The NASL’s Golden Ball is awarded to the most valuable player in the league. Last year’s winner was Minnesota United winger Miguel Ibarra who has since transferred to Club Leon in Mexico’s LigaMX. While the big numbers entice (goals and assists), it would make sense for us all to consider the players who have been the backbones of their team but that don’t have the necessary statistical categories to catch our eye.
In Atlanta, central midfielder Michael Reed as been a rock for his team. Similarly, Neil Hlavaty has been the central midfield marshal for Carolina. Central midfielders like Ft. Lauderdale’s James Marcelin and Minnesota’s Greg Jordan don’t get the sexy stats but their teams would be severely lacking without their presence. Centerbacks and fullbacks deserve more of our attention too. Winger Lance Laing may be the highest profile player for FC Edmonton but centerback Albert Watson has been the heart of the Eddies’ defense. In Minnesota, it’s been Tiago Calvano and in Tampa Tam Mkandawire. Right back Kevin Venegas is always an attacking threat for Minnesota, while Indy Eleven’s Marco Franco and Tampa’s Ben Sweat are two of the best defensive fullbacks in the league.
But when it comes to who should be the most valuable player in the league, the ‘best’ player in the league, decisions have to made. Most of these decisions come down to who scored the goals that lead to victories and who stopped the goals that preserved the win. To my mind, there are three absolute contenders for the award.
Stefano Pinho, Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, forward
In the lead for Golden Boot and as such is also a top contender for the Golden Ball. The 24 year old Brazilian on loan from Fluminense in his first season in North American soccer has shown himself to be accomplished. With fifteen goals and five assists, the young forward has been one of the main reasons that Ft. Lauderdale is still in the postseason hunt. However, Stefano does tend to run either hot or cold. Against San Antonio two weeks ago, he picked up a hattrick but the two matches prior he was a bit of ghost. If the Strikers are going to make the postseason, it will be in no small part to Stefano’s heroics. But while the team has other threats, it’s become a bit too easy for the top teams in the league to close out Stefano and still handle the rest of the Strikers (Minnesota and Ottawa have done it with ease). No matter what, Stefano is having a brilliant season, and one has to wonder if Ft. Lauderdale will make Stefano a permanent signing.
Christian Ramirez, Minnesota United, forward
Last season’s Golden Boot winner will probably not repeat. But Christian Ramirez is making a strong case for this season’s Golden Ball. The beginning of the season was a real test of Ramirez’s character. It opened with the opposition always marking him tighter and closing him down faster. The twenty goal score from a year ago saw his productivity wilt. Add to this the suspicion of a noxious locker room with the disenchanted and now departed winger Jonny Steele and the Summer transfer of last season’s Golden Ball winner, close friend, and attack partner Miguel Ibarra, and one can understand just how unsettled Ramirez could have been. But the young man rose above it, put in the work, won the starting job back, and has been not so quietly going about scoring and creating scoring chances. His eleven goals have come in playing fewer minutes that Ft. Lauderdale’s Stefano and his six assists have shown the Minnesota forward to be more than willing to spread the wealth. Minnesota will face cellar dwellers to close out the season (Indy Eleven and San Antonio Scorpions), so expect Ramirez to make a serious push for his second Golden Boot and his first Golden Ball as he leads his team into the postseason.
Romuald Peiser, Ottawa Fury, goalkeeper
The Golden Glove, the league’s award to the top goalkeeper, will come down to a choice between Ottawa Fury’s Romuald Peiser and the New York Cosmos’ Jimmy Maurer with Peiser having the inside track. It’s rare to include a goalkeeper in the most valuable player conversation that is the Golden Ball award, but without Peiser, Ottawa would not be among the elite teams in the league. With sixty-nine saves in over twenty-four hundred minutes, Peiser has a goals against average of 0.78. The Ottawa goalkeeper is a wall, proven by his league record 648-minute shutout streak this season. It was Peiser who kept the Fury’s defense impervious while the attack slowly revved up; he was the bedrock of the team’s rise to the top of the standings.
The following players have had stellar seasons and will definitely be in contention as their team’s most valuable player. However, should any of them get hot as the regular season comes to close and/or carry that on into the postseason, the calculus of who will win the Golden Ball will change.
- Colin Falvey, Ottawa Fury, centerback
- Jaime Chavez, Atlanta Silverbacks, forward
- Lance Laing, FC Edmonton, left winger
- Justin Davis, Minnesota United, leftback
- Georgi Hristov, Tampa Bay Rowdies, central attacking midfielder
- Leo Fernandes, New York Cosmos, left winger
- Tiyi Shipalane, Carolina Railhawks, right winger
- Billy Forbes, San Antonio Scoprions, right winger