2021 MLS awards: Are record-setting Revs’ Gil, Arena the league’s best?

The 2021 Major League Soccer season began 209 days ago, and so much has changed in that period of time.

The New England Revolution lifted their first MLS silverware with a record-setting points haul to secure the Supporters’ Shield. The Columbus Crew, last year’s MLS Cup champions, soldiered through a title hangover for much of the campaign before being eliminated from postseason contention on Decision Day. Both Los Angeles clubs finished the year below the playoff line. Even FC Cincinnati rewrote the record books, becoming the first team in league history to finish dead last in three straights seasons.

Individually, this season was full of remarkable performers. From the dugout to the front line to between the posts, there were several players deserving of individual recognition, leading to considerable competition for each of this year’s MLS awards.

So, before the league begins handing out its individual prizes, ESPN asked Jeff Carlisle, Alejandro Moreno, Kyle Bonagura, Dan Hajducky, Austin Lindberg and Danny Guerra to make their selections for those most deserving in every major category.

Jump to: MVP | Young Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Newcomer of the Year | Defender of the Year | Goalkeeper of the Year

MVP

Hany Mukhtar, Nashville SC: At one point this season, New England’s Carles Gil looked set to lap the field, and he did manage to finish with four goals and a league-best 18 assists. But an injury dampened his numbers, and while he still ended up involved in a little over a third of the Revs’ goals, Mukhtar’s contribution for Nashville was critical given the team’s defend-first nature. His 16 goals and 12 assists meant he contributed to just over half of NSC’s 55 goals, giving him the nod. — Carlisle

Carles Gil, New England Revolution: This is a simple equation. Best player in the best team, plus a league-best 18 assists, equals the Most Valuable Player. Every meaningful New England attack seems to start with Gil’s vision and creativity. — Moreno

Carles Gil, New England Revolution: The most influential player on a Revolution team that set the MLS single-season points record, Gil led the league with 18 assists and 117 key passes. Those numbers were boosted from Gil having Adam Buksa (16 goals), Gustavo Bou (15 goals) and Tajon Buchanan (8 goals) as teammates, but Gil was the most consistent performer in the league all season. — Bonagura

Carles Gil, New England Revolution: Gil was injured for the entirety of August and still finished 2021 with a league-leading 18 assists (tied for 10th in league history). He created 38 more chances than any other player while leading the league in percentage of duels won (64%, min. 2,000 touches). In 2019, Gil, the Newcomer of the Year, might’ve been MVP too, but Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both notched 30-plus goals. Since then, no one has created more chances or tallied more key passes; if he’s on the field, there’s been arguably no-one more effective since he came stateside. This is Gil’s coronation. — Hajducky

Hany Mukhtar, Nashville SC: Mukhtar’s direct involvement in 28 goals is more than anyone else in MLS. He outperformed his expected goals and assists, suggesting that these figures may not be repeatable, but considering the relative disparity in supporting cast between Nashville and New England, such a performance is worthy of Landon Donovan’s namesake trophy. — Lindberg

Carles Gil, New England Revolution: Gil looks to be a sure bet. As the creative anchor of the league’s best team, the New England Revolution aren’t breaking records without him. The Spaniard is an elite passer and had eight assists on game-winning goals. The Revs were unbeaten (10-0-3) when he notched an assist. — Guerra

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Young Player of the Year

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: It’s crazy to think Pepi wasn’t even a consistent starter until mid-June, at which point he became the focal point of FCD’s attack, delivering 13 goals and three assists. He’s made a massive contribution for the U.S. men’s national team as well, scoring three times in his first four appearances. The expectation is that Pepi will move to Europe this winter, so he may have played his last MLS game already at the age of 18. — Carlisle

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: I was torn. I really, really like Tajon Buchanan, but I am all in with the Pepi Mania and all aboard the Pepi Train! This game is about goals, and Pepi has proven to be consistently dangerous. Enjoy him while you can in MLS. — Moreno

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: This was without question the easiest award to hand out. The 18-year-old United States international scored 13 goals on a bad Dallas team, turning himself into one of the league’s hottest young prospects in the process. — Bonagura

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: This might warrant rebranding as the “Shattered Mirror Award” because it’s been a rough harbinger of late. Corey Baird (2018), Andre Shinyashiki (2019) and Diego Rossi (2020) all saw a massive drop-off in production after claiming this prize, but if anyone can break that curse, it’s a certain dual-national from El Paso. Pepi turned in a 13-goal campaign, saved Gregg Berhalter’s job and — for the time being — assuaged any panic over the USMNT’s World Cup qualification effort. — Hajducky

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: Pepi finished 12th in the Golden Boot race, which is impressive enough in its own right. But then consider that no one ahead of him on that list is within five years of the 18-year-old, and his 2,097 minutes are in the bottom third of that group. — Lindberg

Ricardo Pepi, FC Dallas: Despite several stellar seasons by MLS youngsters, it’s hard to duplicate the splash Pepi made. The 18-year-old finished with the highest goals (13) among any player under the age of 22, and may be the future at the much-maligned striker position for the USMNT. All the best to him when he makes the expected move to Europe. — Guerra

Coach of the Year

Robin Fraser, Colorado Rapids: There was no shortage of candidates. Bruce Arena set a points record with New England. Brian Schmetzer overcame any number of obstacles to lead Seattle to second place in the West. But Fraser gets the award here for leading unfancied Colorado to the top spot in the Western Conference, with one of the smallest player spends in the league. — Carlisle

Bruce Arena, New England Revolution: Honorable mention shoutout to my former Chivas USA coach, Fraser, and the outstanding job he’s done with the Colorado Rapids. However, when your team wins the Supporters’ Shield while breaking the total points record, then there is no doubt that Arena should be the Coach of the Year. Breaking news: Arena knows how to win in MLS! — Moreno

Robin Fraser, Colorado Rapids: There are two good options in Arena and Fraser, but Fraser gets the nod after leading the Rapids to the top seed in the West despite getting a total of 532 minutes from their lone Designated Player, Younes Namli. That’s an impressive feat in MLS and a significant contrast to the Revolution, which got best-XI production from their three DPs. — Bonagura

Bruce Arena, New England Revolution: When you set a record for most points in a season, the trophies have long been engraved. Arena also tied award-namesake Sigi Schmid for most regular season wins in league history (240) in late October. Since stepping down following that catastrophe that shall remain nameless, Arena’s won 65% of regular season games at the helm of New England. This one should be his, which will pull him level with Bob Bradley for most in MLS history. — Hajducky

Robin Fraser, Colorado Rapids: No team in MLS has a lower guaranteed salary than the Rapids, and yet here they are, on top of the Western Conference. Colorado won five of its final seven matches after Fraser was appointed manager in 2019, having missed the playoffs in the previous two seasons, before finishing fifth in the conference in 2020 and on top this term. It’s hard to argue anyone in MLS has done more with less in the past two years. — Lindberg

Wilfried Nancy, CF Montreal: Nancy makes a case for this award despite no postseason play, having found himself unexpectedly thrust into the role when Thierry Henry departed before season’s start. Montreal played half the campaign based in Florida due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, and were viewed to be among the worst in the East. But Nancy maximized Djordje Mihailovic’s play-making ability and had them on the cusp on the postseason. They can still book a CONCACAF Champions League spot if they beat Toronto FC in the Canadian Championship final this month. — Guerra

Newcomer of the Year

Cristian Arango, LAFC: LAFC’s failure to reach the postseason will overshadow any positives in 2021, but it wasn’t the fault of Arango, who delivered a staggering 14 goals and two assists after arriving in mid-summer from Colombian side Millonarios. If Carlos Vela decides to leave LAFC when his contract expires this offseason, the presence of Arango will at least leave LAFC’s attack in good hands. — Carlisle

Cristian Arango, LAFC: Arango got off the airplane scoring goals for LAFC. He joined the team literally midway through the season and scored 14 goals in 17 matches. His immediate and consistent impact kept LAFC in the playoff race and while they ultimately came up short and missed out on the playoffs, I have no doubt the outcome would have been different with Arango on the field the whole season. — Moreno

Cristian Arango, LAFC: It was a disappointing season for LAFC, but Arango scored 14 goals in 17 appearances after arriving in August, ranking 11th in the league. Not bad for someone who wasn’t even in the MLS for roughly the first four months of the season. — Bonagura

Cristian Arango, LAFC: It could really be San Jose’s Javier Lopez, FC Cincinnati’s Brenner or LAFC’s Arango. The much-maligned Lopez, ousted from Liga MX’s Chivas roughly a year ago, has been a sensation in his first year with the Earthquakes to the tune of 12 goals and 4 assists. Cincinnati only scored 37 goals all season and Brenner created 10. But it has to be Arango, who joined LAFC in early August. Arango blasted home eight goals in his final six games (of which LAFC only lost one) and only D.C. United’s Ola Kamara (95.7), runner-up for the 2021 Golden Boot, averaged fewer minutes per goal than Arango’s 100 (min. 30 shots on target). LAFC massively underwhelmed in 2021, but with Arango’s emergence, they won’t be down for long. — Hajducky

Cristian Arango, LAFC: It’s pretty hard to argue with 14 goals in 17 matches. Missing the playoffs for the first time in the club’s history will sting, but staring down an offseason that could yield significant change, LAFC can feel confident in its future with Arango leading the line. — Lindberg

Cristian Arango, LAFC: There was lots of hype for some preseason imports, but Arango gets the nod over Vancouver Whitecaps playmaker (and fellow mid-campaign arrival) Ryan Gauld. While Gauld helped Vancouver reach the playoffs (amid a coaching change in August) and LAFC will be watching from home, it’s hard to argue that the Black and Gold would have even been in the hunt without Arango’s 14 goals in 17 appearances. — Guerra

Defender of the Year

Yeimar Gomez, Seattle Sounders FC: Seattle’s loss of form toward the end of the campaign shouldn’t diminish the season-long play of Yeimar, who helped lead the Sounders backline to the joint-best defensive record in the league with 33 goals conceded. Yeimar was dominant in nearly every defensive statistic, including winning 72.5% of his aerial duels. — Carlisle

Miles Robinson, Atlanta United FC: Let’s go ahead and admit up front that Robinson’s performances for the United States influenced this decision — and maybe that’s unfair. But while developing into a locked-in starter for the USMNT, Robinson’s form in MLS was just as good. No one in the league (minimum 80 duels) had a better duel percentage than Robinson (66.8%) while playing a major role for one of the better defensive teams in the league. — Bonagura

Sean Nealis, New York Red Bulls: Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman missed time, but he won in 2020 while playing fewer minutes and anchored a side tied for the fewest goals allowed in 2021. It could easily be Atlanta’s Robinson, too. In September, I waxed poetic about the Red Bulls’ Kyle Duncan, who finished 2021 leading MLS defenders in ball recoveries and duels won and finished T-2nd and T-6th across the league in tackles and interceptions, respectively… but Duncan wasn’t named a finalist. The Red Bulls snuck into the MLS Cup by a single point, largely due to conceding a league-low 33 goals — which seemed impossible when mainstay Aaron Long ruptured his Achilles in May. Sean Nealis, who relieved Long, led MLS defenders in aerials won, finished seventh in clearances and third in duel percentage (59.7%), min. 250. Harrison, N.J. deserves some love. — Hajducky

Miles Robinson, Atlanta United FC: Only two playoff-bound teams in the Eastern Conference conceded more goals than Atlanta’s 37, but after the appointment of Gonzalo Pineda, the Five Stripes allowed just 0.75 goals per game and neither of Robinson’s center-back partners, Anton Walkes and Alan Franco, can boast the tackling and aerial ability of the United States international. The 24-year-old’s performances in 2021 have vaulted him up the depth chart for Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT. — Lindberg

Auston Trusty, Colorado Rapids: Trusty and the Rapids defense (second-fewest goals allowed in the West) were another reason they emerged at the top of the conference. Sporting Kansas City’s Andreu Fontas is another top choice and was a more accurate passer than Trusty, but the Colorado centre-back had a better aerials-won percentage and provided three assists to boot. — Guerra

Goalkeeper of the Year

Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union: This was a difficult choice, given the impressive form of New England’s Matt Turner over the course of the season. But Blake was just a smidgen better with his 8.34 goals prevented — which takes into account expected goals from shots on target — the best in the league. — Carlisle

Carlos Coronel, New York Red Bulls: I’m guessing most will go with a combo package of Blake and Turner. I am taking Coronel. There is something to be said about consistency and availability. Coronel played every minute of every match this season and led the league with 13 shutouts (along with Joe Willis and William Yarbrough) while allowing less than a goal per game. — Moreno

Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union: With a tip of the cap to both Turner and William Yarbrough, Blake had the best overall season, according to advanced goalkeeping statistics from TruMedia. With goals conceded, clean sheets and save percentages largely dependent on factors out of the goalkeeper’s control, TruMedia provides a stat (goals prevented) that attempts to isolate a what can be controlled. “Goals prevented” is measured by subtracting goals conceded from expected goals on target conceded and through that lens, Blake was the best in the league (8.34). — Bonagura

Matt Turner, New England Revolution: It’s been a battle between Turner and Blake all season. Blake won for a second time in 2020 and would become the only goalkeeper in league history with three titles should he be crowned again. Statistically though, there’s less of an argument. Blake prevented a league-high 8.34 goals in 26 games while saving 75.5% of shots on target. In 34 games, 24-year-old FC Salzburg loanee Coronel prevented 8.15, good for second. Turner, as outstanding as his 2021 has been domestically and internationally, finished fifth in the same category (7.08 goals prevented) and 13 goalkeepers kept more clean sheets than his five. That said, the Revs’ record season could (and probably should) tip the scales in voting. — Hajducky

Andre Blake, Philadelphia Union: While there’s lots of love for Coronel and Turner (and rightfully so), Maxime Crepeau and J.T. Marcinkowski deserve some serious honorable mention kudos. But in the end, Blake’s advanced stats are as good or better than anyone in the league. On top of his league-leading 8.34 goals prevented, his 24 goals conceded against an expected goals against of 30.43 is second best in MLS. — Lindberg

William Yarbrough, Colorado Rapids: Yarbrough takes this over some other fine candidates. The Colorado Rapids man is tied for most clean sheets this season (13) with Nashville’s Joe Willis and the Red Bulls’ Carlos Coronel. But with Colorado scoring the lowest number of goals among the West’s top four teams (51), you can argue Yarbrough was the most essential for ensuring Colorado getting the top seed. — Guerra

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