Voices: Sam Jones

MLS MVP Power Rankings: Lucas Zelarayan, Carlos Vela take commanding early lead

Because the team Power Rankings weren’t subjective enough, we’re here to try and pick out 2022's Landon Donovan MLS MVP through about 11% of the season.

Like any MVP vote, everyone’s definition of “Most Valuable” has probably changed in the last hour or so. In short, let’s maybe not jump to a ton of conclusions here and instead use this very early small sample of votes to take stock of who turned the most heads in the first month of the season.

These rankings were voted on by editors, writers and assorted voices at MLSsoccer.com. A first-place vote received 10 points, second received five points, third received three, fourth received two, and fifth received one. Fifteen different players received votes this go-around. Tom Bogert also received a vote but that vote came from Tom Bogert. Typical. This vote was discarded.

Receiving votes

Derrick Ettiene Jr. (CLB), Patryk Klimala (RBNY), Dayne St. Clair (MIN), Gaga Slonina (CHI), Luciano Acosta (CIN), Cristian Roldan (SEA), Joao Paulo (SEA), Benjamin Bender (CLT)

I’m responsible for Derrick Ettiene Jr. and Patryk Klimala, so, to start, I guess I should explain myself.

Through the first month of the season, Ettiene is leading the league in expected goals and expected assists, per FBref. That’s total and per 90 minutes among players with more than 300 minutes played. Ettiene has four total goal contributions from a position the Crew desperately needed to perform this year.

Meanwhile, Klimala is just behind him in xG+xA per 90 and is tied for the league lead in assists with three. He’s also the league leader in American Soccer Analysis’ all-encompassing Goals Added metric. This early in the season, that’s more than enough to get votes from me. In a “real” MVP vote, I wouldn’t value those underlying numbers as much as actual production, but I wanted an excuse to talk about how good they’ve been.

Dayne St. Clair leads the league in goalkeeper goals added by a generous amount despite playing just 180 minutes and leads the league in goals minus expected goals. Gaga Slonina is right behind him in both categories with almost 200 more minutes played. The 17-year-old has kept three clean sheets through four starts and allowed just one goal.

Luciano Acosta leads the league in total expected assists and sits third, just behind teammate Brandon Vazquez, in total xG+xA. He leads the league in key passes as well and has two assists. Cincy's No. 10 is so important to their plans this year.

Cristian Roldan and Joao Paulo end up receiving votes every time we do this and it’s always tough to quantify their impact but easy to qualify it by saying that practically every good thing that happens for Seattle happens because they’re on the field.

And Ben Bender has quickly become an easy moneyline favorite for whatever Extratime award goes to the best SuperDraft pick each year. He’s tied for the league lead in assists with three and has a goal to his name as well. Somehow, after all of the questions about Charlotte coming into this season, they have two names receiving votes in an MVP article. And for good reason.

There was a three-way tie for fifth place.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, other than maybe Ben Bender, Vazquez is the most surprising guy to see on this list. He’s always had decent physical ability and decent underlying numbers, but he’s never really had a chance to get consistent minutes. New FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan gave him those minutes to start the year and, my goodness, has Vazquez delivered.

He’s tied for the lead league in goals and has an assist to his name. It’s not a fluke. He’s second in the league in total xG+xA, per FBref, and is second in the league in total goals added. He’s played 449 minutes, so his numbers suffer a bit when you switch to a per-90 basis. But for a guy that barely seen the field for most of his career, that’s a remarkable shift.

Ferreira put in perhaps the most impressive single-game performance of the year a couple of weeks ago, bagging a hat-trick and an assist in FC Dallas4-1 rout of Portland. That’s his only output of the year, but this early in the season that’s more than enough to put you among the league’s best. It’s especially effective when that one game feels like a total regression to the mean after Ferreira consistently found himself in good positions but could not find the net at the start of the year.

And Gil hasn’t quite found the same level of production in the regular season as last year’s MVP run, but he still has two goals and an assist. Plus, as one voter wrote in their ballot, “I'm [sic] valuing CCL cause we haven’t played any MLS games. GET OVER IT.” Seems fair to me. Despite how it ended, Gil seemed like the only one up for the task in both legs against Liga MX side Pumas in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals.

In the first two games of the season, Austin FC scored one-fourth of the goals in their history (10). Driussi played a major part in Los Verdes’ back-to-back five-goal mollywhoppings of Cincy and Inter Miami, then continued to be a focal point of Austin’s attack over the next two games against stiffer defenses. Driussi has three goals and an assist so far this year and sits fifth in the league in xG+xA, per FBref.

When you’re the driving force behind kickstarting one of the league’s most dormant attacks last season, then you deserve some credit.

Swiderski caught my eye in his second MLS start during Charlotte’s visit to Atlanta earlier this month. In-person and on video later, it was clear to see he had an understanding of how small movements in the box and on runs can shift the opposing backline and create pockets of space to move into. He put three shots on target in that game and I thought to myself: “That’s a good skill to have in MLS, I bet he’ll start scoring every now and then in a few months when he gets comfortable.”

He didn’t need a few months. He needed a week. Swiderski scored twice and delivered an assist against New England in Charlotte’s first-ever win. The next week, he put on another show. Swiderski scored twice, including an absurd free-kick against Cincinnati.

Swiderski’s movement and finishing ability are a lethal combo. He’s second in goals per 90 and his production feels highly sustainable. Don’t be surprised at all if he’s on this list more often than not this year. Especially if he’s carrying a Charlotte team that entered the year with low expectations well over the bar set for them.

The DP (and club-record transfer) is looking like a great acquisition. And now that Poland's made the World Cup, he's got plenty of motivation to keep producing at a high level and book a ticket to Qatar.

In short:

What else do I even need to say here? It’s Carlos Vela. He’s healthy and he’s leading the league in goals per 90 and goals plus assists per 90. I can’t even begin to act surprised by any of this and you shouldn’t be either.

Only question: How long will Vela actually be with LAFC this year? The 2019 MVP's contract is up in the summer.

No one goes on heaters like Lucas Zelarayan.

He’s the league leader in goals + assists, and my goodness, every single one of those goals was phenomenal. You should stop everything you’re doing and watch all of them. If you can’t do that, you should at least watch these two.

Is scoring a worldie once a game sustainable? Probably not. But I should point out that Zelarayan is also second in the league in expected assists and just won Player of the Month honors.

He’s simply been on a different level than everyone else this month. The question now is how long this run will last. Anywhere near this level of output the rest of the season and he’ll be at the top of this list all year.