In 1989, current New England Revolution coach Steve Nicol was named Player of the Year in England by the Football Writers Association. There were no statistics to justify the award, no publicity campaign to support Nicol's candidacy. Nicol was considered the epitome of a footballer, Liverpool had a successful season, and that was that.
But "that" is unlikely to happen here.
In the MLS, the promotion of players is stats-based. There are so many numbers on the league's weekly press releases, you can get confused looking at them. Most of those statistics are irrelevant and hardly any of them are used to tell a story. Obviously, goal scoring is an exception. Goals reflect the effectiveness of forwards, and there are ratings and rewards for them. But for every other player, there are no numbers that can give an accurate account of their effectiveness.
So, though Shalrie Joseph -- one of Nicol's Revolution players -- should be a candidate for the league's Most Valuable Player award, there is little chance of his winning it.
Two years ago, Joseph was named the Revolution's MVP (by team vote). But his teammate, Taylor Twellman, won the league's MVP honor (by media vote), and Joseph was not among the finalists. That was a first. That year, the Revolution probably had MLS' best team when the voting was conducted, so the easy choice for MVP was Twellman, since he was the team's top scorer. Twellman, though, probably should have won the MVP award in 2002, when his goal scoring carried the Revolution to the MLS Cup; by '05, the Revolution were a much more well-rounded team.
Now, the Revolution have been established among MLS' perennial contenders. And Joseph is unique among MLS performers in terms of his value to the team.
There is probably no other player in the league who can cover as many roles as Joseph.
Joseph dictates the rhythm of play and wants everything played through him in his holding midfielder role. Joseph is comfortable with the ball and is a commanding presence, and this allows him to play quickly and keep the ball on the ground. Joseph also can play a well-weighted long ball, but it is this predilection to keep the ball on the ground that makes the Revolution attack effective.
The Revolution also depend on Joseph to defend against corners and set pieces, to drop into the back line when the opposition resorts to launching long balls, to defend against the opponent's best player in the midfield. Joseph is a scoring threat on corners and also takes penalty kicks. Call him the team's Most Versatile Player.
But there is no way of quantifying how a midfielder handles pressure, no measure of his effectiveness in ball distribution, no way of determining whether he is making the best decisions.
And that is the essence of soccer.
There are so many intangibles about the game. And the seamless nature of soccer makes it impossible to program situations. Players simply have to be plugged into the myriad of possible consequences of any action and be prepared for anything at any time. Nobody can tell a player where to go or what his next move should be -- he simply has to follow his instincts. Joseph is a lesson in these basics of soccer; he gets to the right place at the right time and he does something decisive.
Joseph is the essential footballer. This is not to say Joseph is perfect; his shooting from distance is erratic at best, and he seldom finishes chances in the air. But he kicks up the competitive level a notch and makes everyone around him better.
"Shalrie is the most respected defensive midfielder in the league," Revolution defender Jay Heaps said. "He wins balls and sprays the ball around; he takes on so much responsibility. I know guys on the other team fear him, because he can change a game by just being physical. He has a great sense of leadership out there, he is a vocal leader, he is involved in the group and he's not just out there for himself. He's competitive and he competes for the team, and that's why he is a successful player in the MLS."
Joseph was dissatisfied with his MLS contract status almost since Day One -- he played for the minimum salary in 2003 and earned less than $500,000 in five seasons, only recently signing a new contract that will pay him a salary in the top 10 players in the league. But, while Joseph talked of hoping to be traded or moving to Europe (Celtic made a $1 million-plus transfer bid for Joseph), he did not grouse or pout or seem hung up on past injustices or mistakes.
"I've been around a long time," Nicol said, "and I don't remember seeing a player who had gone through having a chance to go, then not move on, and going through all the other stuff -- but on Saturday he has given it all to the team and his teammates. He wants to stay and win a championship. Every game he's in, it's professional pride. He wants the team to win."
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.