It’s never too early to handicap the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP race. (It is definitely too early to handicap the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP race.)

As you get your mind right for Week 4, let’s take a closer look at the way-too-early MVP favorites, the contenders off to slow (or injured starts), the long shots and everyone else in between. If you’re looking for someone to watch, these guys are a good place to start.

I feel confident that all five finalists will come from this tiered list. That’s easy to say when you list 24 players. 😉

Early & Obvious Favorites

Zelarayan has four goals (plus two assists) to lead the league on just 1.16 xG, per TruMedia & Stats Perform data, thanks to some audacious outside-the-18 bombazos. That pace does not seem sustainable!

But it’s also not out of the realm of possibility that the Armenian international could have a Hany Muhktar-like season, say 15-18 goals and 12-15 assists. If he does and the Crew get back to their fall 2020 form…

If there is even a trickle of service, the man is going to score goals in bunches. After three games, Hernandez is second in the league in xG. With two goals, he’s actually underperforming his service based on the xG model. That won’t last long for a guy who scored 16 open-play goals in just over 1,700 minutes last year. He’s as safe a Golden Boot presented by Audi favorite as there can be, thus an MVP favorite as well.

If their body cooperates, they'll be there

I love Fredy Montero as much as the next MLS expansion era nerd, but Ruidiaz is a different sort of problem. This team won’t be at its best until the Peruvian is fit and up top. If he is fit and up top, watch out. Goals, goals, goals. There are four trophies up for grabs for Seattle, and goals and trophies have a way of crowning MVPs.

We’re all still waiting for the old Josef to return, but he may not even have to be the vintage, snarling version of himself to score 20 goals. Patience, folks. The Five Stripes are a work in progress, but things could start clicking quickly.

Taty Castellanos in Red

Klimala leads MLS in xG (2.46). He’s sixth in xA (1.48). He’s got one goal and three assists, and that seems a tad disappointing, somehow. What’s that tell you? First, he’s been somewhat wasteful/unlucky in front of goal, last in MLS (-1.46) in Goals Above Average (G – xG). That, plus his defensive work rate and relentless channel running, gets you to the Taty reference (high volume chance getter, but middling output compared to xG). Second, the assist pace will taper off once Lewis Morgan regresses to the mean.

But if the mean is top five (or even top 10) in both xG and xA and the Red Bulls way keeps producing results, with even more attacking pieces coming into the team (hello, fellow DP Luquinhas), Klimala's got a real chance to be an MVP finalist at the end of the year.

David Gass Theorem

If you aren’t an Extratime listener, which you should be/tell your friends if you already are, then you might not know about the David Gass Theorem. In a nutshell, signings from outside the league take at least a year to get truly comfortable and fully productive. These three guys could (keyword!) follow the theorem to an MVP-caliber year.

Special player, potentially special team with a fun/verde narrative. The vibes are good.

I’m not saying he is on the same level as Zelarayan or Mukhtar, but a double-double season is very possible.

First, get healthy. Second, turn potential and talent into a final product in the attacking third.

Will they be in MLS for the entire year?

If they are, they aren’t just MVP contenders. They’re favorites.

We all know what Vela is capable of. It’s just a matter of staying on the field long enough for LAFC to do it.

Hey, maybe we could get another full year of Taty!

Another Supporters’ Shield is not likely, but a 20-goal season ought to be the expectation if, for whatever reason, Buksa isn’t sold this summer.

Tony Meola MVP

Never going to happen, but three shutouts in three games and 2.52 xG prevented is an ideal start for the still 17-year-old (!!!) Slonina.

Big name, but no guarantees

Shaqiri might be able to do it on his own, and help is coming in the form of Jairo Torres come early May (and perhaps others). Once he learns the ropes and establishes relationships with his teammates, anything is possible.

This is not a meme pick. Things are testy in Miami, but who knows what could happen on this rollercoaster?!?

MVPs gotta make the playoffs

Pat Noonan’s Union-like system is IDEAL for Lucho. He was brilliant through the chaos of 2021, so what can he be with structure and consistency around him?

Young American attackers

CF Montréal can focus on MLS now they're out of CCL. Djordje can focus on adding goals to his already prodigious assist game. If he does, watch out. We could be witnessing a massive leap.

Ferreira is going to have every chance to put up 15g and 10a. Will he (and his teammates) finish those chances? That is the question.

Last year's finalists are still ballers

Just watch this dude for a full game. Every touch. Every pass. Every feint. Every little space-opening movement. Every run to recover the ball. Gil is unbelievably talented and puts in the work, too. It won’t be easy to deny him another MVP after 2021's award.

Slow start, but just wait until Nashville play at home for almost the entire second half of the season at GEODIS Park (opens May 1).

I don’t know if Salloi will be as productive as he was last year, but 15-20 combined goals and assists ought to be his new baseline.

Non-No. 10 midfielders probably only get one shot at MVP. Paulo had it, even if his influence and ability don’t change.

This year's Joao Paulo

If I was going to choose one Rapid to contend for the award, it would be Kaye. He’ll have some highlight moments in the box, plus dominate and dictate games in the center of the park.

Best player on contenders (maybe?)

How could I leave these two out, despite relatively quiet starts?

You could argue Russell should have been an MVP finalist last year!

Reynoso might just be the best pure No. 10 in MLS.