MLS 2011 Preview: Handicapping The Individual Award Races

Real Salt Lake's Javier Morales is our preseason favorite to win the MLS MVP award. We also like his RSL teammates Jamison Olave and Nick Rimando as favorites for the Defender and Goalkeeper of the Year, respectively. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

In addition to being one of the top teams in the league, we expect several Real Salt Lake players to be in the running for individual awards.

Over the course of the next few weeks, SB Nation Soccer will be continuing our run-up to MLS First Kick by previewing the Eastern Conference teams (earlier this week, we covered the Western Conference). We'll also have a series of mini-profiles of various players that deserve your attention this year. Until then, though, I figured now's as good a time as any to preview the more high-profile individual award races.

Most Valuable Player

There are definitely some obvious candidates for this award, namely constant contender Landon Donovan and reigning winner David Ferreira. Both of those players are in the primes of their careers and are coming off impressive seasons.

For Donovan, he will be coming off his first off-season of rest in several years. Rather than go to Europe as he's done in each of the past three years, he stayed home. That lack of real off-season never seemed to have that negative an effect on him, and it will be interesting to see how he starts the season. An obvious key to his success will be whether he plays as a wide midfielder or as a forward. The preference seems to be keeping him playing in the midfield, but a lot of that will depend on whether or not Chad Barrett is deemed starter worthy.

Ferreira is coming off a year in which he scored 10 goals and had 16 assists (including playoffs) and led his team to its first MLS Cup championship game. It might be tempting to say he's due for a drop off. In reality, though, those numbers weren't all that different from what he posted a year earlier (eight goals, seven assists during the regular season), and at 31 years old there's really no reason he couldn't be even better. The key will likely be how well FC Dallas is able to replace Dax McCarty, who usually sat behind Ferreira in their 4-4-1-1 formation. If Eric Alexander or whoever else can prove an able replacement, that will allow Ferreira to continue to vacate most of his defensive responsibilities.

For my money, though, I really like Javier Morales' chances. Not only is Morales the central offensive figure on what seems to me to be the favorite to win the Supporters' Shield, he's already off to an impressive start. It's silly to draw conclusions from one game, but it's hard not to be impressed by Morales' two-goal, one-assist performance in the second leg of RSL's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against the Columbus Crew. If Morales is able to avoid the yellow cards and injuries that cost him four games last year, there's really no reason he shouldn't improve on his seven goals and nine assists of a year ago.

I am also expecting big things out of Fredy Montero and Omar Cummings. Montero put himself in great position to win the award, but his production really dropped off toward the end of the season. There are any number of things that could be the culprit for that (other players were stepping up, he was wearing down, defenses had simply decided to not let him beat them), but he's shown the ability to be one of the league's top players. Chances are, a really good season could be his ticket to Europe, which means he should also be plenty motivated.

Cummings probably deserved a lot more MVP consideration than he received last year, and should be even more motivated this year as his window for a possible transfer gets smaller. Another standout season could be the ticket to his first big payday.

Defender of the Year

Projecting the top candidates for Defender of the Year requires some setting of parameters. This award doesn't necessarily go to the player who plays the best defense. Really, it goes to which center back led the best defense. Were Jamison Olave and Omar Gonzalez the league's best defensive players last year? That's debatable. What isn't debatable is that they were central figures on the teams that allowed the fewest goals, and historically that's how this award is decided.

I happen to think that Osvaldo Alonso's defensive skills are as good as anyone in the league, but he's not going to win this award because he plays in the midfield. We can speculate that various outside backs are just as key to their defenses as various center backs. But if we're going to project award winners, we may as try to stick to the established parameters.

With those caveats, it's hard not to put Olave and center back partner Nat Borchers at the top of the candidate list. Those two really were the key figures on a defense that set a MLS record for fewest goals allowed (20) and there's no reason to project a steep fall off. Of those two, Olave remains the bigger name and probably the one who will get most of RSL's votes. He's also my favorite for this award.

Jay DeMerit, who will be playing for the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps, also needs to be in this conversation. Defense seems to be what the Whitecaps will be built around, and if they are able to make a run at the playoffs, it will almost surely be due in large part to DeMerit's play. The Whitecaps should also get plenty of exposure, another aspect that helps likely winners.

Over the last few months, I've started to come around on the Tim Ream Bandwagon. Now that it appears he'll be playing alongside Rafa Marquez, it really does seem like this could be a very good defense (and with 29 goals allowed last year, they weren't exactly bad last year). Ream's vision and tactical awareness are also sure to receive plenty attention as the Red Bulls make something like 34 national TV appearances.

One last player I think deserves mentioning, and is maybe a bit of a darkhorse, is FC Dallas' George John. The third-year center back was one of the league's better defenders when he was healthy last year, and FC Dallas was among the best teams in limited shots against, especially when he was playing. If John stays healthy, expect him to be among the players mentioned prominently in this race.

Goalkeeper of the Year

Easily the strangest result of any post-season award last year, it's hard to find anyone who seriously watched the game who thought Donovan Ricketts was the rightful winner. This should have been a two-man race between Kevin Hartman and Nick Rimando, and I suspect both will be among the players once again in the conversation for this year's award. Of those two, I'll say Rimando is the favorite to win.

Of the new players to the league, the only goalkeeper who seems likely to have any immediate impact is Faryd Mondragon of the Philadelphia Union. At 39 years old, it's unclear just how good he can be, but the Union had some of the worst goaltending in the league last year and Mondragon's addition promises to be a huge improvement. The credit for an improved Union defense will likely go to Mondragon.

Jon Busch, of the San Jose Earthquakes, seems to be the most likely candidate who was in the league last year to work his way into this conversation. He only played 18 matches, which pretty much eliminated him from the conversation, but he was probably the biggest reason outside of Chris Wondolowski that the Earthquakes made it to the Eastern Conference finals. He'll be hard-pressed to repeat that 1.06 Goals Against Average, but the defense in front of him should actually be improved with Ike Opara now healthy and the rest of the defense basically intact from last year.

Rookie of the Year

One of the biggest components for winning the league's Rookie of the Year is simply playing time. For the most part, guys who play are going to get a certain amount of consideration. Of course, they need to make the most of that time, but players who are getting significant minutes right out of the gate are going to have a significant advantage.

With that in mind, a couple of former Akron stars are going to have a leg up on the competition. Perry Kitchen (DC United) and Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers) are expected to be starting early in the season. Of those players, Nagbe has been drawing consistently high marks, with the biggest question being how long it takes him to recover from the sports hernia surgery he had this week. If Nagbe performs anything like expected, he's the runaway favorite for ROY. Kitchen is much more raw, but if given a chance to grow, could also start making noise in this race.

Among players who could emerge later in the season, I like Will Bruin's chances as much as anyone. He might have to displace Brian Ching in order to get regular minutes, but Ching struggled with injuries last year and he's been battling them again this offseason.

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