The Daily KO - Mukhtar golden boot
The Recap
R. Puig (53' PK), B. Sharp (82') | S. Adeniran (4'), João Klauss (28')

What happened?: St. Louis jumped out to an early 2-0 lead thanks in part to Samuel Adeniran’s seventh goal in eight starts and João Klauss’s first goal since returning from injury. The Galaxy earned a penalty early in the second half, though, and Adeniran earned a red card moments later. LA’s new signing Billy Sharp scored in the 82nd minute to earn a draw.

So, did we learn anything?: St. Louis will be glad to get Klauss back on the scoresheet for the first time since March but will be frustrated to only put one point of separation between themselves and their chasers in the West. Still, CITY have a seven-point advantage on Seattle and an eight-point advantage on LAFC. With only 18 points available for Seattle and 21 points available for LAFC, it’s hard to see anyone closing the gap on the Still Need A Nickname Please Help. Anyway, it’s very, very important to not forget that an expansion team winning their conference is one of like the five craziest things that’s ever happened in MLS. In MLS!

Meanwhile, the Galaxy swiped a point but really needed three here – and in every game from here on out. There’s a four-point divide between them and ninth-place Dallas with eight games remaining for both.

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Who's going to win the Golden Boot?

We’ve got the tracker up. The 2023 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi tracker is over here and, folks, this is the 2023 Western Conference of Golden Boot races. No one is all that exceptional, everything is close and options you haven’t even considered in a moment are still very much alive. The difference between first-place Hany Mukhtar and the seven people tied for 10th place is four goals. 

So, who’s going to win this thing? Well, first off, it feels important (to me) to note that we here at The Daily Kickoff (me) wish that penalties count for this thing. Look, goals are supposed to be an exceptional moment of skill and athleticism that the average person (still me) could never think of executing at a professional level. A penalty? With the ball just sitting there 12 yards away? I’m probably getting like one out of every 20. 

Nothing that I could do one out of every 20 times athletically should be celebrated. And no other sport has a moment where such a straightforward action counts for such a significant portion of a game’s total score. With penalties being converted at somewhere between a 78% to 85% rate at the professional level, it’s essentially the same success rate as an NBA free throw except it changes the game entirely, all because your center back forgot to run around with his arms stuck behind his back and accidentally got hit in the forearm by a 0.02 xG shot from distance that was probably about to land in someone’s nachos 20 rows behind the goal.

What I’m saying is: Bring back running penalties full-time, make the 18-yard box an arc instead of a rectangle that makes absolutely no sense when you think about it, and don’t count penalties in a player’s overall scoring tally UNLESS the player earned the penalty themself………

…….wait, what were we doing? 

OH! The Golden Boot. Right. Sorry. Let’s take a moment and do our best to predict a winner here based on how many goals the player has now, how many games they have left and how often they’re finding quality scoring opportunities. Yes, that includes penalties.

Tier: "XG heroes who don't take penalties"
  • White: 10 g, 0.49 g/90, 0.60 xG/90 | 8 games remaining
  • Giakoumakis: 13 g, 0.90 g/90, 0.67 xG/90 | 6 games remaining

Poor guys. If they only took penalties, they could have been battling each other at the top of this list. Instead, they’ll have to settle for still being in the race with a genuine but somewhat long-shot chance at winning it. The good news is that both consistently find fantastic opportunities to score. Giakoumakis is first and White is second among MLS starters in expected goals per 90.

They’ve both been outstanding all season and it’s the firm belief of this newsletter that Giakoumakis would be running away with this if he had been healthy for the majority of this year. Even when he’s not at his best, his physical skill set allows him to brute force his way to goals. Honestly, considering the fact that he’s at a hilariously high 0.9 goals per 90 clip, he still might win this thing. The only problem is that Atlanta have just six games remaining and the schedule isn’t kind. He’s fighting an uphill battle, but he’s a tough player to bet against.

Tier: "Takes so many penalties"
  • Gazdag: 11 g, 0.48 g/90, 0.46 xG | 8 games remaining

Gazdag has 11 goals on the season. 11. Would you like to guess how many he’s scored from open play? Did you guess five? Well that’s too high? Maybe you’d like to lower your guess to three? Well, that’s still too high. He has in fact scored two goals from open play and nine (9) penalties.

Tier: "Takes some penalties and is liable to get on a heater at any moment"
  • Pulido: 13 g, 0.66 g/90, 0.37 xG/90 | 6 games remaining
  • Espinoza: 12 g, 0.43 g/90, 0.27 xG/90 | 6 games remaining
  • Bouanga: 12 g, 0.55 g/90, 0.47 xG/90 | 7 games remaining

It wouldn’t be shocking to see any of these three suddenly get on a roll and ride a hot foot to the Golden Boot. All are capable of scoring in bunches, and Pulido in particular has been hot as of late. With all three playing for teams fighting for playoff position, it feels likely we’ll see them try and step up in some way and attempt to carry the load down the stretch. That’s a good formula for goals. Even if Pulido and Espinoza’s significant xG overperformance isn’t.

That said, Bouanga seems like an especially solid bet to take off over the last few games. If we were counting goals in all competitions, he’d be running away with this. He’s thrived in tournaments this year and, in a way, LAFC fighting to finish second in the West over the last seven games is kind of like a tournament? Sort of? Either way, I’d put him right up there with Giakoumakis when thinking about guys who might haul off and score two goals a game over the final month. Even if LAFC haven’t exactly looked like a juggernaut lately

Tier: "Already out front, takes penalties, and generally exists on a higher plane"

Mukhtar: 14 g, 0.57 g/90, 0.5 xG/90 | 7 games remaining
Acosta: 13 g, 0.55 g/90, 0.44 xG/90 | 7 games remaining

It seems appropriate that you have last year’s Landon Donovan MLS MVP and this year’s MVP-elect battling it out at the top. It helps, of course, that both have a decent number of assists to help them win any potential tiebreakers. But the main thing here is that both of these players have repeatedly shown an ability to show up when it matters.

Nashville are battling for position in the stacked East and will be looking to Mukhtar to carry them out of seventh place. He already has a lead on everyone else and has a history of putting together extended stretches of unplayability. He’s the odds-on favorite.

But don’t count out Lucho and the general feeling that this is simply Cincinnati’s year. The biggest issue right now is that it might be a little too much of Cincy’s year. There’s a chance they take things easy once they clinch the Supporters’ Shield. That might mean Acosta misses a game or two. Still, are you really going to bet against him this season?

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Good luck out there. Be great even when you’re asked to come out of your comfort zone.