Because the team Power Rankings weren’t subjective enough, we’re here to try and pick out the most valuable player in MLS through about 24% 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 collection of votes to take stock of who turned the most heads in the first two months 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 points, fourth received two points, and fifth received one point. Eleven players received votes this round.
Let's dive in.
Jose Martinez (4 points), Jesus Jimenez (4), Julian Carranza (2), Lewis Morgan (1), Jesus Ferreira (1) and Diego Rubio (1)
Oh thank goodness, Jose Martinez being here means we got one defensive-minded player on the list. Besides Matt Doyle illegally voting five times for Francisco Calvo, I mean. It’s good to see someone be recognized for being a destroyer.
Since El Brujo arrived in Philadelphia in 2020, there haven’t been many non-Diego Chara humans better at winning the ball in midfield and just making life difficult for the other team. So far this year, per Second Spectrum, Martinez is in the 89th percentile for tackles won and he’s ninth in the league in tackles won in the middle third. FBRef has him in the 83rd percentile among midfielders when it comes to interceptions and in the 95th percentile when it comes to ball recoveries. That's all while sitting at the base of a diamond on a team that’s tied for first in the league in goals allowed and third in the league in open-play xG allowed.
It’s a quieter part of his game, but he also contributes to the Union’s ball progression as well, completing dribbles at a high rate compared to his peers and sitting in the 73rd percentile among midfielders in progressive passes. I mean, a decent chunk of those may just be him winning headers and sending the ball the other way, and the numbers kind of back that up. But the league’s best defensive players need to be appreciated in ways that go beyond ball-winning.
His new teammate, Julian Carranza, is here too. And you may think since we just got done spewing defensive stats and praise at Jose Martinez that it’s time to talk about Carranza’s goal-scoring ability. That’s been totally fine. He has three goals and two assists on an xG+xA of about 2.9 over 466 minutes. Those are solid numbers. But I have some news for you…
THIS MAN IS A MACHINE.
That’s Carranza’s FBRef percentiles this season compared to other forwards. I know we’ve been worried that the Union may not have the firepower to scrape their head against their ceiling. But this might end up being the best defensive group they’ve ever had, and Carranza will be a big reason why. DP-caliber production can come in different ways.
Ok, we’re like 400 words into an MVP article and all we’ve talked about is the Union defense. Let’s move on to some goalscorers. In particular, let’s move on to the new best finisher in the league.
Jesus Jimenez is for real, y’all. And if Toronto weren’t last in the league in open-play expected goals by a significant margin, then the hype for this guy would be exponentially higher. Instead, it kind of feels like he’s going to contend in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race as quietly as you can while Toronto struggle to make the playoffs. Do me a favor and just check in on him from time to time if you don’t mind, he deserves some appreciation.
Jimenez leads the league in open-play goals so far this season with six, and while his underlying numbers suggest his league-leading 3.5 goals above xG probably isn’t sustainable, it’s hard to argue he’s going to slow down too much when he’s casually finding the net in beautiful ways every game or so.
Also receiving a vote this month is Lewis Morgan, who has four goals and two assists in his first year with the Red Bulls, all while putting excellent defensive work across multiple positions. The Red Bulls are one of the best teams in the league and he’s a clear reason why they’ve gone from sneaking into the playoffs last season to being on the verge of setting an MLS record for away wins. He’s thriving in exactly the way you’d expect him to be in New York if you watched him with Inter Miami. Which, hey, second 2021 Inter Miami player on the list!
Jesus Ferreira picked up a vote for a five-goal, one-assist performance so far this season on a quality FC Dallas side. And Diego Rubio got a vote from me for leading the league in xG and being tied with Taty Castellanos for the league lead in non-penalty xG+xA, per FBref, on a team with far less firepower than NYCFC.
Hey, speaking of Taty Castellanos.
Not only did he lead his team to the CCL semifinals, but he’s also led them to 11 goals over the last two games as NYCFC’s post-CCL hangover decidedly came to an end. He has five goals and an assist so far this season and his xG+xA per 90 is 1.20 (!!). He’s single-handedly involved with creating more than a goal worth of chances per game. To put that into some perspective (while recognizing he does have the benefit of adding both xG and xA), 1.2 xG worth of chances per 90 would put him 12th in the league. Not among individuals, but among teams. Yeah, just go ahead and put him right in between the entirety of Houston and San Jose.
Now, the obvious caveat here is taking penalties gives him a major boost. But he’s also tied for the league lead in non-penalty xG+xA as well. Castellanos “only” has five goals and an assist so far. But the underlying numbers suggest his output will continue to be excellent from here on out. Oh, and did I mention he’s in the 94th percentile among forwards in tackles in the final third and in the 90th percentile in successful pressures. Even when he’s not directly involved with the chances NYCFC create, he’s generating offense by winning the ball in high leverage areas. Don’t be surprised to see him on this list and climbing for the rest of the year.
You know, unless someone gets smart and pays tens of millions to get him to Europe.
I have some…thoughts about Campana being above Taty, but when you’re hot, you’re hot. Since taking over the starting center forward role at Inter Miami in a 3-2 win against New England on April 9, Campana has four goals and two assists in MLS. Not to mention the fact he scored a game-winner for Inter Miami in the US Open Cup last week. And might I just take a moment of your time to watch this one again and maybe say “sheesh,” or just make sound effects a few times while doing it.
That’s as good as it gets. And while he’s outperforming his xG so far more than anyone not named Jesus Jimenez, he’s in the 85th percentile in shots per game, in the 90th for xG per 90 and in the 75th for average shot quality. Campana may not stay at quite this clip, but I don’t think he’ll disappear in any sense.
He’s almost single-handedly revitalized an Inter Miami team that entered the year with plenty of questions. And if we’re talking “Most Valuable," that seems like a decent way to prove your worth.
Carlos Vela is Carlos Vela. And when he’s being Carlos Vela on the league’s best team so far, there’s a really good chance he’ll rack up MVP votes based on the “Best Guy on the Best Team” principle.
Vela has four goals and three assists so far this season and has started all eight of LAFC’s games this year. Who could have guessed an actually healthy Vela getting consistent minutes would be among the league’s best when it comes to output?
However, what’s really been most impressive so far about Vela is his passing. Per FBRef, he’s in the 99th percentile among forwards – and I’m not kidding here – in nearly every passing category. That’s completed, attempted, key passes, passes into the final third, progressive passes and on and on. You won’t be surprised to learn he’s in the 99th percentile for touches and dribbles completed as well.
Nearly every good thing that happens in attack for the league’s second-highest scoring team is running through Vela. Even if he’s not going to reach the highs of 2019 when it comes to total output, don’t be fooled into thinking he’s dropped anywhere below a top-tier player in the league.
Alistair Johnston made his pitch for Djordje as an MVP candidate earlier this month and, clearly, everyone listened. Although, I think most folks had begun taking stock of just how good he’s been anyway.
Mihailovic has four goals and three assists so far while facilitating everything in attack for CF Montréal at a high level. When you can be second in the league in goals+assists, play a critical part in every good thing that happens for your team, make a few highlight reel-worthy plays and get an endorsement from your teammate, you’re generating a ton of value.
Sometimes these things are simple. When you’ve contributed to more goals than everyone else, you get a bunch of first-place MVP votes. Driussi has been phenomenal on the league’s highest-scoring team so far (20 goals scored) and is a major reason why Austin have gone from the league’s least productive attack last season (just 35 goals scored all year) to a team that can put three or four or five on you at any moment. With six goals scored and three assists so far, Driussi alone has contributed to more than a quarter of the goals Austin had all of last season.
He probably won’t fall off much either. Now, he’ll probably drop below his current average of 1.14 goals+assists per 90, but his non-penalty xG+xA so far is good enough for fourth in the league and good enough to put him tied with Chicharito and Hany Mukhtar, two established MVP-caliber talents.
We should probably go ahead and start considering Driussi pretty established as well. He doesn’t quite have the national name recognition of some of the other guys on this list yet, but when you’re producing at a higher rate than anyone else in the league, your value gets recognized eventually. Considering he’s at the top of this list two months into the season, I guess it already is to some extent. Now he just has to catch the attention of the rest of the MLS-watching world. Contributing to almost half the goals of the league’s best attack is a good way to do that.