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 By Matt Pentz

ESPN FC Midseason MLS Awards: Villa, Nikolic inspire NYCFC, Chicago form

David Villa doubles New York City FC's lead with a sensational goal from midfield.

July already? This Major League Soccer season has flown by and we haven't even gotten to the good parts.

At the halfway mark and following a 2016 that often felt stale and predictable, this campaign has exceeded hopes that it could be a breakthrough for the league. With spending up, rosters are as talented as ever, and that has been evident week in and week out on the field.

As for who has stood out from the rest...

MVP: David Villa, New York City FC

With apologies to Chicago's Nemanja Nikolic, no player is as central to an MLS Cup frontrunner as Villa. Should he continue on this track, the Spanish forward would become the first back-to-back Most Valuable Player award winner in league history and the first to win two of them since Preki in 1997 and 2003.

Villa currently ranks third in MLS with 11 goals and three assists, but his influence goes beyond the stat sheet. His league-best 74 shots give a better picture of his relentlessness; his work ethic is infectious, the antithesis of a European veteran coming cashing in on one last payday, and he has helped accelerate NYCFC's rise to a legitimate championship contender.

Newcomer of the year: Nemanja Nikolic, Chicago Fire

Has there ever been a more competitive field in this category?

Romain Alessandrini has been great in Los Angeles, keeping the Galaxy afloat as teammates struggled. Atlanta's Miguel Almiron has lived up to the hype as the centerpiece of a successful expansion team. Honduran internationals Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto have helped inspire Houston's dramatic turnaround.

But nobody has been as prolific as Nikolic, who has a genuine shot to break the league's all-time single-season goal-scoring record of 27. The Serbian, who came to Chicago from Legia Warsaw this past December, has netted 16 times in 18 games, including five in his last four and two on Saturday night against Vancouver.

Nemanja Nikolic has been a superb signing for Eastern Conference-leading Chicago.

Bargain of the season: Yamil Asad, Atlanta United

Asad joined the expansion side on loan from Velez Sarsfield of the Argentine Primera and, per the players' union, is set to make just $150,000 in total compensation this season.

The attacking midfielder is currently tied for the MLS lead with nine assists and personifies what makes United such fun to watch. Asad is a burner on the wing, technically skilled and has an eye for the killer pass.

Fellow attackers Almiron and Josef Martinez are decent stand-ins for what makes Atlanta such a thrill but both of them are on designated player contracts worth more than $1 million a year.

Coach of the year: Veljko Paunovic, Chicago Fire

Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez cautioned that a full-scale rebuild would take considerable time when each took their posts in late 2015. It's fair to say that they're ahead of schedule.

Chicago is currently in pole position for the Supporters' Shield, is the only team in the league averaging more than two points per game and is tied with Atlanta for most goals: 35. Watching the Fire now, the team that finished bottom of the league in 2015 and 2016 is almost unrecognizable.

Some credit is due to a series of smart signings, from Dax McCarty and Juninho this past offseason to the surprisingly lively Bastian Schweinsteiger in March. Praise should also go to Paunovic, the former coach of the Serbian U-20 World Cup champions, for having so swiftly turned a perennial also-ran into the turnaround of the season.

Goal of the year: David Villa, New York City FC

This is becoming something of a theme. Villa's Carli Lloyd-esque long-range effort against the Philadelphia Union is going to take some topping from here until October. Take it from Andrea Pirlo, who called it "one of the best goals I've seen in my career."

Defender of the year: Jelle van Damme, LA Galaxy

There are thin pickings for this particular honor, somewhat by design. With only three DP slots and Targeted Allocation Money in limited supply, teams are encouraged to invest from the front back. More talented attackers call MLS home than ever before; the same cannot be said of the league's resident defenders.

Dallas' Matt Hedges has a strong case for midseason recognition, but he has been rocky in recent weeks. Van Damme gets the nod as the heart and soul of a Galaxy squad that overcame early adversity to ensconce itself in the playoff chase.

Few, if any, defenders in MLS are as central to their team's success, and for that, the muscular Belgian edges over the line.

Goalkeeper of the year: Tim Melia, Sporting KC

Kansas City's first-place standing is built on the foundation of its rock-solid defense. That's a team effort and plenty of kudos should go to childhood teammates Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic, as well as Ike Opara and converted right-back Graham Zusi.

Yet Melia's league-leading nine shutouts are not the result of standing idle behind an experienced back line. The 31-year-old has made the fourth-most saves in MLS and his 79.7 save percentage is higher than that of any other contender for this award.

Best XI

MLS midseason XI
Tim Melia backstops the Best XI for the first half of the 2017 Major League Soccer season.

Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.

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