improve the team results as significantly.
Valeri’s arrival in Oregon changed the trajectory of the Timbers organization. He was the MVP of the MLS Cup Champions in 2015 and got them back to the finals last year. Mr. Timber will retire as the face of the club all time. If anyone’s getting a statue outside Providence Park, it should be him.
Better players have won this award and won trophies since Valeri was the Newcomer of the Year in 2013. But none have left as indelible a mark on their club on and off the field both in their first year in MLS and since.
Rookie of the Year: Ben Olsen?
This one is hard to pin down for the same reasons Newcomer of the Year is difficult. To be eligible for Rookie of the Year, players also have to be in their first year professionally. So this award is limited almost entirely to players drafted that year and Homegrown rookies.
I’ve gone with Ben Olsen for similar reasons as Valeri for Newcomer of the Year. Olsen was a major part of the D.C. United’s dynasty of MLS 1.0. He went on to play for the national team, coach D.C. United, and won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 2013. As manager, he has them in a position to compete in the Eastern Conference this year.
He’s the best one club man in league history. The longevity of one’s impact should matter. Olsen’s done so much for the Black and Red and it all started when he joined them out of Project-40.
This is the first award on this list that I think should be revisited in the not so distant future. If an MLS team ever wins big with a bunch of academy players and/or drafted players (sorry New York Red Bulls, win MLS Cup first), the mastermind behind said dynasty should be considered for the award. John Heisman did far more for college football as a coach then as a player. A coach or technical director turning quality young players into a winning team would be worthy of being named after the award going to young players.
(For the record, I’d be in favor of scrapping Rookie of the Year and replacing it with a Young Player of the Year award similar to European leagues).
Comeback Player of the Year: Charlie Davies
Charlie Davies was one of the best young forwards in the United States player pool going into 2009. He’d had success with Hammarby IF and just signed with Ligue 1 club FC Sochaux. He nearly died in a car accident in October 2009 in Washington D.C. In critical condition, it was unclear if he’d ever play soccer again or live a normal life.
Davies came back and played on loan at D.C. United in 2010. While national team starter and European star were unlikely, he found success with New England Revolution, making it to MLS Cup in 2014. This Iron Man was diagnosed with liposarcoma in 2016. He ultimately beat cancer later that year and finished up his playing career with the Philadelphia Union organization.
Going from doctors telling him he might not walk again to playing, beating cancer, and playing again is worth an ESPN 30 for 30 style special.
MLS Golden Boot: Ask me in 2022
This one’s hard to pin down for several reasons. Landon Donovan holds the all-time MLS goal record but already has his name on the MVP award. Pending a disastrous injury, Chris Wondolowski will break that record in 2019 but is a polarizing and underwhelming figure for many MLS fans and pundits.
Bradley Wright-Phillips is just two 20-goal seasons away from catching the two of them. Then there’s Josef Martinez, who’s on pace to pass everyone before the 2022 World Cup.
It doesn’t make much sense to name the Golden Boot after a player now given how much the all-time goal-scoring record keeper could change in the near future. It also doesn’t make sense to change the name of the award when said record is broken. There hasn’t been a consensus generational goalscorer in the league in the same way these other awards have a player who by consensus embodies this award.
Donovan was more known for his passing than shooting. Much of the MLS community would be up in arms if Wondo got his name on the trophy. There’s at least two players currently in the league who will have their say on this record before their current contracts expire. Outlook unclear. Ask me in a few years.
Humanitarian of the Year: Kei Kamara
To begin, this award is currently titled the MLS WORKS Humanitarian of the Year, named after the league’s community outreach program. This award is included in this article for the sake of completeness, but the following is more hypothetical than the others by far.
That aside, this one’s a bit harder than the other awards because there aren’t well-tracked stats on charity work. Often, off the field community work isn’t reported or publicized as much as on the field results. An MLS players also hasn’t done something to scale of other philanthropic athletes in America, like J.J. Watt raising $41 million after Hurricane Harvey or LeBron James building and fully funding a school to lift at-risk youth out of poverty.
So like the Golden Boot, this award could easily be revisited in 10 years with a very different and obvious answer (call me when Zlatan Ibrahimovic discovers a cure for cancer).
For now, I’m going with Kei Kamara. The Sierra Leone International has never forsaken his roots, starting the Heart Shaped Hands Foundation (named after his goal celebration) in 2012. The foundation provides support to one of the poorest countries on the planet, focusing mostly on student scholarships and disaster relief. He went from refugee to soccer star and now he’s paying it forward by helping children in his homeland. Enough said.
Referee of the Year: Brian Hall
PRO and officiating in American Soccer still have a long way to go. PRO’s made improvements throughout the years. Howard Webb’s had a good influence since joining the organization and VAR was a net positive in 2018. Many of you are probably jeering at the notion of the MLS Referee of the Year award being memorialized. Someone’s going to troll this idea, but here goes nothing.
If anyone is getting their name on this award, it should be Brian Hall. He’s one of just four officials to win it multiple times, tied with Paul Tamberino for the most all-time with four. Allen Kelly is second with three, having won it three of the last four years.
Hall currently holds leadership positions with PRO and CONCACAF. Over the next decade, he could be the first head official in MLS history to have an impact both as a referee himself and as a director preparing the next generation.