The Full 90

October 5, 2012

Assessing Sporting KC's MVP candidates

Is there a Sporting Kansas City player with a shot at the MLS MVP award? You could build a case for a few players, namely Graham Zusi and Jimmy Nielsen.

The Full 90

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When assessing the MVP award, you can usually follow one of three schools of thought: 1) Pick the best player on the best team, 2) pick the player who is most valuable to his team, or 3) pick the player who put up the most eye-popping numbers.

At this point, it seems like almost a foregone conclusion that San Jose's Chris Wondolowski will take home the Major League Soccer MVP award. He's the best player on the Supporter's Shield-leading Earthquakes and his 22 goals are pretty eye-popping (and part of the reason San Jose is tops in the league).

But is there an argument to made for a Sporting Kansas City player? What about an argument to be made for a few Sporting Kansas City players?

Let's try and make them.

Argument No. 1: Midfielder Graham Zusi.

He might not be a "sexy" name pick like Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry and he might not have the "eye-popping" numbers like Wondolowski, but Sporting Kansas City aren't the same team without Zusi.

And, really, shouldn't that matter? Like, a lot?

When I personally assess MVP credentials (which I get to do occasionally with this gig), I like to ask myself a question: "If you took the player off his team, how good with that team be?"*

*There's a baseball stat that I love called WAR (Wins Against Replacement). It's, um, fairly complicated. Basically, WAR aggregates a bunch of complicated stats to figure out how many wins a player is worth to his team. I really wish there was a way to calculate WAR for Major League Soccer. The Castrol Index is probably the closest we'll get to WAR -- unless there's a sabermetrician out there with a lot of free time and MLS love -- but, since Zusi comes in at a #48 on that list, it makes me very skeptical. Kei Kamara is ranked #9, the highest of any KC player. San Jose's Alan Gordon -- ALAN GORDON!?! -- is first.

Without Zusi, is Kansas City tops in the Eastern Conference right now? Definitely not. Without him, where would KC's goals come from?


Kansas City have scored 39 goals this year; Zusi is responsible (5 goals, 14 assists) for 48.7 percent of the them.

By comparison, Wondolowski is responsible for 44.6 percent. The Earthquakes have three 10+ goal scorers (Wondolowski, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart); Kansas City just has one (Kei Kamara). The Earthquakes also have five players with 7+ assists; Kansas City has just one (Zusi).

Zusi is Sporting's offense.

As for eye-popping numbers, Zusi can throw out two: He leads MLS with 14 assists (tied with Donovan) and 136 corners. Not quite as impressive as Wondo's 22 goals. But pretty good.

The last argument I can give -- and, really, it's my best -- is this: When Zusi picks up a goal or an assist, Kansas City is 12-1-2.

Zusi also has a defining moment to hang his campaign on -- something the other guys don't really have: His masterful match last week against Chicago. He lifted his team to victory like an MVP should.

Argument No. 2: Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen

How would Sporting fare without the White Puma? It's fair to say that KC might even be slightly worse without Nielsen than without Zusi. Nielsen anchors the league's best defense, captains the league's second-best team and is putting up a few eye-popping numbers. (He's one of three 'keepers to play every minute of every match this year.)

Consider: Nielsen leads Major League Soccer in wins (17) and shutouts (14). Among goalkeepers with at least 20 starts this year, only D.C. United's Bill Hamid (21) has allowed fewer goals than Nielsen (25).

Nielsen also has a very impressive 0.81 goals allowed average this season, which not surprisingly leads the league. (The next closest numbers for a 'keeper with more than 20 starts is also Hamid, 1.04.) The only real knock you can make on Nielsen, numbers-wise, is that he is the only goalkeeper with more than 20 starts to face less than 100 shots this season. As such, his save (66) and save percentage (74%) numbers are a little low.

Would a lesser quality goalkeeper put up those numbers? It's not likely. Nielsen does the little things too. He's amongst the best goalkeepers at positional awareness and organization in the league. (It's too bad there aren't stats for those attributes.)

But, here's the problem: Major League Soccer doesn't often reward goalkeepers in the MVP talks.

In league history, a goalkeeper has won the MLS MVP award just once: In 2000, when Kansas City's Tony Meola won the triple crown of MLS MVP, MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and MLS Cup MVP.

Of course, the last argument I can give for Nielsen is that he currently has more wins (17 to 15), two less shutouts (16 to 14) and a better goals allowed average (0.81 to 0.94) than Meola did in 2000.

Argument No. 3: Forward Kei Kamara

Kamara is having a very solid year. But is he really deserving of a place in this discussion? Probably on the periphery. I thought about this for a long time, but I can't make a very convincing case for Kamara to win it.

If you took Kamara off Kansas City, how good would they be? Obviously, not as good. He is the team's leading scorer (11), the second-best assist man (6) and is within range of setting a team record for shots (130) and shots on goal (48) in a season.

But, when you put him up against Zusi in the "most-valuable to his team" comparison, he doesn't quite stack up.

Zusi has a better "goals created percentage" (48.7%) than Kamara (43.5%) and KC is a respectable 11-3-1 when Kamara registers a goal or assist. (Slightly worse than Zusi.)

The real sticking point though for this discussion, is that Kamara doesn't stack up that favorably with his fellow strikers. Among the 13 double-digit goal scorers this season, Kamara has the worst goals per 90 minutes rating (0.38) and scoring chance percentage (8.5%). If those numbers need a little comparison, Wondolowski has a G/90 rating of 0.78 and a SC% of 19.6%.

Those numbers just aren't good enough to join the elite in this league.

Argument No. 4: Midfielder Roger Espinoza

If Kansas City can overtake San Jose in the Supporter's Shield, you could make just one case for Espinoza: He would be the best player on the best team.

His unstoppable motor is what drives Kansas City's high-pressure system. He is a hard-tackling, irritating, creative and unrelenting force. However, there aren't a lot of numbers you can pick out for Espinoza that will pop eyes. He hasn't scored this year and has just 2 assists.

The best stat I can find: Kansas City are undefeated in the last 10 matches that Espinoza has started -- including the eight since he returned from the Olympics.

Espinoza plays an absolutely vital role for Kansas City. Unfortunately, putting him in the MVP mix would be like putting a left tackle into the NFL offensive MVP race.

Are there other candidates? Not really. Matt Besler would be the only other potential candidate, but a defender has never won an MLS MVP Award. I can't imagine that Besler has done anything to change that mark.

What do you think? Does Zusi have enough on his resume to push his way into the MVP mix? Does Nielsen? Do you have a better argument for Kamara or even Espinoza?

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