Now that the 2011 season has come to a close for Sporting Kansas City, it's time for the first annual Fountain City Soccer Awards. These awards are based solely on my opinions.
While most of these awards are team-specific, there are those that would be my nominations, at least, for the league-wide awards which will be announced very soon. I will make it obvious which ones those are.
Over the first three years of his career here in Kansas City, Chance Myers had a lot of trouble staying healthy. Most of his rookie season was lost to a combination of an injury and a bad case of mono.
This year, though, Myers has managed to stay on the pitch and it has made all the difference. He became a staple of the rear guard for Peter Vermes and most of the people who said the team should get rid of him were silenced. The UCLA product has shown he belongs in MLS.
This award is different from Rookie of the Year in that it recognizes someone who is new to MLS, but is not in his first season as a pro. After joining the team in mid-April, Aurelien Collin has become a rock in the center of the defense for Sporting Kansas City. The French defender's hard-nosed play quickly earned him the admiration of the fan base.
How popular is Collin? I've seen kids with their heads shaved and his number painted on the side of their head.
Not that the people who vote on the league-wide awards pay any attention to me, but I will be incredibly surprised if C.J. Sapong does not win Rookie of the Year. Sapong, the 10th overall pick in this year's SuperDraft, scored in the second minute of his first start. It was the fastest goal for a rookie starting in his MLS debut. The old mark was set by his teammate, Michael Harrington.
Incredibly athletic, the Virginia native scored five goals and assisted on five others in a campaign where he was the only Sporting KC player to appear in every MLS game for the club. Sapong added a goal in the playoffs to help the team advance to the Eastern Conference Final.
This is, to me, a no-brainer. During the team's season-opening 10-game road trip, the team was 1-6-3 and dead last in the league. As Peter Vermes kept saying, not many teams had won two road games until that point. As an example, the Houston Dynamo didn't win their first road game of the season until September.
It would have been easy, almost understandable, to replace Vermes after that horrendous start. However, according to the team's CEO Robb Heineman, that's not something that crossed his mind. He knew that the team had been put in a bad spot and they would have to just suffer through it.
Turns out, it was worth it. Since the opening of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, the team has lost only four times in a span of 27 games. The club went from worst to first in the span of one season, winning the Eastern Conference title for the regular season.
With a three-way tie for the team lead in goals scored, this award came down to the first tiebreaker, assists. With four assists to go along with his nine goals, Kei Kamara takes this honor.
Kamara is the living embodiment of the phrase, "You can't score if you don't shoot." The Sierra Leone international led the team in shots taken with 91, 26 more than the second-place Teal Bunbury.
Classify this honor, if you like, as local boy makes good. Matt Besler, a graduate of Blue Valley West High School, anchored central defense along with Aurelien Collin. Besler won a spot on the MLS All-Star team via fan voting by text message. He played 14 minutes as a second-half sub against Manchester United.
Besler was also involved in the attack. While credited with just two assists (to go along with two goals), Besler's long throw-ins ended up in the back of the net on no less than five occasions.
Besler is also incredibly intelligent. The 24-year-old graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a 3.5 GPA in psychology/pre-medicine.
Sporting Kansas City supporters simply call him "The White Puma." Jimmy Nielsen displayed cat-like reflexes on several occasions, winning the MLS Save of the Week four times in the 2011 season (second only to Kasey Keller's six).
It seemed as if every time Sporting KC needed a big save, the 6'3" Dane was always there. His athletic ability and veteran experience proved a good combination and he has been the go-to goalkeeper for two seasons now.
If anything, though, the incident that cemented his status as a fan favorite had absolutely nothing to do with his goalkeeping. In the home game versus the Portland Timbers, moments after the club scored, someone in the stands threw the head from a bobble-head doll and hit Nielsen in the head with it. Being the competitor he is, Nielsen received treatment for the cuts he received and finished the match.
*Disclaimer: When the original voting for the team awards was conducted in the press box, I had Nielsen listed second on my ballot. After further consideration, I'm using my prerogative as a journalist to re-examine the evidence and change my mind.
Without a doubt, the 2011 season does not turn out the way it does without the opening of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park (LSP). The team began the season with a 10-game road trip (going 1-6-3). Since the home opener, the team has gone 14-4-9.
Granted, the team's play helped drive attendance, but then the attendance helped drive the team's play. One of the things players mentioned about how hard it is to play on the road is that when you score, no one makes any noise, unless it's to boo you. LSP is an incredibly loud venue, with the roof keeping in the sound really well. A crowd of 20,000 (including SRO tickets) sounds more like 35,000, the way the sound is redirected toward the field, making LSP a hard place to play.
That will do it for the 1st annual Fountain City Soccer Awards. I would like to thank the players, coaches and staff of Sporting Kansas City for making my job (an unpaid hobby, really) so very easy.