MARIETTA, Ga. – Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game presented by Target (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, UniMás, TSN, TVAS - Full TV & Streaming info) will prominently feature most of the leading contenders for the 2018 Landon Donovan MLS MVP Award, providing a national showcase for them to display their quality.
There’s All-Stars captain Carlos Vela (8 goals, 5 assists), the face and heartbeat of impressive expansion side LAFC, and host-city hero Miguel Almiron (8 g, 11 a), the conductor of Atlanta United’s explosive attack, as well as perennial MVP contenders like Toronto FC dynamo and 2015 winner Sebastian Giovinco (6 g, 10 a), Montreal Impact maestro Ignacio Piatti (11 g, 9 a) and New York Red Bulls goal king Bradley Wright-Phillips (14 g, 5 a).
But ask around the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, site of the All-Stars’ training session on Monday morning, and one name keeps popping up ahead of the rest.
Atlanta’s Venezuelan striker appears to be the clear MVP frontrunner, powered by an unprecedented scoring rate that’s netted him 24 goals in 23 league matches, putting him on pace to not just pass but smash the league’s single-season scoring record of 27, jointly held by Wright-Phillips, Roy Lassiter and Chris Wondolowski. Second place on the Golden Boot table is Zlatan Ibrahimovic of the LA Galaxy with 15, a whopping nine goals behind Martinez.
It can only help his case that ATLUTD are the league’s frontrunners at present, topping the Supporters’ Shield standings in both total points and points per game.
“Looking at Atlanta, the way they play, how they dominate games, it’s why people talk about them,” said 2017 MLS MVPDiego Valeri of the Portland Timbers, dismissing the idea that the Five Stripes’ big home crowds and attack-first tactics have pumped up their players’ national reputations.
“Obviously, Josef is scoring an amount of goals that is unbelievable.”
Even Martinez’s teammate Almiron, who some consider his closest competition for MVP, is quick to promote his credentials.
“I think that Josef is fighting for a lot of awards: the Golden Boot, the MVP. Hopefully my teammate can win these,” said Almiron, while admitting that he “tries not to think about” his own candidacy for individual honors.
Atlanta United's Josef Martinez is the clear frontrunner for MLS MVP, according to his All-Star peers. | USA Today Sports Images
It’s not just Martinez’s raw statistics and team success that have impressed his colleagues around the league. It’s the relentlessness and passion with which he attacks, an obsession for scoring that transforms his mild-mannered off-field persona into a raging terror between the lines.
“His mentality for goalscoring – it’s like if he doesn’t score, then he can’t eat, I feel like that’s what he tells himself,” Steffen said. “It’s absurd. I’ve never seen someone so aggressive in the box, and want to score so badly."
“He’s really strong and he’s very quick, and he’s very deceptive.”
That single-mindedness shows itself in Martinez’s own stated thoughts on the MVP debate. He maintains that he’s got other hardware in his sights – the team kind.
“Obviously it’s not up to me!” he said with a slight chuckle when asked about the MVP award.“There are many players that deserve it. It’s not my job – my job is only to play well for the team, this is all."
“Individual awards don’t matter much to me. What matters to me is being a champion. That’s all.”
Notably, the reigning MVP offered up a slightly cautionary note: As the 2018 campaign enters its final stretch, individual performances take on extra weight as awards voters hone in on their best options.
“There’s a ton of unbelievable players with the talent to win that award. MLS is getting more and more players all the time that can be in that race,” said Valeri. “Now is the most important part of the season, so probably what happens in this last part of the year will dictate.”