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Looking Back on the USSF D2 League Awards

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Whitecaps defender Greg Janicki may be the only man ever to grow <em>smarter</em> after a serious head injury. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Whitecaps defender Greg Janicki may be the only man ever to grow smarter after a serious head injury. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

Earlier today, the USSF finished the process it began on Wednesday by announcing the last of its award winners for the 2010 USSF Division Two Pro League season. Two Whitecaps, Greg Janicki and Jay Nolly, walked away with individual honours, while Martin Nash was also inducted into the league's top eleven. Getting two major award winners and three players in the first eleven for a team that finished fifth in the standards may seem a bit of a stretch, but for the most part the Federation picked their winners well. There are no stunning "how did they choose him?" revelations and every single award winner was at least a strong contender in everyone's book.

That doesn't mean I can't get to arguing, though.

Award time is one of my favourite times of year, and just as I bickered with the Whitecaps' own selections, so I will now take my fight to the United States Soccer Federation itself. There is nothing I enjoy more than telling a bunch of professional soccer observers and coaches why they're wrong and why I, who buys his own tickets to the games because nobody could be stupid enough to pay me to go, am always right.

That may not have been the best pitch I could come up with. But after the jump, Eighty Six Forever's answer to the USSF D2 awards for the 2010 soccer season.

Goal Scoring Champion
They Say: MF Ryan Pore, Portland
But I Say: MF Ryan Pore, Portland

Well, I mean, he had more goals than everyone else. That one's kinda a tap-in putt.

Defensive Player of the Year
They Say: DF Greg Janicki, Vancouver
But I Say: DF Greg Janicki, Vancouver

See, this is the hazard of writing an article devoted to telling the award voters why they're wrong. Sometimes, they're right. The irony of the league selecting Janicki as the league's defender of the year while the team itself selected the now-released Nelson Akwari is not lost on me, believe me. But since in my team award post I pimped Janicki as Vancouver's defender of the year, and since Vancouver had the league's best defense, it's difficult for me to argue with Janicki. Certainly, none of the second division defenders I saw this year topped Janicki for durability, consistency, and all-round play.

I find comparing defenders between teams particularly tough: there's no convenient statistical measurement for defenders the way there are for strikers, and a defense corps relies oh-so-heavily on the other defenders and the midfielders that individual evaluation is always tricky. Put Janicki on Miami FC's back four this season and there's no way he's up for this award. But I will say that when scorers who gave the rest of this league fits came after Greg Janicki, they didn't get anywhere. From Ryan Pore on down, Janicki was capable of neutralizing the best of them, and while he had a lot of very capable help he was also the steadiest hand on the back line. That's the highest praise I can give.

Rookie of the Year
They Say: FW Max Griffin, Austin
But I Say: FW Bright Dike, Portland

23-year-old former UCLA Bruin Max Griffin had a fine season at striker for the Austin Aztex. He buried eleven goals, added five assists, and in spite of his strong collegiate scoring record was a major surprise. No small part of the reason Austin had a successful regular season, Griffin deserves major credit and is a worthy contender for this award.

I say contender, though, not winner. I dwelt on Rochester goalkeeper Neal Kitson and even Cornelius Stewart, but they both just played too few games at a reasonable but not remarkable level. To me the winner is Portland's Chinedu "Bright" Dike, another 23-year-old striker fresh off another successful collegiate career. There's not much to choose between Dike and Griffin, and certainly Griffin's posted a superior scoring record. Griffin played five more games than Dike to score one more goal, but he also had five more assists. They're both the same age. Both players benefited from having successful scorers as teammates in Ryan Pore and Eddie Johnson. It's certainly close between them, but on paper Griffin seems to have the edge.

My choice of Dike is not picked on their scoring punch, for they are very similar scorers. It's that Dike is a better all-round player than Griffin. In what I've seen of them both this year, Griffin is a magnificent poacher. He ranges forward and beats inferior players like a veteran. His ball striking is magnificent. There's a lot to like about young Maxwell. But Dike, whose ball striking may be only a little bit worse, is also a superior defensive player to Griffin. He ranges back more readily, can generate more of his own chances, and through they're both the same size Dike is more capable of physically dominating defenders and midfielders. I can hardly object to the choice of Griffin, but Dike would still be my pick.

Coach of the Year
They Say: Bob Lilley, Rochester
But I Say: Martin Rennie, Carolina

In the Coach of the Year voting, the Federation went with the time-honoured strategy of "pick the coach of the team that finished in first". Bob Lilley's a fine coach who's been leading winners in the second division for a lot of years. But the Rochester Rhinos were not exactly the toughest coaching assignment he's ever had. A solid, deep team, short on superstars but anchored by fine players at every position. He had veterans up and down the lineup, depth that would make anyone blush, and next-to-no weak points. Rochester's veterans seem to be able to kick butt forever and even their kids, like Tyler Bellamy and Neal Kitson, have been of a very high standard. Don't be fooled by their lack of big names: Rochester was a serious team up and down the lineup. They also benefited from a superb home crowd and the best home field advantage south of Portland and north of Puerto Rico. Coaching a team of solid veterans like that to regular season success and playoff disappointment isn't anything to be taken lightly, but it's not Coach of the Year material.

My vote instead goes to Martin Rennie, second-year coach of the Carolina Railhawks. Last year's Railhawks team was very competent, of course, finishing second in the old USL First Division regular season before going out to the Vancouver Whitecaps in the playoffs. Rennie's Railhawks boast a goalkeeper pulled off the scrapheap in Cleveland City who has improbably blossomed into a borderline star, a 33-year-old captain who has played for seemingly every failed second-division entry in the central United States since 1998, a vast array of international players from Africa, southeast Asia, the Middle East, the British Isles, eastern Europe, and of course that soccer hotbed Malta, and hardly a single player who had been anything more glorious than fringe garbage before Rennie and the Railhawks got them. Many of Carolina's core players followed Rennie over from the Cleveland City Stars, a club that didn't exactly re-define success on or off the field. None of Carolina's players are bad, certainly, but watching that team's results through the regular season and playoffs have left me constantly wondering how they're doing it. That's the sign of a good coach in my books.

Goalkeeper of the Year
They Say: GK Jay Nolly, Vancouver
But I Say: GK Bill Gaudette, Puerto Rico

The Vancouver Whitecaps allowed fewer goals than anyone else in the league. Jay Nolly played all but eight minutes in goal for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Yeah, I can see where they're coming from. But everything I said up above about choosing the best defender goes double when you're choosing the best goaltender: it's easy to look good when you have a sterling-silver defense keeping every attack to the outside and shutting down the opponent's best strikers. Having just said that the Whitecaps defense had neutralized the league's best attacking options, I can hardly then credit Nolly for picking off the cherries of those neutralized threats. Besides, although Nolly was quite good, this was hardly his best season and he was prone to the occasional mistake.

I thought about Steve Cronin, from the Portland Timbers, but passed him over for the same reason I said no to Nolly. Other good defensive teams, like the Rochester Rhinos and Carolina Railhawks, platooned their goalkeepers too frequently to really appoint one "the star". When I look for a goalkeeper of the year, I'm not looking for safe hands behind a brick wall of a defense. I'm looking for somebody who makes fans say "if we lost him, we'd be screwed". That leaves Bill Gaudette of the Puerto Rico Islanders. Puerto Rico's once-stable, veteran defense has been a positive froth of turnover, failed experiments, old stars past their sell-by dates, and new pups not yet blooded. They've never been a disciplined team, and this year, with a talented offensive squad, they played a strongly counter-attacking style that won them plenty of chances but could expose them in the back. The Islanders were a middle-of-the-road team in terms of goals conceded, but with that defense and that style of play, they'd have been a lot worse if not for Gaudette's constantly reliable and often spectacular goalkeeping. Without him they would not have made the playoffs, and if they were dropped in anyway they wouldn't have advanced past the first round. That's a goalkeeper of the year in my books.

Most Valuable Player
They Say: MF Ryan Pore, Portland
But I Say: MF Ryan Pore, Portland

Boy, it's hard to be contrary when the other guys are so clearly right.

Of course Ryan Pore was the most valuable player. It could hardly go any other way. An attacking midfielder who leads the league in goals and adds a basketful of assists. The star that stirred the drink, both setting up plays and finishing them off, on a team that led the league in shots. Sometimes it's easy for offensive players to get more than their due when keeping a goal out is every bit as valuable as putting one in. But Pore was so clearly, so tremendously head and shoulders above the defenses he contended with that picking somebody else as most valuable player would be contrarianism for the sake of it rather than an intelligent argument.

If I strain myself, I can think of other contenders. Luca Bellisomo, in Vancouver, was really, really good. Montreal's Ali Gerba probably would have taken the Most Valuable Player honours had he played a full season. I already tapped Bill Gaudette for Best Goalkeeper and he could have gone for MVP as well. These are just arguments, though, thrown at the wall that is Pore's credentials. He deserves the award and by a clear margin.

Best XI of the Year
They Say:
GK: Jay Nolly (Vancouver)
DF: Greg Janicki (Vancouver), Aaron Pitchkolan (Rochester), Troy Roberts (Rochester)
MF: Ryan Pore (Portland), Martin Nash (Vancouver), Jamie Watson (Austin), Paulo Araujo, Jr. (Miami), Daniel Paladini (Carolina)
FW: Eddie Johnson (Austin), Ali Gerba (Montreal)

But I Say:
GK: Bill Gaudette (Puerto Rico)
DF: Greg Janicki (Vancouver), Philippe Billy (Montreal), Wes Knight (Vancouver), Ian Joy (Portland)
MF: Ryan Pore (Portland), Martin Nash (Vancouver), Daniel Paladini (Carolina), Tyler Rosenlund (Rochester)
FW: Ali Gerba (Montreal), Eddie Johnson (Austin)

Not a tonne of major changes. Of course I changed goalkeepers, as I discussed above. I switched the formation from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 because I could think of more defenders I'd rather have on the team than midfielders (I dwelled hard on both Pitchkolan and Roberts, too: this was a 5-3-2 for about ten minutes and I nearly snuck Pitchkolan as a midfielder after that). I might hear about it from Montreal fans for taking Philippe Billy: he got a rap early in the season for being out-of-shape, lazy, and tempramental but every time I saw him my God the man could play; he's way smarter on and off the ball than a left back in the second division has any right to be. By the end of the year, it seemed like most of the Montreal fans were starting to come around but I understand he still has a bit of a hate club. Wes Knight feels intuitively like a homer choice, but I genuinely couldn't think of any right backs this year who brought his all-round game at that consistent level. The addition of Joy, the Timbers captain who I have a lot of respect for, might also be a function of just being exposed to his constant high-level play a lot.

The midfield was in agreement with the exception of dropping Watson and Araujo for Tyler Rosenlund. Araujo felt like getting a player from a bad team onto the best XI: he was good, but nothing spectacular and he got a lot of attention simply because he was the only all-round decent player Miami FC had. Watson was excellent, but Rosenlund was a little cut above as both a reliable attacking force and a surprisingly good defensive midfielder. Had I kept with a 3-5-2, Watson might have made the cut, but as it is he loses to the Canadian boy. At striker, meanwhile, I looked upon what the Federation decided and said "yeah, that's right". I don't expect to hear much argument about it, either.