Want to peek inside Pandora’s box, MLS edition? Take a stroll through my mentions anytime I tweet about the 2021 Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player award. Lemme tell you, the fire burns hot.

This tweet was a thought experiment on my part. “Other” did a lot of heavy lifting. The poll and subsequent replies produced the results I expected during a week in which Sporting Kansas City pressed hard to get Daniel Salloi into the MVP conversation (and deservedly so) and Joao Paulo’s case got a boost after he went full Marshawn Lynch for Seattle on the Rapids.

Here are the cliff notes for those of you who don’t live on MLS Twitter…

The Salloi hive, egged on a bit by Peter Vermes’ R-E-S-P-E-C-T comments, are feeling downright frisky. Nashville SC folks are upset Hany Mukhtar got lumped in with “Other,” and they’re probably right to argue neither their No. 10 nor their second-year squad gets enough national cred. Sounders fans, meanwhile, are frustrated Paulo isn’t getting more MVP love – sorry, two-way midfielders gotta settle for Best XI and Extratime awards – among Seattle’s “Hey, we can all be MVP candidates, right?” cast of standouts. They’re probably right about that, too.

No matter what you read on Twitter, one man sits in the driver’s seat: Carles Gil. The truth hurts sometimes, and the truth is the award is the Revs No. 10’s to lose (spoiler: he probably can’t and won’t lose it) as we enter the final month of the regular season. I think, forgive me Nashville supporters, that Salloi is the current No. 2, with Mukhtar, Paulo/Raul Ruidiaz and Damir Kreilach (don’t even think about @-ing me) rounding out my five finalist spots.

Of course, everything can change in a month. Let’s take a closer look at my top two!

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The case for Carles Gil...

He’s by far the best player on by far the league’s best team. He’s the best player in MLS this year. I don’t really think that’s particularly debatable and expect to see the vote (media, front office and players) reflect that. There will be those who do their best to overemphasize the word “Valuable” in the MVP argument, but c’mon. We all know the “V” in MVP isn’t literal in practice.

Anyway, if you want to be literal, value in this game of ours is defined by total points. The Revs are the most “valuable” team, and Gil brings the most “value” to the Revs. Nothing else matters. Just ask Bruce Arena and all 26 managers chasing New England in the standings.

We’re not just talking about playoffs clinched more than a month early or a near foregone Supporters’ Shield here. The Revs will likely end up with the most points this league has ever seen, breaking LAFC’s 2019 record, and the way they’ve accumulated those points is largely predicated on Gil’s ability to create space and shooting/assist opportunities for his teammates in the final third. There’s a reason every key attacking player is having a career year around him. Gil is that reason. Just get him the ball and make a run. More on that a few paragraphs down.

“Yes, but what about combined goals and assists,” the Sporting KC (23 for Salloi) and Nashville SC (22 for Mukhtar) supporters are saying. Yes, what about it?

Production matters, but we don’t have to be so reductive to argue that those two numbers are the only way to measure personal performance. Where do you think Gil’s numbers (3 G, a league-leading 16 A) would be had his hernia not acted up and cost him six games during August? I’ll tell you. Based on his current pace (.9069 G/A per 90), he’d probably be sitting on four goals and 20 assists, and that argument would be moot.

“But it’s not! He didn’t play in those games and he didn’t score that goal or dish out those assists!” Fine, I accept that was a stretch! Let’s widen our scope of his actual performances in comparison to the rest of the league. I think you’ll start to see that the gap between Gil and his competitors is much wider than goals and assists. I pulled these statistics from all over. They all tell you one thing: nobody in MLS is better at creating goalscoring opportunities, and it isn’t close (despite Gil playing fewer games and minutes than his direct MVP competition).

  • First in assists (16, next closest is Djordje Mihailovic with nearly 400 more minutes played)
  • Tied for first in primary assists, per Opta (12)
  • First in Expected Assists, per Opta (10.89)
  • First in xA per 90, per Opta (0.53)
  • First in Key Passes (96, Emanuel Reynoso is second with 70)
  • First in Primary Shot Assists, per Second Spectrum (131; Julian Gressel 2nd with 105, four players tied for third with 83)
  • First in Primary Shot Assists + Secondary Shot Assists, per Second Spectrum (173, Gressel 2nd with 145)
  • First in Passes Leading to a Shot per 90 minutes, per Second Spectrum (6.8, Reynoso 2nd with 5.6)
  • First in Passes Ending in the Final Third, per Second Spectrum (803, 61 percent of his total passes)
  • First in Shot-Creating Actions, per FBref (180)
  • First in Goal-Creating Actions, per FBref (23)

“Yeah, OK, but the Revs were fine without Gil and the East is weak!”

You wouldn’t be altogether wrong about the first part. New England went 4-1-1 during August with Gil in Spain rehabbing that hernia issue. Adam Buksa, Gustavo Bou and Tajon Buchanan, in particular, stepped up to fill the Gil-sized gap in the lineup. I’d just remind you that Buchanan’s breakout as a player has come largely overlapping Gil. His emergence truly started last year’s playoffs … overlapping Gil from right wingback.

I’m not saying Gil is solely responsible for Buchanan becoming one of the most dangerous wingers in the entire league and a club-record transfer to Belgium’s Club Brugge (or for the career MLS years turned in by Buksa and Bou) … but you’d be insane to look at his ability to generate high volumes of quality goalscoring and assisting opportunities for his teammates and not see a very real correlation.

As for the “East is weak” argument. Sorry the Revs can’t play the best team in the league … themselves. You might go all-in on the struggles of FC Cincinnati, Toronto FC, Chicago Fire FC and Inter Miami CF, but I’ll call you with the entire state of Texas and San Jose. There are more teams in the West with a negative goal differential (seven, including two playoff teams!) than in the East (five). I might agree that top four vs. top four gives the West an edge, but the East is more balanced top to bottom in my opinion.

When it is all said and done, history makers win awards, and deservedly so. It really is that simple.

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The case for Daniel Salloi...

First, I’d just like to congratulate Salloi on an MVP-caliber season! There’s no other way to describe what he is doing for Sporting KC. Regardless of the league honor, he ought to pick up at least one MVP award – his club’s – as well as a place in the Best XI.

Like Gil, his case is pretty simple: Salloi is MLS’ non-PK goal leader (16, none of his goals have come from the spot) and combined goals and assists leader.

Not a lot of explaining to do there, huh? Salloi made The Leap this season, the one we expected him to take after 2018’s breakout year. To put those numbers in perspective, the 25-year-old had a grand total of one goal and one assist in the two seasons (35 GP, 17 GS, 1706 minutes played) in between his breakout and this year.

Even with Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell in the squad, both of whom have MVP potential, Salloi is the clear alpha attacker on the second-best team in the Western Conference and, depending on your perspective, third-best in the entire league. Without his goals and assists, there’s no telling where Sporting KC would find themselves.

In my mind, there’s no better pure goalscorer in MLS this year than Daniel Salloi. Go watch his goals. They’re not tap-ins. Give him the penalty-kick responsibilities – Sporting KC are 5-for-5 this season – and Salloi would be your Golden Boot presented by Audi leader, not D.C. United’s Ola Kamara. He may yet finish atop that list without a single goal from the spot.

And that brings us to the elephant in the room from a Sporting KC perspective: Can Salloi win MVP and, if so, what is his path to winning the vote?

This is just one voter’s opinion, but I am here to tell you that Salloi can, though the odds are much lower than Gil holding onto his pole position. First, win the Golden Boot. Second, score goals that continue grab the voting pool’s attention. Third, via those goals, Sporting KC finish atop the West. Fourth, the Revs and Gil fade hard, fall short of history and lose award momentum in the process.

That could all happen! Even if it doesn’t, Salloi still changed the trajectory of his career. He is undisputedly a Best XI player, and MLS Cup will still be there for the taking. Earning that is far more straightforward than MVP.

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