Voices: Greg Seltzer

Top 10 MLS Golden Boot candidates for 2022

The 2022 Major League Soccer season is all lined up in the starting blocks, which means another thrilling Golden Boot presented by Audi race is set to be run by the league's ace goal-getters.

As always, we've attempted to identify the top contenders for the big scoring prize, including a couple who might see their contention cut short by a transfer move. We've even thrown in a pair of sneaky dangerous long shots you probably don't consider viable challengers to bring this field up to an even 10. After all, this is MLS we're talking about – always be prepared for the unexpected.

Before diving in, here are a couple honorable mentions looking to one-up career years: Daniel Salloi (Sporting Kansas City), Hany Mukhtar (Nashville SC) and Damir Kreilach (Real Salt Lake).

The prime candidates

The LAFC frontman wasted no time getting comfy upon his MLS arrival last summer. Arango struck 14 times in 1,400 minutes, finishing second in the league in goals per 90. That was enough for 2021 MLS Newcomer of the Year honors after joining from Colombia's Millonarios.

A couple of shrewd play-driving additions and a (hopefully) healthier year for Carlos Vela certainly won't hurt his ability to build on that fast success, nor will the fact Colombia's deep strike force should at least somewhat limit his international absences.

Barring any unforeseen obstacles, scoring 20 times could easily be considered the bare minimum haul for Arango during his age-27 season – especially if he keeps getting chances from the penalty-kick spot.

In 2021, the Galaxy figured out how to get the best out of Chicharito after a rough first year in MLS for Mexico's all-time leading scorer. Now, new attack ace Douglas Costa is sure to bring a distracting gravity that opens 18-yard box space for Hernandez. Their other DP, Kevin Cabral, has a similar quality as he gets further settled under head coach Greg Vanney.

As with 2021, the key to Chicharito's Golden Boot contention will be staying fit. He had 17 goals and three assists in 21 matches last season, a rate that would have seen him win the award and LA make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs when multiplied.

Though the Atlanta United talisman's output was a bit muted in 2021 compared to previous seasons, he still banked more goals per 90 than Golden Boot winner Valentin Castellanos and five of the other 11 players who finished above him in the scoring chart. Besides, Martinez had a good excuse, as he was working back to full strength from an ACL injury and ATLUTD spent much of the year searching for offensive form amid coaching turbulence.

The Five Stripes have now rediscovered their previous mojo thanks to some exciting additions in the last two transfer windows, with fellow DPs Luiz Araujo and Thiago Almada rearing to go. And if Martinez follows suit – as often happens in the second season removed from a major knee setback – the league may be back in serious trouble, like when the Venezuelan international won the 2018 Golden Boot.

The Sounders striker would have been an obvious choice for this watch list even before they added another ace playmaker in Albert Rusnak. Now that they have, there's a strong argument to be made Ruidiaz should be considered the top favorite in the Golden Boot race.

He has been one of the most consistently productive forwards in the league since arriving in Seattle, bagging 50 goals and nine assists in 79 regular-season outings. The Peruvian international nearly won last year's Golden Boot, with a late injury keeping him on 17 goals and one assist in 26 matches.

If the LAFC superstar stays properly fit for the first time since 2019, there's not a whole lot anyone would need to say to make his case. Let's go ahead and do it anyway, if only for anyone who may have thankfully just emerged from a long coma.

Among players with at least 50 MLS games played, there are exactly three players in MLS history with a better goals-per-90 rate than the Mexican magician, and only one of those (Martinez) remains active. Vela, when winning the 2019 Golden Boot, recorded an astounding 34 goals and 15 assists across 31 matches – the best-ever attacking season league-wide.

Nothing further, your honor. We rest our case.

Provided the Crew can avoid another biblical flood of key injuries, I very much like their chances of getting back to what they do best: controlling games until they can pick out a clever Zardes run. The veteran striker struggled mightily for fitness in 2021 and still made light work of the chances he did get from Columbus' regularly decimated lineups, finishing third in MLS (among players with at least 900 minutes played) in goals per shot.

Is this the year Zardes finally bags 20-plus goals? Keep that squad in one piece and it probably should be. That form would keep him in the US men's national team picture, too.

If they stick around...

The Supporters' Shield holders have been receiving loads of calls from Europe about their 16-goal target man. And Jozy Altidore's addition could be perceived as a signal the club is planning for the eventuality of Buksa's departure, likely in the summer window.

Should the Polish international striker remain in New England this season, he's a threat to bring home the Golden Boot. Buksa easily led the league in shots per 90 in 2021, and also finished near the top of the charts for both shots on target and goals per 90. He'll have Gustavo Bou and Carles GilBest XI selections a year ago – creating chances aplenty behind him.

Obviously, any league's reigning top scorer should be high on the list of threats to grab the prize. There are just two problems with that notion. The first is that Major League Soccer has never seen a repeat Golden Boot winner. That's right... never. You can look it up.

The much larger problem is Castellanos might not be long for NYCFC's roster. He's been a hot transfer topic since the Bronx bunch raised MLS Cup last December, and it seems only a matter of time until some big spender in Europe or South America names the right price. And obviously, a departure in either transfer window would effectively end his candidacy.

The darkhorses

I'll bet dollars to donuts (make them lemon pistachio old fashioneds, thanks) that I know what you're thinking right now. It's surely something along the lines of "Dude, get a grip... if there was a Golden Boot for missing prime chances just high and wide, the Minnesota United forward would have captured it last season." And you'd get no argument here. At the end of last season, only two MLS players ended up with a worse G-xG tally than Hunou's -3.2.

Here's the thing, though: All of the Frenchman's 2021 shooting accuracy stats were significantly below his career norm. With motivated chance creator Emanuel Reynoso around to keep him well-fed, regression to the mean could result in well more than twice the seven goals Hunou managed during his first Loons go-around after arriving as a DP from Ligue 1's Stade Rennais.

The former Red Bulls man reached a whole new level after being traded to Vancouver early last season. For the first time in his career, White was the "the man" up top. He responded by potting 12 goals and five assists across 27 matches, in large part thanks to his league-leading goals-per-shot rate. It all just works; the Whitecaps play scrappy soccer, White scores scrappy goals.

With attack maestro Ryan Gauld around for his first full MLS season and the Whitecaps now fully grown into their identity under Vanni Sartini, that duo might become even more lethal in 2022. And Vancouver have rewarded the 26-year-old in kind, giving him a long-term contract extension this offseason.