Union centerback Jack Elliott earned some well-deserved recognition on Tuesday for his strong debut season, as he was named a finalist for Major League Soccer's Rookie of the Year award.
Elliott surprisingly became a stalwart of the team's defense this year. He was drafted in the fourth round out of West Virginia, which is rare territory to find potential pros. Elliott was one of just two picks in this year's fourth round who saw any playing time in MLS. None of last year's fourth-round picks have broken through yet, and only four fourth-round picks from 2015 have done so.
The 22-year-old Englishman was quickly thrown into the fire, making his Union debut on April 1. He ended up playing in 30 of the Union's 34 league games, making 29 starts, and played every minute in all but three of the starts. He also started and played every minute of the team's two U.S. Open Cup games. His disciplinary record was sterling: just four yellow cards and one red card.
He faces stiff competition for the award from the other two finalists, who coincidentally come from expansion teams.
Minnesota forward Abu Danladi entered MLS as one of the most-hyped college soccer prospects in recent years, after three seasons at college powerhouse UCLA. While he started the season slowly, he finished with eight goals and three assists in 27 league games. Five of his goals and one of his assists came in the last 10 games of the year.
Atlanta midfielder Julian Gressel is likely the favorite. The Germany-born Providence product registered five goals and nine assists in 32 games. His candidacy will be helped by the flashy attacking style of his teammates, and the sizzle Atlanta has generated by attracting the largest crowds in MLS history.
It also doesn't help Elliott's cause that a defender hasn't won Rookie of the Year honors since 2012. It used to be more commonplace: Seven defenders won the award from the league's debut in 1996 through 2009.
Union goalkeeper Andre Blake is also an award finalist, one of three nominees for the league's top netminder. He won the award last year, and had another busy season this year — for better or worse.
Blake made 88 saves and posted a 1.31 goals-against average in 26 league games this year. His campaign was shortened by a nasty hand injury he suffered while playing for Jamaica in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final in late July. The injury kept him off the field until late August.
While the 26-year-old Jamaican has a strong candidacy to repeat as Goalkeeper of the Year, the favorite is likely Sporting Kansas City's Tim Melia. He backstopped one of MLS' stingiest defenses this year, with 91 saves and a 0.77 GAA, and helped Sporting reach the playoffs.
The other finalist is Seattle's Stefan Frei, who recorded 81 saves and a 1.09 GAA for a Sounders team that had the Western Conference's second-best record.
MLS will announce the Rookie of the Year winner on Nov. 8, and the Goalkeeper of the Year winner on Nov. 16.
Here are the other MLS award finalists:
Most Valuable Player (announced Dec. 4): Miguel Almirón (Atlanta United), Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Nemanja Nikolić (Chicago Fire), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers), David Villa (New York City FC)
Defender of the Year (announced Nov. 9): Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City), Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Newcomer of the Year (announced Nov. 20): Miguel Almirón (Atlanta United), Josef Martínez (Atlanta United), Nemanja Nikolić (Chicago Fire)
(The award is given to a player with previous professional experience who made his MLS debut this year.)
Coach of the Year (announced Nov. 27): Gerardo "Tata" Martino (Atlanta United), Veljko Paunović (Chicago Fire), Greg Vanney (Toronto FC)
Comeback Player of the Year (announced Nov. 15): Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Federico Higuaín (Columbus Crew), Erick "Cubo" Torres (Houston Dynamo); the award is given to a player who has overcome injuries and/or adversity to achieve success this year.
Humanitarian of the Year (announced Nov. 2): Ryan Hollingshead (FC Dallas), Matt Lampson (Chicago Fire), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)