Seltzer: Top 5 MLS MVP candidates midway through 2019 season

Carlos Vela - LAFC - May 11, 2019

There have been some tight races for the Landon Donovan MVP Award over the past decade and there have also been years where a certain player did just enough to separate from the pack, but this time around we're in the midst of a historic campaign that is bound for a whole new category with a whole lot of dust-eating.  

What we have to offer at this point in the 2019 season is a runaway favorite and four guys that, barring a precipitous slump from numero uno, look headed for the "would make an excellent choice in most any other year" file. Is the race already completely shut down in mid-July? Not quite, but it's close and that's not because there's a shortage of fantastic podium finishers.

Several worthy players fell just short of the making this list. Paxton Pomykal has instantly become FC Dallas' midfield maestro, while Texas rivals Houston are enjoying a juicy plum of a season from wing terror Alberth Elis. Nico Lodeiro has been consistent money for Seattle, while Diego Valeri is enjoying arguably his finest set-up season to date for Portland. The Timbers also now have a top striker in Brian Fernandez, but he'll need to show his worth a little longer to become a legit finalist candidate. 

Carlos Vela

Let's start with the spoiler-proof obvious and work from there by size of shot at the prize, shall we? Everybody knows the LAFC superstar has made a mockery of this race from the start. Vela is on pace to break the single season goals record (which is 31). He's on a pace to challenge the single season assists record (26). He's on pace to obliterate the goals + assists record (38). 

Through 19 games, Vela has 19 goals (many of them splendid), 12 assists, an absurd 10 Team of the Week nods and three Player of the Week awards. He's taken part in multi-goal/assist games a dozen times this season, while only failing to make the score sheet in some manner five times. That, my friends, is a level of domination we've never seen on these shores.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic 

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Ibrahimovic celebrating a goal | USA Today Images

If there's LAFC, and then there's everybody else, the Galaxy are currently the best of the rest. And I think we all know the key factor in this team standing above "everybody else" with 1.79 points per game. You still don't mess with the Zlatan.

The Lion of LA is second in the league with 13 goals (half his team's total), tied for tops with five game-winners (including four in the 65th minute or later), has bagged all four of his spot kicks, pulls countless defenders out of position and gives his team an intimidation factor that most lack. When opponents always know the guy they need to stop and can only rarely pull it off, you're dealing with a true force.  

Wayne Rooney

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Rooney after notching a game-winner in 2019. | USA Today Images

From scoring stats to passing efficiency, much of the D.C. United skipper's average game output has dipped ever so slightly from last season's rate. On the other hand, he's also working with a much greater degree of difficulty because running mate Luciano Acosta is going through some struggles. The LuchoRoo partnership has simply not ignited like we've come to expect on many game days this year.

Don't mistake this for a downer take. Rooney still has 10 goals and the team is still standing second in the East with a game in hand on Philly. The D.C. man has been just as clutch as Zlatan, also with five winners and a perfect four-for-four mark from the spot. And he's doing a lot more to get teammates involved, effectively taking up Acosta's playmaking slack. Hitting more than twice as many crosses as last year, he's up to 2.8 key passes per game, a rate achieved by just six other players this term.

Jamiro Monteiro

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Monteiro may be the best under-the-radar addition in MLS this season. | USA Today Images

After eons of searching, Philadelphia finally found a No. 10 that can spearhead the mid-to-high press with attitude, create around the box and be reliable with dead balls. It's just that the player doing all that and more for the Eastern Conference leaders isn't the guy (at least for now) that everyone thought it would be at the start of the season.

The Union are 9-4-3 with a +10 goal differential when Monteiro sees the field and 1-2-2 playing a goal to the bad when he doesn't. Why exactly? As coach Jim Curtin told the Delco Times, "He's comfortable in tight spaces, so that No. 10 position, turning, finding gaps, also setting our line defensively and winning balls in the middle and starting transitions. He's asked to do a lot, to cover a lot of ground, and the kid has been incredible for us."


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Heber is a likely candidate for MLS Newcomer of the Year. | USA Today Images

It's a relatively small sample size, but there's no sneezing at six goals in 711 minutes of action, especially for a New York City FC side that wasn't quite able to get over the victory hump in their first seven matches of the season. There's also no sneezing at a lead striker that also passes well enough in the final third to add in three helpers over that span.

More than any of that, however, Heber has given NYCFC their ideal functionality and intended shape. That missing system piece has clicked into place and changed everything for the club. As soon as the Brazilian moved atop Dome Torrent's formation on April 6, the Cityzens soared. With him in the line-up, they pocket 2.25 points per game. Without him, they've managed over a point less per contest.