MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) – The Major League Soccer All-Star Break isn't quite the middle of the season, (it's closer to the two-thirds mark), but it's far enough into the campaign to get a clear picture of who've been the league's best and most surprising performers.
The Los Angeles Galaxy leads MLS at the break, and cleaned up with five players selected to FOX Soccer's Players Choice Best XI, but nobody from the Galaxy made the cut for our All-Star Break Awards (though there were several candidates from LA).
Six different teams are represented among our award winners. Some of the names you could have expected before the season started, while others have certainly surprised so far in 2011.
Here are FOX Soccer's top MLS performers at the 2011 All-Star Break, the people who would get my votes for these awards if the season ended today:
The timely goals of the league's leading scorer have kept the New York Red Bulls afloat in the Eastern Conference.
Most Valuable Player: Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls
It was certainly a close contest between Henry and Brek Shea (FC Dallas), and Shea is certainly a deserving option, but Henry has carried an underachieving Red Bulls squad with his clutch goal-scoring and creativity. The veteran striker actually started the season slowly, but has been virtually unstoppable since May.
Shea has been lighting it up since moving back to midfield after an early-season stint playing as a defender, inheriting the role of top Dallas attacking threat after reigning MLS MVP David Ferreira suffered a broken ankle.
Honorable Mention : Shea, Brad Davis (Houston), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle)
Defender of the Year: Nat Borchers, Real Salt Lake
You can call it the year of the center back, with so many central defenders playing at high levels and meriting consideration. Picking the best so far this season is virtually impossible.
Last year, Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave both made MLS Best XI, with Olave earning MLS Defender of the Year honors. This year, Borchers has been the better of the two, and RSL is once again boasting the league's stingiest defense.
Borchers' strength in the air and ability to read the game are outstanding, and he was a key factor in RSL making it all the way to the CONCACAF Champions League Final.
Honorable Mention : George John (FC Dallas), Carlos Valdes (Philadelphia), Chad Marshall (Columbus), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy)
CJ Sapong is making Kansas City's roll-of-the-dice pay off.
Rookie of the Year: CJ Sapong, Sporting Kansas City
When he was drafted in the first round of the 2011 MLS Draft, Sapong seemed like a luxury pick for a team already stacked with forwards. Few could have known that not only would Sapong get playing time, but that he'd force his way into the starting lineup and keep hot-shot prospect Teal Bunbury on the bench.
Sapong exudes confidence and is a dangerous attacker, capable of finishing chances and also setting them up. What looked like a reach on draft day has suddenly become one of the best values of draft day 2011.
Honorable Mention : AJ Soares (New England), Ethan White (D.C. United), Joao Plata (Toronto FC), Rich Balchan (Columbus)
Coach of the Year: Robert Warzycha, Columbus Crew
This pick might surprise some, but when you consider the number of players the Crew unloaded in the off-season, and the minimal number of non-rookie additions, Warzycha has taken a team expected to struggle badly and pushed them into a first-place tie atop the Eastern Conference.
Peter Nowak is clearly a strong candidate for this honor as well, but when the Union added players like Faryd Mondragon, Carlos Valdes, Carlos Ruiz and Brian Carroll, you could see Philadelphia having a strong second season. Not many people outside Columbus (and even only a few in Columbus) would have pegged the Crew to do this well. Warzycha deserves credit for that.
Faryd Mondragon has proven to be the most valuable of Philadelphia's offseason acquisitions
Newcomer of the Year: Faryd Mondragon, Philadelphia Union
The Union sorely lacked two things in their first MLS season, a top-flight goalkeeper and veteran leadership. Mondragon has filled both those voids completely and while he doesn't put up the stat totals that some other goalkeepers do, his presence in the area and his ability to organize the Philadelphia Union is a key reason the Union are in first place in the East.
Honorable Mention : Mauro Rosales (Seattle), Carlos Valdes (Philadelphia), Teemu Tainio (New York)
Will Hesmer, Columbus Crew
This pick will raise some eyebrows because Hesmer has never been regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the league. While Mondragon, Nick Rimando and Kevin Hartman are all better, and all are having strong seasons, it's tough to say any of them mean more to their team's success than Hesmer means to the Crew. Consider that Columbus is currently tied for first place in the East with Philadelphia despite managing just 22 goals scored in 21 matches. A big reason for that is Hesmer, who is enjoying a career year and making stunning saves on a regular basis this year. If he can stay healthy, Hesmer will challenge for his first Goalkeeper of the Year award.
Honorable Mention : Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Kevin Hartman (FC Dallas), Mondragon, Donovan Ricketts (Los Angeles)
Most Improved Player: Nick LaBrocca, Chivas USA
A player who's MLS career started promisingly before a trade to Toronto FC left him in limbo, LaBrocca moved to Chivas USA in the off-season and has blossomed under head coach Robin Fraser. The Rutgers product has shown an ability to score goals and his creativity in midfield has helped a struggling Chivas USA attack find results.
Honorable Mention : Tally Hall (Houston Dynamo, Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Dominic Oduru (Chicago Fire), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)