The Golden Boot Race is on with a month left in the 2017 MLS regular season. And while challenging the single-season goal record of 27 held by Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips isn’t in play – or is it, Josef Martinez? – there are still at least handful of goalscorers with reason to believe they could write their name in the record books.
For a comprehensive breakdown of the candidates, head over to Soccer America, where Paul Kennedy has done typically fine and thorough work to outline the field. I’ll not deny Paul’s article inspired me to handicap this race. I felt the need to make some predictions, which you’ll find below.
First, though, here are a pair graphs showing the goal tally it’s required to be top scorer in MLS from 1996 to the present as well as goals per game over the years.
You can see each follows a similar, if nowhere near identical, trend line. In the first seven years of MLS, six seasons of better than three goals per game saw the league’s top scorer average 22.3 goals scored. From 2003 to 2010, goals per game figures gradually decreased, cratering with an all-time low of 2.46 in 2010, and the Golden Boot winners’ haul decreased as well (16.87).
In 2011, when the downward trend reversed itself, we started seeing unprecedented levels of 20-plus goal production at the top of the MLS scoring chart, with the all-time record matched twice in three years and 22 or more goals scored by a single player in five of six. The likes of Chris Wondolowski, Camilo Sanvezzo, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sebastian Giovinco have truly been prolific, and the Golden Boot winner averaged 23 goals in the process.
It seems certain that someone will hit the 20-goal mark in 2017 (David Villa has 19 goals with five games remaining), but who actually sits atop the Golden Boot standings come 6 pm ET on Oct. 22 is still up for grabs. In my opinion, it comes down to the following five players. I’ve made a case and a prediction for each. Let me know what you think in the comments section below!
5. Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
- 15 goals in 27 games (0.55 goals per game)
- Six games left: @CLB, DC, @TOR, VAN, ATL, @DC
CASE FOR THE GOLDEN BOOT: The Red Bulls and Atlanta have the most games remaining, and Wright-Phillips, unlike Martinez, won’t miss any action or add travel miles to his legs thanks to international duty. He’s a streaky striker, says so himself, and while the Red Bulls aren’t exactly creating scoring chances in droves, the pressure is on to lock in a playoff place, Sacha Kljestan is MLS’s best assist man and Danny Royer may be back soon.
As for the schedule, Columbus are hot but have a bad habit of shipping goals, especially against high pressure in their own third, there’s a home and away against D.C. United and certainly goals to be had (or allowed) in Atlanta. Maybe BWP can do it…
MY PREDICTION: … but he won’t, falling short of his third Golden Boot season in four years. That garbage-time goal in the U.S. Open Cup final might light a fire and led to improved form, but the Red Bulls aren’t the well-oiled machine they’ve been the last couple years. I’d say 19 goals and a New York playoff berth sounds about right.
4. Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago Fire)
- 18 goals in 29 games (0.62 goals per game)
- Five games left: @PHI, @SJ, NYC, PHI, @HOU
CASE FOR THE GOLDEN BOOT: When the Fire were rolling, as they were leading into the MLS All-Star break, chances and goals flooded in for the Hungarian No. 9. Then he went cold, like Lake Michigan in January, and found himself scoreless in nine games. But that’s the past, two goals in two weeks may be the beginning of another run, and if it is then…
MY PREDICTION: … it still won’t be enough. I just don’t think that sort of form is coming back this season, not with the Fire on the road for three games, where they’ve struggled, unless a couple penalty kicks are coming Chicago’s way. Nikolic will be fine – he’ll finish with 21 goals, I think – but it won’t be enough for the Golden Boot.
3. David Villa (New York City FC)
- 19 goals in 26 games (0.73 goals per game)
- Five games left: HOU, @MTL, @CHI, @NE, CLB
CASE FOR THE GOLDEN BOOT: Villa’s in poll position, while everyone chases his mark, and has the second most games remaining. He’s NYCFC’s man from the penalty spot, where he’s gone 16 of 18 in three seasons, and is plenty productive from the run of play. And hey, maybe he’s feeling well rested after playing just 18 minutes so far in September after an injury suffered with Spain…
MY PREDICTION: … or maybe, with three away games left, Patrick Vieira makes sure his most influential player is fresh and suffering from no ill effects of the knock that kept him out of two home games against Sporting KC and Portland. Call it the 2016 Giovinco Effect. I figure Villa will get three in New York’s last five to take him to 22 goals, perhaps pick up the MVP trophy and head into the playoffs sans Boot.
2. Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)
- 18 goals in 28 games (0.64 goals per game)
- Four games left: ORL, @SJ, DC, VAN
CASE FOR THE GOLDEN BOOT: Goals in eight straight games mean form isn’t an issue, and three home games – two against non-playoff competition and one against a Cascadia rival on Decision Day – and a quick jaunt down to San Jose ought to keep Valeri rested and plenty motivated given there’s a playoff spot (and perhaps a bye) to lock in. He scores every which way, including from the spot, so he’s right there …
MY PREDICTION: … but not quite atop the list in my mental simulation of the remainder of 2017 based on gut feeling and little else. Valeri will get four – but his streak will end – and finish on 22 goals. It’s easily a career high (and perhaps enough for an MVP nod) but not quite enough for the boot.
1. Josef Martinez (Atlanta United)
- 17 goals in 15 games (1.13 goals per game)
- Six games left: MTL, PHI, @NE, MIN, @NY, TOR
CASE FOR THE GOLDEN BOOT: Martinez’s numbers are eye-popping and I can tell you from watching him dismantle Orlando with hard runs and assertive finishes from behind the field boards that the anecdotal side is pretty damn convincing as well. He’s got eight goals in his last four games, and Atlanta have six games remaining. He's the hot hand, and nobody seems to be able to slow him down at the moment. The Venezuelan’s impact on the league ought to go down in the record books …
MY PREDICTION: … and it will, but only just barely because he won’t play on the turf in New England and almost certainly miss a golden opportunity against Minnesota because of the international break. That means five goals in four games, one or two as a substitute, giving Martinez 23 goals in 21 games and a Golden Boot in his first MLS season. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Are my predictions off? Don’t just sit there, tell me where I went wrong in the comments section below or hit me up on Twitter at @andrew_wiebe!