The Vancouver Whitecaps called Alain Rochat their unsung hero. I'm calling him a lot more than that.
In Saturday's final game, the Vancouver Whitecaps handed out their awards for the 2011 season. It was a spectacular ceremony in the Whitecaps' tradition: the award winners were yelled out over the loudspeaker before the match and then everybody played some soccer.
It made for refreshing continuity between MLS and the second division, since that's exactly what they did last year. However, there were some changes from last year's awards: a few awards removed, a few added, a couple renamed, and this time rookie of the year honours didn't go to a player who had just been cut. Still, as ever with the Whitecaps there were no bizarre awards, nothing I could really take issue with. But I could bloody well try.
At the conclusion of last season, I ran a similar exercise. Of the five players I gave awards to four have subsequently been cut or traded for magic beans, so this isn't exactly the highest honour in sports. However, with another Vancouver Whitecaps year in the books, now's the best time to hand out our own annual awards.
Today, the Eighty Six Forever Vancouver Whitecaps awards look at the real prizes: our votes for the team awards already given out by the Whitecaps organization. At some point in the future we'll also hand out the more idiosyncratic awards, given to those players who really shouldn't be too honoured to have won. Today, though, we're playing it straight.
No defensive player of the year? Seriously? Given that the Whitecaps conceded the third-most goals in Major League Soccer I can see not wanting to dwell on the defense too much but at the same time "defender of the year" is just about the most routine award you can hand out these days. And we were, after all, only third-worst: under Teitur Thordarson and at times under Soehn this team was positively decent defensively! Surely the workhorses behind the ball deserve some credit.
So screw you, Whitecaps, I'm handing this one out anyway.
There are really only two choices: Jay DeMerit and Alain Rochat. Jonathan Leathers would be a fun off-the-wall pick, since when Leathers was injured you could see how important he was to this lineup simply by keeping Jeb Brovsky out of it. However, DeMerit and Rochat are the serious contenders and I'd be staggered if anyone could disagree.
So who will it be? DeMerit was the vocal leader who earned his armband but he was also hurt more often and had a run mid-season when he was fighting to overcome his groin problems where he was arguably outplayed by Michael Boxall. Rochat suffered being played out of position but, as a centre back, he still played perfectly reasonably. As a left back he was electrifying; probably the best in Major League Soccer at the position. In spite of his out-of-position problems he was probably the Whitecaps' most consistent defender and his peak value was unsurpassed. I give this award to Rochat and by a wide margin.
(Trivia: this is the second year in a row I've awarded this honour to a defender who suffered a bloody facial injury during play. I guess I just have a type.)
The Whitecaps benefited from a few players who were willing to get out into the community. Midfielder Jeb Brovsky was probably the most prominent in recent weeks, and earlier this year Brovsky founded Peace Pandemic, a charitable organization looking to establish peace in our time. Brovsky has been an enthusiastic promoter of this effort and deserves plenty of credit for his worldwide focus.
Brovsky is far from the only Whitecaps player who's doing good work in the community. Defender Bilal Duckett, a Notre Dame alum, is going on a mission trip to Haiti later this year. Winger Shea Salinas has also been highly involved in the community. All three of the players just named, plus defender Jonathan Leathers, worked out with the Canadian Homeless World Cup team earlier this year prior and brought both their knowledge and their publicity to that cause.
I'll agree with the Whitecaps' decision to give the honour to Brovsky because there's no doubt he's worked hard not just to make a difference in the world but also to make a difference among Whitecaps fans. Duckett would also have been an unimpeachable choice. By the way, Brovsky made $42,000 this year and Duckett made $32,600. Not exactly a couple millionaires throwing their wallets around for a tax break...
Oh, please. Like I wasn't going to pick Teibert.
I'm giving Canadian Soccer Jesus the Most Promising Player award over Koffie simply because I'm taking the word "promising" at face value. Teibert, when healthy and not betrayed by Tom Soehn's determination to play Americans over Canadians, was clearly a better young player than Koffie. Koffie was excellent but Teibert was a step... maybe two steps... above. However, Teibert wound up missing most of the second half of the season with a variety of lower-body injuries while Koffie continued to play at a steadily improving level.
Teibert is younger than Koffie and plays at left wing, which tends to be a more difficult to replace position. The only (and I mean only) concern with Teibert is whether he can stay healthy, since injury problems seriously hurt him in 2010 as well... but, then again, Koffie's had a couple injuries the past two years as well and his position can be a high-impact one. I don't object to the Koffie award and almost want to agree with it, but I just can't.
This award is obviously meant to replace last year's Newcomer of the Year award which the Whitecaps gave to Cornelius Stewart and I, taking the word "newcomer" at face value, gave to Terry Dunfield. Therefore I'm giving "Newcomer of the Year" a dignified retirement. Besides, in an expansion season like this it's almost another way of saying "most valuable player".
"Unsung hero" is a tricky award to hand out. The Whitecaps have given it to Alain Rochat, who is clearly a hero... but he's not unsung in my circles. He gets plenty of press from Whitecaps beat writers given that he's neither a forward nor the captain. I just gave him defender of the year, after all, and I don't think there's a well-informed fan in the Whitecaps world who isn't full of admiration for Rochat and all that he brings to this team. I have an annoying suspicion that "Unsung Hero" and "Defender of the Year" may sort of overlap: "best player on the team who doesn't score goals except when Troy Perkins is tripping balls during a free kick", something like that.
I agree with the spirit of giving Rochat a gong but I just gave him one. Gershon Koffie is a good candidate in my opinion, since he was one of Vancouver's handful of above-replacement-level players at an underappreciated position. Koffie, a relatively unassuming player who's high on consistency but short on spectacular plays or offensive production, is just the sort of player awards like this are meant to honour. Having just nicked his Most Promising Player award off of him, I can give Koffie this one as compensation.
Jonathan Leathers was Koffie's only serious competitor but at the end of the day I decided you can't be an unsung hero just for being a decent right back who isn't as bad as I feared but could be replaced by anyone who isn't Jeb Brovsky or John Thorrington. If I was feeling smart-assed I could give this award to Mouloud Akloul, who was clearly Vancouver's second-best central defender before Tom Soehn cut him and whose release, not even partially compensated for until the last three weeks of the season, sent the Whitecaps' defense into the death spiral of awfulness we're all familiar with. Similarly, Terry Dunfield's passing backwards looks a lot less offensive compared to Peter Vagenas's all-round masterpiece of shittiness. But no, Koffie is the right call here.
Camilo Sanvezzo is a fine player who had a terrific season. Despite not beginning the year in the starting eleven he finished among the league leaders in goals and, as his defenders point out, generated a couple more for the Whitecaps with his ability to draw penalties. He and Eric Hassli were the only Whitecaps you could count on seeing make the highlight reel, but Hassli (the first-half MVP favourite) was derailed by inconsistency and lack of effort in the dying days of the season.
So why do I take defender Alain Rochat as my MVP instead? My arguments in favouring Rochat over Camilo are two-fold:
Both Camilo and Rochat had to spend significant time this year playing out of their native positions. Rochat, playing centre back, was less effective than he was at left back but still clearly a plus player. He was able to work well with Jay DeMerit and, while aerially he wasn't always everything that could be desired, he was still a quality player. As a centre back, Rochat was never worse than the second-best player at the position behind DeMerit. He was sometimes number one. The problem with playing Rochat at centre back wasn't that Rochat couldn't handle it, it's that he was clearly so remarkable at left back that it was a waste of a brilliant resource.
Camilo, playing left wing, was still a good shooter... but that was all. He couldn't cross, he couldn't keep his position, he cut inside from time to time but if you got him deep around the corner flag he was less of a danger than Shea Salinas. Defensively he gave a good effort but no skill and the opponents moved the ball down his wing at will. Again, his ability to drive the ball into the goal is beyond question... but both Rochat and Camilo put up with some Tommy Dreamer weirdness this season. Rochat adjusted well; Camilo did not.
- Camilo's best assets are that he shoots and he dives. He does both these things very well, probably better than any other Whitecaps player. Good finishers like Camilo shouldn't be underestimated. I can't honestly say, though, that he's as irreplaceable as Rochat: athletic, positionally sound, quality for his position both in the air and on the ground, plays the game clean and seldom risks either suspension or injury. Both Rochat and Camilo are dangerous off free kicks but Rochat a little more so since he can do more than just crank it on goal. Camilo's contributions to the 2011 Whitecaps were both important and spectacular, but Rochat has been a better all-rounder.
If the Whitecaps had lost Camilo at the beginning of the season, Atiba Harris-style, they'd have had to replace him with Long Tan or Omar Salgado or a new signing. That would have been unfortunate and the team would have been worse for it, but it would have been downgrading from a twelve-goal player who can't do much else to a seven or eight-goal player who can't do much else. If the Whitecaps had lost Rochat at the beginning of the season and replaced him with Blake Wagner or La'Vere Corbin-Ong they'd have been screwed.
So I'm taking the player who does five or six things as an 8.5 out of 10 instead of the player who does two things as a 9 out of 10. I'm taking Alain Rochat.