With the MLS regular season in the books and the playoffs coming down to the final four, we go through our award winners for 2016.
Goalkeeper of the Year: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes)
Bingham somehow wasn’t even named as one of the three official finalists for this award, but anyone who followed the Earthquakes closely over the course of the campaign should be able to vouch for his credentials. Despite his side’s disappointing ninth-place finish in the Western Conference, the 26-year-old US international still managed to rack up eight clean sheets in 34 appearances and conceded just 39 goals to leave Dominic Kinnear’s men with one of the best defensive records in the league.
With 106 saves, his shot-stopping heroics also saw him rewarded with his first All-Star Game appearance against Arsenal this past summer, while Jurgen Klinsmann was impressed enough by his performances to hand him his second USA cap in last month’s 1-1 friendly draw with New Zealand.
An argument can certainly be made for why either New York Red Bulls stalwart Luis Robles or the Philadelphia Union’s Andre Blake deserves the award more, but how Tim Howard made the league’s final shortlist ahead of the San Jose keeper despite playing in just 17 games is anyone’s guess.
Defender of the Year: Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids)
After making 14 appearances in his rookie season, Sjoberg’s rise to prominence this term has been one of the biggest reasons behind Colorado’s surprise turnaround. In 31 regular-season starts, the 6ft 7in Swede ranked behind only New York City FC’s Frederic Brilliant in clearances with 159, anchoring a backline that allowed a league-low 32 goals. With his aerial dominance, he also found the back of the net twice on set-pieces and chipped in with an assist as Pablo Mastroeni’s men ruined everyone’s preseason predictions by cruising to a second-place finish in the West.
Plenty of other defenders deserve a mention for their exploits in 2016, including the LA Galaxy’s Jelle van Damme, Toronto FC’s Drew Moor, D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum and FC Dallas duo Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman, but you simply can’t overlook how key Sjoberg was to the success of the league’s best defensive team.
Coach of the Year: Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids)
Mastroeni went into this season as the overwhelming favourite to be the first head coach fired after the Rapids came bottom of the West last term, but his side’s turnaround in 2016 has been nothing short of remarkable. As well as going on a franchise-record 15-match unbeaten run from mid-April through to late-July, the club did not lose a single home game during the regular season as they ultimately finished just two points behind table-topping FC Dallas in the Supporters’ Shield standings.
Dallas boss Oscar Pareja obviously deserves recognition for his work with the youngest squad in the league, while Patrick Vieira helped New York City FC make huge strides in his first year at Yankee Stadium, but the way in which Mastroeni has answered his critics has been downright phenomenal.
Rookie of the Year: Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
Philadelphia Union right-back Keegan Rosenberry was arguably the frontrunner for this award at the All-Star break, but there’s no disguising the fact that his form took a big dip over the second half of the season. Morris, meanwhile, simply kept getting better as the campaign progressed, ultimately finishing the regular season with 12 goals in 34 games to become the highest-scoring American rookie in MLS history. Along with summer signing Nicolas Lodeiro, the 22-year-old striker was key to Seattle’s late playoff push after Clint Dempsey was sidelined with an irregular heartbeat and earned a deserved recall to the US national team earlier this month before later having to withdraw through injury.
New York City FC winger Jack Harrison may have had a case for the award had he not missed the early stages of the season with a pelvic problem, but Morris’ production over the entire year makes him the clear winner.
Newcomer of the Year: Ola Kamara (Columbus Crew SC)
Columbus may have fallen woefully short of expectations by slumping to a ninth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, but that should take nothing away from Kamara’s impressive debut season. After his namesake Kei Kamara was traded to the New England Revolution in May following a very public bust-up with teammate Federico Higuain, the 27-year-old Norwegian striker stepped up to fill his boots in eye-catching fashion, going on to score 16 times in just 20 starts to finish joint-fifth in the Golden Boot standings.
The LA Galaxy’s Jelle van Damme and Rapids forward Shkelzen Gashi certainly deserve credit for the way they took to life in MLS in 2016, but Kamara’s exploits in front of goal just give him the edge. Without the former Austrian Vienna front man, Gregg Berhalter’s side would have been eliminated from post-season contention a lot earlier than mid-October.
Special praise also needs to go to Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro after he quickly proved an MVP-calibre playmaker following his mid-season arrival from Boca Juniors, but it’s hard to justify handing him the award when he only featured in 13 games – even if he did rack up three goals and eight assists over that period.
Most Improved Player: Michael Azira (Colorado Rapids)
While you could just as easily name Sjoberg again here, fellow Rapid Azira has enjoyed an equally impressive rise in 2016. Picked up in the Waiver Draft last winter after being released by the Seattle Sounders, the 29-year-old Ugandan went on to make a career-high 28 starts in 31 appearances during the regular season, forming a central midfield partnership with captain Sam Cronin that proved key to Colorado’s defensive solidity. A tireless worker with a no-nonsense playing style, he not only recorded the fourth-most interceptions in the league with 110 but also racked up a team-leading 83 tackles and 206 recoveries. If there was another award for the bargain signing of the season, the newly-capped international would almost certainly have that one wrapped up as well.
Biggest Disappointment: Antonio Nocerino (Orlando City SC)
After bringing Nocerino on board in February following a trade to acquire his discovery rights from D.C. United, Orlando thought they were getting a tough-tackling midfielder who would provide the experience and steel they needed in the centre of the park to help boost their playoff hopes. Instead, the former AC Milan veteran looked woefully off the pace over the first few months of the season and was eventually benched by then-head coach Adrian Heath after a series of awful performances.
He did experience somewhat of a renaissance after Jason Kreis took over the club in late-July, breaking his way back into the line-up to start 11 of their final 14 games, but the 31-year-old Italian still didn’t come anywhere close to justifying his price tag when all was said and done.
The departing Steven Gerrard could well have been in the running for this award given how underwhelming his only full season with the LA Galaxy proved, but a stretch of form over the summer that saw him record seven assists in as many games was enough to spare his blushes.
MVP: Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
While there’s no clear favourite for MVP this year, Wright-Phillips’ case is incredibly strong. After failing to find the back of the net in the Red Bulls’ opening seven matches, the 31-year-old English striker went on to hit 24 goals over the rest of the regular season (including a league-leading seven game-winners) to clinch the Golden Boot for the second time and help his side finish first in the East. None of those goals were penalties either, while he also chipped in with five assists for good measure.
Among the other candidates, David Villa finished just one goal behind Wright-Phillips in the scoring charts while adding four assists, and while five of his tallies came from the penalty spot, the New York City FC captain was a model of consistency and led by example with his exemplary work rate. Red Bulls playmaker Sacha Kljestan also enjoyed a superb campaign, becoming only the second player in MLS history to reach the 20-assist mark as BWP’s main source of service, while Montreal Impact attacker Ignacio Piatti probably deserved a lot more recognition for his 17 goals and six assists.
Sebastian Giovinco, meanwhile, looked like a good bet to make it two MVP awards in a row heading into September, but an injury that subsequently forced him to sit out five games proved a big reason why he controversially failed to make the final shortlist. Nevertheless, the Toronto FC forward still finished the regular season with 17 goals and the second-most assists in the league with 15, while the fact that his side only managed to win one match in his absence arguably makes his case even stronger.
Ultimately, you can make a good argument for why any of the aforementioned players deserves to take home the league’s top individual accolade but, when push comes to shove, Wright-Phillips stands out as a more than worthy winner when you consider he accounted for 39 percent of a first-placed team’s goals.