MLS5

This week’s MLS5: Our early look at the Defender of the Year award

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As we continue our weekly (at least) update on Major League Soccer’s still long off postseason awards, the Defensive Player of the Year discussion promises to be the murkiest. We’re just not used to talking about defenders like this. They don’t score much, don’t snare many Player of the Week honors, so there’s little to distinguish them in the discourse on a week-to-week basis.

Come All-Star time, people think about it, pick their mid-season best, then put the defender discussion on the shelf until award season. Whereas MVP talk is almost constant and things like goals and assist subtly inform other debates, Defender of the Year doesn’t get tracked. At the end of the year come get together, debate a little, then cast votes for players who we feel have been the best, usually without diving into their week-to-week performances.

There’s already an early example of this process: FC Dallas’s Matt Hedges. The guy looks great, so much so that he’s started being mentioned as an emerging talent – a potential U.S. defender next World Cup cycle. By the end of the season, he could very well earn a place in this discussion. But if you go game-by-game, scoring opportunity by scoring opportunity, the Dallas defender has been involved in a lot of meaningful goals this season: Chivas USA’s Erick Torres beating him to the near post; Clint Dempsey drawing him out during Seattle’s visit; being the closest man on Aurélien Collin’s goal in Kansas City; his own goal against Portland. Those are a lot of question marks for a player who’s 2014 is starting to generate some buzz.

The process also helps a player like Matt Besler, who has been far less mistake prone. He also has not had that many stand-out performances. If we only talk about Defender of the Year twice a year, it’s easy to recall our general image of Matt Besler and say, “Yeah, he’s been good.” But if you’re tracking it week-to-week or month-to-month, you notice he isn’t part of many Teams of the Week hasn’t had the kind of stand-out performances we’ve seen occasionally from Michael Parkhurst or Chad Marshall. The award should be who performed the best of the season, not who you would pick if you were starting a team tomorrow.

So Besler isn’t on the list, this time. Nor is Matt Hedges, but don’t be surprised of both make their way onto this countdown over the next couple of months. At this point in the season, only a couple of performances separate number one from the also rans.

For now, here’s this week’s MLS5 – Defensive Player of the Year:

source: AP

5. Víctor Bernárdez, San Jose Earthquakes – Bernández’s defending got off to a shaky start with some errors in the Earthquakes’ 3-3 draw with Real Salt Lake, mistakes he made up for with two goals, an assist, and our Player of the Week honor. Since, Bernárdez has been very good at the back, and while he may not be rating out quite as high as his partner, Clarence Goodson, on a game-by-game basis, he’s been healthy all year. Goodson missed the first part of the season.

source:  AP

4. Drew Moor, Colorado Rapids – The veteran defender has been overlooked since moving to Colorado in 2009, his play usually more solid than spectacular. But this year, having to work with two different partners in the middle (and two different keepers behind him), that solidity has been particularly valuable, with Colorado allowing only five goals in its first six games. The Rapids were exploited on Saturday, allowing four in Seattle, but even while his team was blown out, we saw glimpses of Moor’s value. He’s the only player in Colorado’s back five to start every game in the same spot, and only restored partner Shane O’Neill has joined him in every starting XI.

source: AP

3. Chad Marshall, Seattle Sounders – Picking up on a theme mentioned in Moor’s blurb, Marshall was overlooked last season because he wasn’t in a prominent, adored market, and while he has been slightly better this season, this is the player Sigi Schmid expected when Seattle acquired him this offseason. Particularly in Seattle’s visit to Montréal, the former Defensive Player of the Year has proven occasionally dominant. The few mistakes he’s made have been shared with his teammates, not function of his failings alone. Without Marshall, Seattle’s defense would be in big trouble.

source: AP

2. Michael Parkhurst, Columbus Crew – Parkhurst has been a perfect fit for Gregg Berhalter’s approach, having already given the team two extremely good performances (particularly the hour in Seattle before Djimi Traoré’s sending off). The partnership between him and  Giancarlo Gonzalez has come together immediately, but whereas Costa Rican’s low points are more frequent and dramatic, Parkhurst’s relative slips only serve to highlight the former Defensive Player of the Year’s steadiness. If Columbus was going to give up Chad Marshall, they needed to get somebody like Parkhurst.

source: AP

1. Nat Borchers, Real Salt Lake – It’s been difficult for Borchers to distinguish himself from partner Chris Schuler, but the young U.S. hopeful may be pushing his veteran partner to slightly higher levels. Perhaps Borchers has also freed up to be more aggressive, because the number of big clearances, tackles, and aerial challenges the RSL stalwart is winning is taking him from appreciated veteran to Best XI contender (again). As Schuler puts his early season injuries further in the past, he’ll join his partner at the top of this list, but helping his team to a 1.00 goals against average through eight games, Borchers has our top spot. For now.

Others considered: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City); Carlos Bocanegra (Chivas USA); Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes); David Horst (Houston Dynamo); Jámison Olave (New York Red Bulls); Chris Schuler (Real Salt Lake)

This week’s MLS5: Our early look at the Most Valuable Player award

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Each week throughout the rest of the Major League Soccer season, we’ll take a look at (at least) one of the league’s major postseason awards, giving you our “if we have to vote today” view on MLS’s most prestigious honors. It’s our way of keeping a conversation going from start-to-finish rather than jumping in at season’s end to take inventory of the previous eight months. If we start paying attention now — thinking about things in terms of our eventual votes — hopefully we can make more informed decisions come October.

Every week, there’ll be one award and five points of discussion, and while it’s way too early to be making decisions about how we’re actually going to vote, it’s not too early to consider which players are distinguishing themselves.

We start with Most Valuable Player:

source: Getty Images

5. Mauro Díaz, FC Dallas

When you watch the young Argentine play you see an array of skills and choices that could vault him among the best players in Major League Soccer. For some, he’s already there, having won March’s MLS Player of the Month honor. Break down his games, actually track the end result of all those deft touches and though balls, and you see much of his skill has resulted in unrealized potential. He does have three assists (two primary), good for second in the league, but for all his orchestrating majesty, only five of Dallas’s 17 goals have come from open play. Soon, when those small, seemingly innumerable pieces of skill represent more than just potential, Díaz could climb this list.

source: Getty Images

4. Federico Higuaín, Columbus Crew

Four goals, two assists, and the key role in a team that looks primed for one of the season’s biggest turnarounds earns Higuaín a place on this list, though whether he deserves to be above Díaz is another question. Though Higuaín has scored more goals, that’s by virtue of being his team’s penalty kick taker. Those scores aside his numbers, like his influence, is almost identical to Díaz’s.

For us, there are two tiebreakers. First, Higuaín has been more dangerous as a penalty area threat. Second, in Columbus’s system, he’s having to do more work to drop back and pick up the ball. Even when his team’s established possession in the opponent’s half, Higuaín’s often drifting to the flanks to influence the game.

Are those minor distinctions? Of course. It’s not easy to try to draw lines between Mauro Díaz and Federico Higuaín. If you prefer the FC Dallas man, we can’t argue. Columbus has also only produced five open play goals (though that does represent 55 percent of the team’s production).

source: AP

3. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC

Moment to moment, this is the most influential player in Major League Soccer. Defensively, he may be the league’s most valuable, and as he showed in Columbus, had can also be one of MLS’s most dangerous going forward. The game he missed against Colorado hurts his ranking, but once that gets teased out, he’ll likely be competing with our choice for number one.

source: Getty Images

2. Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy

With four goals in five games, Keane is proving as valuable as ever. While he doesn’t quite have the minute-to-minute effect that Díaz, Higuaín, and Bradley have, he has a much greater influence within 18 yards of goal. Only Marco Di Vaio and Clint Dempsey are getting off more shots per game, while no forward is generating more scoring opportunities for his teams mates (as measured by Opta’s Key Passes, for what that’s worth). Despite only playing five games, he leads the league with 11 shots on target.

source: AP

1. Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders

Who else could it be? Even though he’s missed two games through suspension, Dempsey’s tied for the league’s lead in goals (six). His three assists (two primary) are second only to teammate Obafemi Martins, with most of his contributions coming in high-leverage situations (via late goals against Portland, Dallas). When Michael Bradley gets more minutes under his belt, the philosophical debate between a high value attacker and all around midfielder will escalate. For now, Dempsey’s surged to the top of our early, theoretical MVP ballot.

Others considered: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Erick Torres (Chivas USA)