The MLS MVP race is closer than you think

With a week left to go in the MLS regular season, the MVP race is as crowded as the race to qualify for the postseason. And it doesn’t take much searching on Twitter to realize just how much of a hot-button topic it is.

Assuming nothing drastic changes in the final week of the season (most teams play just one match, a couple have two left to go), I’ve narrowed my MVP shortlist down to five candidates, and I don’t think it’s quite as cut and dried as Twitter would have you believe.

It should be a given but probably needs to be emphasized that this is just my opinion. There are multiple players who have had extraordinary seasons, and it’s impossible to definitively pick just one for the MVP award. This piece is part of my thought process on how to determine who I’ll vote for on my ballot, but it is not my final vote.

The Shortlist

  • Carles Gil – New England Revolution
  • Dániel Sallói – Sporting Kansas City
  • Gustavo Bou – New England Revolution
  • Hany Mukhtar – Nashville SC 
  • Valentín Castellanos – New York City FC

These players make up five of the top six in MLS combined goals and assists. Let’s face it – while the award is called “most valuable player”, it is traditionally awarded to the league’s best attacking player on one of the league’s best sides. I don’t necessarily think that’s the best way to view the award, at least without renaming it, but that’s the framework within which we’re operating. 

Goals

  1. Valentín Castellanos – 18 goals (14 non-penalty)
  2. Dániel Sallói – 16 goals (16 non-penalty)
  3. Hany Mukhtar – 15 goals (14 non-penalty)
  4. Gustavo Bou – 15 goals (14 non-penalty)
  5. Carles Gil – 4 goals (3 non-penalty)

Edge: Valentín Castellanos

Castellanos has been the most consistently goal-dangerous player in the league, leading MLS with 18.79 expected goals, and scoring 36% of NYCFC’s total goals this year.

The penalty vs non-penalty distinction isn’t to say that penalty goals aren’t important, but it’s worth noting. Penalties are easier to score than goals from the run of play, and they’re also less consistent.

According to Chris Ivey, Castellanos only drew one of the four penalty kicks he’s scored. That’s not a dealbreaker, but it’s not nothing, either.

Assists

  1. Carles Gil – 18 assists (12 primary)
  2. Hany Mukhtar – 12 assists (10 primary)
  3. Gustavo Bou – 9 assists (8 primary)
  4. Dániel Sallói – 8 assists (7 primary)
  5. Valentín Castellanos – 8 assists (6 primary)

Edge: Carles Gil

As my colleague Chris Ivey has pointed out, assists aren’t typically valued as highly as goals in the award voting.

2020: Pozuelo 9g/10a led team in goals
2019: Vela 34g/10a led team in goals
2018: Josef 31g/5a led team in goals
2017: Valeri 21g/9a led team in goals
2016: Villa 23g/4a led team in goals
2015: Giovinco 22g/13a led team in goals

Alexi Lalas is right; MVP is about who puts the ball in the net. Not being talked about enough how Gill is bucking the trend by being a MVP frontrunner without scoring a ton of goals. It never happens.

Alejandro Pozuelo in 2020 was already a departure from the trend. His nine goals in 2020 were the 8th best in the league, and his 10 goals were tied for the league lead with Nicolas Lodeiro. Carles Gil winning the MVP solely on the basis of his assists would be a fairly significant departure from previous tradition, but given New England’s dominance and his massive role in that, it’s hard to argue against it.

Hany Mukhtar leads the entirety of MLS in combined goals and assists. His 27 goals and assists are 50% of Nashville’s goals this year, and there’s a valid argument to be made that leading the league in goals and assists is a strong enough case to win the award.

Time played

  1. Valentín Castellanos – 31 matches (2,892 minutes – 88%)
  2. Hany Mukhtar – 30 matches (2,571 minutes – 79%)
  3. Gustavo Bou – 29 matches (2,394 minutes – 73%)
  4. Dániel Sallói – 28 matches (2,484 minutes – 78%)
  5. Carles Gil – 27 matches (2,393 minutes – 73%)

Edge: Valentín Castellanos

There’s an old cliche that “availability is the best ability”, and while it’s so overused that it feels kinda dumb, there’s a lot of truth to it. Playing consistently and being able to consistently play games is a huge factor.

For example, Raul Ruídíaz would almost certainly be on this list if not for injury, and would likely have at least one MLS Golden Boot to his name. He’s an elite striker and one of the most valuable players in MLS, but his penchant for picking up an injury or two over the course of the season has limited his ceiling.

Castellanos has played in all but two of NYCFC’s matches this year, and has been consistently available, playing in 88% of possible minutes. Right behind him is Hany Mukhtar, who’s played in all but three matches and has played 79% of possible minutes this year.

Games with goal or assist

  1. Gustavo Bou – 19
  2. Valentín Castellanos – 18
  3. Hany Mukhtar – 16
  4. Dániel Sallói – 13
  5. Carles Gil – 12

Edge: Gustavo Bou

This distinction is an important one because it controls against a player padding their stats in a blowout win, and shows how consistent they’ve been across the entire season. Bou has spread his production out more than any other player over the course of the season, closely followed by Castellanos and Mukhtar.

Key Passes

  1. Carles Gil – 125
  2. Hany Mukhtar – 63
  3. Gustavo Bou – 57
  4. Dániel Sallói – 38
  5. Valentín Castellanos – 32

Edge: Carles Gil

Carles Gil nearly doubles the next closest player in this category, and his 12.51 expected assists are three higher than the next closest player in MLS. He’s unlocked defenses at an insane rate.

Involvement (percentage of teams touches per ASA)

  1. Carles Gil – 11.6% (3rd among MLS attacking midfielders)
  2. Hany Mukhtar – 8.9% (2nd among MLS strikers)
  3. Valentín Castellanos – 6.3% (tied for 6th among MLS strikers)
  4. Gustavo Bou – 6.3% (tied for 6th among MLS strikers)
  5. Dániel Sallói – 5.8% (26th among MLS wingers)

Edge: Carles Gil

Again, Carles Gil has been the creative hub for New England, getting involved from open play more than anyone on this shortlist – only Emmanual Reynoso and Luciano Acosta have been more involved from the number 10 role.

This state is obviously a bit biased towards midfielders – the deeper you are, the more of the ball you’ll see. But the percentages for Mukhtar, Castellanos and Bou show how incredibly involved they are compared with others who play the same position.

Defensive involvement (average of FBRef tackles, pressures and blocks)

  1. Hany Mukhtar (68)
  2. Valentín Castellanos (67)
  3. Dániel Sallói (46)
  4. Gustavo Bou (42)
  5. Carles Gil (38)

Edge: Hany Mukhtar

While I’ve already said that the focus of this award tends to be based on production in the final third, I don’t think it would be complete without a look at defensive involvement and work rate. Mukhtar and Castellanos stand out as two of the more defensively involved attackers in the league, and both do nearly as much work without the ball as they do in possession.

Points per game with (vs without)

  1. Carles Gil – 2.15 PPG (+0.02 w/o)
  2. Gustavo Bou – 2.10 PPG (+0.90 w/o)
  3. Dániel Sallói – 1.79 (-0.04 w/o)
  4. Hany Mukhtar – 1.67 PPG (-0.33 w/o)
  5. Valentín Castellanos – 1.58 PPG (-1.08 w/o)

Edge: ?

This statistic is important to show a) how good their teams were when each player was on the pitch, and b) the difference in quality when they were absent. You can read this stat one of two ways. Either Gil comes out ahead by virtue of his team being so dominant when he played, or Castellanos comes out ahead because of how much worse his team was without him.

Gil helped New England earn a ridiculous 2.15 points per game, but they were just as good when he missed time, earning 2.17 ppg. Gustavo Bou likewise played for an elite New England team, and while it’s misleading to say that they were better without him, they won all four matches in which he didn’t play.

Valentín Castellanos’s NYCFC have the worst record of all four teams represented here, but he was arguably the most important player to his side of any on the list, with NYCFC’s points per game dropping by 1.08 when he’s not on the field.

Final standings

PlayerGAMinsKPTouch %Games w/ G+APPGDefenseTotal
Hany Mukhtar322223412.4
Carles Gil515115153.0
Gustavo Bou433341243.0
Valentín Castellanos151542523.1
Dániel Sallói244454333.6

Taking all these factors into consideration, Hany Mukhtar has a strong case to have had the consistently best season in MLS, and has turned a second-year team into one of the best in the league.

However, Carles Gil has had an unbelievable season for the single-season point leaders, and the argument for the MVP award going to the best player on the best team holds a lot of weight.

The eye test

This is the big discussion. Soccer has felt like a battle between statistics and “the eye test” for over a decade. It’s the clash of the purists shouting “the game isn’t played on a spreadsheet, mate” versus guys who can tell you the xG value for any shot and why finishing skill isn’t a real thing. But statistics and the eye test should go hand in hand.

That’s where voting for this award becomes tricker. You can make a case for all five of these players (as well as a few others – sorry João Paulo fans), and make a damn good argument for why the stats back you up.

From the eye test, Carles Gil and Hany Mukhtar have been the standouts in MLS to me. Both have been the creative focal point of two of the best teams in the league over the course of the season. Gil ran the attack for the best regular season side in league history, while Mukhtar leads the league in goals and assists for the fourth expansion team to make the playoffs in their first two seasons since 2009.

And this is where the debate over what “most valuable player” really means comes in. Does it mean the best player on the best team? Does it simply mean the best player regardless of how good their team is? Does it mean literally the player who has the most value for their team, as evidenced by drastic differences with and without them?

Carles Gil will win this award. New England’s record as much as anything he’s done on the field will clinch it for him, and that’s not wrong. For me, he and Mukhtar have been the two best players in the league over the course of the season, and neither one would be a wrong selection.

Ballots are due on November 8. R.I.P. your mentions if you express an MVP take.

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