A week ago, ESPN FC asked Jeff Carlisle, Doug McIntyre, Jason Davis and Graham Parker for their votes for Major League Soccer's under-the-radar MVP candidates in 2016. This week, we ask them to nominate the players most likely to win the award come season's end.
Ignacio Piatti | Midfielder | Montreal Impact
He's not the highest-paid or highest-profile player on his team, but it's difficult to deny that Ignacio Piatti is the most important player for the Montreal Impact. Didier Drogba's personal gravity draws the bulk of the attention, while Piatti goes about the business of helping his team week in, week out with a creative influence from a withdrawn position that includes both chance creation and goal scoring.
Piatti's goal scoring has him second in the league, behind only David Villa of New York City FC. Villa is also the only player to score a higher percentage of his team's goals than Piatti, who plays in a team without the likes of Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo.
Drogba's intermittent appearances have done only so much for the Impact, and there's a strong argument that the squad is better off without him on the team sheet. But there's no arguing that they're better off without Piatti in the lineup -- not only because of the goals he scores but also because of the danger he presents, drawing attention and allowing his teammates to find space more simply.
Piatti's play has clearly helped Dominic Oduro enjoy another strong campaign. Thanks to the speed of the Ghanaian on the break, no tandem in MLS has connected for more goals than Oduro and Piatti. It's also one of the reasons Piatti's shots-to-goals ratio is far and away the best in MLS. The Argentine has scored a goal for every 3.9 shots in 2016.
The key word in the "MVP" superlative is "valuable." The award should go to the player who brings the most value to his team, meaning a player on an average or mediocre side without him turns into a good team with him. There are other candidates across MLS who might meet that criterion, but none of them has been better or more consistent than Piatti.
-- Jason Davis (@davisjsn)
Sebastian Giovinco | Forward | Toronto FC
David Villa is the clear MVP favorite and deserves to be. But there's another, somewhat under-the-radar player who has been every bit as important to his team in 2016: Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco.
Sure, last year's runaway winner hasn't come close to duplicating the gaudy numbers he put up during that otherworldly 2015. Giovinco hasn't even scored in TFC's past eight games.
But in some ways, what the former Juventus sparkplug has contributed this year despite the long-term absence of fellow designated players Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley (and, more recently, starting goalkeeper Clint Irwin) has been almost as impressive: namely keeping Toronto FC in playoff contention pretty much by himself. With eight goals and seven assists, Giovinco has been involved in 15 of the Reds' 21 strikes this season -- the highest percentage in the league.
And if one believes that setting up chances is as important as finishing them, he's actually produced more offense than Villa (13 goals, one assist), Piatti (11 and two) or Diego Valeri (nine and five), the three front-runners for the award. It's worth noting too that Giovinco has played three fewer games than Villa.
The Italian also led Toronto to the Canadian title and the CONCACAF Champions League berth that comes with it while Altidore, Bradley and Irwin were out. That doesn't matter as far as the MVP discussion is concerned, of course. But it sure helps show that Giovinco is having a better year than many believe.
-- Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN)
Andre Blake | Goalkeeper | Philadelphia Union
By the end of the season, it's entirely possible the current upswing in the Portland Timbers' form will have put Valeri squarely in the MVP conversation -- certainly his omission from the All-Star roster is one of the more puzzling oversights in recent years. But if we want to talk MVP oversights, there are plenty of goalkeepers throughout the years who might have fair reason to be aggrieved at not being considered. So for now, I'd offer up Andre Blake as worthy of consideration.
Philadelphia Union have been one of the toughest teams in the league this year, with a reputation for comebacks. And the common factor in their earning points from games in which opponents might have smelled blood has generally been the performances of Blake.
A rare No. 1 draft pick for a goalkeeper, Blake has quickly demonstrated his worth to the Union and had plenty of opportunity to continue to do so, as the defense in front of him remains a work in progress. Mature beyond his years, physically dominant in the box and a shot-stopper, Blake's all-around game still has room for improvement but crucially looks to have the capacity for such improvement too. The Union can build around him for the future, but the value he's adding to their present is indisputable.
-- Graham Parker (@KidWeil)
David Villa | Forward | New York City FC
Villa has been in prolific form for New York City FC from practically the moment he arrived in 2015. He's scored through the club's first-year struggles, as well as the recent uptick in fortunes.
As such, there is a temptation to look elsewhere when it comes to the MLS MVP award. But the context of the award is limited to a single season, and for that reason, Villa's 13 goals and one assist are impossible to ignore. It was Villa's nine goals in the first three months that helped NYCFC grind through that part of the campaign, a period when its defense was still struggling.
Villa hasn't come to MLS as some sort of diva either, expecting others to do his running for him. His work rate has been phenomenal, thus setting an example for New York's passel of young players.
Villa is also the prototypical designated player, one willing to immerse himself in the culture of the U.S. as well as excel on it. Granted, MVP awards are about on-field production rather than what a player does away from the game. But such efforts are part of the leadership that a player can provide inside the locker room, and Villa scores high in this area as well.
If New York can maintain its form down the stretch and garner a playoff spot, Villa will no doubt be at the heart of that success.
-- Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle)