Lucas Zelarayan  - Columbus Crew - hand up

Not everyone can win a Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player award. That’s not news to MLS players and it shouldn’t be news to you. This is not an open competition. It’s a numbers game. It’s a popularity contest. It’s a vote, and it’s absolutely political.


I’m fairly confident I can predict, right now, on March 3, which players have a chance of being considered for the 2021 MLS MVP award and where they roughly rank in the hierarchy.


Just to make this fun — and harder — I chose one candidate per club, the player I think is most likely to be in the MVP conversation and, hell, maybe even win it. You will notice that some of these choices have very little to no chance of being named MVP. As I said, there’s nothing egalitarian about this. You’ve got the favorites, the obvious contenders and everyone else.


Hit me with your thoughts on Twitter at @andrew_wiebe. Preseason is officially underway. Only 45 more days. I’m absolutely counting down.


Favorites


Carlos Vela (LAFC)

If Vela can avoid injury, we might as well just give him the award right now. I’m 95% serious, and I’m saying this knowing full well Josef Martinez plays in this league, the Columbus Crew have two legitimate MVP candidates and Alejandro Pozuelo is the holder.


The 32-year-old is on a different level in a team that magnifies his powers. He missed most of 2020 because of injury before returning in the final weeks of the regular season (two goals, one assist in 185 minutes) and Concacaf Champions League (three goals in three games against Liga MX competition). That was Vela returning from injury. That was a rusty and a tad out of shape Vela.


The last time he had a full preseason and clean bill of health, Vela put up 34 goals and 15 assists. He is THE favorite for MVP and unquestionably so.


Josef Martinez (Atlanta United)

Look, 95% might have been a bit strong, but I needed to get my point across. Josef is a problem, and he’s the sort of problem that’s liable to go absolutely HAM after basically a full year of ACL recovery and rehabilitation.


Imagine all the nervous energy that man has pent up. There’s a snarling, glowering, goalscoring menace waiting to be released. I’m setting the over/under on goals at 20.5. I expect the old 77-goals-in-84-games Josef to be back.


Lucas Zelarayan (Columbus Crew)

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There’s a valid argument to be made that Gyasi Zardes deserves this shout. He’s a Golden Boot favorite, though he may also spend chunks of the summer and fall with the US national team.


My response would be that a healthy Zelarayan, with even more talent around him in Kevin Molino and Bradley Wright-Phillips, is liable to make 25 combined goals and assists, a Boot for Gyasi and a Supporters’ Shield for the Crew look fairly effortless. Remember the playoffs? Remember MLS Cup? That, for an entire season on a better team with championship experience.


Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto FC)

There are times when his talent and complete control over the game are almost blinding, like a Spanish sun at the center of Toronto FC. Pozuelo faded at the end of 2020, but he had some serious mileage on his legs from the 2019 playoff run and carrying the Reds through a bizarre pandemic year spent away from Toronto. Put some respect on his name. He’s got the trophy on his mantle and he could do it again, especially if Jozy Altidore is ready to go.


Believable


Gonzalo Higuain (Inter Miami)

Just imagine Higuain and Inter Miami’s MLS arc in the same vein as David Villa’s and New York City FC. Tough first season. Things improve. New coach with loads of Premier League playing experience. Team shoots to the top of the standings playing beautiful soccer. Veteran, world-class striker scores loads of goals. Gonzalo could absolutely win MLS MVP.


Alan Pulido (Sporting Kansas City)

Over and over last year, I said Pulido would be a Best XI and MVP candidate if he was 1) healthy all year and 2) didn’t spend quite so much time on and recovering from international duty. I still think that. I still don’t know if 1 or 2 will happen.


Emanuel Reynoso (Minnesota United)

Was playoff Reynoso a mirage? That Minnesota front line is looking pretty thin. Who does the Argentine play one-twos off of without Molino? Who is going to score the goals without a clear starting No. 9 on the roster? Or will the chances Reynoso helps create be so juicy that it doesn’t matter who Adrian Heath runs out in the final third?


Sebastian Blanco (Portland Timbers)

Come back strong, Chucky.


Raul Ruidiaz (Seattle Sounders)

Without Jordan Morris around, you gotta figure everything Seattle does will be about getting Ruidiaz in front of goal. We know what he does with those chances.


All About the Narrative


Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (LA Galaxy)

I’m not saying it will happen, but I am saying that Chicharito’s arc could very well be the dominant MLS story of 2021. From a rocky 2020, both personally and professionally, he rises again — we’re currently in the workout videos/photo galleries on Instagram phase — to bag a bunch of goals, drive the Galaxy’s resurgence and push his way back into El Tri for World Cup qualifying. MVPs need more than just the numbers. They need a story. That’s a story and Hernandez is a popular protagonist.


Plausible but Improbable


Robert Beric (Chicago Fire)

Win a Golden Boot and we shall see.


Maxi Moralez (New York City FC)

Feels like the years in MVP contention are probably over for Moralez. Maybe I’m wrong.


Carles Gil (New England Revolution)

With Gil, the Revs are an MLS Cup contender. Without him, not so much. That’s the definition of MVP candidacy.


Cecilio Dominguez (Austin FC)

Or should I say, No. 10 Cecilio Dominguez? The Paraguayan got the number, and he’s got the talent to be an MVP candidate. Maybe he can be Austin FC’s Diego Valeri!


Dream a little dream for me...


Chris Mueller (Orlando City)

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Nani has the talent, the profile and his dominance and Orlando City’s rise is a story voters can get behind. He’s probably the “right” pick here ... but he’s just not consistent enough. Can he be the best player in the league? Sure, on any given night. From April to December, with almost no slips in form or fitness? Probably not. Mauricio Pereyra is in the same boat, minus the Manchester United and World Cup profile.


That leaves my guy Chris Mueller. He bagged 10 goals and seven assists a year ago and there’s room for growth. He has an awesome nickname: Cash. He crushes postgame interviews in Spanish. He’s trying to push his way into the national team. It’s never gonna happen, but we would have said that about Chris Wondolowski’s 2011 MVP season, too.


Brenner (FC Cincinnati)

Fueled by Skyline Chili and the good vibes generated by raucous pregame marches to the new stadium post-vaccine, a young man from Brazil takes Cincinnati and MLS by storm.


Lucas Cavallini (Vancouver Whitecaps), Darwin Quintero (Houston Dynamo), Albert Rusnak (Real Salt Lake), Cristian Espinoza (San Jose Earthquakes)


All four of the players above could be dominant forces in their teams, but in the league? Your team has to be good to win. I don’t make the rules, but the voters have made that clear. There are too many elite players on elite teams (see the favorites category) for a Mike Magee in 2013 or Dwayne De Rosario playing for three teams and winning it in 2011 to happen in 2021.


Dream Big #PlayYourKids


You might think I created this category for teams that don’t have a believable MVP candidate, and you’d be right.


Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids)

The Rapids have a chance to be good to very good. They are a playoff team. Their build has been meticulous, if not bank breaking. They’re young and deep at just about position. Robin Fraser ought to be able to coax even more out of the group without COVID-19 completely disrupting things.


We’re still waiting for Lewis to earn his coach’s complete trust and a game-in, game-out starting spot. If the wait is over, he could be a 10-and-10 guy. That’s not MVP levels, but I would absolutely celebrate it.


Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas)

Why couldn’t 2019 Jesus Ferreira and USMNT Jesus Ferreira combine to become 2021 Jesus Ferreira? Really makes you think.


Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montreal)

How sick would it be if a 22-year-old American No. 10 went to Quebec and became an MVP contender? Ce serait assez malade.


Never Gonna Happen (Team is the Star!)


Insert Name Here (Philadelphia Union)

Read the replies to this tweet. There are a lot of shouts for Andre Blake, which is a good and smart shout since he finished 5th in the voting last year. That was in a Supporters’ Shield year, I might remind you, in which Vela and Josef were both injured. It would take another Shield and an even better individual season -- a historic, best-of-all-time, 17-shutouts-in-34-games season -- for Blake to have any shot.


Spoiler: He doesn’t have a shot. Neither does anyone else on the Union, which is not a knock on the Union! I hope this is bulletin board material that gets someone fired up enough to get into the conversation.


Hany Mukhtar (Nashville SC)

Nashville say they’re going to produce goals at their Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs level and not their 2020 regular season level! If they do, Mukhtar will play the role of protagonist. If they do, maybe he can sneak in on the periphery of the MVP conversation.


Edison Flores (D.C. United)

Edison, met Hernan Losada. Hernan, meet Edison. I hope it is a beautiful and productive partnership!


Defenders Don’t Win MVPs


Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls)

He’s back! Back to being the best defender in the league. Back to leading the Red Bulls to heights nobody else thinks they can reach. What if he bags seven or eight goals on set pieces, Gerhard Struber’s press is oppressive and the Red Bulls are in the Shield race without a goalscorer in double digits? What if?

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