The MLS Season Awards are being announced this week, with Steffan Frei and Aaron Long already winning the Goalkeeper and Defender of the Year awards respectively. However, there is a problem. Individual awards do not work.
The last defender to win the Ballon d’Or was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006. The only reason he won it was because he was the captain of the Italian national team who won the World Cup that year thanks to a stifling defensive performance. Individually, Cannavaro might not have even been the best defender in the Italy team!
Last season, Mohamed Salah was named the PFA Premier League Player of the Year. He had an excellent year, scoring 32 goals. But Kevin de Bruyne was the far superior player that year, but he played a less fashionable position and never quite garnered the same attention as the Egyptian.
Cristiano Ronaldo has won the Ballon d’Or for three of the past four seasons, largely because Portugal won the 2016 European Champions and Real Madrid have lifted the Champions League in the three of the last four years. But if you were to analyse his individual performances statistically, you would see that he has not been the best player. He has merely been a part of the winning team with the greatest attention.
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And that is the problem with individual awards as a part of a subjective, team game. They do not work. They rely on voters that are easily swayed by the furore of the modern world, not the objective, individual performance of the player. It is often the most marketable that wins.
What compounds the issue is that even if you were to take an objective analysis of each player’s performance, football is still an extremely difficult sport to successfully break down and evaluate fairly. You cannot just look at the number of yards they have thrown for and touchdowns they have scored. There is a reason only one goalkeeper, Lev Yashin in 1963, has ever won the Ballon d’Or.
This week, the Regular Season MLS awards have been announced. As of writing, Aaron Long is the Defender of the Year and Zack Steffan is the Goalkeeper of the Year. Do they deserve such recognition? I do not really know. I am sure that Seattle Sounders fans aren’t especially pleased with either decision after the seasons Chad Marshall and Stefan Frei have had.
And this is the crux of the problems with individual awards in soccer. Who can truly say who is the best player? Who can truly provide proof that this player or that player has been the best in a season? No one. And that is why it leads to a popularity contest, not a production one. It is no coincidence that the two players that have been named so far are USMNT prospects.
There is a problem with individual awards in football. They don’t work. And this season’s MLS awards are yet more proof of that.