EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
If you like goals, you’re living in a golden era in Major League Soccer.
The league has witnessed a cavalcade of scoring exploits over the past half-decade or so, with a steady stream of top-shelf attacking talent destroying defenses and records alike.
In 2014, when Bradley Wright-Phillips matched what was then MLS’s all-time single-season scoring mark of 27 goals, a milestone dating back to the league’s 1996 inaugural campaign, it was hailed as a historic individual achievement. And it was! It’s just that new arrivals Josef Martinez and Carlos Vela would soon up the ante even further, breaking that record into bits with regular-season hauls of 31 and 34, respectively, over the past two seasons.
Robbie Keane, Sebastian Giovinco and then the aforementioned Martinez-Vela duo all set new highs for most combined goals and assists during the same period. Chris Wondolowski surpassed the career MLS goals total, and Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both became the first players in league history to reach the 30-goal plateau in 2019.
Last year we were treated to a three-way MLS Golden Boot race, won by Vela and also graced by simply superb campaigns from Ibrahimovic (30 goals) across town and Josef (27 goals) down south. There are reasons to believe this year's race could be even hotter. Two of those stars are back for 2020, and they’ll be joined by another offseason dose of high-profile attacking acquisitions: Alan Pulido. Lucas Cavallini. Edison Flores. Jurgen Locadia. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. Franco Jara.
Can any of them knock Vela off his throne? Might the single-season record be broken for a third consecutive season? Last month Greg Seltzer offered up a solid list of his top five contenders; here’s a rundown of the factors I think will prove most influential in answering those questions.
Incumbency and quality
Vela and Josef lead the pack for a reason and should be considered Golden Boot frontrunners until others displace them. They’re elite players who spearhead talent-laden lineups at trophy-hunting clubs where the plan is to deliver them the ball in and around the opposition penalty box – and the plan usually works.
Something similar can be said of Jozy Altidore at Toronto FC, Gyasi Zardes with Columbus Crew SC, New York City FC and their Brazilian marksman Heber, Raul Ruidiaz in Seattle and perhaps Philadelphia’s Kacper Przybylko.
All those teams harbor legitimate MLS Cup hopes and all those strikers can feast on steady service. The next question is whether they will tap (and maintain) a rich vein of finishing form, which brings us to…
Golden Boot winners typically don’t need a hatful of chances to bag goals, and they tend to maintain a steady week-to-week pace interspersed with big games and hot streaks. Here I find it helpful to peruse the goals-per-90-minutes statistic – which brings bad news for the likes of Zardes.
The Crew’s No. 9 reached a rate of 0.58 g/90min during his career-best 2018 season (19g) but dipped to 0.47 g/90min last year and duly fell down the scoring charts. Meanwhile, Vela (1.12 g/90min) and Josef (0.94 g/90min – and an eye-watering 0.99 over his MLS career) struck up absolutely ludicrous rates in this department. And Heber wasn’t too far behind (0.86 g/90min) as he led the best regular-season team in the Eastern Conference.
A few names to watch in this context:
- FC Dallas’ Zdenek Ondrasek posted 0.84 g/90min in 2019, starting just one MLS match before late August but hitting his stride down the home stretch and even earning a Czech national team call
- Gustavo Bou (0.70) hit the net at a very steady clip after arriving in New England in midseason
- D.C. United's Ola Kamara is an expert poacher (MLS career g/90min of 0.60) but his teammates must crank up their chance creation from last year's staid bus-parking tendencies. Matt Doyle calls Kamara a darkhorse to win the Golden Boot (watch the case he makes on Extratime below):
- Montreal’s Bologna loanee Lassi Lappalainen (0.66) is more of a winger but scored efficiently in his 2019 half-season; the young Finn might well make waves if he sticks around MLS a while.
Availability and longevity
Even the best strikers can’t score for their clubs if they’re not in uniform and on the pitch. Myriad injuries have prevented Altidore from hitting the overall numbers that his obvious talents make him capable of, and Ruidiaz misses plenty of Sounders matches due to his duties with Peru.
Przybylko’s nagging foot injury hangs questions over his head and the legendary Wondo could find himself on substitute duty in what’s expected to be his final season. BWP is one of the all-time greats – I ranked him MLS’s best-ever goalscorer back in 2017 – but must prove himself fit and healthy as he marks his 35th birthday while adapting to a new team in LAFC this year.
A look at the scoring rates among the select club of those who’ve reached 100 career MLS goals shows how fiendishly difficult it is to score at high rates over long periods. So if Vela and Martinez can keep up anything remotely close to their recent finishing rates, they’ll truly be icons.
And anyone who manages to eclipse them this year will deserve to be discussed in the same light.