As of yesterday, Robbie Keane is your Major League Soccer Most Valuable Player, so a big slap on the back and congratulations to LA Galaxy man. He’s certainly deserving, just as any of the other finalists would have been. But doesn’t this process — the methodology, the essential “how we got here” — feel just a little undercooked?
Take nothing away from Keane – a scoring tour du force and the gold standard for off-the-ball movement since touching his first blade of Carson, Calif., grass back in 2011. But it feels like this thing somehow came and went without quite enough discussion. Put another way, won’t it be nice when we have more rangy discourse on Most Valuable Player in MLS, the way we do in other sports?
No MLS Most Valuable Player race has included as many deserving candidates as this one. Four of them! Yes, the list extends beyond the other two official finalists, New England’s Lee Nguyen and Seattle’s Obafemi Martins. You could make a smart argument for New York’s Bradley Wright-Phillips, and that man couldn’t even elbow his way onto the finalists’ list.
So where was the arguing on all this? Where was the exchange of thought, the fist-pounding-on-table disagreement? Where was the huge discourse that broke down this field?
Oh, we had some differing opinions on who should win. But what are the criteria? What do we want these awards to be about? It’s a big prize, this Most Valuable Player, and we needed the maximum non-lethal dose of deliberation among supporters and members of the chattering class.
This one just didn’t sit right. It was a bit like eating something new and spicy. The meal was good and all, but maybe we feel some hazy and disquieting afterward – just a little something “off.”
Some of this can be credited to a game that is not “all grown up” yet in our land. MLS commissioner Don Garber referred just Tuesday to a league now into its “college” years. Sounds about right. Perhaps the conversation on these awards will develop apace.
And perhaps not all of the MVP races have deserved much animated discourse and debate. When Chris Wondolowski wowed us all with his 27-goal breakout two years ago, we couldn’t give him the thing fast enough. No need to toss that one back and forth.
In some other years the candidates were a bit, well, underwhelming. For instance, in 2011 Dwayne De Rosario (who played on three teams that season, the last of which did not make the playoffs) beat out finalists Brad Davis and an already fading Brek Shea. Nobody wanted to spend too much brain effort on that one.
But this one, this little cupcake needed more time in the oven. Was there enough conversation about Nguyen nailing 18 goals … as a midfielder? Luciano Emilio, a D.C. United forward, struck for 20 goals in 2007, and he walked away with that year’s MVP.
Wondolowski, as mentioned, was a runaway winner two years ago. He dominated the voting the way Google dominates searching stuff, capturing 91 percent of the club voting and 97 percent of the media votes. He crushed the field because he matched a league record with a crackerjack campaign of 27 goals.
But Wright-Phillips (above) did the exact same thing in 2014, striking 27 times. And yet, what made Wonder Wondo a dash-away MVP wasn’t enough to get Wright-Phillips and his catchy Twitter handle (@TheRealBWP) on the final ballot. How does that scan?
For that matter, why aren’t we talking about the number of finalists? Why just three? What, was that number set by royal decree? If four players are deserving, what’s wrong with a foursome of finalists?
If you say Wright-Phillips had a wine barrel full of help from dreamy teammate Thierry Henry, fair enough. But then I might say, “Well, what about Clint Dempsey? Isn’t he an MLS force, too? And doesn’t he play alongside Martins?” Why wasn’t that part of the conversation?
Same for Landon Donovan, who hand a hand in making Keane such an L.A. Galaxy force. Henry was masterful for New York this year; 14 assists is documented evidence. But Donovan led the league in assists with 19, and yet this is never mentioned when we talk about Keane’s MVP case.
How come? Because we just don’t discuss this stuff sufficiently. It’s like we run the first K of a 5K, but then stop to mess with our iPhones and forget to get back into the race. With other sports, we have classic, ongoing debates about what the Most Valuable Player means. Best player? Player who contributed the most for his team? Player whose team might be the biggest dumpster fire without him? Should we factor in leadership and citizenship and all the other Boy Scout bagdes? Or can the guy be as nasty as Season 5 Walter White and claim the honor so long as he’s purring around the field like the noblest of house cats?
We lean into these discussions in other sports, but not so much with MLS. We nibble at the edges here, mostly thanks to niche media sites, but when is this conversation the conversation?
This pox extends beyond MVP. Bill Hamid was just named Goalkeeper of the Year for his outstanding season at RFK Stadium. Take nothing away from Hamid, whose talent has long been on the national team radar. But the fact that another year has come and gone and Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando still doesn’t have a Goalkeeper of the Year honor on his CV says bad things about the process.
Over the last eight years, only two fullbacks have been named to an MLS Best XI team (Jonathan Bornstein in 2007 and Todd Dunivant in 2011). There seems to be some fabulously flawed methodology at work. (Either that, or we’re seriously flawed as voting fans and journalists … so let’s go with methodology!)
Maybe we can come up with better answers. Maybe we’d even come up with a different MVP for 2014. Maybe not. Either way, as the game grows and we all mature in how we view and analyze the game, let’s not forget to talk these things through a little more.