The MLS All-Star Game represents the traditional midway point of the North American top tier's season. While this year's edition comes after all but two teams have played 20 or more of their 34 games, the exhibition coming up on Wednesday gives us a chance to review the year so far.
Courtesy of a recent dip, Seattle's spot as the top team in the league is under question. Nevertheless, the Sounders boast several players putting in some of the best campaigns to date. Sporting is coming on, while D.C. United's surprising return to the top doesn't show any signs of abating. The Galaxy's form is on the rise, in part thanks to the play of Gyasi Zardes. Once back in his natural forward spot, the L.A. homegrown talent quickly found his scoring boots.
In the spirit of hitting the nominal halfway point of the year, it's time to hand out some superlatives for the period.
MVP: Dom Dwyer
The unwritten criteria for MVP is to hand the award to the best team's best player. Through most of the first half of the MLS campaign, the Seattle Sounders held the title as top side in the league. The problem with picking an MVP from the Sounders is that they conceivably have two top contenders: Clint Dempsey, who led the league in every attacking category before leaving for the World Cup, and Obafemi Martins, who picked up the slack while Dempsey was gone. Dempsey's candidacy is hurt by all those missed games, and Martins has faded.
If there is another candidate for best team at the moment, it's Sporting Kansas City. The defending champs have turned it on, taking 20 out of 24 possible points in their last eight games. The best player wearing Sporting blue these days is Dwyer, the former South Florida Bull who is tied for second in MLS with 14 goals. The only real question surrounding Sporting's title defense in 2014 was which of its numerous strikers would take on the scoring load. Dwyer took the job by the horns. For that reason, he gets the award for first-half MVP.
Coach: Ben Olsen
D.C. United's first half ended with a disappointing loss in Houston, but that shouldn't take away from the job done by Olsen. After United's terrible 2013 campaign, one that brought the storied club new levels of ineptitude, the baseline for 2014 was mere respectability. Instead, the Black and Red are just two points off the top of the Eastern Conference lead with a game in hand on Sporting Kansas City.
The remake of United's roster was crucial in getting D.C. back to the top, but a lot of the credit must go to Olsen. The former United midfielder has deftly juggled his lineup without significant contributions from high-profile offseason acquisition Eddie Johnson while getting the most out of players across a wide spectrum of experience.
For an example of Olsen's influence on United's improvement beyond the record, look no further than the rise of midfielder Perry Kitchen. Very much in Olsen's mold as a player, Kitchen is a key part of the team's success while learning from the former midfield star.
Young player: Erick Torres
There are other names on the shortlist for young player of the season so far -- Zardes, Harrison Shipp, Kitchen, Joao Plata -- but the 21-year-old Torres takes the top honor.
Though Chivas USA is struggling through another down season, Torres is the brightest spot for L.A.'s other club. The Mexican forward's 14 goals are good enough for second in the league, and there's a reasonable chance he will compete for the Golden Boot to the very end. Torres isn't just a poacher, cleaning up rebounds or slipping in to collect goals at the back post; he's a fantastic finisher capable of delivering the spectacular goal at any moment. Any rundown of the best goals of the season to this point is guaranteed to include a handful of Torres stunners.
Whatever the second half brings for Chivas USA and Torres, MLS has a new star.
Flop: Portland Timbers
The higher the expectations, the greater the disappointment if those expectations go unmet. In MLS, a number of players are failing to achieve the standards implied by their contracts and talent and could rightly be called first-half flops.
Eddie Johnson's play in D.C., after coming over from Seattle and earning a DP contract in the process, hasn't lived up to the hype, a recent uptick in contributions notwithstanding. In Colorado, the Rapids first-ever Designated Player, Gabriel Torres, has just one goal and seven starts for a team that is doing well despite those stats.
But the first-half flop award must go not to a player but to a team. The Portland Timbers finished first in the Western Conference in 2013 and rightly entered the new year bursting with confidence. Prognosticators suggested big things were in the offing. An MLS Cup run did not seem out of the question, especially with the wealth of attacking talent at Caleb Porter's disposal and the second-year coach's maturation in the job.
Instead, the Timbers are clinging to playoff hopes 22 games into the year, their place in the standings below the red line that separates postseason qualifiers from teams that will be sitting at home. A poor start -- zero wins in their first eight matches -- set the tone for a campaign that not gone to plan.
Surprise: Bradley Wright-Phillips
D.C. United is the clear choice for surprise team of the first half, but if this award is going to a player, it would be tough not to give it to New York Red Bulls striker Wright-Phillips. It's not that Wright-Phillips didn't have plenty of ability heading into the 2014 season or that he wasn't expected to score goals playing alongside Thierry Henry -- it's that he wasn't expected to score quite this many goals.
Wright-Phillips leads the league with 18 goals, a number that jumps off the page even before the recognition comes that the Englishman is on pace to match the MLS season goal-scoring record of 27. There's no telling where the Red Bulls would be without Wright-Phillips and his scoring prowess.
Honorable mention for the surprise of the first half goes to Pablo Mastroeni. The first-year coach, who wasn't even sure he wanted the job in the aftermath of Oscar Pareja's departure, has the Rapids in the playoff hunt despite a host of injuries and ineffective stars.
Newcomer: Pedro Morales
No new player to MLS in 2014 has made more of an impact than Chilean midfielder Morales of the Whitecaps. On a young team still learning how to win under first-year coach Carl Robinson, Morales is a veteran professional with incredible passing vision and a nose for great goals.
Morales has seven goals and eight assists so far, though his contribution to the Whitecaps goes well beyond the counting stats. A fixture in the midfield on a team going through fairly constant shifts in lineups, Morales is regularly the best player on the field for Vancouver regardless of the makeup of the squad around him.
Toronto's Jermain Defoe also has a strong case for the newcomer honor, having fired home 11 goals for his new Canadian side.
Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid
Defenders: Dan Gargan, Chad Marshall, Matt Besler, Justin Morrow
Midfielders: Benny Feilhaber, Osvaldo Alonso, Diego Valeri, Clint Dempsey
Forwards: Dom Dwyer, Bradley Wright-Phillips