With Sporting Kansas City set to hand out its annual end-of-season awards to its players and staff at the Pitch Black gala on Friday evening, The Blue Testament writing staff convened one of its semi-regular roundtable conversations to discuss our picks for who should take home the five coveted awards the fans voted for this season.
Your roundtable participants:
TBT site manager Thad Bell (TB)
TBT editors Mike Kuhn and Chad Smith (CS)
TBT contributing writers R.J. Clark (RJC) and Araceli Villanueva (AV)
And, of course, yours truly (Eric Atcheson—EA).
[Update: 10/13/17 -- Sporting KC released the actual winners, so they’ve been added in. You can see their full write up here.]
Most Valuable Player
The biggest award largely came down to two players who both have had extraordinary campaigns for Sporting KC—Ilie Sanchez and Tim Melia:
MK: I’d say this was a tough one between three guys, not just two: Melia, Ilie, and Ike Opara. All three were really good for KC, but for everything that Opara and Melia have done this season, they wouldn't be in the position they are in without Ilie right in front of them. Soni Mustivar wasn't bad last season in the role, but Ilie is just so much more composed, focused, and effective in that position that he makes everyone around him better because he fills that middle so well.
TB: My vote is for Ilie as well; for most of the season he has been controlling the middle like no one else can, protecting the backline while turning the ball back to the attack. Tim Melia was close because of how dang good he has been and we may find out over the next 2-4 weeks he was the most valuable after all.
CS: Who votes for a defensive midfielder as the MVP? Well in Peter Vermes' 4-3-3 system it's the most important role on the field. To the point that at times I thought Soni Mustivar was the most important guy on the field. And look how much better Ilie is than Soni (no offense Soni).
EA: Clearly people do vote for a defensive midfielder as the MVP. Who votes for a goalkeeper for MVP, though? This former keeper.
AV: Melia’s consistency in the goal and overall performance has denied even the best players in the league. He is a true MVP.
RJC: Yes, Melia has been Goalkeeper of the Year in MLS hands down. He's come up with big save after after big save for SKC time and time again. While the backline has been great this year it's been Melia behind them that has made them truly almost unbeatable.
EA: I want to piggyback on that GOTY bit from R.J. for a bit. By just about every meaningful metric, Melia should win GOTY, and yet I’m now terrified that he won’t because a) he has been repeatedly looked over by Bruce Arena for USMNT callups in favor of Joe Bendik, Sean Johnson, et al, and b) he is currently shelved with a hamstring strain right as the playoff seeds are being decided—that absence was certainly palpable this week in Houston. But can any other SKC player lay so authoritative a claim to being the very best in MLS at his particular craft this year? Perhaps Graham Zusi as an attacking right back, but that’s it. It has to be Melia.
After all is said and done...the roundtable ties 3-3 between Ilie Sanchez and Tim Melia for team MVP.
Actual Winner: Tim Melia
Offensive Player of the Year
While talk of the team MVP largely centered around two players, there were some dark horse candidates for Offensive Player of the Year—read on to see who:
CS: Yeah, arguably any of these nominees could win since this is such an offensively balanced team. If Diego Rubio had a full season without Dom and where he wasn't rehabbing a torn ACL, he's probably the guy. But Gerso has scored quite a bit in both league play and in the US Open, so he's the guy.
AV: What about Rubio, though? Following Dom Dwyer's departure, Rubio has stepped up in a big way. So far this season, he's recorded six goals and two assists, since returning from an ACL injury. I'd award Rubio Offensive Player of the Year because of his drive to continue working hard both on and off the pitch.
RJC: Exactly what I would say—there was a lot of doubt around that #9 slot after Dwyer left but Rubio really stepped up. He's only got 6 goals in MLS this season but they've come in just 9 starts. He gets my vote this year and I can't wait to see what he can do with a full off season and a full year of starts.
MK: My vote is also for Rubio, but I arrive at it a bit differently. For as hard as MVP was to pick because of some good players there to choose from, offensive player of the year is hard for a different reason. Mainly because I didn't feel like anyone for KC really separated themselves this year from the other nominees. While Gerso had the better first half, Rubio has had the better second half of the season. And while Gerso has more goals, I feel like he's fallen off more in the second half. So by process of elimination Rubio is my selection this year.
EA: That’s precisely how I arrived at my Rubio vote as well. I continue to believe that Gerso’s fade down the home stretch is due to overuse, but Rubio has simply been far more efficient than Gerso with his chances, even after taking into account his frustrating outings of late. Meanwhile, Gerso is a Designated Player on double the wages Rubio is on, so more is expected of him. And while he lived up to that billing early on, it is Rubio who has shown up with the intensity to win as the playoffs loom.
TB: I’ll be the outlier, then. All of the nominees have been good, all of them have had their not so good streaks. Gerso and Latif’s speed and dribbling has been fun to watch. Benny has been Benny-like. Diego has replaced Dwyer well but my vote goes to Daniel Salloi. The Hungarian Homegrown’s touch and finishing has shown how good he can be and he’s done it in some big games.
With four votes for Diego Rubio and a vote apiece for Gerso Fernandes and Daniel Salloi, the TBT gives its Offensive Player of the Year award to the Chilean striker.
Actual Winner: Gerso
Defensive Player of the Year
This should be an interesting discussion, since there are very good cases to make for each nominee. Let’s see how they do:
TB: Is it oxymoronic to vote for a defender because of their offense? Don’t care. My vote goes to Zusi. Ike has been worthy of national team look most of the season (while still making everyone cringe everytime he goes down). Besler seems to be close to his best for most of the season. Seth is steady as can be and Tim has been magnificent most of the time. Zusi has played good defense and been fun to watch when he goes forward to get my vote.
EA: I don’t think it’s oxymoronic at all. Melia, by dint of being the team MVP in my eyes, also is by default Defensive Player of the Year, but for the purposes of this award, I’m voting for Zusi as well under the same criteria I laid out for Melia—Zusi is currently the best in the league at his particular craft as an attack-first right back. A healthy, in-form Ike Opara is also one of the best center backs in the league, but Zusi had the added degree of difficulty of learning a new position this year, so my vote also goes to him. (And yes, he is still overpaid.)
MK: Yep, this was another tough one because I could go straight defensive effort with Opara or Melia or I could go with someone who contributed at both ends of the field in Zusi. For me, though, this one is Melia's all the way. KC may end up with both the defender and goalkeeper of the year in MLS, but I think Melia is the clear leader in his position in the league.
CS: I agree, Ike Opara is a close second, but Tim Melia is having one of the best seasons ever for a goalkeeper in MLS. It's a real shame he's hurt and that could be a critical blow to Sporting's season.
AV: But it's the year of the bicycle kick! However, I believe Opara should win Defensive Player of the Year because he's been having a quick response rate when SKC's goal is being threaten and willing to sacrifice himself to save a potential threat, even if it means being injured.
RJC: Yeah, I think most fans couldn't be happier for Opara. A guy that has struggled a lot in his career with injuries has not only put together a season of 25+ MLS starts but has become a leader as well. I'll never forget in the dying moments of the U.S. Open Cup when just before the final corner was about to be taken he ran out and grabbed Kevin Oliveira by the collar of this jersey and drug him into the mix to mark someone.
It’s a three-way tie—two votes apiece for Opara, Melia, and Zusi. Can you split a trophy into thirds?
Actual Winner: Ike Opara
Newcomer of the Year
I’ll spare you the suspense (or lack thereof) for this award: it was a clean sweep for Ilie. All of our reasons were virtually identical—Ilie wrested control of a starting position from an entrenched incumbent in Soni Mustivar, and, through his vision and passing on the field, has truly made it his own.
Actual Winner: Ilie
Goal of the Year
This was another tough category to judge with several worthy nominees, and the writing staff’s votes reflect that reality:
TB: There were many good goals this year (okay we would have loved some more of them), but to me Latif Blessing’s goal in the Open Cup vs NY Red Bull gets the vote. In a game everyone expects/fears will go scoreless to penalties, the little guy gets the go ahead header in the first half to give SKC some breathing room. A good goal, but also a VERY important goal.
RJC: Latif for me as well. A beautiful one time cross from Zusi, perfectly placed where only little Latif can get to it and he just rises up and snaps it into the net. Goals in cup finals I think always win. Too many chills to not win.
AV: Indeed. Latif has been a blessing this season, especially when the 5-foot-3 forward jumped high to strike a powerful header giving Sporting KC the lead they needed in the USOC final. The fact he was able to make an powerful move and contributed to the team winning its fourth title win got my vote.
CS: On the other hand, you never forget your first goal. It took three games for Sporting to put one into the net, but boy was it nice. As a side note, I don't live in MO, but I randomly was at the Opara and Blessing goal games. I'm still voting for Benny though.
MK: I know I'm probably in the minority on this one, and that's okay with me (EA: I can confirm this, having been the one to tabulate the writing staff’s All-Star votes as well), I just love the composure by Salloi to bring that ball down in the box with the outside of his foot and then bury it. While Opara's goal may get more views for the bike, Salloi's is just a much better goal to me, more skill, more technique, just a higher quality finish to me.
EA: I’m in the minority as well, but for the Ike Bike. Yes, this goal was enabled by the comedy of errors that is the 2017 Los Angeles Galaxy, but I’m still voting for this one because, a) Ike has shown a couple of times now this year that he is capable with scoring with his feet as well as his head—a trait you don’t often find in a center-half, and b) the nonchalant moonshot from his center back mate Matt Besler that set it up. If Besler puts that pass a yard further forward, the hard-charging LA Galaxy keeper Clement Diop swallows it up instead of becoming posterized, but if Besler sets the pass a yard further back, it undershoots Opara entirely. For the quality of both the setup and the finish, the Ike Bike gets my vote for Goal of the Year.
Latif Blessing wins our award for Goal of the Year with three votes, with Daniel Salloi, Benny Feilhaber, and Ike Opara each receiving a vote as well.
Actual Winner: Ike’s Bike
That’s it for this edition of The Blue Testament roundtable. I’m sure we’ll have more of these in the future, what with yet another expansion draft on the horizon and my (Eric’s) secret happiness at getting my colleagues to literally write my submissions for me. How did you end up voting? Have your say in the comments!
Sporting KC also released some additional categories (that they didn’t tell us about so we didn’t vote) that are laid out below.