BILBAO, Spain (AP) – As we hit the halfway point of the Major League Soccer season, the league's seventeenth campaign has been filled with plenty of surprises.
Few would have pictured the San Jose Earthquakes sitting atop the league, or the LA Galaxy struggling to even contend for the playoffs. Kenny Cooper was not expected to be lighting up the New York attack, and Columbus goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum wouldn't have been in many people's conversations as one of the best goalkeepers in the league.
Not everything has been a surprise; Chris Wondolowski continues to be one of the league's top goal-scorers; Dwayne De Rosario remains the top playmakers in MLS; Jamison Olave continues to be one of the league's most imposing defenders.
So who has been the best of the best so far in 2012? Here are FOX Soccer's midseason MLS awards:
Coach of the Year: Frank Yallop, San Jose Earthquakes
The Earthquakes have gone from missing the playoffs a year ago to sporting the league's best record. Led by an attack that has shown a penchant for late-game dramatics, and bolstered by a handful of quality off-season signings, the Earthquakes have been the surprise of the league and Yallop deserves the credit; not only for building the roster, but for incorporating the new pieces into a cohesive unit.
Honorable Mentions: Martin Rennie, Vancouver Whitecaps ; Robert Warzycha, Columbus Crew; Frank Klopas, Chicago Fire .
Goalkeeper of the Year: Andy Gruenebaum, Columbus Crew
Gruenebaum began the year projected to be the Crew's back-up, but an injury to Will Hesmer opened the door and Gruenebaum has made the most of it. He has made outstanding saves and been an imposing presence in the penalty area, helping the Columbus Crew exceed expectations.
Honorable Mentions: Dan Kennedy, Chivas USA ; Matt Pickens, Colorado Rapids ; Joe Cannon, Vancouver
Rookie of the Year: Ryan Meara, New York Red Bulls
The biggest question mark coming into the season for New York was: who would man the nets? After failing to find a veteran in the international market, the Red Bulls turned to Meara, a rookie late-round draft pick who has played like a seasoned pro.
Honorable Mentions: Austin Berry, Chicago Fire; Nick DeLeon, DC United ; Tony Cascio, Colorado
Defender of the Year: Jamison Olave, Real Salt Lake
To understand just what Olave means to RSL's vaunted defense, you need just look at the team's results when he plays and doesn't play. RSL is 0-4-2 this year in matches Olave has either missed or had to leave early because of injury. The team's record in the rest of their games? 10-2-1. When healthy, he continues to be the most imposing defensive presence in the league, and RSL's title hopes rest squarely on his ability to stay healthy.
Newcomer of the Year: Lee Young-Pyo, Vancouver Whitecaps
There may be MLS newcomers with more goals (like Saer Sene), and more assists (like Felipe Martins), but Lee has been a real revelation for the Whitecaps and has been one of the best defenders in the league in just his first season in MLS, helping the Whitecaps forge one of the top defenses in the league. He has also been a real threat getting forward into the attack.
Honorable Mentions: Aurelien Collin, Sporting Kansas City ; Jaime Castrillon, Colorado Rapids
MVP: Chris Wondolowski, San Jose Earthquakes
Scoring goals is nothing new for Wondolowski, but he has taken his game to a new level and the result has been a dream first half of the season for the Earthquakes. He leads the league in goals with 12, and has helped San Jose pull off a plethora of second-half comebacks.
Honorable Mentions: Kenny Cooper, New York Red Bulls; Dwayne De Rosario, DC United;
Here is a look at this weekend's top five MLS matches to watch:
1: CHICAGO FIRE vs. LOS ANGELES GALAXY
The red-hot Chicago Fire return home to take on a Galaxy side currently on a two-game skid. Sean Johnson has been outstanding in net for Chicago in recent weeks, but he will be facing a dangerous Galaxy attack with a surging Landon Donovan leading the line.
2: SPORTING KC vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO
This rematch of the 2011 Eastern Conference final is now a match-up of teams struggling to find consistency. Sporting KC is coming off a big mid-week win while the Dynamo come in off a disappointing home draw. Geoff Cameron missed the mid-week match with a hamstring injury, and if he can't play this weekend the Dynamo will have a hard time containing Sporting KC's dangerous three-forward attack.
3: SEATTLE SOUNDERS vs. COLORADO RAPIDS
You know the Sounders are in bad shape when a mid-week draw is reason for optimism. Winless in eight straight MLS matches, the Sounders return to CenturyLink Field to take on a Rapids side that could close the gap on the Sounders to two points with a victory. The Rapids offense failed to show up in Wednesday's loss to Vancouver, but they should find more chances against a Seattle defense that has struggled in recent weeks.
4: NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS
The New England Revolution have enjoyed a stronger-than-expected season, but they still aren't in playoff position. A win against the Red Bulls could change that. The Revs have been especially tough at home this year, and should cause problems for a Red Bulls defense that will be short-handed without Heath Pearce.
5: PHILADELPHA UNION vs. TORONTO FC
These two teams have been buried in the Eastern Conference basement for much of the season, but both have enjoyed turnarounds under new head coaches. The battle will be between TFC's surging attack and Philadelphia's improving defense, with Union centerback Carlos Valdes providing a stiff challenge for red-hot TFC striker Danny Koevermans. This one could wind up being a goal fest.