With only six matches left in the 2015 season for most teams, we need to start discussing and formalizing just who should be in consideration for the end of the year awards such as the Golden Ball (Most Valuable Player) award, Young Player of the Year, and Coach of the Year. The next month will solidify the reputation of some in and give others the chance to bully their way into the conversation. The results of the postseason will determine what names stay lodged in the minds of supporters and, most likely, the winners. But for now, let’s give due consideration to those who have on merit earned praise beginning with the manager.
Coach of the Year
Inevitably, the Coach of the Year will most likely come down to the two facing off in the championship match. As of today, the top four teams are New York Cosmos, Ottawa Fury, Minnesota United, and Tampa Bay Rowdies. While the top three in the league has been set for some time now, the fourth position is under threat from the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, FC Edmonton, and Atlanta Silverbacks. This means that we have to look at the managers of seven of the eleven teams in the league as potential candidates, so working backwards, let’s review them.
Atlanta Silverbacks manager Gary Smith has overseen a resurgence with the team’s forwards: Pedro Mendes has 7 goals and 2 assists, Junior Burgos has three goals and assists, and Jaime Chavez has recaptured his form leading to 5 goals and 7 assists. Much of this is due to the squad’s adoption and command of the 3-5-2 formation, something done in a relatively short time. Smith’s trio of centerbacks (Simon Mensing, Rauwshan McKenzie, and Paul Black) have quietly been more than adequate while converted wingbacks Kosuke Kimura (usually a fullback) and Kyle Porter (typically a winger) have created chances and carried more than their share of water in defense. Even though players getting hot at the right time is a factor, Smith should bear the brunt of credit for getting the most out of the players.
Being league owned means that every time the Silverbacks step on the pitch the opposition can rightfully view them as dead men walking. Atlanta has refused to be cowed having instead focused on playing to the best of its ability. This has translated to the team knocking on the door of the playoffs for nearly the entire Fall. Atlanta has a hard schedule to finish out the season (San Antonio, the New York Cosmos twice, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Minnesota United, and Ottawa Fury) split evenly home and away. If Smith is able to pick up full points against San Antonio and Tampa, while at least earning a point or more over its match-ups against the big three (MNU, NYC, OTT), then I think Atlanta makes the playoffs. Even if Atlanta miss the playoffs, this season has been a solid one for the under pressure franchise and Smith deserves credit.
Colin Miller has been quietly trying to make FC Edmonton relevant. Results have been mixed, often maddeningly so. Unlike Atlanta which is facing an existential crisis with a MLS expansion team setting up shop in its city, Edmonton in Far Alberta have no real excuse for its struggles. A team that last year had a defense that was near impossible to crack has this season turned into one of the most porous in the league.
Yet Edmonton’s star player, left winger Lance Laing is enjoying perhaps his best season for both club (7 goals and 7 assists) and country (the Jamaican international has been a regular with his national team during its Copa America and Gold Cup runs). Forward Tomi Ameobi when healthy has been a goal-scoring machine. But health has been an issue for Ameobi, keeping him to having only played twelve games this season, and yet, he’s tied with Laing for the team lead in goals. Miller has at once squandered and brought out the talent in his players while making some excellent signings that ought to pay off any time now… But none of that makes him Coach of the Year candidate, only making the playoffs would.
Gunter Kronsteiner’s return to the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers has coincided with its resurgence in the league. There is no possible way to not see the connection between the two. In fact, it would almost make sense to simply think of Kronsteiner’s time away from the club as a sabbatical or some horrible dream. With his return, the team has been able to completely turn around its season going from a squad that lacked presence, identity, and was sinking like a stone in the standings to one pounding on the door of the playoffs.
It is through Kronsteiner’s cultivation the Strikers’ Brazilian faction has bloomed. Stefano Pinho has rocketed to the top of the league’s goal scorers (12) just as attacking midfielder Marlon Freitas and rightback PC have found their footing as well. Defensive consistency has been the bugbear for Ft. Lauderdale, but with the addition of defensive midfielder Hendry Thomas, left midfielder Gabriel, and the return from injury of star leftback Jonathan Barrajo, Kronsteiner has been able to shore up the squad. The Strikers are unbeaten over seven games (5-2-0), and as the season closes out, it has one of the easiest schedules (facing Minnesota United twice will be a challenge but the rest are teams are from the bottom third of the league). Even though he has only been managing the team for roughly a third of the season, Kronsteiner has to be in the Coach of the Year conversation for the remarkable turnaround he has orchestrated.
The firing of Thomas Rongen as manager of the Tampa Bay Rowdies caught many in the league by surprise. Although no one could argue the Rowdies weren’t underperforming, many and most inside and outside of Tampa felt Rongen was hard done. Rongen’s successor, former assistant Stuart Campbell now helms the Rowdies and fortunes haven’t exactly improved even though they haven’t worsened. The entire situation makes one doubt the validity of the decision to release Rongen. Tampa Bay may very well continue its middling, seesaw form to limp into the playoffs. If this happens, it will be more despite Campbell than because of him. That’s not because Campbell isn’t a good manager.
Rowdies players have been under-performing and inconsistent. For every brilliant assist from midfielder Georgi Hristov, there’s a botched clearance or two poor finishes that negate any gains. The team’s form demonstrates this—the last five matches have seen only seven points collected. Even when the team pulls off a major upset like when it handed the New York Cosmos only its second loss of the season, it still fails to capitalize on that success like when it got shutout by FC Edmonton the next week. Campbell will face the lowly Jacksonville Armada and Indy Eleven before getting giants Minnesota United and Ottawa Fury. He must make sure his team takes full points from all the teams below them in the standings or else the postseason will slip away. Campbell will have to not only keep Tampa Bay in the playoffs but also make it to or win the championship to be a serious contender for Coach of the Year.
Minnesota understands the expectation to win and the consequences of failing to meet those expectations from every possible angle. In 2011, Minnesota clawed its way into the postseason becoming champions. The following year saw it return to the final but lose. In the first year of its re-brand as Minnesota United, the team never found its footing failing to reach the playoffs against expectations. Last season, the man who has overseen all these iterations of Minnesota, manager Manny Lagos crafted a team that won the Spring and continued to dominate the Fall (coming second) to be overall champions. Yet Minnesota United failed to reach the final. Even though Lagos won Coach of the Year last season, I am certain not making it to the championship still burns in his belly. With four of its remaining six matches at home, it’s more than possible for Minnesota to climb past the Ottawa Fury to win the Spring. Gaining homefield advantage for the semifinals would not only increase Minnesota’s chances of advancing to the final but it would position Lagos to be a victory away from picking up his second consecutive award.
Marc Dos Santos
Even though we all know that Ottawa Fury manager Marc Dos Santos is leaving Ottawa after the season’s end for MLS pastures, the performance he has been able to coax out of his team has him as one of the favorites for the Coach of the Year award. Since its inception and entry into the league, Dos Santos has made the Fury his team. How the team will define itself once he leaves is a question for another day.
Goalkeeper Romuald Peiser has been astounding while the defensive line in front of him that Dos Santos has assembled has matured and gelled into nearly impenetrable wall (only eleven goals allowed over the Fall). Even though goal scoring has been an issue, this Fall has seen three four-goal games by the Fury. Part of that has been the coming into form of journeyman central midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic, who has three assists and a goal over his last two matches. Ottawa will make the playoffs. Even if the Fury don’t win the championship or advance in the postseason, Dos Santos still has the inside track to leave Ottawa with an award under his arm.
New York Cosmos manager Gio Savarese has only lost eleven matches out of sixty-five since arriving joining the NASL in 2013. Mull that over. This year, Savarese has only lost three matches and tied the league record for longest home winning streak. It is shocking how casually successful the New York Cosmos have been. Even though the club has made waves by bringing in international superstars (albeit at the tail end of their careers a la MLS) like Marcos Senna and Raul, they have shown a commitment to developing young talent. Savarese snagged Leo Fernandes this season allowing the 24 year old left midfielder the minutes he needs to bloom, and then there’s the promise of 17-year old Haji Wright who has shown glimpses of brilliance.
The Cosmos will be in the playoffs having won the Spring. The team will be favorites going into the postseason and are the team to beat. If Savarese is able to guide his team to the final to raise the championship trophy for the second time, then he will have earned Coach of the Year.