MLS end of season awards 2020: rise of the Union and a Nagbe screamer

Jakub Frankowicz
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Jay LaPrete/AP</span>
Photograph: Jay LaPrete/AP


Nobody in 2020 was as strong for as long as Alejandro Pozuelo. His dominant 2020 campaign helped drive Toronto FC in a late season Supporters’ Shield race against the Philadelphia Union, and while Toronto ultimately fell short, it was not for a lack of effort from the Spaniard.

Pozuelo’s monster season was hardly a surprise either – it came a year after he secured a spot in the MLS Best XI in 2019, when he led his team to the title game. Yet even in a season filled with quarantines and bubbles, Pozuelo raised the bar. In his sophomore season in MLS, he contributed 10 assists, co-leader across the league, and nine goals, good for a share of eighth place.

Best goal

Darlington Nagbe against the Chicago Fire. The ball found itself at Nagbe’s feet on a sharp pass from Gyasi Zardes. Nagbe popped up the ball to himself, twisted his body around and nailed the inside of the left post with a perfect volley. It was the kind of goal that deserves to be celebrated by fans roaring in delight. And yet, in this curious Covid-19 affected season, the yells of his Columbus Crew teammates did the goal justice as best they could.

Team of the year

It’s been a tough decade for the Philadelphia Union, but if 2020 was a sign of things to come, the next 10 years are looking incredibly bright. After falling just short in the semi-finals of the MLS Is Back Tournament, the Union’s patient team building and trust in head coach Jim Curtin paid off when they finished the year with the best regular-season record.

A shock first-round elimination to the New England Revolution in the MLS playoffs cut their season short, but managing the insanity of the abbreviated season was no small task. For perhaps the first time since their inaugural season, Union supporters have have plenty to look forward to.

Fiasco of the year

Until a few weeks ago, this would have been the initial decision to not award the Supporters’ Shield, and the subsequent reversal by the Supporters’ Shield Foundation. But in late November, allegations by former NYC FC intern Skyler Badillo of sexual harassment by David Villa surfaced in the Athletic (Villa denies the claims). The story details how Badillo’s discomfort with Villa’s alleged advances were not only ignored by her bosses, who were aware of the situation, but also were made into running jokes. The report cited other NYC FC players who corroborated Badillo’s account. It’s distressing that in a post-Me Too world, teams still handle sexual harassment so poorly.

Coach of the year

During his tenure at the Philadelphia Union, Jim Curtin has never had the budget that coaches of the LA Galaxy, LAFC, or Atlanta United enjoy. But he’s always made the most of what he has had. His first coaching experience in MLS came in 2010 at the Union’s academy, and he worked his way up the organization’s ladder to become head coach in 2014. Despite a few lackluster rosters in his early years in Philadelphia, Curtin prioritized the US Open Cup and led the team to finals appearances in 2014, 2015, and 2018. A few smart signings and a rejuvenated youth academy later, Curtin led the revamped Union to their first major trophy in 2020 with a Supporters’ Shield victory.

Story of the year

The Columbus Crew’s run to MLS Cup final victory hasn’t exactly been a Cinderella story if you consider only on-field circumstances. They were a respectable third in MLS during a chaotic rescheduled season. But less than two years away from what looked like certain relocation to Austin, Texas, you’ll have to forgive Crew fans if they celebrate like there’s no tomorrow after their championship season.

Related: How a group of fans in a bar saved Columbus Crew from extinction

The new, locally based, owners have built the team a state-of-the-art stadium in downtown Columbus, where they will move next year. Head coach Caleb Porter’s previous MLS Cup trip was a win at the helm of Portland Timbers in 2015, against … the Crew. And if that wasn’t enough, the match was the final game at the most important stadium in MLS history. It’s the sort of story most fans can only dream about.

Transfer of the year

MLS can be an adjustment for new players at the best of times: they must contend with cross-continental travel, blisteringly hot Texan summers, ice-cold Toronto winters, and everything in between. But 2020 came with a special set of challenges, an uncertain, ever shifting schedule, Covid-19 spreading like wildfire and the restrictions that came with it. Nobody handled it as well as Crew newcomer Lucas Zelarayan. The former Tigres man transferred from Mexico for a club record fee of $7m, and immediately displayed the quality that made the Argentinian a threat for years in Liga MX, scoring six goals in 16 appearances for the Crew. And the stats don’t tell the entire story. Silky smooth on the ball, with incredible vision and touch, he’s been the linchpin in the Crew’s offense. His two-goal performance in the MLS Cup final was a demonstration of everything the man has brought to his team.