Exactly 230 days elapsed between June 2, 2014 and Jan. 19, 2015. And in that time frame, about two-thirds of a year, MLS managed to welcome its two best players in its 20-year history.
We can pin hundreds of debatable topics to the figurative MLS blackboard and have it out. Best goal? Most impressive title run? Broadest immediate impact? Let’s go. But one topic upon which I will not abide dissenters is in best on-field MLS presence in the league’s history.
I will brook two names at present: Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa. And while I readily allow there is some banter to be had in which one ultimately rises above the other, I’m always taking one player over the other as the most in-form player to ever darken the league’s doors.
And his name is El Guaje.
The terms of debate
The best player in MLS is of course a hotly debated issue, one I have no time for on anything other than a nuanced, molecular level largely divorced from the bloodying Twitter carousel. Because in the end, what does “best” mean, other than a proviso attached to an argument with a hundred different branches?
If it means helping to establish the league as a viable threat to the world order in its tremulous early days, then don’t we need to elevate Carlos Valderrama, that frizzy-locked Colombian hero who took a chance on MLS from its first year and still holds the record for assists in a season?
If it means taking a team over the top for titles, then we probably start with former Galaxy phenom Robbie Keane.
These are all viable arguments. But I prefer to narrow down “best” and define it in actual on-field terms. Best, to me, means tangible boot-on-grass impact on a more individualized basis. The Beckhams and Valderramas simply occupy a different strata in the same hall for me. The game is the ultimate arbiter, and since first hitching my wagon to MLS in the late ‘90s, I have not seen two better players in MLS than Giovinco and Villa.
And, as I posited previously, offer me a fantasy draft team today with the ability to take any MLS player in their in-league prime and my first pick every single time is the former FC Barcelona star.
Starting from scratch
Villa, to put it bluntly, is better at doing what he was hired to do than any player at their respective position in the league’s history. When New York City FC brought on the former World Cup winner in the summer of 2014, more than six months before their 2015 debut, he didn’t even have teammates.
NYCFC literally built its entire franchise around him, working from front to back in a formula that rarely yields quick results or heavy goalscoring numbers. Indeed, City’s leading assist-getter in 2015 (besides Villa) was Kwadwo Poku, who started all of six games.
All Villa did his first season was score 18 goals (fourth-best in the league) and chip in eight assists, both team highs.
Two seasons later, at the tender age of 35, Villa is still not only the league’s best striker but its best player, period. Ever. And to arrive at why I think so, let’s start with why Villa’s tenure has been so brutally effective.
For starters, Villa was a free transfer, obtained by NYCFC in that summer of 2014 after the expiration of a brief one-year stay with Atletico Madrid. There has never been a player in MLS history obtained for less who produced more. On top of that, Villa joined a team literally without teammates. He spent the majority of 2014 as a sort of front-facing spokesman for the team before it brought the tactical framework down on him literally as the season was starting.
The result of that uncertainty has been, to date, 51 goals and 18 assists in his first 78 MLS games, many of them as NYCFC scrabbled to establish an identity. That streak includes two over the weekend to drag NYCFC to a mighty impressive 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders in a driving rainstorm.
The guy does not stop. He’s now scoring at a goal-per-130 minutes, which is better than Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Obafemi Martins and, yes, Giovinco over any like-for-like time frame.
The most voluminous goalscorer over his first two-and-a-half years in the league has done it under two different coaches, for an expansion team that experienced significant turnover, and all without a transfer fee to his name.
The shouts for Keane as the best Designated Player of all time are well-founded, and he’s easily in my MLS Mount Rushmore, etched indelibly in stone next to the rest of the league’s small but elite fraternity of stars. But as incredible as Keane was at times, he didn’t have to carry a newborn start-up like Villa has. I dare say NYCFC’s forgettable 2015 would’ve been considerably worse had Villa not been on the field.
And to head this claim off at the pass, I don’t necessarily rate titles in individual horse races. It’s simply a poor metric for adjudging one man’s role in wildly different team ethics. There are simply too many uncontrollable variables to consider comparing individual titles as a valid scale. The Galaxy might not’ve won titles without Keane, but NYCFC might’ve won half as many games without Villa over the last two-plus years with a much shallower roster. That, to me, is a wash.
El Guaje vs. the Atomic Ant
This now brings us around to Giovinco. To my mind, it’s the hardest argument to defend.
Giovinco’s impact on previously moribund Toronto FC has, of course, been vast. In terms of sheer points he’s done more than Villa, contributing a slightly smaller number of goals but tossing in a significantly larger share of the assist margin. His 34 assists are about three times the number Villa’s generated since joining the league in time for the same 2015 season.
In terms of open-field terror, I’m not certain a defender has ever had a more difficult marking proposition in league history than dealing with the panoply of maneuvers at Giovinco’s disposal. That’s why, for me, the discussion is at present between the two. And it’s a near thing.
But Villa’s efficiency is almost impossible with a largely more inefficient roster than Giovinco over the same span of time. Believe it or not, Villa and Giovinco are almost exactly even on key passes, or passes leading directly to a shot on goal, since entering the league in 2015. With his gaudy assist totals, Giovinco’s racked up 1.7 key passes per game over the last two-plus seasons in MLS. Villa’s number? 1.66. The difference in the two is essentially Jozy Altidore, the strapping striker who’s netted 30 goals since Giovinco joined the league. Villa’s largely had to carry NYCFC’s goalscoring burden alone.
Beyond that, we’re simply talking about the eye test. I’m wooed by Villa’s movement in the box, his subtle hints toward space before pulling in another direction largely without heed or forewarning. If we can acknowledge Giovinco is the better player in outright take-ons, then I think it’s the argument provides a fairly obvious nod toward Villa in final third movement and lethality in the finish.
Like I said, it’s a near thing. But I’ve never seen a player better at their craft in MLS history than Villa’s been in cramming home goals in almost every manner and variety. The fact that his team didn’t exist three years ago only adds to the mystique.
The question itself of “the best ever” will hang over the league’s collective head for as long as it runs. We’re at a stage now where a singular consensus does not even come close to existing, and that’s part of the enjoyment. I’ll no doubt get a small amount of flack for this opinion, and that itself is a testament to the league’s relative depth in attracting quality across the top.
But again, if I’m choosing a single player in the annals of the league’s history to start a team with at the time they joined MLS? Give me Villa or give me death.