For the first time in his illustrious career, Nicolas Lodeiro has been named a finalist for MLS MVP. His nomination is both fitting — he’s had one of his best statistical seasons since joining MLS (including leading the league in assists) — and long overdue — he’s been the best player on the league’s best club for the last five years.
His fellow finalists are Diego Rossi, who led the league in goals; Jordan Morris, who was the league’s most statistically complete winger; Alejandro Pozuelo, who led a depleted and temporarily unrooted Toronto FC to Supporters’ Shield contention; and Andre Blake, who anchored a historically great defense en route to his club’s first Supporters’ Shield.
To be sure, the competition is stiff and, for one of the only times in league history, fairly evenly matched. Still, a closer look allows us to whittle down the field without too much handwringing.
For starters, with all due respect to Blake, 2020 will not be the first time since 2000 that the league MVP goes to a goalkeeper. There’s a reason that goalkeepers, and defenders for that matter, have their own awards. Their contributions are too nebulous to be summed up with succinct stats or narratives.
More to the point though, Blake just hasn’t been that statistically dominant. Of keepers with at least 1,000 minutes, he’s third in the league in save percentage, and eighth for goals allowed minus expected goals allowed. For perspective, his GA-xGA is -2.26, five goals worse than Matt Turner’s league leading -7.27, and close to 11 goals worse than Stefan Frei’s -12.96 from 2018 (when he was outrageously snubbed for GOTY). If the league is going to give MVP to someone from the only position allowed to use their hands, that player better be head and shoulders above his peers, and by the numbers, Blake is not.
Next, we’re going to eliminate the wingers. That means saying goodbye to the two players with the highest goals plus assists per 90 of the finalists: Diego Rossi, and, most regrettably, our favorite Homegrown Player, Jordan Morris. Rossi and Morris both had dominate seasons where, at their peak, they were impossible to defend. However, neither player gets on the ball or defends enough to control a game.
That lack of usage is fine if you’re putting up otherworldly G+A/90 numbers (1.08 for Josef Martinez in 2018; 1.62 for Carlos Vela in 2019), but in a year where neither Rossi nor Morris eclipsed 1.0 G+A/90, both players’ lack of involvement over the course of a full match becomes a hole on their resumes.
That leaves Pozuelo and Lodeiro, which feels like poetic justice since both players led their teams to MLS Cup in 2019 and are in a great position to get there again in 2020.
Finding the statistical difference between the two is a bit like finding the needle in the haystack, except instead of hay it’s cheeky goals and brilliant assists and when it comes to the needle, no one’s actually quite sure what they’re looking for. Maybe it’s end product? Pozuelo leads Lodeiro in key passes per 90 and expected assists. Maybe it’s build up? Lodeiro gets a higher bulk of his team’s touches and completes more vertical passes. Maybe it’s extremely advanced statistics? Pozuelo edges Lodeiro in American Soccer Analysis’s expected points added through taking shots, but Lodeiro bests Pozuelo in ASA’s very complex and thorough “goals added” metric.
What any of that means is clearly in the eye of the beholder, but what’s not up for debate is which player has the more complete career resume in MLS. Since joining the league, Lodeiro has led the Sounders to MLS Cup in three out of four tries and won the cup twice. The Sounders have never finished below second in the West in Lodeiro’s four complete seasons with the team, and before he arrived, the Sounders only finished second or better twice in seven seasons. Plus, the team would have almost certainly missed the playoffs for the first time in club history had he not joined midway through 2016.
To be fair, Pozuelo’s career resume is not bad by any stretch. He’s been a Best-XI quality player in both of his two MLS seasons. Though his team finished a lackluster fourth in the East in 2019, he led them to an improbable MLS Cup appearance that same year without the help of the then-injured Jozy Altidore. He’s also racked up goals and assists with astonishing consistency. And yet, after one and a half seasons in the league, Lodeiro had won an MLS Cup, and Pozuelo has not.
The reason team results are so important to Lodeiro’s MVP resume is also the same reason why he needs to win it this year: He is the hardest working No. 10 in the league. Work rate is something that’s hard to quantify in stats, and in fact, it’s often a detriment to scoring goals and assists because the more energy a player exerts pressuring after a turnover or tracking back or dropping deep to start possession, the less they have to stuff the box score.
The fact that that Lodeiro’s G+A/90 is on par with the other outfield MVP nominees shows just how good he’s been this year. Because he does more dirty work than any of his creative playmaking peers, his team wins consistently, but usually to the detriment of his production in the final third. This year presents a unique opportunity to reward a player who fits the MVP profile both on paper and with the eye test.
In fact, one only needs to look back to the most recent Sounders match to understand everything Lodeiro does for the team. First, he opens the scoring by sprinting into the box, pouncing on a loose ball, and coolly wrong-footing the keeper. Then, he puts San Jose away by relentlessly chasing Florian Jungwirth, forcing the defender into a mistake, pouncing on another loose ball, and then hitting a quick no-look pass to spring Jordan Morris into the box. Neither the goal nor the assist pop on first viewing, but both are examples of the high motor intensity that makes Lodeiro unlike any other attacking force in the league.
Throughout a season, Lodeiro will make countless hustle plays of a similar caliber, most of which won’t get him on the stat sheet but will help his team win. In a year where the Sounders finished with a franchise-best +21 goal differential, that effort has clearly made a mark; you just have to look at the table before the stat sheets. Then again, if individual moments of brilliance are more your thing, that one free kick against LAFC should do the trick too.