We are about to embark on the second half of the MLS season, so Massive Report writers Josh Mlot and Nathaniel Marhefka discussed what left an impression on them in the first half. Their full midseason awards are listed below, if you want to skip ahead to those.
JOSH: There’s so much to potentially go over, but I don’t want to go overboard. So let me start by asking: When you look back on the 2017 season thus far, how will you remember it?
NATHANIEL: Man, that is a tough question. I think I will look back and see it as a mark of a shift in MLS. A shift toward stark improvement, and at the forefront of this is the hiring of Tata Martino in Atlanta. To me, it illustrates that this league is no longer looking to just bring in stars to headline flyers, but that there is a growing desire for MLS to legitimately become a top league.
What do you think of that? And is there anything so far this year that stands out to you?
J: I think there’s something to that. Is this MLS 3.0? Or maybe that started with Sebastian Giovinco and this is 4.0. There were so many unkowns with the expansion tams, but we’ve seen Atlanta do so many things right on and off the field and expand the talent pool in MLS.
It’s hard to put a finger on it, but we see legitimate DPs with nearly every club in the league now, and there just seems to be something you can’t quite put your finger on that undeniably makes it a better product. That said, there is still a lot that needs to happen.
I think that the first half has — and this may play into what we’ve been talking about — shown that if you run your club the right way, you can succeed.
That might seem like a no brainer, but this season has proved that it doesn’t matter whether you’ve struggled before or never even played before — invest fully in every area and good things will happen. that’s huge for the league as a whole because MLS progression will be slowed if a big chunk of teams still wants to shortcut its way through things.
N: I think you are right. Looking at the standings so far this year, I think it’s reflective of that. Maybe not totally to the average viewer, but looking at this league with an in-depth view, I see that being the case across the board. It really drives competition, investment and improvement as a whole, in a natural way.
J: Speaking of change: What was your best transaction of the first half, including the offseason, and who is the best MLS newcomer? That could be one and the same, if you want. Which team got it right and changed its fortune?
N: Romain Alessandrini, without a doubt. For me, the most impactful signing this year. His importance to the LA Galaxy is so huge, and for that I’ll give them the nod for really getting this one right.
J: You have definitely been an Alessandrini truther.
How about best rookie. You are going with a popular choice. A no brainer, really. Why Julian Gressel?
N: Gressel has one of the highest match ratings of any rookie player, solid stats and has started nearly every game for Atlanta United. On top of that, he looks far more experienced than he actually is. Who do you have for rookie of the year?
J: I totally understand the Gressel love. And he was a steal for that team. He was my initial choice, too, but the more I thought about it, the less I understood why Raheem Edwards seemed to be left out of the discussion. He plays a less flashy position, but his impact has been sizable for Toronto and I think his future is brighter than Gressel’s. I’ve been so impressed with him this season.
So, I gave some love to Edwards. I think Gressel may be a deserving winner at the end of the season, but I’m on the Edwards train.
N: Edwards is a great pick and I think if I had to pick a dark horse for Rookie of the Year, it would be him. He has been really great for Toronto this season. He has had his inconsistencies (he is a rookie, after all), but, man, is he fun to watch. I’m excited to follow his development because I think he can be a heck of a player.
J: I want to keep this pretty short, but it seems like MVP is one we should at least bring up. So, why Alessandrini?
N: I view MVP awards in the traditional sense — the player that has shown the most value to their team. For me, there is no player in MLS whose team’s success depends on that player as much as LA has on Alessandrini. And the statistics support this claim. His eight goals and seven assists this season are very high compared to his peers and both rank very high among all players. His seven assists is second most in the league.
The stats that stick out to me the most are the ones what illustrate his efficiency and effectiveness — his G-xG (goals minus expected goals) and his A-xA (assist differential) are very high. To me, this analytical statistic shows just how clinical and creative he has been. Miguel Almiron is the only player with a higher combined value in the league.
J: It’s a good shout. I went in a different direction, though. I think the numbers are there as well — Alex Ring is among the MLS leaders in multiple deffensive categories, and I think he brings something that NYCFC desperately needed and otherwise doesn’t have. NYC is a legitimate title threat with Ring on the field, even if there are other pieces who get more attention. Without him, I think that back line is too exposed.
N: He is a player who has, for me, blown away expectations and has been a big part of their early success this season.
I was intrigued by your pick of Victor Vazquez for midfielder of the first half of the season. He has done well, but what makes you solo him out?
J: Maybe I’m overthinking things too much, but I wanted to think outside the box a little, and to me, it’s all about his chance creation. Vazquez is offering something TFC did not have last year in a creative, interchanging attacking midfielder. There’s no doubt he benefits from the space created by the talent around him, but there is no doubt he makes everyone else better as well. He’s the kind of player that could take Toronto to the next level, which I obviously allude to in some of my second-half predictions.
N: I can appreciate that, for sure. The team already looked very good, but having a tertiary creator (behind Giovinco and Bradley) they have another way to threaten defenses.
J: And I’d argue he’s actually a primary creator, in a way, and maybe a tertiary name. Bradley is freed up to do his deep-lying thing, and Giovinco doesn’t have to be the creative force on every play. I think Vazquez has generally been underrated by the average fan.
So, second-half predictions. Have yours changed based on what you’ve seen so far?
N: I don’t think so. I think that Toronto is still going to finish on top of the Eastern Conference, with Chicago and NYCFC close behind. I think Sporting Kansas City will finish atop the West, but come playoffs I think FC Dallas will be the team that takes home MLS Cup.
J: FCD certainly is interesting. They seem like they still have a higher ceiling, and now Mauro Diaz (my favorite player in MLS) will be rounding into fitness and form.
But the first half, for me, cemented my perception of the quality and depth that Toronto has, and its schedule the rest of the way doesn’t necessarily intimidate. I think they’ve got a shot to do the double, even though the playoffs will always be a crapshoot.
Favorite team of first half: Houston Dynamo — but you probably already guessed that!
Surprise team of first half: Chicago Fire — I contemplated Houston here, but Chicago may be from worst to best in one year time.
Favorite player of first half: Ilie Sanchez, Sporting Kansas City
First half MVP: Roman Alessandrini, LA Galaxy. His importance to the Galaxy is do or die.
First half surprise player: Haris Medunjanin, Philadelphia Union — Previously only saw him play at the beginning of his career, and forgot about him... He has been outstanding for Philly this year.
Best of the first half...
Striker: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC. He's the best, right? (FWIW, Maxi Urruti is runner up for me)
Midfielder: Ilie Sanchez, Sporting Kansas City. If I were to build a team from scratch, Ilie would be the first player I select. Yup, even over Giovinco and the other "big name" players.
Defender: Jonathan Spector, Orlando City. He has been a defensive savior for Orlando this season. While his technical skill may not be with the best, his passion and determination has more than made up for it.
Goalkeeper: Joe Bendik, Orlando City. See highlights reel.
First half disappointing team: Colorado Rapids
First half disappointing player: Cristian Colman (FC Dallas) or Simon Dawkins (San Jose Earthquakes). Both are designated players and both have struggled to get minutes in their teams (FCD and SJ, respectively). I know people will say "Jonathan Mensah, no doubt.” He has had big mistakes this year, but at least he has been a contributing factor and on average a decent player. These two have really contributed nothing (let alone for the price).
Coach: Wilmer Cabrera, Houston Dynamo
Rookie: Julian Gressel, Atlanta United
Goal: Ike Opara's bicycle kick
Team poised for big second half: Atlanta United — they keep getting better. And Josef Martinez is back.
Player poised for big second half: Roland Lamah, FC Dallas. He has been on fire of late and I don't expect it to stop. Dark-horse pick would be Anthony Jackson-Hamel in Montreal. He didn't get many minutes at the beginning of the season, but his minutes and production have been on a steep incline.
Supporter's Shield prediction: Toronto FC
MLS Cup prediction: FC Dallas
Favorite team of first half: Sporting Kansas City. I know it’s not the flashiest pick, but they have a lot of pieces that fit together well and I enjoy Peter Vermes' system. I love SKC's midfield, Dom Dwyer is a ball of energy and it's been a joy to watch Ike Opara this year.
Surprise team of first half: Chicago Fire. I'm with Nate on this one. Houston may have come out of nowhere just a bit more (we knew Chicago was improving), but to challenge for the top spot in the Eastern Conference is incredible when you consider the recent history of this once storied club.
Favorite player of first half: Ilie Sanchez. I'm not sure if this makes me a hipster or a horribly boring person, or both. But I felt he needed to be mentioned somewhere. So good and so underrated.
First half MVP: Alexander Ring. This isn't a flashy pick, but he does all the dirty work New York City FC needed done that lets the other pieces play to their strengths. The result is NYCFC is challenging the top of the East and appears to be the real deal.
First half surprise player: Alex. With co-honors going to his wingers, Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis. The first didn't seem to quite put things together last year, and the latter pair was an unknown to me. But Alex seems to fit perfectly into this countering, wing-heavy system put in place and is thriving as a more deep-lying creator who can pull strings rather than have to always create in tight spaces.
First half disappointing team: New England Revolution. There have been some bad teams in the first half, but all of them looked like clubs with some obstacles in front of them. The Revs, on the other hand, continue to frivolously waste so much attacking skill. Unlike some of the bad teams, New England should be better. And it's not.
First half disappointing player: It has to be Christian Colman, right? I'm sure every fan base has a player it wants to nominate here, but this is a guy who was brought in as a designated player on a team we already knew was good. The result has been absolutely nothing. I'm not going to act like my expectations for Colman were sky high, but to be such a non factor as a DP surrounded by some talent is pretty astonishing.
Best of the first half...
Striker: Nemanja Nikolic. The numbers speak for themselves, and his presence is one of a multi-headed reason the Fire have improved at such an accelerated rate.
Midfielder: Victor Vazquez. Maybe not the people's choice, but Vazquez is leading MLS in chance creation. And because I didn't pick him anywhere, I'll give mention to Romain "Life Raft" Alessandrini, who has single-handedly kept the LA Galaxy afloat.
Defender: Ike Opara. He's been the best defender and I love watching him play. As a fan of MLS, I really hope his concussion is managed well and he recovers swiftly. The league is better having him on the field.
Goalkeeper: Tim Melia. End of discussion.
Coach: Wilmer Cabrera. I want to go on record saying that Greg Vanney deserves more recognition than he receives, and I almost put him here. But Cabrera is doing something that other coaches with strong resumes failed to do in Houston. Yes, he's got some new pieces to play with, but he's hit on the right way to use them and has revived Erick Torres.
Rookie: Raheem Edwards. He has been a top-level player for a club with real hope of lifting multiple trophies. "The Dream" deserves some love.
Newcomer: Miguel Almiron. Duh. (Though there is a strong list of candidates)
Goal: Giovani Dos Santos' side heel vs. Minnesota. Look, everyone knows the correct answer is Ike Opara's bicycle. But since Nate grabbed that one, in the interest of posting multiple videos of fun goals to watch, I'll go with GDS' strike that vividly sticks in the memory banks.
Transaction: Dax McCarty trade. All of the changes that Chicago made this year started with McCarty. I considered him for MVP and midfielder as well. The heart of the team starts with him, and all you need to do is look at New York Red Bulls to understand what he does for a team. Huge move for the Fire.
Team poised for big second half: Am I allowed to pick a team who already had a big first half? Toronto FC. Built for the long haul and without many weaknesses. For a team with a much improved second half, I'll go with Seattle Sounders. I expect a strong transfer-window move and things to continue to settle in.
Player poised for big second half: Mauro Diaz. All hail a healthy Magic Little Unicorn.
Supporter's Shield prediction: Toronto FC
MLS Cup prediction: Toronto FC. Do the double.