The 2018 Major League Soccer season has reached its midway point, and as many predictable trends have emerged, the season to date has been dominated by some big surprises.
Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders won the past two MLS Cup finals, so few would have imagined them both struggling the way they have this season. TFC made a run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, meaning an early-season hangover in league play was to be expected, but to still be sitting closer to the bottom of the standings in the Eastern Conference than the top is one of the most shocking aspects of the current campaign.
Atlanta United leading the pack doesn't come as much of a surprise, what with the offseason additions of Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco. You can also point to stars Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez having a full season in MLS under their belts, with year two showing the pair to be the most dangerous tandem in the league.
Los Angeles FC has come out flying in its first season of existence, and while it isn't a complete surprise that Bob Bradley would have the expansion team playing well, LAFC has exceeded expectations, playing some of the best soccer in the league. The scary thing is LAFC should only get better as the season rolls on, with some midseason additions already making impacts and Bradley building a roster as talented as any in the league.
Which teams have emerged as surprises so far? The New England Revolution have blossomed under first-year coach Brad Friedel, Real Salt Lake has shaken off some early-season struggles to establish itself as a playoff contender, and Montreal has climbed out of a woeful start to 2018 as Remi Garde appears to be steering the Impact toward a run at the postseason.
But who have been the league's best in the first half of 2018? Here are Goal's selections for the MLS awards at midseason:
MVP: Miguel Almiron, Atlanta United
Some might consider Almiron and Martinez to be a tandem you can't break up when talking MVP, but as impressive as Martinez's goal-scoring rate has been, Almiron is the engine that truly drives Atlanta United's relentless attack. The Paraguayan playmaker has recorded eight goals and nine assists, making him the only player in MLS in the top 11 in both categories. His speedy runs, uncanny vision, and deadly moves make him almost unplayable in the open field.
Martinez is on pace to shatter the MLS goal-scoring record and if he keeps knocking them home at this rate he will be a good bet to beat his teammate for MVP honors. New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips is also a very worthy contender in the MVP race, especially if you factor in his efforts in CONCACAF Champions League play.
A player who deserves more consideration in the MVP conversation is Maxi Moralez, who has been a consistent standout in the New York City FC attack.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, LA Galaxy
Though he may not have the LA Galaxy in playoff position just yet, it's hard to argue with the impact the Swedish superstar has already had since arriving in MLS. Ibrahimovic has yet to crack 1,000 minutes played, but is currently tied for second in MLS in goals with 11, to go with three assists, all while working his way back to full fitness from the major knee surgery that preceded his arrival.
Carlos Vela is sure to garner his share of votes in the best MLS newcomer conversation, with the Mexican star putting up seven goals and five assists prior to leaving for the World Cup, where he put in a strong showing for El Tri. If you factor in his World Cup performance, Vela is the clear winner of this award.
Vela could have serious competition for this honor on his own team, with forward Adama Diomande clocking an insane nine goals and three assists in just seven appearances. Those numbers should only keep rising as Vela and new signing Andre Horta join the LAFC attack.
New England's Cristian Penilla and New York Red Bulls playmaker Kaku also merit consideration for this honor, as does NYCFC forward Ismael Tajouri-Shradi.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Bob Bradley, LAFC
There are several worthy contenders for the top coaching nod through the first half, but what Bradley has done with an expansion LAFC side has been incredible. LAFC has registered more points through the first half of an expansion season than any team in MLS history, all while playing some of the most attractive soccer in the league.
Most other seasons, Brad Friedel would be a runaway pick for top coaching honors after taking over a New England team in need of a shake-up. He dealt with Lee Nguyen's departure, installed a new playmaker in Diego Fagundez, and gave Matt Turner the chance to shine. Now the Revs are in playoff position and looking much tougher than they did a year ago.
Jesse Marsch may already be out the door as New York Red Bulls coach, but his work in the first half of 2018 can't be ignored. He led the Red Bulls to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, then helped his team jump right back into the race for the league's best record.
Gerardo "Tata" Martino has to be mentioned as well because, even though Atlanta United isn't exactly surprising anyone with its excellent play, the Argentine has still had to integrate new players and adjust systems at times to deal with missing stars, all while formulating a new system to account for the departure of Carlos Carmona prior to the season.
GOALKEEPER OF THE YEAR: Matt Turner, New England Revolution
Before the 2018 season began, Turner was third on the New England depth chart, but Revs officials had been lauding his talents for some time. Turner has repaid Friedel's faith by stepping in and emerging as the league's top netminder. His imposing presence and acrobating shot-stopping ability make him a force in the penalty area that has helped the Revs improve defensively by a considerable margin.
Sporting KC's Tim Melia isn't posting the same absurd stats he posted on his way to winning the goalkeeper of the year award in 2017, but that's more to do with his team's defensive woes than his own efforts. Melia has maintained a high level and could still challenge for his second straight award.
Columbus Crew standout Zack Steffen was the frontrunner for this award heading into June, but after missing some matches, and with the Crew's previously impenetrable defense began showing cracks, his standing began to weaken. If he and the Crew can regain their early-season form, Steffen will definitely be in the conversation.
New York Red Bull Luis Robles continues to be Mr. Reliable and is almost taken for granted as one of the league's best, but he is in the midst of an excellent season and could easily be a finalist for the award when the season ends.
DEFENDER OF THE YEAR: Laurent Ciman, LAFC
The 2015 MLS defender of the year, Ciman has joined LAFC and become the leader and defensive anchor Bradley hoped he would be. The Belgian central defender has not only been strong defensively, he has become an attacking weapon on set pieces as well, producing three goals.
Matt Hedges is another former winner of the award who is in contention for a second honor. FC Dallas has allowed the second-fewest goals in the league and Hedges is a key reason for that as the focal point of a reconstructed back-line.
The stingiest defense in MLS belongs to the New York Red Bulls, and as much as the defense's track record is a group effort, Aaron Long has been the most important member of that defense, though both Kemar Lawrence and Tim Parker are also building cases for MLS Best XI.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Corey Baird, Real Salt Lake
There haven't been a ton of rookies to contribute regularly this year, but no rookie has become a more important part of a team in a playoff position than Baird, the Stanford University product and Real Salt Lake homegrown player signing. Baird has developed into an impact starter in the RSL attack, contributing five goals and two assists.
After a red-hot start to the season, Chris Mueller hasn't scored a goal since April, but the University of Wisconsin product remains a regular starter for Orlando City and should be one of Baird's biggest competitors for top rookie honors.
LAFC's Joao Moutinho came in with plenty of expectations as the top pick in the 2018 MLS draft. The Portuguese-born defender, who rose through the University of Akron ranks, started the season well and more recently has pushed his way into some more starts on a loaded LAFC team.
Montreal's Ken Krolicki is quietly having himself a solid rookie campaign, and has easily been one of the early steals of the 2018 MLS draft as a third-round pick contributing regular starts for a resurgent Impact side.