Saturday afternoon's game was chock full of festivities and flair. There was a military band, a choir, a Beatles tribute combo. There were old Whitecaps and 86ers stars from Carl Valentine to David Morris and across the generations in between. It was a tremendous show, which the game more than lived up to, and the climax of the pre-game celebration was when the Whitecaps named the team's individual award winners for the 2010 season.
I know what you're thinking. "Wait, they named the award winners before the final game of the season? What if Marty Nash scored eight goals and tore out Ryan Pore's throat before spitting it into the Timbers Army with a feral roar?" Actually, I may be the only one thinking that. Certainly, picking your most valuable player and so on before the final game is tempting trouble, but in the event it didn't make much of a difference. The more logical questions are about the actual winners, especially since Nash didn't actually bolster his most valuable player credentials with an act of senseless violence. Who were they? And did they deserve the accolades?
There weren't any particular surprises among this year's Whitecaps award crop. However, there were certainly areas of dispute; winners who are certainly good players but might not have been good enough. This was a pretty good soccer team, even if it didn't look like it a lot of the time, and whenever you pick a list of the best you're going to leave somebody out. So I'll go in search of those overlooked. After the jump, a list of the Whitecaps official award winners, and a list of those who I would choose differently.
Newcomer of the Year
They Say: Cornelius Stewart
But I Say: Terry Dunfield
I have very few rules in life, but one of them is "if you get cut, you can't be the anything of the year." Oh, of course Stewart wasn't really cut, he was just left off the team's competitive roster so we could see once and for all that yes, Jonathan McDonald actually is just that bad. He wasn't cut, it was just that the team didn't want to play him any more this season. Yeah.
I really don't mind Stewart, my sarcasm notwithstanding. The twenty-one year old had some of the best statistics on the team, with two goals and five assists in 1,332 minutes almost entirely at striker. That's probably why Stewart got the award from the Whitecaps brain trust. But, of course, assists are an inherently suspicious statistic in soccer and, in the real run of play, when he was a striker Stewart was markedly unable to help his other strikers score. He was also probably the worst striker on the roster, except perhaps McDonald, at ranging back, holding the ball up, and helping his team in the defensive end. None of this is to diminish his achievements at age twenty-one, but his was not an extraordinary first season.
Dunfield only played seven games since coming over from the English League Two in August, but in those seven games I gave him Vancouver's game ball in two and he was a strong, strong contender for the honours in four of the others. His two goals in 539 minutes made him third on the team in strike rate, behind defender Mouloud Akloul (who played thirty-one minutes and scored once) and striker Randy Edwini-Bonsu. For a midfielder, that is absolutely elite. He is also the best passer on the team and probably beat Blake Wagner as the best defensive midfielder. In short, while he spent very little time in Vancouver, the time he did spend there was so far above his peers that he has to get the nod.
Even if you don't buy this argument, bear in mind that the Whitecaps newcomers also included Zurab Tsiskaridze, Greg Janicki, Blake Wagner, and Nelson Akwari. How Stewart won the award is a mystery to me.
Defender of the Year
They Say: Nelson Akwari
But I Say: Greg Janicki
I could flip a coin between Janicki and Zurab Tsiskaridze, and indeed I backspaced out one name to type in the other more than once as I drafted this article. Akwari is also a very good choice, and you could mount a convincing argument for Wes Knight as well. What I'm saying is that we really had a very good defense. I'm certainly not upset about Akwari being chosen: heck, I'm not sure I'd be upset about any of our regular defenders winning except Willis Forko.
The four are very close, and as such my choice for Janicki over the rest comes because of relatively tangential contributions. Janicki finished tied for the team's lead with four goals: not a defender's most important contribution, but important if all else is equal. Janicki also played 2,113 minutes, second-most on defense behind Wes Knight's 2,276 and almost every one of them very good. He's a better aerial player than Akwari and was generally more reliable. Akwari was very good, but Janicki was just that little inch better.
Blue and White Award
They Say: Mouloud Akloul
But I Say: Mouloud Akloul
The Blue and White Award, given to the Whitecap who made the greatest contributions to the community, is an awfully hard one to judge from outside the Whitecaps family. Certainly, having seen just over half an hour on the pitch this season, he had time to go out into the community rather than, say, playing soccer games.
That said, among the current Whitecaps players Akloul certainly did stand out for his good spirits. He spent Saturday's game, before he got on, kicking it around with the ball boys, chatting merrily, and generally being the most convivial of spirits. He came out to watch the Southsiders - Timbers Army shootout and distributed cans of Pacific Pilsner to the victorious supporters. The only time I've seen Mouloud Akloul this season looking anything but overjoyed to make the days of everyone around him was when he was sprawled on the pitch with a broken ankle.
Again, one can never really tell things from afar. But one can tell that Mouloud Akloul seems to be a pretty good guy.
They Say: Wes Knight
But I Say: Wes Knight
Well, who am I to argue who the fans' favourite player is? Even I can't be contrary enough to tell Vancouver "no, you don't like Wes Knight." Besides, Wes is always the first one out to applaud the supporters and even chat with them when time permits, constantly engages with fans, behaves as if there's nothing he'd rather be doing in the world than playing professional soccer in Vancouver, and is a pretty fair right back into the bargain. He's personable and sociable and always happy to be there. Even if I was pimping Takashi Hirano as a dark horse, there's no way Wes Knight wasn't going to win this and no way he didn't deserve it.
Most Valuable Player
They Say: Jay Nolly
But I Say: Luca Bellisomo
This is going to look like my oddest choice, I know. But believe me, I've got a reason for taking a defensive midfielder/centre back over our starting goalkeeper who played every minute but eight for probably the best defensive team in the second division.
Primarily, I haven't been terribly impressed with Nolly's play this season. He's certainly been omnipresent in the team and he remains one of the better goalkeepers in the second division, but his 2010 season was not on par with his 2009 campaign. I can't think of a single match that Nolly stole for us and I can remember him allowing a couple goals that he'd like back which turned wins into draws. We also began to uncover a real weakness of Nolly's: in wet-weather games, the ball gets away from him awfully easy and he slips around the pitch as his footwork lets him down. I don't want to bash Nolly, who was still good and still deserves a look at the MLS roster in one role or another. But he was not most valuable.
The other main contender is Martin Nash, who tied for the team's lead in goalscoring and was, as ever, our most effective dead ball player and ball distributor (at least until Terry Dunfield joined in the latter case). He got a lot of my consideration and is mentioned frequently by supporters as a Most Valuable Player choice. But Nash loses out to me because he is actively a defensive liability. At 34 years old, Nash's mobility has begun to let him down and as a result he's no longer able to get back in time to help in coverage on counter attacks. This, plus his naturally attacking disposition and relative lack of tackling ability (I can't remember Nash ever being a good tackler, even when I watched him with the national team as a youngster) meant that while he was a major offensive asset, that has to be weighed against how he hurts the team defensively.
My nod goes to Luca Bellisomo because of his unparalleled versatility and remarkable effectiveness. Bellisomo, natively a central defender, started the season in midfield because of a combination of injuries and nobody else, apart from Martin Nash, being qualified to do it. Bellisomo wound up playing twenty-nine of Vancouver's thirty games this season, moving back into central defense when the signings of Alex Elliott, Terry Dunfield, Alexandre Morfaw, and Gershon Koffie meant the Whitecaps had plenty of players to patrol central midfield. He scored two goals, added an assist, and was defensively perhaps our most reliable player day in, day out.
There aren't many professional players out there who can contribute like that: play brilliantly in two very different roles, start the year in one position as one of the league's best midfielders then move back and be one of the league's best defender. The value of Bellisomo can hardly be measured and certainly could not have been replaced: the 23-year-old Canadian gets my nod for the Whitecaps' most valuable player in 2010.