Nikolic and Valeri head the pack chasing Golden Boot and MVP awards
It won't just be the playoff positions that get determined this weekend in MLS. We'll also have a chance to see just who has won the Golden Boot and we'll have the last action determining just who becomes the Landon Donovan MVP award winner.
The Golden Boot, of course, is an absolute. And after Nemanja Nikolic raced clear of the pack with his hat trick against Philadelphia last week, his nearest rivals, Diego Valeri and David Villa, are going to need three and four goals, respectively, this weekend to match him. And that's assuming Nikolic doesn't score more against Houston to add to his current total of 24.
Nikolic has been at the sharp end of Chicago's ongoing rebuild this year, and while Bastian Schweinsteiger drew the mainstream headlines and Dax McCarty got the MLS insiders nodding in approval, the preseason addition of the Hungarian striker may have been the most catalytic signing of all for Chicago. After all, the Fire scored only 42 goals last year.
So should Nikolic be in conversation for MVP? The numbers certainly suggest as much, and he's been nominated, though that's along with 52 other players currently on the long list. As always, "value" is a subjective quality, but Nikolic's five winning goals and 20 from open play have had a measurable impact on the Fire's resurgence. And after losing momentum in the summer, he's roaring back to form at just the right moment for the playoffs.
So Nikolic should be in the conversation for MVP, but perhaps like other prolific goal scorers like Bradley Wright-Phillips before him, he'll miss out in favor of a player whose all-round contributions are more readily apparent than is the case for players chiefly celebrated for finishing.
Not that that precludes prolific attackers. Villa has 20 goals this season, for example, and is in the hunt to retain his MVP trophy. But it's his all-round influence on New York City FC's style of play, and influence as captain, as much as his goal scoring, that makes him a front-runner.
And then there's Valeri. He is one of a clutch of Argentine playmakers (see also Columbus Crew SC's Federico Higuain and the perennially underrated Ignacio Piatti in Montreal) who at times seems to hide in plain sight in MLS. But there's been no ignoring Valeri this year. His 20 goals are the most ever scored by a midfielder in MLS and they include a record-breaking streak in which the player scored in nine consecutive games. With the Timbers hit hard by injuries this year, including an extended absence for lead striker Fanendo Adi, the team has needed every one of Valeri's goals. His value is unquestioned and this could be his year.
Not so fast though, because while Valeri has had Portland edging up the Western Conference standings, the East has been drawing more attention as the tougher conference these days. We've mentioned Chicago and Nikolic, and New York and Villa, but Toronto's record-breaking points haul has not come from nowhere, and you can't have an MVP conversation without mentioning Atlanta's Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez.
Let's just say that for the purposes of an MVP discussion, the case of Toronto perhaps illustrates the flaw in the award. In the case of the Supporters' Shield winners, the value is in the roster's unprecedented depth and the contributions from all over the field, all adding up to rather more than any one player can produce. When full-back Justin Morrow popped up with a hat trick the other week, it just illustrated the point. This team is way beyond the moment when it looked like Sebastian Giovinco and 10 others. Hard to pull out an MVP contender from that valuable crowd.
As for Atlanta, Almiron was bought to be a midfield catalyst and he has been just that. The electrifying speed of the expansion team has been given inventiveness and purpose by the young Paraguayan, and of course the goals of Martinez are worthy of their own nod too, keeping him in the Golden Boot race at least up to the moment where Nikolic turned on the afterburners last week.
It may be that Almiron and Martinez split the Atlanta vote, just as the Red Bulls' Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan did as shortlisted finalists last year, and in truth that might be just about fair. They've both been great, but not clear-of-the-field great.
One segment of players who may feel they never receive fair appreciation when these awards are considered are those tasked with destroying rather than building attacks. So let's give a quick shout to Andre Blake's continued development as a goalkeeper and his part in keeping Philadelphia in some games it had no business remaining in this year. And let's also acknowledge that Tim Melia has had his best year yet in Sporting KC's goal. If defenses win titles, his story may not be done for the year.
But for his staggering combination of goals and assists and generally putting the team on his back at a moment when the season could have fallen apart, Valeri has to be the man to beat.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.