This is supposed to be the year that Landon Donovan finally lifts his first MLS MVP award.
It may come as a surprise to most that Donovan, perhaps the finest American field player ever produced, has never captured the honor given to MLS' preeminent player in a given season. The fact that Donovan has made the final three on only one occasion (2008) appears almost laughable given his contribution to the league over the years, though his production has veered more towards steady brilliance (in the five seasons prior to 2008's stellar 20 goal, nine assist haul, Donovan averaged ten goals and nine assists per campaign) than eye-popping statistics.
Those numbers aren't appreciably different in 2009 (10 goals, six assists), but Donovan has played a pivotal role in lifting the Galaxy out of the doldrums, meandering it through the furor surrounding The Beckham Experiment and laying the foundation for MLS Cup glory. Without him, the Galaxy would transform into a marginal playoff team solely reliant on its organization. Common wisdom has all but placed the trophy in Donovan's hands, particularly after reigning MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto missed time with a balky hamstring during the summer.
Even though Donovan has deserved the praise he has garnered this year and even though he will likely take home his first MVP award at the end of the season, he probably isn't the most deserving candidate despite his (former) weekly perch at the top of the MVP tracker located in this column.
That title goes to New England midfielder (and occasional forward) Shalrie Joseph.
Quantifying what makes a candidate the “most valuable player” presents a particular and persnickety challenge. In the face of a difficult and nebulous term, MLS MVP voters often rely too much on stats and too little on actual influence.
The best and most literal interpretation of the phrase directs voters towards the player who is most valuable to his team. Joseph, with perhaps a quibble or two from Donovan and Toronto FC's Dwayne De Rosario, stands above every other player in MLS when evaluated on that criteria.
“Goals, assists, work rate, you name it, he's got it,” New England coach Steve Nicol said.
Joseph has needed those qualities and more to carry an injury-ravaged and, at times, quality-challenged Revolution side to the cusp of the playoffs. De Rosario (mostly in the Reds' loaded midfield) and Donovan benefit from a considerably stronger supporting cast than Joseph has at the moment, a byproduct of New England's inability to retain players like Clint Dempsey, Andy Dorman and Michael Parkhurst in recent years. New England's comparative lack of proven talent when contrasted with most of its playoff-chasing brethren places considerably more emphasis on Joseph to deliver week-in and week-out to fuel a playoff challenge against better-equipped sides. He has delivered in kind.
Those who prefer to use statistical measures can certainly find plenty of data to back up Joseph's sizable contribution. The Grenada international midfielder leads New England with eight goals and eight assists on the campaign, both new career highs. Combine the two totals and Joseph has contributed to just over half of the Revolution's tallies on the season (16 of 31). The splits between when Joseph takes the field (10-6-6, 31 goals scored) and when he sits (0-2-1, zero goals scored) merely serve to reinforce Joseph's importance.
Joseph's influence on the Revolution extends far beyond his contribution to the scoresheet. He remains the league's preeminent defensive midfielder, controlling matches alongside central midfield partner Jeff Larentowicz. His passing range – particularly when he hits long diagonal balls over distance – is matched by few others in the league and perhaps no player without the words Designated Player attached to his name.
Most importantly to his side's once-flagging playoff chances, Joseph has displayed the versatility to play as a striker. Talismanic striker Taylor Twellman played twice this season before succumbing to a concussion and the Revolution's sole remaining creative force, Steve Ralston, has missed time on and off with a variety of ailments, though perhaps none as serious as the right knee injury he suffered in Saturday night's 2-1 in over Seattle.
With his best two attacking players unavailable, Nicol has shunted Joseph up top for stretches this season to play in a target role. The defensive midfielder, a former forward at St. John's, turned into a bona fide target man and consistent goal threat when deployed in the attacking third, earning praise from teammates and coaches alike.
“He's one of the best soccer players in this league,” Revolution defender Jay Heaps said. “Put him at forward. Put him at defensive midfield. If you put him at center back, he'd still be one of the best players.”
Joseph once again proved his worth by contributing two second-half goals in Saturday night's critical 2-1 win over Seattle to lift a New England side stunned by Fredy Montero's sixth-minute wonder strike and Ralston's potentially serious knee injury (early signs weren't promising as Ralston limped out after the game on crutches and more information is expected today) halfway through the first half.
The second of those goals, a deceptively difficult header tucked just inside the far post from Larentowicz's unchallenged cross, grabbed all three points and prompted Nicol to note goals similar to Joseph's conversion were why “proper strikers get paid a lot of money.”
“He's a game changer, regardless of whether he's playing the ball forward or he's up there scoring goals,” Larentowicz said. “I'm happy he's on our side.”
Joseph's case presents the most compelling MVP claim, but the nuanced nature of his candidacy and the voting electorate's reticence to recognize players who contribute defensively (Tony Meola won the award in 2000, while Jeff Agoos is the only defender to make the final three) likely means Donovan (or perhaps even De Rosario if TFC makes the playoffs and he continues to score) will take home the gong.
Awarding Donovan or someone else won't be unjust or undeserved. Ignoring Joseph's claim may, however, overlook the true meaning of value and the player that best displayed it in 2009.
Week 28 – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers
Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Shalrie Joseph, midfielder/forward, New England
Two second-half goals. One season rescued from the edge of the abyss. Any questions?
Best righty-lefty combo that never truly took hold – Matt Reis, goalkeeper, New England and Greg Vanney, retired defender and Sounders FC color analyst
Vanney called Sounders FC's 2-1 loss to New England for KONG-TV on Saturday night and then made a post-match pitstop in the Revolution locker room to check on former teammate Reis. The duo played together under current Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid for three years at U.C.L.A. (1993-1995) and four years with the Los Angeles Galaxy (1998-2001).
When asked about his favorite memory of playing with Vanney, Reis pointed to Vanney's left peg.
“His ability to hit a ball 60 yards on a dime with his left foot,” Reis said. “I can do it with my right foot. I just can't do it with my left.”
1. Shalrie Joseph, New England midfielder – Is any more proof required at this point?
2. Landon Donovan, Los Angeles midfielder – Second on the tracker, but likely first when it counts.
3. Dwayne De Rosario, Toronto FC midfielder – Veteran attacker notched a goal (11 on the campaign) and an assist in a surprising 2-2 draw in Chicago.
Next in Line: Omar Cummings, Colorado forward; Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus midfielder; Chad Marshall, Columbus defender; Conor Casey, Colorado forward.
The Starting XI
1. New England coach Steve Nicol will have to hold his breath as he assesses the fitness of aging strike duo Edgaras Jankauskas (groin) and Steve Ralston (knee) ahead of Wednesday's match at FC Dallas. There isn't a ton of attacking depth after Kheli Dube (seven goals), so Nicol will be pleased to see how well Dube combined with Joseph in the second half. The Zimbabwean striker performs considerably better when playing off a target player.
2. Peculiar to see Seattle obtain an early goal and then subsequently slow the tempo and almost invite New England on to them. Keeping the banks tight in front of goal and daring the Revs to break them down isn't a bad strategy, but Sounders FC squandered its considerable early momentum and allowed the Revs to gain a foothold in the game by taking its foot off the gas. Considering Sounders FC's tenuous playoff placement, the visitors could have benefited from a touch more aggression.
3. Interesting to see Columbus head coach Robert Warzycha rest many of his starters ahead of Tuesday's home match with Deportivo Saprissa (Costa Rica) and still obtain a 2-0 victory over Los Angeles on Saturday night. I wrote last week in the Wednesday Musings that Columbus sits atop MLS on the strength of its depth and Saturday night's victory proved another case in point after Kevin Burns and Emilio Renteria made their MLS debuts and contributed to the victory.
4. With the victory and D.C. United's 2-1 loss at home to San Jose on Sunday (more on that later), the Crew became the first team to clinch a playoff berth. As if the defending champions were in any danger of missing out on the postseason show.
5. “I heard a couple guys saying, ‘Hey, if we’d played like this all year long, (things) would be a little different right now,’” Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes said after his Wizards bossed the play, but settled for a 0-0 draw with Colorado on Saturday night. If only those regrets could revive the Wizards' all but extinguished playoff hopes.
6. In perhaps its most important game of the season, Real Salt Lake mustered yet another poor start and gave up goals in the 5th and 10th minutes on its way to a 3-0 loss at FC Dallas. Time and again, RSL has not answered the bell this season. This particular instance in the unfortunate pattern may just have extinguished the Claret-and-Cobalt's viable playoff hopes.
7. With his two goals against RSL, Jeff Cunningham has now scored 12 times in his past nine games and 15 on the season. Who possibly could have expected that?
8. Talk about a crucial point for Toronto FC in Saturday night's 2-2 draw with Chicago. Two home wins against San Jose (frisky) and Real Salt Lake (perhaps not so much) would put the Reds on 41 points heading into an increasingly difficult road finale against New York. The schedule sets up nicely for the Reds to make a late, late playoff push.
9. “We're gift-wrapping goals,” Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch said after his side handed TFC two soft goals in that game. “It's like ... Christmas time. If they beat us with a good goal, fair enough, but quit giving away easy goals and putting ourselves behind the eight-ball. That's the bottom line, again.”
10. “I have the chance on the PK in the last minute,” Chivas USA midfielder Sacha Kljestan said after missing a 90th minute penalty to force the Red-and-White to settle for a 1-1 draw with New York. Kljestan had rifled home from distance after 64 minutes, but couldn't convert from 12 yards to make the points safe. “Obviously it doesn't go in so I'm disappointed I didn't help the team win tonight. I think, and we all think, we should've won the game before we let (Juan Pablo)Angel tie it. We had multiple chances and obviously we didn't put the game away."
11. Only United could conjure up a way to submit a dismal second half and fall to San Jose (previously winless on the road) 2-1 at R.F.K Stadium mere days after dispatching Marathon (Honduras) 3-0 at the same venue. “We came out flat in the second half on a day where – on any day you can’t afford it – but on a day when we’re trying to make the playoffs, it’s still disappointing,” United head coach Tom Soehn said afterwards. “I have to go back and evaluate whether I had the right blend of guys on the field.”
The Playoff Picture
1. Columbus (12-4-10, 46 pts., 4 games remaining)
2. Chicago (10-6-11, 41 pts., 3 games remaining)
1. Houston (12-8-7, 43 pts., 3 games remaining)
2. Los Angeles (10-6-11, 41 pts., 3 games remaining)
1. Colorado (10-8-9, 39 pts., 3 games remaining)
T2. Chivas USA (11-9-5, 38 pts., 5 games remaining)
T2. Seattle (9-7-11, 38 pts., 3 games remaining)
4. New England (10-8-7, 37 pts., 5 games remaining)
D.C. United (8-7-12, 36 pts., 3 games remaining)
Toronto FC (9-10-8, 35 pts., 3 games remaining)
Real Salt Lake (9-11-7, 34 pts., 3 games remaining)
Kansas City (8-11-7, 31 pts., 4 games remaining)
FC Dallas (8-12-6, 30 pts., 4 games remaining)
San Jose (6-12-7, 25 pts., 5 games remaining)
New York (4-17-6, 18 pts., 3 games remaining)
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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