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Hernandez: Five matches to watch

Liga MX about an hour ago
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Nov 9, 2006

MLS gets it right with Gomez selection

FRISCO, Texas -- It's almost as if Christian Gomez winked at everybody in the playoffs and said, "See there. You got it right."

D.C. United's cagey playmaker was named Major League Soccer's 2006 Most Valuable Player on Thursday in a ceremony at Pizza Hut Park in suburban Dallas.

Gomez claimed the honor ahead of fellow finalists Dwayne De Rosario of Houston and Jeff Cunningham of Real Salt Lake. Gomez, the Argentine midfielder who just completed his second full campaign at RFK, prevailed on the strength of the front half of his season.

It was the right call, as an equal voting split of media, players, coaches and general managers got it right -- but only by the slimmest of margins. Any of the trio of finalists could have presented a good argument for claiming the league's 11th such award.

Gomez cobbled together MVP-type numbers, with 14 goals and 11 assists. But anyone mobilizing a case against him would start here: Most of that production came during the first half of the season. Gomez lost speed along with the rest of his team after the All-Star break. Indeed, De Rosario or Cunningham would have made better choices if the award were presented for post-All-Star exploits.

(FYI: Don't think for a second that the MVP isn't important to these guys. All the supporting evidence needed could be seen in the nervous, fidgety moments before Eric Wynalda and MLS commissioner Don Garber prepared to pass over two of the finalists and hand the inscribed trophy to Gomez.)

The MVP balloting was complete before the 2006 playoffs. So, Gomez's return to productivity in the playoffs had no effect on the presentation outcome, carried live Thursday evening live on ESPNEWS.

Still, it's fair to say Gomez validated the voters' choice with two goals in the first-round Eastern Conference series, a squeaker over Red Bull New York. The fact is, Gomez was more responsible than anyone for getting his team past the first-round series and into the Eastern Conference final. If Gomez doesn't concoct two splendid goals, late strikes in both games, United would likely have crash-landed in a hideous, early playoff exit.

In the second half of a tight series opener at Giants Stadium, Gomez and Jaime Moreno combined to weave through the Red Bull defense. At full gallop, Gomez squeezed between two defenders to reach Moreno's return pass and beat goalkeeper Jon Conway with a delicate chip.

Back at RFK, the series seemed destined for extra time when Gomez controlled Josh Gros' lengthy pass near goal. From a difficult angle, the humble playmaker beat Conway in the narrowest of openings at the near post.

And just like that, every person who voted for Gomez with some trepidation felt more comfortable in their selection.

Gomez, 32, was the driving force, along with vets Ben Olsen and Jaime Moreno, as the Red and Black ran away with the Eastern Conference crown, super-fueled by that breakneck start and early 14-game unbeaten streak.

He also provided something lacking in the Major League Soccer this year: a certain "wow" factor. Anyone who believes that entertainment value doesn't figure into these selections isn't paying attention to the ways of modern pro sports, substantially driven by TV contracts.

Anyone remember his June goal against Los Angeles? Gomez flicked the ball over a Galaxy defender, dashed around him and smoothly cracked a 25-yard volley. Nice.

The other finalists supplied their own memorable moments, of course. That's another reason there was plenty of justifiable debate around this year's selection. In Utah, Cunningham managed the difficult feat of conjuring a monster season for a weak club. To dredge up 16 goals and 11 assists for an often wayward outfit that didn't make the playoffs speaks volumes for the 2006 Golden Boot winner. He contributed directly to 27 of his team's 44 goals.

De Rosario didn't have the eye-popping numbers (11 goals, 5 assists). But he was more of a two-way player than Cunningham or Gomez, and his leadership was essential to a Dynamo outfit that held things together amid the chaos of a franchise relocation.

This certainly wasn't the first league MVP award decided by a slim margin. All the recent ones have been tight, in fact.

Taylor Twellman won last year when De Rosario and all his YouTube-worthy strikes had an equal claim to the honor. And no one would have fallen over backward in disbelief had Moreno, with 16 goals for D.C. United, been named.

(You have to feel a little for De Rosario, a good spokesman for the league, who stood at the podium and politely congratulated the victor at an MVP ceremony for the second consecutive year. At least this time, he had to come to Dallas anyway; he made the 50-minute flight only about four hours before the rest of his teammates.)

In 2004, another close one. Amado Guevara won although six of his 10 goals came from the penalty spot. Joe Cannon had been an absolute beast in goal for Colorado, guiding a team with just 29 goals scored in 32 matches to third-place in the West. And there was Moreno with his 7 goals and 14 assists.

In fact, the last runaway winner was Preki in 2003, when the ageless wonder recorded 12 goals and 17 assists.

So, Gomez can feel good about capturing one of the truly tight ones. Of course, the "nice guy" factor is irrelevant on such choices. But all other things being equal, it's good to see humble figures crowned with the niceties. And Gomez has bags of humility. Teammate Ben Olsen likes to say that if he were blessed with Gomez's substantial skill, he wouldn't be nearly as nice as the affable Argentine.

And Gomez has spoken recently of being named a finalist. He said he was mostly happy for the club; Gomez likes to talk about how well he is treated and how he feels appreciated at D.C. United.

"This helps take away a little bit of the pain," he said from the podium Thursday at Pizza Hut Park, "of not going to the final."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.