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MLS Midseason Awards: Columbus Crew, Rossi, Pozuelo, Atlanta United all take home hardware

In MLS, chaos is the order of the day in the best of times. Teams rise and fall. There are designated player busts and out-of-nowhere successes. But in this coronavirus-hit campaign, coming up with midseason awards is even more difficult amid so much pandemonium. It’s true that some honors such as Coach of the Year are settled, but others such as Defender of the Year are a veritable shot in the dark.

With about six weeks to go in the regular season, here the teams and individuals best poised to take home some hardware.

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Best Team: Columbus Crew

Columbus has been steady and at times spectacular, although the chasing pack of the Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC and Orlando City isn’t far behind. One of them could very well nick the Supporters’ Shield — tainted as it is, given the schedule — off the Crew. That said, Caleb Porter’s side has delivered with solid contributions offensively and defensively. Forward Gyasi Zardes has scored nine goals, while defender Jonathan Mensah has massively upped his game.

The key to their chances down the stretch will be the health of Darlington Nagbe. He’s missed the past four games, and while the Crew have gone 2-1-1 during that stretch, they missed him in the defeat to TFC. If the Crew are to claim their second MLS Cup, they will need all of their players operating at their peak.

Most Disappointing Team: Atlanta United

This was a photo finish between the Five Stripes and the LA Galaxy, but Atlanta grabs the “honor” given that it was thought to be one of the league’s powers heading into the regular season. The ACL injury suffered by Josef Martinez in its first game of the season on Feb. 29 was a huge blow, but high-priced acquisitions Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez and Ezequiel Barco have done little to pick up the slack.

“Pity” is now gone and Barco was rumored to be, although a move in this window seems unlikely. And even if Atlanta does manage to qualify for the generously expanded postseason, it’s clear it is nothing close to the force it was even last season.

Yet there’s still time for a different team to take this “honor,” as the Galaxy have been all over the place and might yet edge out Atlanta. They were poor early on, continued that trend during MLS is Back and then enjoyed a brief revival, but are trending downward again. With just 15 points on the season, LA currently finds itself outside the playoff places. High-priced forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has been injured for much of the season, but even when he’s been on the field, the Galaxy have gone 0-5-2. Time is running out to pull things together.

This is one of those awards with no shortage of candidates. Diego Rossi has 11 goals. Gyasi Zardes is top-of-the-table Columbus’ top scorer. Then there’s the Seattle trio of Raul Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris. Had Portland’s Sebastian Blanco not gone down injured, he would be in this group as well. But Pozuelo’s overall contribution of five goals and a league-leading eight assists gives him the nod, at least right now. His efforts might yet be enough to grab the Supporters’ Shield for the Reds, too.

Golden Boot: Diego Rossi, LAFC

LAFC’s defense might not be worth much of anything, and Carlos Vela has missed most of the season, but the Black and Gold are still a terror going forward thanks mostly to Rossi. The Uruguayan’s 11 goals so far has given him some daylight with the competition, although Zardes and Ruidiaz are certainly capable of making a run. That said, Rossi’s lead and LAFC’s “attack first, ask questions later” approach should see him hold onto the Golden Boot.

Coach of the Year: Oscar Pareja, Orlando City

This one is a no-brainer. While general manager Luiz Muzzi laid some of the groundwork for a turnaround last season, Pareja’s arrival has accelerated the improvement for an Orlando team that prior to this campaign had never qualified for the postseason. That streak seems a cinch to be broken, so much so that the Lions have set their collective sights on bigger prizes. Orlando’s style has been easy on the eyes, too.

The likes of Porter and the forever underrated Brian Schmetzer should round out the top three, but barring a major loss of form by the Lions, Pareja should win the award for the second time in his career.

Defender of the Year: Jonathan Mensah, Columbus Crew

This award is another with plenty of deserving nominees. Mark McKenzie has been outstanding for the Union, as has Xavier Arreaga for Seattle after some early struggles. In the full-back division, New York City FC‘s Anton Tinnerholm, Toronto FC‘s Richie Laryea and Orlando City’s Ruan have been excellent, but Columbus’ defense has been airtight for much of the season — at least before the Toronto match last weekend — and much of that has been down to the efforts of Mensah.

The Ghanaian had been pretty average in previous seasons, but he’s been marvelous in 2020 with his defending and tidiness on the ball.

Newcomer of the Year: Lucas Zelarayan, Columbus Crew

It must be said there aren’t a ton of obvious candidates this season. Chicago’s Robert Beric is finally getting goals, and Miami’s Rodolfo Pizarro has put up some decent numbers with three goals and four assists. Zelarayan, though, has put up the best numbers of all, with five goals and four assists, while also giving the Crew a creative force that they lacked in previous seasons.

A lack of consistency has dogged Zelarayan throughout his career and there have been hints of that in Columbus, but so far, he’s been worth every penny the Crew spent on him last December.

Goalkeeper of the Year: Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union

This award looks to be a three-player race among Blake, NYCFC’s Sean Johnson and the New England Revolution‘s Matt Turner.

Blake has enjoyed the biggest of bounce-back years. In 2019, he looked a mess and nearly cost the Union their first playoff win in team history. In 2020, he’s been much more consistent, and his save percentage of 81.1 is tops in the league. Johnson leads the league in goals prevented (which incorporates expected goals) with 8.80, while Turner is second at 7.09.

At this stage, Blake gets the nod given he’s been the busiest of the three in terms of shots faced and dealing with crosses into the box, and he’s been integral to the Union being second in the Eastern Conference standings.

Deciding when to say goodbye to a productive and charismatic player is difficult, but it certainly looks as though the New York Red Bulls gave up too soon on Wright-Phillips. Granted, Wright-Phillips made 24 appearances (just nine starts) in 2019 due to a groin injury, but the Red Bulls’ loss has been LAFC’s gain, with the 35-year-old Englishman netting seven times and adding three assists.

This award will go down to the wire, with the Chicago Fire’s Mauricio Pineda likely pushing the Revs center-back to the very end. A goal scorer like Orlando’s Daryl Dike could alter the race, but he needs to get on the field more and of late has been coming off the bench. Of the two defender candidates, Pineda has been tidier on the ball and is the bigger threat on set pieces. Kessler has excelled a bit more defensively, though, winning a higher percentage of his duels both in the air and on the ground. Given defending is the primary job, Kessler just shades it, although both players look to have bright futures.

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