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Nov 15, 2007

Emilio edges Angel in close vote

Major League Soccer's MVP race really was a coin toss, wasn't it? And that coin has just two sides.

No offense to feisty Chicago Fire playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, but the league's 12th MVP trophy was destined for one of the two high-profile strikers among the trio of finalists: Luciano Emilio, the prolific Brazilian who showed D.C. United the way or Juan Pablo Angel, the prolific Colombian who rescued the Red Bulls from sure mediocrity.

Emilio, a 20-goal scorer who also claimed the league's Golden Boot as top scorer, emerged as the choice in voting among players, coaches, general managers and media. But it certainly could have gone either way.

Major League Soccer doesn't reveal details on the vote. But a league official did acknowledge that Emilio won by a slim margin over Angel, and that Blanco received only a small percentage of the vote compared to the other two finalists.

Emilio's raw production probably outstripped his Red Bull competition, but not by much. Angel's 19 goals included five penalty kicks, none of which he earned for himself. That subtracts just a little value from his otherwise impressive strike rate. He certainly hits a good ball from the 12-yard spot, but heaven help us all if the MVP decision ever comes down to competency on spot shots.

On the other hand, Angel had more assists (five against Emilio's one). And let's be honest about the percentage of weight each of these fine players carried for their respective sides; Angel toted substantially more burden. D.C. United might not have finished with a 16-7-7 mark without Emilio, but Tom Soehn's team would have been just fine, thanks.

Red Bull without Angel? Not so much.

Jozy Altidore will be a fine player, so long as he doesn't go all Freddy Adu on us, begin pouting and slip to the MLS margins due to a raging case of entitlement fever. But he's too young to be a flagship-type just yet. Clint Mathis? We all figured out pretty quickly that Mathis' May Mania was an aberration, one never destined to go on all season. So Angel's contributions, including some very well-taken goals and lots of effort expenditure in winning balls for others, was absolutely critical for the team formerly run by Bruce Arena.

It's no stretch to say that Red Bull, which finished third in the East, would have struggled to make the playoffs without the former Aston Villa man.

Ultimately, voters leaned slightly toward Emilio, the first MLS player to reach 20 goals since 2002, when Carlos Ruiz and Taylor Twellman each topped that mark.

Emilio's goals weren't always the prettiest, but enough of them certainly were important; he had four game-winners, third most in the league.

Finally, voters in a pinch will often hedge toward players on the better team. That, of course, was D.C. United, which claimed a second consecutive Supporters Shield before crashing into Groundhog Day. Lose to Chicago in the first round of the playoffs? Haven't we been here before?

(FYI: MLS changed policy this year, inviting only the winner to the announcement. In the past all three finalists were invited. It's all well and good to save the other two some travel time, but if they keep doing it this way, the cat's going to get out the bag sooner or later and seriously deflate the big announcement.)

Why didn't more voters see Blanco as the choice? It would have been quite a slap to Emilio and Angel to hand the award to a fellow who played in just 14 matches.

For that matter, Blanco's inclusion among the trio of finalists was a bit curious, if only due to his limited availability in 2007. Two fellows from New England were probably just as deserving of a finalist spot: heady defender Michael Parkhurst and teammate Shalrie Joseph, the MLS standard bearer of holding midfielders.

But for a defender to ever claim this award -- there hasn't been one yet -- he'd have to be an absolutely remarkable performer on a historically fabulous back line. We're talking Paulo Maldini in his prime. And even then he might have to marshal a defense that smashes a record for goals allowed (as Houston did this year.) We Americans are suckers for records.

Same for a holding midfielder, who may be the glue on a team, but isn't likely to bring any gaudy stats to the party. That's just how it is with MVPs in a land where media and fans aren't great at recognizing the incalculable contributions of holding midfielders and back-line maestros who excel in the art of stop-and-distribute.

The MLS tally of MVPs so far, including Emilio: Five high-scoring strikers, four playmakers, one goalkeeper and Preki (twice), who was an effective hybrid of set-up artist, cut-back specialist and goal scorer. Jeff Agoos, back in 2001, is the only other defender ever to be named as a finalist.

However, Emilio, 28, wasn't just a consistent scoring threat. He was a leader in the little things for United. For instance, D.C.'s main man in the box spoke fluent German, Spanish and Portuguese when he arrived, but very little English.

Thursday at the ESPN Zone, site of the nationally televised announcement, he conducted most interviews in English. That's after being in the United States about 10 months. By contrast, last year's MVP, Christian Gomez, has been here four years. And he still speaks almost no English.

With one big question answered on the day (who would win the MVP?) the man of the moment attempted to answer another biggie floating around out there -- whether he'll return to RFK for another season?

"I think so," he said. "I have a contract. We speak next week about the season. I don't have any problem. I like Washington, D.C. The team is really a big team in the United States, and I think I stay here."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.