The start of a new MLS season sets off a variety of exciting table races, with the sorting of clubs into playoff places the most obvious and ultimately important example. For individual players, however, the big one involves the Golden Boot presented by Audi.
Every league in the world hands one out, and more often than not the MLS version is a fairly close race that goes down to the wire.
In these parts, it's also among the toughest to win more than once. Only five players have managed to scoop up the Golden Boot twice, and no one has managed to win it in consecutive years.
There are many MLS attackers capable of topping the goal chart, but it takes more than scoring skill to win this race. Some guys will be hampered in the chase by national team call-ups or injury, and there may even be a top contender who departs in a mid-season transfer.
That means there are some otherwise strong candidates that didn't quite make this list. For example, there's Daryl Dike — do we know for sure that he's coming back to Orlando City SC? And if he does, for how long? One could ask the same sort of questions about a guy like Toronto FC’s Ayo Akinola. Then there's a veteran sniper like Javier Hernandez, but frankly I'm going to need to see that the LA Galaxy understand how to get the most out of him before including him among the top contenders.
In the end, I settled on a magnificent seven of scoring crown contenders broken into two categories. We'll start with the most obvious pair of goal monsters around (each of whom will be chasing their second Golden Boot), followed by five players capable of upsetting the apple cart.
The Obvious Front Runners
This is not rocket science, folks. They may as well call the Mercedes-Benz "J-Mart" because Martinez goals are the red and black light special in that establishment. Even if Martinez only returns from last season's knee injury at two-thirds his normal power, he'll be in the Golden Boot race. Of course, there's an expected Copa America sabbatical to consider. He'll also need to make on-field acquaintances with what should be his two primary chance suppliers, but I'm confident experienced set-up hands Juergen Damm and Marcelino Moreno can figure it out.
This is not brain surgery, folks. The only active MLS player who even approaches the goal rate of Martinez is Vela. The LAFC superstar has a boss attack entourage and a Western Conference schedule that grants numerous chances to run at questionable defenses. Considering the current make-up of Bob Bradley's, it's also not unreasonable to think Vela might get some central forward shifts along the way. And then there's the factor that might make him the true Golden Boot favorite: unlike many of the guys mentioned here, he won't be pulled away at any time for international duty.
The Next Tier
For some strange reason, the US national team program has a very noticeable Ebobisse blind spot. The Portland forward scores goals in all manner of ways, and lots of them. Only three MLS players posted a better goal rate last season than the Timbers man, whose finishing accuracy has improved each year (he scored on just under 30% of his shot attempts in 2020). My own math says the more he gets snubbed by the USMNT, the better his Golden Boot chances get.
Oh, I know. Higuain's targeting system went a little haywire after his arrival from Juventus last summer, and one has to wonder if the 33-year-old still has his A-game firing on all cylinders. I wondered a bit myself, and then I decided the mini-slump was more likely an aberration that put a chip on his shoulder heading into 2021. I'm also figuring Phil Neville is shrewd enough to point Inter Miami's array of crafty types in Higuain's direction. If it all adds up to him ringing up 15-20 goals, just don't call it a comeback.
Even with Vela back from injury and the vulture of European interest always hovering around, we can't forget last season's top gunner. Few players in MLS history have sliced into scoring positions from the flank as frequently and elegantly as the LAFC youngster, who becomes deadlier every season. It would naturally harm Rossi's shot at the first Golden Boot repeat in league history if he's named to Uruguay's Copa America squad, but there is no guarantee that he'll make the cut.
Yes, the Sounders are in the midst of a major flank crew renovation (gosh, at least I hope they're not done). Nevertheless, Ruidiaz will still have Nico Lodeiro stirring the drink, and an MLS record of bagging roughly seven goals for every 10 games he plays. What he won't have (again) is a full regular season to ring bells. The Peru ace will be away for the entirety of June, if not also a bit of July, on Copa America duty. And this is the only reason he's not in the top tier.
Depending on how the USMNT rosters shake out, the Columbus Crew hit man will miss either a few games or as much as six weeks during a busy international summer. Without those absences, Zardes would be borderline top tier on this list. He has a variety of capable set-up men, some new weapons on board to draw defensive attention away, a Rolodex of clever box runs and all sorts of one-touch finishes. Plus, the addition of Bradley Wright-Phillips means his minutes can be managed to keep the legs a little fresher throughout the season.