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Ranking the top five contenders for the MLS Newcomer of the Year award

Analyzing the players who have a shot at winning the MLS Newcomer of the Year award.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

We had an international break this week — not a very well-timed one, at that — so there was only one MLS match; Colorado defeated the Dynamo 3-2 in Houston on Saturday.

With just two weeks until Decision Day and the end of the regular season, we’re taking a look at the top five contenders for the Newcomer of the Year award, which was easily won last year by Sebastian Giovinco. This award honors the best-performing player in his first season in MLS; no rookies will be on this list, as they have their own award.

Let’s get going:

5. Shkelzen Gashi (Colorado Rapids)

Gashi was my preseason pick to win this award, but offensive struggles from Colorado and missed games from Gashi hold him back a bit.

Playing as a winger or as a No. 10, Gashi has scored eight goals and picked up four assists, impressive numbers when considering that he won’t play 2000 regular season minutes this season. He is a creative player who is good in possession and can blast a wicked long shot, but he isn’t always great connecting passes into the box.

Gashi’s main weakness is his ability to make that final pass, and how often he is able to get teammates into scoring positions. This point is evidenced by his passing chart from the Rapids’ 1-0 victory against Portland a couple weeks ago.

He is certainly active in Zone 14 — helping Colorado keep possession in important areas — but he mostly fails to create meaningful penetration.

His plain scoring numbers are good enough to get him on the shortlist over some quality players, though. Scoring a goal in a third of your games is a recipe for success.

4. Ashley Cole

Ashley Cole was not expected to step into the LA Galaxy’s roster nine months ago and immediately start performing. After all, he is 35 and hadn’t enjoyed a particularly stellar time with Roma in the Serie A the year before. His previous comments on MLS as a whole and living in Los Angeles (which he has since denounced) did not provide much hope either.

But he has surprised many by stepping directly into the Galaxy’s starting lineup and performing like the best left back in the league — which he arguably is. His pace isn’t top quality, and he can’t run all day anymore, but he has proven to be adept going forward and is perfectly capable of containing some of the best attackers this league has to offer.

The former English national teamer has defied expectations and secured a starting spot on one of MLS’s best clubs. He hasn’t been as good as his backline partner Jelle Van Damme, however.

3. Carlos Gruezo

FC Dallas’s stock of high-quality younger players is rivaled by no team in MLS. Kellyn Acosta, Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman, Jesse Gonzalez, Victor Ulloa, Michael Barrios, and others make up the core of that group. They acquired one player in the offseason who has placed himself near the top, however.

Carlos Gruezo, an Ecuadorian-international defensive midfielder, was signed from a middling Bundesliga club in the winter and has taken a spot next to Acosta in midfield. He starts for the Ecuador national team and is rated by many as one of the best d-mids in MLS.

He is an elite ball-winner and excels playing in a double-pivot system in Dallas’s 4-2-3-1, and allows Mauro Diaz to stay in Zone 14 for as long as possible. His distribution is top-quality as well; he has shown an ability to connect passes to the wings and through the middle to Diaz and Maxi Urruti. He is, in my opinion, one of the select few players in MLS who could step into a Premier League team at any time and perform well.

This player is an impressive talent, and a very impressive signing from FC Dallas, who have made a habit of that.

2. Jelle Van Damme

One of the Galaxy’s three over-30 winter signings, alongside Cole and the recently-departed Nigel de Jong, Van Damme has performed exceptionally well this season at center back; he’s been good enough to earn himself a spot in the Defender of the Year conversation.

The 33-year old Belgian has over 30 caps for his country’s national team and has played for clubs like Anderlecht, Ajax, Werder Bremen, Southampton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Standard Liège. He signed for LA in January as a replacement for Omar Gonzalez, who was sold to Pachuca the month prior.

Van Damme is 6’4” and a dominating presence in the air, giving the Galaxy a threatening presence on set pieces and crosses. He is adept cutting off balls through and reading runs in the central channel, and is often able to step up on players working in Zone 14 and win the ball quickly with size and strength. In addition, he has shown a tendency to sprint forward into space with the ball at his feet, even overlapping wingers at certain times during games.

He’s become a valuable asset for the Galaxy thanks to the above traits, even if he isn’t getting called up the Belgian national team anymore (Laurent Ciman has since taken the reins).

1. Nicolas Lodeiro

Some people may be opposed to a player who arrived midseason winning this award, but unlike Didier Drogba last year, Lodeiro should be an exception.

I encourage you to think back to the Sounders’ situation in mid-July. They were in last in the Western Conference (the Houston Dynamo actually leapfrogged them at one point) and despite Jordan Morris’s success, they were trending downwards. Sigi Schmid was fired — a catastrophic casualty in a dire situation — and no one knew how coax out successful results with the roster at the time.

The constant rumors of Boca Juniors and Uruguay national team starter Nicolas Lodeiro going to Seattle kept Sounders fans hopeful. When Lodeiro finally arrived on July 27th, his presence was immediately felt.

A huge hole had been filled: the creative midfielder position, or the No. 10. Last year, they didn’t need one of those because the striking partnership of Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey was sufficient enough to produce consistent attacking production; this year, with Martins gone, they didn’t have a pair like that up top, and so they needed someone to fulfill the creative void.

Lodeiro is a pure No. 10. He works primarily in Zone 14 and in deeper central areas, but will drift out wide at times as well. He wants possession of the ball a lot and dictates where the Sounders’ offense is situated. His abilities to put balls through and to find smart diagonal runs from Morris are unmatched by anyone in MLS aside from Mauro Diaz. The effects he has on games are incredible.

When he was officially signed, Seattle stormed back up the table and are now in pole position to steal a playoff spot. This league needs more players like him.

Honorable mentions:

  • Ronald Matarrita
  • Luciano Acosta
  • Simon Dawkins
  • Roland Alberg
  • Alejandro Bedoya
  • Mekeil Williams
  • Ola Kamara
  • Emmanuel Boateng
  • Yura Movsisyan
  • Alberto Quintero