Thursday, September 10, 2009
TAMPA, FL – With two weeks left in the USL First Division season, the league’s annual honors are not far away and as in every sports league, the debate on who is the Most Valuable Player can often be a hot topic. USLsoccer.com takes a look at 10 players who may be on many coaches and general managers’ short lists for the award.
Established, well-known players are usually a good bet to be in the running when votes come in for league honors, making the previous year’s USL-1 All-League Teams an excellent place to start. While many of the players of the 22 have had good seasons again in 2009, there are four that stand out among the rest.
The 2008 Defender of the Year Cristian Arrieta is probably a no-brainer to repeat with at least All-League honors again this year considering he is second in the league in points this season. The Islanders are currently second in the league at 14-5-8 and are 11-1-3 at home, all while balancing competition in the CONCACAF Champions League. His offensive output last year from his defensive position was impressive at seven goals and two assists, but it has grown to 10 goals and four assists this year – twice that of any other player on the club.
But Arrieta has competition for the Defender of the Year honor let alone consideration as only the second defender to earn the league MVP honor (Marcelo Balboa, 1988) in the form of David Hayes. An All-League First Team selection the past two years and Defender of the Year honoree in 2007 while with Atlanta, the back moved to Portland and helped the Timbers move from last place in 2008 to a likely finish as the regular season champions. His veteran experience helped make the Portland defensive unit the best in the league to date this season with just 15 goals allowed in 27 games. He has played in all 27 matches, highlighted by the league-record 24-game unbeaten streak, along with fellow veteran Scot Thompson
The lone offensive player from last year’s selections that is arguably one of the front-runners to be a finalist is 2008 Second Team honoree Johnny Menyongar of the Rochester Rhinos. Although the club has floated mid-table most of the season, the diminutive striker has been a consistent presence for the club in the attack and has 11 goals on the campaign, ranking tied for third in the league in points and tied for first in goals.
The 2008 Goalkeeper of the Year Bill Gaudette may have proven that last year was no fluke as he has had another stellar campaign between the pipes, ranking tied for first in the league in wins and shutouts thus far as well as fifth in goals against average (0.73), at one point rattling off seven straight shutout games in league play with a pair of Champions League clean sheets sandwiched in the middle.
But Gaudette is not alone in the goalkeeper position, which for arguably the first time has three viable candidates as potential MVP finalists.
Charleston’s Dusty Hudock was a virtual lock in the first half of the season to be a contender, but may have seen his chances diminish with the recent news from the Battery of his upcoming ACL surgery that will sideline him for the remainder of the year. Despite the injury incurred several weeks ago, he still ranks third in the league in wins, tied for first in shutouts and is first in goals against average for the year thus far.
The third goalkeeping candidate would be Steve Cronin of the Portland Timbers. He helped lead the team on the 24-game league-record unbeaten run and is currently tied for first in wins, is third in shutouts and third in goals against average.
In the end though, the MVP honor almost always comes down to who puts the ball in the back of the net.
Leading that charge thus far has been Portland striker Mandjou Keita. He currently leads the league in points and is tied for first in goals this season for a Timbers side that currently leads the league in scoring. But if Keita is to be considered, so to may be his teammate Ryan Pore, who is tied for fifth in the league in points and had a six-game goal-scoring streak in the midst of the club’s record unbeaten run.
Having four potential finalists could be a recipe for disaster as often times votes get split. In position to potentially benefit for such a situation is Vancouver’s Charles Gbeke. The Whitecaps striker has gotten hot of late and has risen to a tie for third in the league in points despite the club’s mid-table status.
A possible MVP finalist should probably be someone from the Carolina RailHawks. After all, they led the league most of the first third of the campaign and are still near the top of the league based on their record, offense and defense. But who would you pick from a balanced club. Gregory Richardson has come on as an offensive spark since his midseason debut, but it may not be enough to sway votes at this late stage. Daniel Paladini has been a key figure in the midfield like last year’s MVP Jonathan Steele has been for Puerto Rico, but he doesn’t quite have the numbers as Steele, who also finished as the league assist leader in 2008. Mark Schulte may be in the running for a third straight Defender of the Year honor after winning the award in USL-2 the past two seasons, but was his leadership in the back with rotating goalkeepers enough to warrant MVP consideration.
Editor’s note: The players mentioned above are not official finalists for any USL award and are not listed as part of the balloting process.