History is strongly against it, yet on stats and influence, this is the first season Landon Donovan truly deserves to win the MVP award.
He probably won't. He still wears a stigma of drifting through too many league games. He's perceived as whiny and dive-y by opposing fans and many media members. Despite his pace, guile, touch and skills, he's never scored more than 12 goals in an MLS season.
And this year he's playing for a high-scoring juggernaut, feeding on the service and aura of David Beckham; so what if he's leading the goalscoring charts by far with 19 goals in 20 games, one of the highest goals-to-games ratios (0.95) in league history?
In MVP terms, he's never even finished among the three finalists, despite winning three MLS Cups (with San Jose in 2001 and 2003, with Los Angles in 2005). To be brutally frank, whether because of fatigue or indifference or international absences, his stats and week-to-week impact on games haven't merited serious consideration.
But this year is different.
If plays out the season for the Galaxy and misses only one match - an Oct. 12 game against Colorado- because of national team duty, he'll play 24 MLS games, the second-most in his career and one fewer than he played last year. He scored eight goals and logged 13 assists in 2007, a drop off in goals from the 12 he tallied the year before. Yet his assists set a personal high.
This season, fuhgetaboutit.
He's netting at will, almost. Roy Lassiter's league record of 27 goals (1996) isn't in any real danger, yet Lassiter hit that figure in 30 games, so his goals-per-game ratio was 0.90. Several players have done better: Stern John cracked an amazing 26 goals in 27 games in 1998 (0.96), and two years later Mamadou Diallo hit the same figure playing one more game (0.93).
In 2002, Carlos Ruiz's 24 goals came in 26 games (0.92); by comparison, Taylor Twellmanscored 23 goals in 28 games (0.82). Twellman scored 17 goals in 25 games (0.68) when he won the MVP in 2005.
We all know the MVP award is about more than stats, as it should be, otherwise nobody would give a hoot about the amazing Shalrie Joseph. Supposedly, an MVP is the player most indispensable to his team and most responsible for its success. Ergo, the more success, the more valuable the player. Or something like that.
Would everyone be so ga-ga and gung-ho about Guillermo Barros Schelotto if he wasn't disappearing over the horizon with 18 assists, eight more than his nearest pursuers? Well, yes, because GBS and the Crew are leading the Eastern Conference, and if there's one recurring theme among past MVP winners, it's that their teams at least won a regular-season conference/division title.
Of the past 12 MVPs, only one hasn't gone to an attacking player, so take a bow Tony Meola, whose 0.92 goals-allowed average and 16 shutouts led the Wizards to a conference title as well as their only MLS championship. Of those 11 MVPs of the offensive persuasion, only three played for teams that didn't finish the regular season in first place. Meola and Ruiz are the only MVPs to lead their teams to the title. The Galaxy is facing long odds just to make the playoffs, never mind win them.
Yet I'd argue that Galaxy 2008 is a special (basket) case, one of the shoddiest defending teams of non-expansion status in league history. Donovan can't be blamed if his "defense" consists of maybe three good field players and zero competent keepers. And as far as intensity and commitment, if he did appear fuzzy and lethargic in a 2-0 loss to Kansas City Sept 13, after he'd played two games in four days for the national team, he took apart D.C. United with three goals and a superb assist last Saturday in a 5-2 thrashing.
Remember that defiant, in-your-face growl as he loomed over a prostrate Pat Ianni after beating him to the near post to nail in a Beckham cross during a fierce battle against defending champion Houston? Was it poor sportsmanship? Probably. Was it good to see nonetheless? Absolutely.
Via another tack, let's rate Donovan against past MVP winners: by goals plus assists.
Jason Kreis (1999) scored 18 goals and recorded 15 assists for a total of 33. Three MVPs have hit 29 and two of them are named Preki, who in 1997 scored 12 goals and logged 17 assists, and in 2003 hit the exact same numbers. (Preki's total of 31 in 1996 with 18 goals and 13 assists didn't earn him the MVP.) United's Marco Etcheverry (10 goals, 19 assists) won his only MVP award in 1998.
In his 20 games, Donovan is already at 27 with 19 goals and eight assists. The Fusion's high-powered offense didn't hurt the cause of Alex Pineda Chacon, the 2001 MVP with 19 goals and nine assists and next on the list of totals with 28. The MetroStars' very tepid season (11-12-7) and rather modest numbers of Amado Guevara (10 goals, 10 assists) in 2004 didn't deter the MVP voters.
But the Metrostars, who finished third in a feeble Eastern Conference, did make the playoffs, almost by default in a five-team grouping. (Of course, so did the 8-13-9 Revs, but that's another matter.)
Given the Galaxy's on-field humiliation and off-field tomfoolery, just willing it into the playoffs would be an MVP accomplishment. But unless he disappears over the last five games, playoffs or not, he's got my vote.