With just a couple more weeks of the MLS regular season, the award races are coming into focus. The league even introduced a new award: the Young Player of the Year, which replaces Rookie of the Year. We’ll have coverage of all the awards at some point around the end of the season, but for today, we’re looking at the contenders for the MVP.
Any number of players could stake a legitimate claim as a contender. This is a year with no clear dominant figure; Carlos Vela and Josef Martinez have been injured, and the Golden Boot race provides no obvious answers. Diego Rossi leads the race with 12 goals, averaging 0.76 goals per 90 minutes. The last two years of goal-per-game production from Vela, Martinez, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic raised our expectations of the league’s best scorers.
One player seems likely to get the award this year, though, barring new developments in the final handful of games. Let’s rank the top three contenders.
1. Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC
If TFC wins the Supporters’ Shield, Pozuelo should have this award locked up. He’s started all 20 of Toronto’s games this year — uncommon durability in this wild season — and he is the undisputed best player on what might be the best team.
But heading into Wednesday’s games, TFC is tied with the Philadelphia Union for first in the Shield race, with the Union holding significant tiebreaker advantages after cooking a shorthanded Toronto side 5-0 last weekend. If TFC fails to come away with the Shield, Pozuelo’s case is dampened a bit.
He still looks like the favorite, though. He leads the league in combined goals and assists, with 8g and 10a, and has significant influence on TFC’s style of play. Pozuelo is a high-level passer and playmaker, dropping everywhere on the field to orchestrate possession. His touch percentage of 11.9 percent leads the team and compares favorably to other playmakers around the league.
Per American Soccer Analysis, Pozuelo is active and efficient in the attacking third. He’s completed a high volume of passes in that area — second-most per 96 minutes, behind only Nicolas Lodeiro — and completed 76 percent of them, five percent more than the amount he’d have been expected to complete. By comparison, Lodeiro completes 68 percent of those passes (three percent over expectation). One similarly efficient player in the attacking third: TFC teammate Pablo Piatti, who has also been very good this season.
Arguments against Pozuelo come down to two things: the importance of star forwards Ayo Akinola and Jozy Altidore, both of whom have been incredibly productive despite various injuries; and Pozuelo’s limited scoring figures. He has eight goals, but four of them were penalty kicks. Other leaders in the Golden Boot race haven’t been similarly impacted by PKs.
Quiet performances in the final three games and a Union Shield win could shake up the race. I imagine he will come away with the MVP, though, in part because no other candidate is particularly convincing.
2. Walker Zimmerman, Nashville SC
A defender for second-place in the MVP conversation? A defender on a seventh-place team, no less? I’d like to nominate Zimmerman, the favorite for Defender of the Year and star for Nashville. He anchors a defense that is singlehandedly carrying an expansion team that lacks above-average talent to the playoffs.
Nashville has given up just 18 goals on the season, on par with some of the best teams in the league. Zimmerman goes 90 every week and plays high-level defense, with three goals on set pieces added in. It’s unclear how much legitimate consideration he’ll get for this award, especially considering NYCFC right back Anton Tinnerholm also has a good case for DOY, but he deserves to be in the discussion.
3. Diego Rossi, LAFC
Simply by virtue of leading the Golden Boot race, Rossi is in contention. He has 12 goals (just one PK) and three assists for an LAFC team that has come closer to hitting their stride in recent weeks. But four of his goals came in one demolition of the LA Galaxy, and since September 6, he has a grand total of three goals and one assist.
He isn’t a high-volume playmaker. His touch percentage is just six percent, a pretty small figure for a creative winger. His game is finishing, and his case for MVP is pretty much entirely his scoring numbers.
Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has eight goals and six assists, also has a case. The LAFC stars could offset some votes. The same goes for Philadelphia’s talent, none of which stands out enough to overtake a Golden Boot winner.
Gyasi Zardes has a shot to steal the Golden Boot from Rossi. If he does, Zardes has an argument to take a spot here, though Columbus’s injury-induced downturn in recent weeks hurts his case. Other attackers with good numbers — Jordan Morris, Chris Mueller, Alan Pulido, Darwin Quintero — could pop up in these discussions, although Mueller wasn’t even nominated by Orlando. It’s a weird race.