An Early Look at MLS Newcomer of the Year Candidates

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Every off-season, there’s an influx of new players onto the rosters of each MLS team. The degree of that influx tends to depend on how well the team fared the previous season (though not all the time). But there’s always that one player who carries a bunch of hype when he signs, giving fans hope he can either maintain momentum or spearhead a turnaround.

Major League Soccer recognizes those players who make an immediate impact on their club’s fortunes with the MLS Newcomer of the Year Award. The honor goes to non-rookies with previous experience in other professional leagues who put together a standout campaign during their first year in the league. Last year, Nicolas Lodeiro took home the trophy after playing a huge role in the Seattle Sounders unlikely revival that culminated in the team’s first MLS Cup.

With the 2017 season between a quarter and one-third of the way through (depending on your team), it’s an appropriate time to take an early pulse on the frontrunners. Below are the top ten players up to this point in no particular order. That said, the more high profile candidates are at the top of this list with more under the radar players at the tail end.

An Early Look at MLS Newcomer of the Year Candidates

Romain Alessandrini, LA Galaxy

Simply put, the Galaxy are off to a less than stellar start. They began the season at 2-5-2, with the rock bottom moment coming in a 3-0 home shellacking to the defending champion Sounders on April 23rd. As a result, first-year Curt Onalfo finds himself under fire not long after taking over from current USMNT boss Bruce Arena.

Through it all, Alessandrini has been a rare bright spot. The 28-year-old Frenchman has emerged as one of the top wingers in MLS. His six goals are tied for sixth in the league with players such as Jozy Altidore, David Villa and Ola Kamara. And he currently accounts for 43.48 percent of the Galaxy’s goals and assists (he also has four helpers) while on the pitch. That leads MLS among players who’ve seen a minimum of 500 minutes to this point.

Alessandrini notched his second brace of the season in LA’s 3-1 road win over the New York Red Bulls on Sunday. That game may serve as a season-defining moment for the club. But it ultimately will depend, in part, on Alessandrini’s ability to remain dynamic in the final third.

Josef Martinez, Atlanta United FC

It didn’t take long for Martinez to make his mark on the MLS expansion side. In the club’s first three games, the Venezuelan international found the net five times. It included a hat trick in Atlanta’s 6-1 blowout of fellow expansion club Minnesota United FC. The following week, he notched a brace as the team routed the Chicago Fire 4-0. Originally signed as a loanee from Torino in the Italian Serie A, Atlanta made the move a permanent transfer on March 21st.

But then Martinez suffered a quad injury during Venezuela’s World Cup qualifier against Peru (a 2-2 draw) two days later. Since then, he hasn’t seen a single minute of action for his club team. In that time, Atlanta has registered a single win in seven matches. His skill set as a speedy, mobile center forward is clearly a crucial aspect of the team’s identity under manager Tata Martino.

The sooner he returns, the better off Atlanta will be in terms of making a push for the postseason in their first year of existence.

Victor Vazquez, Toronto FC

Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney recently noted that he believes his club is the deepest in MLS history. The fact they’re six points clear in the Supporters’ Shield race despite Sebastian Giovinco missing three games due to injury makes that notion far from hyperbole. And Victor Vazquez is arguably the biggest embodiment.

A product of FC Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, Vazquez recently played for Cruz Azul in Liga MX before signing with Toronto. The 30-year-old Spaniard has immediately made TFC better around goal with his outstanding quality as a provider. He currently leads MLS with eight assists and is currently registering a goal or an assist every 79.44 minutes. To put that in perspective, that’s slightly better than David Villa’s (83.30 minutes).

This award has been good to centrally oriented playmakers. Current MLS stars such as Diego Valeri, Federico Higuain and Lodeiro have won it before. If Vazquez continues his exceptional play, he may well become the next to take home the honor.

Alberth Elis/Romell Quioto, Houston Dynamo

During the last three seasons, Houston finished bottom five among MLS teams in goals scored. It’s a major reason the team missed the playoffs each year and finished dead last in the Western Conference in 2016. That seems a distant memory right now with the Dynamo fourth in the Supporters’ Shield standings. Their 21 goals (tied with Portland for best in the league) are a huge factor in the resurgence.

Nine of them have come from Elis (five) and Quioto (four). The two Honduran wingers have formed a “Catracho Connection” of sorts and wreak havoc from wide areas when they’re on the pitch. The issue for both going forward is staying healthy. Quioto missed two games earlier in the year after sustaining a shoulder injury in World Cup qualifying against the USMNT. And Elis played just 31 minutes last Friday against Vancouver before having to come off due to a hamstring injury.

But at 100 percent, they make up one of the most potent front threes in the league with Erick Torres, who leads MLS with eight goals. All of it is contributing to the Dynamo’s current status as one of the league’s funnest teams to watch. Though only one of them can win it, Quioto and Elis are both on the radar as standout newcomers.

Nemanja Nikolic, Chicago Fire

Speaking of teams with long-suffering fans, the Chicago Fire themselves are in the midst of an awakening. The club currently sits fourth in the East, which even at this point in the season is big considering how frequently they’ve been in the conference basement over the past few years. Though Bastian Schweinsteiger gets many of the headlines, it’s Nemanja Nikolic whose play is most noteworthy in the club’s drive back to relevance.

The Hungarian number nine has almost instantaneously become the centerpiece of the Fire attack. His consecutive two-goal outings currently has him at the top of the MLS Golden Boot standings with ten tallies. In both games, the Fire turned in dominant performances. It included a 4-1 beating of the Sounders on Saturday as well as Wednesday’s 3-0 demolition of the Colorado Rapids.

For the first time in a long while, Chicago looks like a playoff team. Keep in mind this team has qualified for the postseason just once (2012) in the past seven seasons. But if Nikolic can continue finding the net with regularity, the Fire will certainly be in the mix come November.

Christian Ramirez, Minnesota United FC

Ramirez is an interesting case. He certainly qualifies for the award as a non-rookie first year MLS player. But unlike most candidates for the award, his professional career to this point has been spent in the lower levels of the American soccer pyramid. It included a three-year stint in the NASL with Minnesota where he won the league’s Golden Boot on two occasions.

The club’s move up to MLS has been a bumpy one to say the least. Much has been made about their historically leaky defense that, despite efforts to shore it up, is still on pace to concede a record amount of goals. But in the attack, Minnesota is among the more dynamic teams in MLS. Their 14.17 percent shot conversion percentage is fifth best in the league. Ramirez is a big reason why.

The 26-year-old currently leads Minnesota with six goals, a total that has him tied with nine other players in MLS. He’s top ten in the league with 29 shots, and seven of them have come inside the six-yard box. That total is tied with Cyle Larin for the league’s best mark. Soccer fans from the Land of 10,000 Lakes and elsewhere are starting to clamor for Bruce Arena to call him up to the USMNT, and rightfully so.

Gerso Fernandes, Sporting Kansas City

Big things were expected out of Gerso Fernandes when Sporting KC acquired him from Belenenses of the Portuguese Primeira Liga in early January. After all, they signed him to a three-year designated player deal with an option to keep him around for a fourth. In particular, his ability to play out wide as an attacking winger on both sides of the field caught the attention of manager Peter Vermes.

But the Guinea-Bissau native, like his SKC team, experienced a slow start to the season. The club drew three of their first four games (all 0-0 draws) with Fernandes unable to find the net in any of them. But he finally broke through with a 58th minute goal in a 3-1 win over Colorado on April 9th. He added another three games later as SKC shut out Real Salt Lake at home, 3-0.

But it wasn’t until Wednesday’s game against the Sounders that fans saw what Fernandes was truly capable of. With the team out for revenge after last year’s controversial exit from the playoffs in Seattle, their big money signing helped them achieve it. The 26-year-old netted a hat trick during a 13 minute span in the second half as SKC throttled the defending MLS champs by a 3-0 scoreline.

Maximiliano Moralez, New York City FC

NYCFC’s central midfield core needed to get younger in 2017. The now departed Frank Lampard was effective when healthy last year, but he played in only 19 games due to an inability to remain so. And over the first few games of this season, it’s become increasingly evident that Andrea Pirlo is more and more of a defensive liability. As a result, his minutes have suddenly dried up.

Two off-season signings have filled that void rather effectively, Alexander Ring and Maximiliano Moralez. Both have played nearly every minute for the club and each has their own case to be included on the list. Ring has stepped in and functioned as a rock in front of the back line. His 13.35 recoveries, interceptions and tackles per 90 is eighth in MLS among team leaders.

But the edge goes to Moralez for his two-way contribution on the pitch. Not only does he score while also facilitating his teammates ability to do so, he also tracks back and exhibits a great deal of industriousness winning the ball. His four assists is tied with David Villa for the team lead. And only Ring (39) has more tackles than his 25 on the year. Not bad for a player who stands 5’3″ and weighs all of 115 pounds.

Florian Jungwirth, San Jose Earthquakes

Let’s face it. This award tends to favor attack oriented players. Since it debuted in 2007, no defensive-minded player has ever taken it home. So the next three players are long shots. Nevertheless, they all have unique claims as an outstanding newcomer. First up is San Jose centerback Florian Jungwirth.

Much like Houston and Chicago, playoff soccer has proven elusive for the Quakes in recent years. Their last appearance came in 2012. But fast forward to the present and the club currently finds themselves fifth in the West. Defensive solidity has been key, with only four teams conceding fewer goals than their 14 on the season.

Jungwirth, signed from Darmstadt of the German Bundesliga in February, is a significant factor. Advanced stats site currently rates him as the second best player on the team behind Anibal Godoy. Jungwirth excels at reading the game and breaking up the opposition’s distribution. That element of his overall skillset is on full display with his league leading 34 interceptions. He also leads all MLS central defenders with two goals, and added two assists in a 3-0 win over Portland on May 6th.

David Guzmán, Portland Timbers

Sebastian Blanco made the most waves in terms of off-season acquisitions for the Timbers. But 11 games in and Guzmán is clearly the most impactful newcomer as Portland looks to return to the playoffs. Him and Diego Chara have immediately established a great deal of rapport in central midfield. The latter has successfully transitioned to more of an untethered box-to-box role as Guzman sits in front of the back four as a deep-lying number six.

Thus far, Guzman’s ball-winning acumen is on full display. He leads the Timbers with 68 recoveries and is top ten in MLS among players who’ve appeared in at least half of their team’s minutes with 2.8 interceptions per 90. He’s also among the top defensive midfielders from a chance creating standpoint. Only Diego Valeri (24) has more than his 14 key passes while he’s also added a team-leading four assists.

Artur, Columbus Crew SC

Artur is probably the biggest dark horse candidate for Newcomer of the Year. But make no mistake about it, his presence in central midfield has been essential to Crew SC’s revival in 2017. If you count the game against the New York Red Bulls where he broke his wrist one minute in, the Black and Gold went 1-3 as he recovered from the injury.

Much like Chara and Guzman above, Artur and club mainstay Wil Trapp have quickly become a solid defensive midfield partnership. Both excel at getting the ball to their teammates as evidenced by their combined 88 percent pass accuracy. The two are also comfortable at functioning as an engine of distribution in the middle of the park. Their 134 combined passes per 90 equates to a 27.6 percent pass usage rate.

The 21-year-old loanee from Brazilian club São Paulo is among the league’s best players at winning second balls. His 8.13 recoveries per 90 is eighth best among players who’ve logged at least 500 minutes. It speaks to his exceptional spacing, work rate and overall soccer I.Q. Though Justin Meram is the talk of Columbus after his weekend hat trick at Montreal, Crew SC’s playoff hopes will also hinge on their ability to remain stout at the back. Artur’s diligence in breaking opponent forays towards the back line will be a key component moving forward.