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RSL Soapbox awards, Biggest Surprise: A center back tandem emerges

What was the biggest surprise of 2016? It’s hard to look past two of RSL’s more consistent players.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

With the offseason truly in full swing now, the writers at RSL Soapbox —myself included — are taking a look some of the best players and moments of 2016. We’re starting that off with the biggest surprise of the season.

If you were to take a quick stab at what our biggest surprise might have been, you’d have a slew of things to choose from. Depending on your smarminess level, your choices could range from the downfall of Burrito Martinez, the long winless streak that ended the season, or the surprise rise of a center back tandem. While Javier Morales’s departure note was certainly surprising, voting took place before that blew our minds

And what did we choose?

Voting was pretty well split: one for Burrito Martinez, and the rest was split between evenly Aaron Maund and Justen Glad. That made the biggest surprise fairly clear

Coming into the season, I know I personally advocated for signing an experienced center back. Throughout the season, when opportunities arose, it even seemed like we were close to signing one. There was Jerry Akaminko, the Ghanaian center back whose deal never materialized in February, and there was Oswaldo Henriquez in January who took a big contract at Sport Recife in Brazil. And, of course, there were others — so all indications were that there was reason to expect that we’d bring in a center back, and that we had no preferred pairing at the club.

Indeed, the start of the season seemed to indicate that Jamison Olave and Aaron Maund were the pairing we were likely to see regularly — but after Olave picked up a red card against Portland Timbers for hands to the face — he proceeded to not start for several consecutive games. That sealed a partnership between Maund and Glad, and while it took some time for RSL coach Jeff Cassar to put it into place, it became one of the defining moments of the season.

What’s the surprise, then? It’s that both Maund and Glad were given the opportunity to grow into a fine center back duo, and that given that opportunity, they both were able to.

We knew late last season that Aaron Maund was turning into the real deal, but Justen Glad played in only three matches from August 1 forward — down the stretch, he wasn’t given opportunities. That’s probably fair, given he was just 18 years old, but we all knew that he needed playing time to show what he could do.

What ensued was a series of matches that saw Glad and Maund develop a partnership that we didn’t really expect. We had every reason to expect that they wouldn’t really succeed. In March 2015, we saw Maund as an error-prone third-choice defender that was thrust into action by injuries. By March 2016, we saw him as a viable option. By the end of the year, he seemed irreplaceable on this team.

The real surprise wasn’t that either of these players was capable of becoming a very capable MLS player on his own. It was that they did it with roughly the same timing, and they did so at distinctly different points in their MLS careers. Aaron Maund played six games in 2014, and though all signs were positive in 2015 for him, he secured it in 2016. Justen Glad did it in just his second full MLS season, and if we’re honest, that’s very early. The sorts of players that lock down full-time starting positions at 19 years old are few and far between, and although we saw signs of his youth throughout the season, we also got to see a player start to show signs of immense potential.

If that’s not a surprise — and a positive one — then I don’t know what is.