MLS midseason awards New England the best team, Carles Gil for MVP, Andre Blake best goalie, more


With the All-Star break and Rivalry Week now in the rearview mirror, MLS will ramp up for the final stretch as all eyes are firmly on getting into the playoffs. As we turn our attention to MLS Cup and the playoff push, ESPN looks back at some of the notable players and teams from the first half of what has been an exciting season.

Jump to: Top teams | Most disappointing sides | MVP candidates | Managerial maestros | Crazy goals | Best defenders | Key keepers


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BEST TEAM

– How good is the New England Revolution? So good that the team has gone 4-1-1 when playing without midfielder and MVP candidate Carles Gil, who is working his way back from injury. New England has two double-digit goalscorers already (Gustavo Bou, Adam Buksa) and arguably the best keeper in the league in Matt Turner. Another team that deserves mention is the Seattle Sounders, who have survived the injury absences of Jordan Morris, Stefan Frei, and Nicolas Lodeiro (for most of the season, anyway) to be tops in the Western Conference. — Jeff Carlisle

– With a 14-point lead in the Eastern Conference, the Revolution has breezed through the season to this point, accumulating the most points (49) — seven more than Seattle. With limited non-conference matches, it’s fair to question how the Revs would fare in the West, but there isn’t much reason to suggest the results would be markedly different. The Supporters’ Shield is within touching distance, but it will be interesting to see how much of a priority that is while balancing the opportunity to rest players headed into the playoffs. — Kyle Bonagura

– It’s hard to downplay what the Revs are doing, with 49 points (on pace to demolish LAFC‘s all-time record of 72, set in ’19) and a .625% winning percentage away from Gillette, but the 2020 MLS Cup runner-up Seattle Sounders have been equally impressive. Three of their four losses came in a 13-day span in July, and they’ve conceded only 14 goals while hammering home 33 in all other games. They defend like bulls, ranking third in the league in tackling percentage and second in interceptions, and The Stefans — goalkeepers Frei and Cleveland — have helped amass the fourth-best team save percentage in MLS too (73.2%). — Dan Hajducky

– Prior to Saturday’s 2-0 loss to New York City FC, Bruce Arena’s Revs had lost just three times, but remain well ahead of second-place Orlando in the East. Bou and Buksa are smashing in the goals, Gil has an MLS-best 15 assists despite his injury absence, and Canada international Tajon Buchanan (who’ll join Belgian side Club Brugge in January) has blossomed on the wing in his sophomore season. The recent loss at Yankee Stadium snapped the Revs’ nine-game unbeaten run, but they remain odds-on favorites to win the club’s first-ever Supporters’ Shield. –Gus Elvin

MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM

– “It’s a disaster,” said then-Toronto FC head coach Chris Armas on June 29, after his team had managed just five points from their first ten games. Four days later, Toronto suffered a (club record) 7-1 obliteration courtesy of D.C. United and Armas was sent marching. Toronto’s struggles — offensively, defensively, tactically, you name it — have soured a team that has long been appointment viewing, and with injury-report darling Jozy Altidore gone for six weeks and blistering 19-year-old Ralph Priso done for the season following right ankle surgery, it’ll only curdle further. Still, 13 losses from 22 is stunning for a club that’s reached three of the last five MLS Cup finals and boasts the league’s second-highest payroll. — Hajducky

LAFC was the betting favorite to win MLS Cup prior to the season and wouldn’t even be in the playoffs if the season ended today. For a team with the attacking talent that LAFC has, the production has fallen well short of even the most tempered expectations. Diego Rossi — now with Turkish side Fenerbahce — looked to build off his Golden Boot-winning 2020 season, but production fell off significantly (6 goals in 19 games). Brian Rodriguez had a stellar two-goal showing in the 3-3 draw thriller against the LA Galaxy, but this star-studded team is languishing near the bottom of the standings. — Bonagura

– On paper, LAFC has the look of an MLS Cup contender, with many of the same pieces from the side that won the Supporters’ Shield in 2019. Yet LAFC finds itself outside the playoff places and will now do without forward Diego Rossi. Frankly, LAFC has been mediocre on both sides of the ball. Finishing has been an issue in attack, as has the team’s transition defense, though the loss of center back Eddie Segura has cut deep. Toronto will get some votes in this category as well, and while it is shocking that a team that contended for silverware last year is dead last in MLS in 2021, there was at least some acknowledgement that the Canadian side was in transition. — Carlisle

– There are so many candidates for this dubious honor — I’m looking at you Toronto, Portland Timbers and Inter Miami CF — but the reigning MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew has been the biggest disappointment of the bunch. At the All-Star break, the Crew has won just seven of 22 games and scored a paltry total of 25 goals, with a -4 goal differential overall. They rebounded nicely against FC Cincinnati in Ohio’s “Hell is Real” derby, but Lucas Zelarayan & Co. remain below the playoff red line and will need to improve before it’s too late. — Elvin

MVP

– Before his injury, Gil was a threat to break Carlos Valderrama’s single-season assist mark of 26, set in 2000. He could still threaten that record if he heals up quickly enough, but Bruce Arena will be content just to get the Spaniard back on the field before the postseason. That’s how important the midfielder is. Seattle forward Raul Ruidiaz will also get some MVP consideration, as his 14 goals lead MLS. For an all-arounder, Sporting Kansas City‘s Daniel Salloi is also in the mix, with his 12 goals and five assists giving him the top goals-plus-assists total in the league. — Carlisle

– Those were the three players I considered: Ruidiaz, Gil and Salloi. All of them have valid cases and I don’t feel compelled to argue much for one vs. the others at this stage of the season. Salloi’s mere inclusion as a candidate is one of the better stories in the league this year. He had as many red cards as goals over the last two seasons (1) and now leads the league in goals plus assists (17). — Bonagura

– Still exceedingly early, but the frontrunner is Gil. Despite the lengthy spell on the sideline, his assist tally (15) is halfway to “El Pibe” Valderrama’s record of 26. The Revs’ record run is largely thanks to the Valencia academy product and former Aston Villa man. He’s created 86 chances — 20 more than any other player — with 38 of those from set pieces. New England, an MLS original, is on pace to win its first major trophy — and we all know how Foxborough loves its hardware. — Hajducky

BEST MANAGER

Bruce Arena deserves lots of credit for the job he’s done injecting life into New England, but Brian Schmetzer has the Sounders just behind the Revs’ pace and has done so mostly without Lodeiro, Frei and Morris. That Seattle beat Austin earlier this summer using a starting lineup featuring five teenagers was quite the flex for Schmetzer. — Bonagura

– Arena and Schmetzer are doing the Lord’s work in New England and Seattle, but Peter Vermes, ever the coxswain, is steady and true in Sporting Kansas City. He saw Gianluca Busio leave for Serie A’s Venezia this summer, but SKC are riding a seven-game unbeaten match to among the best in West. They possess well (53.8%, 3rd in MLS), create chances (244, also T-3rd) and concede sparingly (22 goals, 5th fewest), with the 2nd-best tackling percentage at 40.4%. — Hajducky

– This award usually follows two paths: one that can be categorized as “most improved team performance,” while the other is if a team is so outstanding that the manager can’t be ignored. I’ll go the latter route with Colorado Rapids boss Robin Fraser, for putting the Rapids firmly in the playoff places despite leading a team bereft of stars. But if New England happens to set a record for most points in a season, it will be hard to overlook Arena. — Carlisle

Schmetzer gets the nod by a hair over Phil Neville (just kidding) for his latest coaching masterclass in the Pacific Northwest. The Sounders have been devastated by injuries to key players with playmaker Nico Lodeiro and goalkeeper Frei missing significant time, and Morris still yet to play after suffering an ACL tear while on loan at Swansea City. Despite all that, Seattle currently has the second most points in the league with 42 and has amassed an impressive road record away from the friendly confines of Lumen Field. Schmetzer has done it again. — Elvin

¡QUÉ GOLAZO! GOAL OF THE SEASON

– The best strikers can sniff out a chance when one doesn’t seem to exist. So it proved for Ruidiaz against Austin FC, when he spied Brad Stuver off his line and launched a rocket from 37 yards for the game’s only goal. First runner-up goes to Philadelphia Union‘s Quinn Sullivan, whose bicycle kick tally against the Chicago Fire FC in his first professional start will be one he remembers for the rest of his days. — Carlisle

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Raul Ruidiaz strikes from long range for Seattle to take a 1-0 lead vs. Austin at Q2 Stadium.

– ESPN analyst Herc Gomez was apoplectic over Fourth of July weekend when Jakob Glesnes‘ 93rd-minute ballistic missile for Philadelphia wasn’t named our best goal of the season to date. Gotta hand it to Herc: Glesnes put the “glad” in “gladiator” on this wonder-strike. Not only did the Norwegian go the distance from 35-yards out, leaving Brad Guzan helpless, but he single-handedly stole a point from Atlanta United FC. The technique, power and motion on Glesnes’ upper-90 screamer? Divine. — Hajducky

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Jakob Glesnes nets an incredible equalizer in stoppage time to earn the Philadelphia Union a point vs. Atlanta United.

Seattle was piling it on against Portland earlier this month when Jimmy Medranda blessed us all with this strike that seems like a physics violation. — Bonagura

– After a few years in the wilderness, Real Salt Lake‘s Rubio Rubin reannounced himself in style with an unbelievable bicycle kick against San Jose back in May. While the acrobatic finish was a sight to behold in itself, the entire sequence adds to the goal’s brilliance: a long throw, a flick-on header, a brilliant bit of control by Rubin with his chest, an overhead kick and the ball flying into the top corner of the net without ever touching the ground. Simply sublime. — Elvin

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Real Salt Lake’s Rubio Rubin scores possible goal of the year with an incredible strike late in the first half.

BREAKTHROUGH PLAYER

-At just 17 years old, San Jose Earthquakes youngster Cade Cowell still has plenty of developing to do, but he’s shown flashes at different points throughout the season that he has superstar potential. This pass is one of the most impressive pieces of skill by anyone in the league this year. Two others have been even more productive: New England’s (and Club Brugge-bound) Buchanan, 22, and FC Dallas striker Ricardo Pepi, 18. Both played their way into their respective national teams (Canada and the United States) and have taken the all-important next step in their development. — Bonagura

– FC Dallas have a luminary in 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi. Pepi prophetically netted a hat-trick in his pro debut for USL League One side North Texas SC and hasn’t stopped scoring since. He spot-started in 2020, averaging around 26 minutes a game, but he’s announced himself this campaign. Pepi, the dual-national born in El Paso to Mexican parents, was also just named to the U.S. men’s national team roster after scoring the victory-clinching spot-kick in the MLS All-Star Game shootout, a cherry atop the sundae that is Pepi’s 2021 so far. He’s tallied 11 goals on 44 shots (54.5% of shots on target, best in MLS with a minimum of 35 shots) and has the likes of Bayern Munich and Juventus fawning. Enjoy him while you can, folks. — Hajducky

Tajon Buchanan has become one of the most electrifying players in MLS during his second season and is a key reason the high-flying Revs have pulled away from the rest of the pack. Buchanan has 10 goal contributions (six goals, four assists) in 17 games this season. He understandably missed the All-Star festivities to fly to Belgium to complete his move to Club Brugge. — Elvin

– As much as I’ve been impressed by Cowell, the impact of Ricardo Pepi for Dallas has been greater. Not only has he pushed a Designated Player striker (Franco Jara) to the bench, but his 11 goals are about the only things keeping Dallas in the playoff race. And his recent call-up to the U.S. national team has him earmarked for even bigger things this season and beyond. – Carlisle

BEST DEFENDER

– This selection is admittedly heavily influenced by how he performed in the Gold Cup, but despite Atlanta’s struggles, Miles Robinson has proven he’s the real deal and worthy of a European move at some point soon. He is back with the U.S. national team for its upcoming World Cup qualifiers. — Bonagura

– Seattle has the league’s best defensive unit thus far, and in a backline with plenty of interchangeable parts, Yeimar Andrade has been one of the constants (despite a recent blunder against Portland). He has been solid with his distribution and dominant in his ability to win the ball. Individually, he leads the league in interceptions (66) and has won 66.5% of his duels. Walker Zimmerman has impressed as well for a stingy Nashville side. — Carlisle

New York Red BullsKyle Duncan has been a Swiss Army knife this season, with 60-plus tackles, 40-plus interceptions and 75 aerial duels. RBNY might be languishing at 12th in the East, but the team has only conceded 25 goals in 20, five of those in the first two games of the season back in April. Duncan, in the final season of his contract, has interest from clubs in France and Belgium. If there were more offensive firepower coming out of Red Bull Arena, Duncan might be gone already. — Hajducky

BEST GOALKEEPER

– New England’s Matt Turner is the best keeper in the league and the front-runner for the award, but William Yarbrough is quietly performing at a very high level for Colorado. His save percentage (77%) ranks third in the league (min. 11 appearances), his 8 clean sheets rank second and he’s played a significant role in Colorado’s ascent to becoming an MLS Cup threat. — Bonagura

This choice comes down to the Philadelphia Union’s Blake or New England’s Turner. Despite Turner’s magnificent summer for both club and country, Blake gets the nod in that according to ESPN Stats & Information, Blake’s save percentage is better (77.3 percent to 75 percent), as is his goals prevented mark (Expected Goals on Target Conceded / Goals Conceded), which is 6.19 compared to Turner’s 4.09. — Carlisle

– Despite having one of the youngest sides in MLS, the Philadelphia Union remains in the hunt in the Eastern Conference and the biggest reason why is Andre Blake. The Jamaica No. 1 has eight clean sheets, and among goalies who have played more than 15 games, Blake ranks third in save percentage (76.7%). Consistently one of MLS’ best goalkeepers, the 30-year-old could be poised to a win a record third MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Award in 2021. — Elvin

– There are biases at play. The first is recency, with Turner’s Gold Cup heroics fresh in mind and no MLS backstop preventing more goals than his 15.01 since the beginning of 2020. The second is less granular: Turner was a standout at Fairfield University, where I nearly committed out of high school and, ultimately, where I got my MFA. (Go Stags.) But man, what a season Philly’s Blake is having: 18 goals allowed, 7.27 goals prevented (best in MLS), a 76% save percentage and tied for second with eight clean sheets. Blake won the 2020 crown and with another, he’d have three, breaking the all-time record. Fitting for one of the league’s all-time best. — Hajducky





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