By IVES GALARCEP
With three weeks left in the MLS regular season you might think it's too early to be calling any award winners, but the reality is one award has already been locked up and the league can start chiseling the trophy.
The MLS MVP award belongs to Chris Wondolowski, and as much as that isn't really a surprise to anybody at this point, a closer look at the numbers show that nobody comes close to him.
A closer look at the numbers also show us that some well-known MVP candidates have weaker cases than you might think, while some others deserve more credit than they seem to be getting.
Here is a closer look at five leading candidates for the MVP award:
(As you know, stats are always a tricky proposition because they never give a full account of a player's contributions and going strictly off of goals and assists isn't always a perfect way to measure value.
That being said, there are some statistics that I like looking at with regard to judging player value. The statistical split between performance against good teams (in this instance we'll say playoff teams) and bad teams (non-playoff teams). A team's won-loss record when a player contributes a goal or assist is another stat that can offer some insight into whether a player is directly contributing to his team's success.
Let's look at the leading MVP candidates right now and see how they did in these categories:)
1. CHRIS WONDOLOWSKI
He's the league's leading goal scorer by a good margin, and he's leading the best team in the league. That's pretty much all you need to say, but a closer look reveals that he's even better than you realize. Consider that he has registered either a goal or assist in 20 of San Jose's games, and the Earthquakes have won 14-2-4 in those games.
The really impressive stats are the breakdown of how Wondolowski does against better competition. in 15 games against teams currently out of the playoffs, Wondolowski has compiled eight goals and four assists. And the nine other teams currently in the playoffs? Wondolowski has produced 14 goals and three assists.
Think about that one for a second. He has as many goals against playoff teams as most of the league's top goal scorers have against all competition.
Like I said. The award is his and it's not even close.
2. GRAHAM ZUSI
There are some forwards not named Wondolowski who have pretty gawdy goal totals, but right now Zusi is the No. 2 pick for MVP because he has been the consistent driving force of the Sporting KC attack, and because he gets the job done against good teams and bad teams.
In 14 games against playoff teams, Zusi has registered three goals and seven assists, slightly better than the two goals and seven assists he has recorded against non-playoff teams. And Sporting KC's record when Zusi registers a goal or assists? 12-1-2. That is a seriously impressive stat when you consider that Sporting KC isn't a team that has scored in droves this year.
3. ROBBIE KEANE
He doesn't seem to be earning much attention for the MVP race, but his case is better than you might think. he has compiled 14 goals and eight assists and been the driving force in the attack during LA's turnaround.
Keane does have better stats against weaker teams (nine goals, seven assists v. non-playoff teams), but he has also contributed a goal or assist in a whopping 16 matches (the second-highest total in the league, second only to Wondolowski). When Keane is in the starting lineup, the Galaxy are 13-7-5. Without him starting, the Galaxy are 2-4.
4. THIERRY HENRY
There is no denying Henry's brilliance, and he has put together some of the most outstanding games of the year, but the simple fact is Henry has absolutely feasted on bad teams and been relatively weak against good teams.
The disparity is staggering. Henry has registered 12 goals and 9 assists in 12 matches against non-playoff teams. His totals against playoff teams? Try two goals and three assists. You should also consider that he has played in just 22 matches this year. Some might see that as a reason to praise his numbers, but the fact is he has missed a lot of key games, be it through injury, suspension or wanting to avoid playing on turf.
And New York's record when Henry registers a goal or assist? It's 9-3-2. Not bad, but not really MVP caliber. In fact, the Red Bulls' record with Henry and without Henry makes for interesting reading. New York is 10-6-5 when Henry has been in the starting lineup this year, and 5-2-3 when hasn't been.
5. ALVARO SABORIO
Saborio's hat-trick last week propelled him into the fringes of the MVP discussion, but much like Henry, Saborio has padded his stats considerably against weaker teams. Only three of his 17 league goals this year have come against teams currently in the playoffs, and he has registered a goal or assist in 11 maches this year (RSL is 9-2) in those matches.
It's been a good season for Saborio, and you can also factor in his contributions in CONCACAF Champions League play, but if we're talking MLS play, which is what the award is based on, Saborio falls short.
There are other names on the fringes of the conversation, like Eddie Johnson and Freddy Montero (and Osvaldo Alonso) with Seattle, and even Landon Donovan (who has quietly put together another solid season), but the five players mentioned above are going to be the players who receive the majority of MVP votes when ballots are cast.
As you can see here, not all candidacies are created equally. You can question the stats, but if you follow the pretty simple premise that the player who not only contributes to more wins than anybody else, but actually steps up his game against better competition, Wondolowski is the easy pick for MVP. And using that same logic, the rest of the field doesn't stack up quite like most would expect it to.
What do you think of the MVP race? Consider Wondolowski the clear pick, or is there another player you think is more deserving?
Share your thoughts below.