A funny thing happened to Minnesota United on its way into the MLS playoffs for the first time: Its players and coach are in the conversation for most every regular-season award the league presents.
“You’re never going to challenge for an award on a bad team,” said United veteran and 2017 MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara, who’s a threat to win it again with a different team. “Individual success always comes from team success. It’s a good reflection of what guys in our locker room have done this year. Hopefully, we’ll get some guys who will win. Being recognized is a good building block for a franchise.”
With voting by media, players and technical staff starting this week, here are the categories and Loons being talked about:
Defender of the Year
He won it in 2017 with Sporting Kansas City and is back again, maybe this time as the favorite in a category including Atlanta’s Miles Robinson, LAFC’s Walter Zimmerman and others.
The center back leads United defenders in goals scored with three. But more than that, he helped transform United’s culture and its defense, which has allowed 42 goals this season after surrendering 70 and 71 in the team’s first two MLS seasons.
Opara also is the team’s best nominee for league MVP, which is sure to be won by LAFC’s Carlos Vela.
“I can’t think of another defender in the league who has done more than he has,” center back mate Michael Boxall said. “I really can’t.”
Coach of the Year
In the third year of a three-year plan, he has led United to record points (53), victories (15) and shutouts (11) as well as into the playoffs for the first time. He considers LAFC’s Bob Bradley a foregone conclusion in this category.
“I would be very surprised if Bob doesn’t win that,” said Heath, a candidate alongside Philadelphia’s Jim Curtin and NYCFC’s Domenec Torrent, among others. “I said when I got here, let’s see where we are at the end of the third season. The fact is, we have improved. The people upstairs have been patient, which isn’t always the case. If we finish off the season right, you never know.”
Newcomer of the Year
Romain Metanire, Jan Gregus
Former French second-division player Metanire proved himself something of a revelation at right back, particularly early in the season. His attacks down the sideline and accurate crossing passes helped him earn MLS All-Star status.
Gregus has steadily improved since he arrived from Copenhagen in the top Danish division. His pairing with defensive-minded Ozzie Alonso makes them one of MLS’ underrated midfield partnerships.
“Both Jan and Romain have been everything we expected,” Heath said, “and then some.”
Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo, Portland’s Brian Fernandez and Orlando’s Nani are among the favorites.
Goalkeeper of the Year
A former Premier League player acquired last winter from Reading in England’s second division, he is the only United player to play in every MLS and U.S. Open Cup game. He has compiled club records in MLS play for shutouts (11) and saves (126) while allowing 1.27 goals a game with a 73.7 save percentage.
He has been the keeper United sought: one who can keep them in a game — or win it — with one big save, such as the penalty kick he stopped to beat Dallas in July.
Mannone acknowledges he’d like to beat out such competition as LAFC’s Tyler Miller, D.C. United’s Bill Hamid and New York Red Bulls’ Luis Robles.
“A lot,” he said.
“I came here with a few dreams and objectives, and that’s one of them. I want to be the best out there every time I go out. It would mean a lot because of my previous seasons and my work. It would be really nice.”
Rookie of the Year
While teammate Chase Gasper has found his place at starting left back, Dotson has been plug-and-play at multiple positions. He’s been a starter at both outside back positions and a defensive midfielder who probably will eventually replace Ozzie Alonso there.
Colorado’s Andre Shinyashiki — a Brazilian drafted out of the Denver University — is the favorite. Dotson has played in 23 games and started 14 of them, one more start than Gasper.
“Unfortunately for Hassani, he’s behind some quality players,” Boxall said. “He’s got the maturity to know he’s not going to start every game. You could probably pick 20 other teams, 25 maybe where he’d be starting. He’s that good.”
Ethan Finley for Comeback Player of the Year and Lawrence Olum for Humanitarian of the Year.