Editor's Note: This column was originally published ahead of the Week 13 games on Wednesday, Sept. 23. It has since been updated to reflect stats from those games.
I wrote a lede that was all, “Oh, what a strange year it’s been,” and “What does it really mean to be the MLS MVP in the year of COVID-19?” but that seemed dumb and repetitive.
Yeah, everything about this season is borderline incoherent. Yeah, the schedule is a Frankenstein of unbalanced fixtures, quick turnarounds and same-day travel. Yeah, Carlos Vela, Josef Martinez and Sebastian Blanco are all injured.
So what? It still means plenty to be named the Landon Donovan MLS MVP. You can only play the schedule you’re given, and there’s still going to be an entry in the history books for the winner. Honestly, anyone who can thrive personally and professionally in these times, no matter the caveats and theoretical asterisks, deserves all the plaudits in the world.
So, to borrow an idea from Matt Doyle, who borrowed the idea from Zach Lowe, who may or may not have been the originator of this #content mechanism, here are my MVP tiers with a little more than half of our now 23-game schedule played. The race is wide open. I wouldn’t bet a dime on anyone not named Alejandro Pozuelo.
FYI: There’s no rhyme or reason to the order within tiers, and this column was written before Wednesday night's action.
Chris Mueller (Orlando City SC)
Stats: 7 goals, 5 assists in 13 GP (9 GS, 849 minutes)
Make the case: Yes, Cash is in my top three, for now at least. Don’t give me that look.
Numbers aren’t everything – he’s probably teetering on the edge of this podium, given many of you will say, perhaps rightly, that Cristian Pavon ought to be here instead – but take Mueller away from Orlando City and they aren’t the resurgent force (seven wins in 13 games, just two losses, +10 GD!) they’ve become under Oscar Pareja.
He takes attention off Nani. He combines well with Mauricio Pereyra. He impacts the game in lots of ways. He’s got Oscar Pareja’s US men’s national team vote of confidence.
Why he won’t win: He’s Chris Mueller, and MVP is a popularity and name-recognition contest. Voters will say Nani and Pereyra are more important pieces of his own team. Orlando City probably wouldn’t completely crash and burn without him, right?
Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto FC)
Stats: 5 goals, 8 assists in 13 GP (13 GS, 1,135 minutes)
Make the case: Just watch Toronto FC play. Nobody controls possession and chance creation, both in the final third and transition, the way Pozuelo does. Everything the Reds do funnels through the Spaniard, and they can pin teams back and possess close to goal because they have the ideal fulcrum to play through.
Toronto FC's Alejandro Pozuelo goal vs. DC United | Enhanced Highlight
Pozuelo is tied for the most direct goal actions (goals + assists) in the league with 13. He’s consistently goal-dangerous both inside and outside the box. He leads the league in assists (8). He leads the league in primary shot assists per game (3.9) and is fifth in secondary shots created (1.2). He creates a goal per game and about five shots per game all by himself, to say nothing of the space his passing and movement opens up for his teammates to be productive as well.
He’s the league’s most complete and influential attacking player. Take him off Toronto FC and their league-best ceiling drops considerably.
Why he won’t win: I don’t know, anti-Canada bias? There’s no other valid reason if he continues doing what he’s doing.
Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
Stats: 9 goals, 3 assists in 13 GP (12 GS, 1,020 minutes)
Make the case: He scores lots of goals for the league’s best team, and he scores them consistently and efficiently. There’s not much more to say than that.
Columbus Crew's Gyasi Zardes goal vs. Nashville | Enhanced Highlight
Why he won’t win: He doesn’t win the Golden Boot. You’ve got to have a compelling campaign and “most goals in the league” is about as good as it gets. Without that, I’m not sure voters will pick Zardes over a Pozuelo, Pavon or [fill in the blank Sounders star].
Voters may also take a closer look at Columbus’ schedule and decide it’s too soft. Eight of Zardes’ nine goals – and all of them since the pandemic hit – are against FC Cincinnati (4), Chicago Fire FC (2), Nashville SC (1) and the New York Red Bulls (1). He started and didn’t score against the Union, NYCFC and Atlanta United, just for additional context.
Nicolas Lodeiro/Raul Ruidiaz/Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
- Lodeiro: 4 goals, 4 assists in 10 GP (9 GS, 882 minutes)
- Ruidiaz: 8 goals, 3 assists in 12 GP (12 GS, 991 minutes)
- Morris: 6 goals, 5 assists in 12 GP (9 GS, 886 minutes)
Make the case: Put any of these three on the podium and I wouldn’t have an issue with it. Hell, let’s just give Nico Lodeiro an honorary MVP for sustained excellence (zero MVP top-three finishes to date). If we’re talking about value to a team, I’m not sure anybody matches what the Uruguayan brings to the Sounders.
Meanwhile, Ruidiaz is the most ruthless finisher in the league right now and has as good a shot as anyone at the Golden Boot. Morris is damn near unstoppable as a goal-scoring, assist-providing, impossible-matchup winger. They’re all deserving of shouts.
Why they won’t win: They’re all on the same team, Brian Schmetzer is managing minutes and only Ruidiaz is likely to be at the top of major statistical categories. Classic vote split. They’ll take another MLS Cup anyway.
Cristian Pavon (LA Galaxy)
Stats: 6 goals, 4 assists in 11 GP (11 GS, 990 minutes)
Make the case: The Argentine international might just be the best player in the league and his form (along with Sebastian Lletget) is what kept the Galaxy afloat without Chicharito.
Cristian Pavon...from the left flank!
Why he won’t win: For whatever reason Chicharito can’t convert Pavon’s service into goals – and thus pad his stats – and the Galaxy hang out around the playoff line instead of charging up the table. Hard to give the MVP to the best player on a middling team, though Zlatan almost won it.
Diego Rossi (LAFC)
Stats: 11 goals, 2 assists in 13 GP (13 GS, 1,158 minutes)
Make the case: Goals. He scores lots of them.
Why he won’t win: The shine is gone from LAFC, and Rossi’s production isn’t enough to make that moot.
Darwin Quintero (Houston Dynamo)
Stats: 5 goals, 6 assists in 12 GP (10 GS, 861 minutes)
Make the case: Take Quintero away, and what are the Dynamo? He might be the league’s most dangerous attacker since the restart.
Houston Dynamo's Darwin Quintero goal vs. Minnesota | Enhanced Highlight
Why he won’t win: With Quintero, the Dynamo are still below the playoff line. That won’t do.
Kacper Przybylko (Philadelphia Union)
It’ll never happen because the Union aren’t reliant on one player. Another split vote/attention situation with Alejandro Bedoya and Brenden Aaronson.
Rodolfo Pizarro (Inter Miami)
Gonzalo Higuain could change everything for Pizarro.
Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)
It just makes me happy when Valeri is playing well.
Portland Timbers' Diego Valeri goal vs. LA Galaxy | Enhanced Highlight
Kevin Molino (Minnesota United)
Must listen to Extratime to understand this reference.
Defender (so no chance)
Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew)
Four goals in 12 games of which Mensah has played every single minute? Nuts, no matter the opponent. He’ll have to settle for Defender of the Year.
Tony Meola Honorary MVP
Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
Sean Johnson (New York City FC)
Matt Doyle said it most succinctly: “A goalkeeper is never going to win MVP again, but those guys have both been lights out this year.” Indeed they have.