Amid all the excitement about one of the tightest playoff races in MLS history, another photo finish will unfold at three venues around the league this weekend as a motley trio of goalscorers hunt the Budweiser Golden Boot award.
At Toronto's BMO Field, a 37-year-old Italian in the 20th year of his storied professional career will attempt to haul his team into the postseason with another pivotal goal or two against a rival club – as always, lurking in the danger zones and riding the opposition's offside line like a tightrope walker.
Budweiser Golden Boot Standings
1. Mike Magee (CHI) | 20 G, 4 A
2. Marco Di Vaio (MTL) | 20 G, 2 A
3. Camilo Sanvezzo (VAN) | 19 G, 6 A
Further south at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., a cult hero and unlikely superstar will lead his hometown team into a similarly crucial road battle against the league's top side, a do-or-die 90 minutes that will do much to determine whether his club's season will be judged a surprising success or a stinging disappointment.
Three time zones and 2,500 miles to the northwest, a samba-schooled dynamo with a flair for the spectacular will take the field at BC Place with hunger in his eyes, despite the fact that his side have already fallen short of their ultimate goal, and try to make up the gap that separates him from the MLS scoring leaders.
Marco Di Vaio, Mike Magee, Camilo Sanvezzo: Three men with different styles and disparate backgrounds at varying stages of their respective careers, 59 goals between them, and one more game to decide who will be this season's goal king.
Di Vaio and Magee stand level on 20 goals each, with Camilo just one behind at 19 – and regardless of their final tallies, this alone deserves praise when viewed in an historical context.
Last season Chris Wondolowski won the Golden Boot and tied Roy Lassiter's all-time single-season record of 27 goals, set in the league's inaugural year, and between those milestones the 20-goal mark was only reached in five other seasons. In fact, the Boot has been claimed with as few as 12 goals, the number which earned Brian Ching and Eddie Johnson a split of the honor in an extremely balanced 2004 campaign.
This year's trio has made a mockery of the “balance” concept. Each account for nearly half of their teams' overall scoring totals as they've proudly borne the lion's share of the pressure, as well as the attention of opposing defenses. Perhaps Camilo is the most effective – he scores a goal every 122.53 minutes, tops among the three – but Magee has been MLS' Man of the Moment all season, and Di Vaio has been a pro striker since before MLS was even born.
The Montreal Impact attack revolves around Di Vaio, a classic poacher whose elusive movement – even as it has drawn a league-leading (by far) 77 offside flags – befuddles defenders far stronger and quicker than he and consistently rewards his teammates' service and inventiveness. Montreal are 0-2-1 in the scant trio of matches Di Vaio has not started, which also underlines his professionalism and age-defying durability.
“I'm tired, I'm old,” Di Vaio joked in a recent interview with the Guardian. “It's not easy for me to play now but when I have a goal like this close to me, I want to push, because my objective is for the team to be in the playoffs for the first time.”
In fact, Di Vaio stands to become the oldest Boot winner in league history if he can finish the job on Saturday afternoon. Dwayne De Rosario won a crown at 33 years old in 2011 and Jeff Cunningham won his only Boot at the same age in 2009, but Di Vaio? He has both beat by a full World Cup cycle. And he's older than three current MLS coaches.
Magee, meanwhile, still hasn't cracked 30 years old, even if it feels like he's been an MLS pro forever. He appears to be the frontrunner for the league MVP gong, after having a transformative effect on the Fire's fortunes. Departing the LA Galaxy by his own request in May to return home to the Windy City and join one of the league's basement dwellers (at the time) in exchange for Robbie Rogers, the 29-year-old has become “The Man” at Toyota Park after quietly working in the shadow of international icons in LA.
“Mike's got an edge to him. Mike brought something we didn't have,” Fire assistant coach Mike Matkovich told MLS Insider earlier this year. “His intangibles. His passion, his personality, when he's on the field, his competitiveness. He's just got something you can't teach.”
His grit and leadership have powered the Fire to the doorstep of the playoffs. Last week the famously clutch Magee – who also takes most of the Fire's set pieces – pushed his team past an obstinate TFC side, seemingly by force of pure will, as he earned and then finished the game-winning penalty kick to keep the Men in Red on course. The task grows tougher still in Week 35 as Chicago must secure a point, at the very least, against a Red Bulls team chasing the Supporters' Shield.
Thanks to Vancouver's loss in Colorado last week, Camilo won't have a chance to shine in this year's second season. But his coach has already predicted that his teammates will be feeding him early and often in the Whitecaps' final match on Sunday (also against the Rapids) as the Brazilian seeks the goal crown.
It would be a fitting capper to a breakthrough year – one that has already been immortalized by his jaw-dropping scissor-kick strike against Portland on Oct. 6, a strong contender for Goal of the Year and a global viral video phenomenon within hours of Camilo hitting the turf.
This wasn't necessarily the plan. Camilo was seen as a playmaker when he joined the 'Caps, a club stocked with forward options. But no one else has matched his ruthlessness around goal, not even pricey Designated Player Kenny Miller, and so Camilo has been nudged closer to goal, with impressive results.
He now stands as the club's leader in goals and appearances in its MLS era, and has even begun to explore the possibility of wearing his adopted country's colors once he completes the Canadian citizenship process.
Who will take over the mantle of goal king from Wondolowski? It's just one more reason to watch closely as destiny unfolds over a 32-hour window from Saturday afternoon to Sunday night.