When the Canadian Soccer Association announced the candidates for BMO Canadian players of the year earlier this week, it didn't set off the usual firestorm of controversy.
This season, consensus for most of the award winners is almost unanimous. Media members who've announced their preferences so far have largely recited the same names. The two highest-profile categories, men's and women's senior players of the year, are set for landslide victories in favour of well-established international goal scorers. You could bet your house on the winners of those two awards, plus the Canadian men's U-20 player of the year, and walk away with confidence.
There's always conventional wisdom for these award ballots, but it's seldom so strong. I've always heard pundits saying "there's only one possible winner", but this might be the first time I've heard them all saying the same names. It's both dispiriting (since we have so few truly first-class contenders for the senior awards) and hopeful (because the interest and attention being paid to these awards, both by the public and by the press, is higher than ever).
I've never been one to kowtow to conventional wisdom, of course, but in this case even I must admit that the obvious choices are usually correct. Usually.
After the jump, my hypothetical ballot for the Canadian players of the year in the men's, women's, U-20 men's, and U-17 men's categories. A reminder that I don't actually get to vote in the youth categories as those are open only to carded Canadian coaches, and the U-17 and U-20 women's categories are omitted because I lack familiarity with the player pool at that level.
Canadian Men's Player of the Year:
If you've spent much time reading this site, you know I'm not going to pick Dwayne De Rosario. I'm dead certain that he'll win, of course: to be frank, there are too many pundits in this country to get their soccer information from reading Wikipedia articles, as well as a sizable contingent who would vote for MeRo even if he scored no goals and defecated on their faces. This year, when De Rosario is actually a strong candidate, he's going to romp to victory.
The basic arguments for De Rosario can be summed up as follows: a) he was the leading scorer and Most Valuable Player in Major League Soccer, and b) he is now the all-time leading scorer with Canada's senior men's national team. My response to point A has already been given: for a supposed MVP he sure didn't make two of his three teams any better. My response to point B is to say that scoring from the spot on penalties drawn by other players while being Rob Friend-level ineffective in the run of play during the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying is not the stuff players of the year are made of.
I prefer to vote for the player who has shown the best and most consistent form for Canada throughout this calendar year. He had a very good MLS season on a good team at a difficult position and he was perhaps the most important player in the knockout stages of the CONCACAF Champions League. I vote for Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson.
Salt Lake's Champions League run was at the beginning of the year: I've talked to a few people about my support for Johnson and they needed a little reminder of it. Once I've gotten Salt Lake's fantastic run to the CCL final back into your head, however, I'm sure you won't forget the leading role Johnson played in almost every game. On this continent's highest club stage, Johnson rose to the occasion.
He was also our best, most consistent player on the national team who was with the team most of the year (sorry, Atiba Hutchinson and Adam Straith). Now, that's not saying a lot, since our national team had a very rough 2011 and Johnson had his poorer moments. But we're talking about the Canadian player of the year, and this matters.
He also had a very strong Major League Soccer season. His is an underappreciated role, and defensively-oriented midfielders who don't make many spectacular plays never get their share of the glory. But Salt Lake might not have a more untouchable player than Johnson; his reliability, steadiness, and his playmaking chops to get the ball into the final third are at the heart of what they do. Their famously silken, high-tempo and high-skill play only works because Johnson provides such solid support. I'm not sure his MLS season was as good as De Rosario's, but add it up with the other factors and Johnson's my candidate.
|3.||D. De Rosario|
In second place I would vote for Victoria's Josh Simpson, whose form with the national team was erratic but has had an excellent couple seasons in the highly competitive Turkish league. De Rosario can go third, for his MLS heroics and as a slight nod to his historical significance. I don't get the Olivier Occean bandwagon at all: his record with Canada was only fair and he spent the first half of this calendar year slowing down slightly in the German third division. Not player of the year stuff.
Canadian Women's Player of the Year:
I wanted to go against the grain on this one. I so wanted to.
Sophie Schmidt was one of the leading players for WPS's troubled magicJack franchise. She was Canada's best player at the FIFA World Cup and has been one of the absolute stars of Canada's 2011 national team campaign. As I said with Will Johnson, her position never gets its share of the credit compared to certain high-profile goal-scoring Canadian strikers I could name. Schmidt had an excellent, excellent season at a young age and it's so promising that technical, savvy players like her are beginning to force their way into our national setup.
Yet, if Christine Sinclair's name wasn't "Christine Sinclair", or I wasn't just a little sick of Sinclair winning every year, I'd have voted for her in a heartbeat. First-team all-WPS, tied with Marta for the league lead in goals and solo league leader in assists, scorer of Canada's only World Cup goal on a highlight-reel free kick against Germany, and terror of CONCACAF defenses. She let the side down slightly in its biggest tournament by being only its third or fourth-best player instead of the best player in the world, but spent the rest of the year tearing into women's soccer with her accustomed speed and strength.
Who am I kidding? Schmidt had an excellent season but Sinclair deserves this award, once again, and there's once again no reasonable way to argue against it. Damn her for making it impossible to be contrary.
Schmidt takes a strong second place on my ballot, of course, and in third is Western New York Flash star Candace Chapman; not her best year for her country, I thought, but she had a strong season with a very good team in WPS and was certainly one of Canada's more consistent playmaking threats.
Canadian U-20 Men's Player of the Year:
Russell Teibert is being written off for this award by almost all parties. I've heard generally well-informed Canadian soccer pundits drop him down with Jonathan Lao into the also-rans because he "was stapled to the bench" later in the season. First, he wasn't stapled to the bench, he was hurt; Tom Soehn didn't have a lot of faith in him but he also didn't get a chance in the last half. It's not like he wasn't good enough.
Much more importantly, we're hearing Matt Stinson being mentioned as a finalist by the same people dismissing Teibert. Stinson played 675 first team minutes this season with Toronto FC. Russell Teibert played 735 first team minutes this season with the Vancouver Whitecaps, split between Major League Soccer and the Voyageurs Cup. It wouldn't be the first time people forgot about the early season by a guy in Vancouver in favour of the late season by a guy in Toronto, but if you're saying Teibert didn't play enough and you're voting for Stinson you're nuts. Teibert also played superior soccer than Stinson for the Canadian U-20 team.
So, naturally, I'm voting for Canadian Soccer Jesus? No, I'm voting for Ashtone Morgan. The Toronto FC left back played over 900 minutes quality for his club, made his debut for the senior men's national team, and actually looked very good in his cameo. Aron Winter's decision to withdraw Morgan from the U-20 team wasn't Morgan's fault and we certainly could have used him.
Toronto fans should take a lot of pride in this list of nominees even if they don't win (which they will). Every candidate is either a member or an alumnus of TFC Academy; yes, even Teibert, who had an orange slice with the Toronto academy before moving to Vancouver and the Whitecaps Residency.
Canadian U-17 Men's Player of the Year:
It's difficult for most of us to vote for the U-17 player of the year awards since, in this age group, players are far from televised senior teams so we only get to see them in big tournaments. (That's probably why the CSA doesn't let us.) Still, this was as good a year as we're going to get, as with the FIFA U-17 World Cup featuring a strong Canadian performance, we certainly got a good look at our young heroes.
Bryce Alderson, my hypothetical vote, is past captain of the U-17 team and the Whitecaps USSDA U-18 team. He's a holding midfielder with a fine playmaker's eye and has been one of the most hyped-up young men in the country since he was fifteen. It doesn't take many games or practices with Alderson to see why: he seems to have his head on a swivel and to have an instinctive grasp of where he needs to be and where the ball needs to go. He's not very tall, actually has a bit of a string-bean build, and would certainly struggle in a system built around "hustle hustle!" and "pressure pressure!"; he's just a good, solid, technical midfielder who happens to have spent his entire young career learning and developing in Canada. He's recently agreed to professional terms with the Vancouver Whitecaps; probably the only player on this list who will play a senior professional game in 2012.
Attacking midfielder Keven Aleman will get a lot of votes for his spectacular play and fancy footwork. He's a quality young player and I have no problem making him second on my list, but I suspect his flash makes him look more dangerous than he actually is. In the U-17 World Cup we sometimes saw Aleman struggling to play his game against bigger, savvier defenders while Alderson was still able to rise to the occasion. I'm sure Keven will learn, and his Real Valladolid experience will be the best thing possible for him. However, it does keep him out of my number one spot.
In third I nearly put highly esteemed Whitecaps Residency central defender Daniel Stanese, who's certainly a good, solid player that has a nice shot at a professional future. However, I think that might have been mostly because I'm so familiar with Stanese; that's the danger of awards like this. I see one set of players more than the others, appreciate their skill, and therefore rate them higher than players I've seen less. On reputation, as well as on U-17 World Cup form, I'll therefore vote for FC Metz's Samuel Piette, who I've never seen play in person but who certainly has all the right buzz and has looked like a standout the few times I've been able to watch him on television.