The race for MLS MVP in 2024: Ranking Messi, Suarez, others

The Major League Soccer season is in full swing and with a third of the campaign complete, there’s no better time to look at the players who’ve separated themselves from the pack in the race for MLS MVP honors. We’ll revisit when we hit the the home stretch of the season to see who else has forced their way into the conversation.

For now, here’s a look at five names currently leading the way along with two names who just missed out on the top five, and two names who could potentially enter that race in the future.

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THE TOP FIVE

2024 stats: 10 matches, 10 goals and nine assists

Is Lionel Messi here because he’s the best player on the league’s best team? Or because he leads the league in assists while being fourth in goals? Or because he’s Lionel Messi?

Try all of the above.

It’s neither surprising nor controversial to say that Messi is the league’s best player. Whether he wins MVP is likely a matter of whether he can stay healthy enough to play enough games for the award, and he’s already flirting with that line. He’s been undeniably sensational, but he has only played in 10 of Inter Miami’s 15 games.

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Lionel Messi unleashes stunning strike from distance for Inter Miami

Lionel Messi lines up a superb goal from over 25 yards out for Inter Miami.

If Messi continues at that pace, he’ll finish the season having played in just 23 games. The only MVPs to play so few games were Alejandro Pozuelo in the COVID-shortened 2020 season and Carlos Valderrama in the shorter inaugural MLS season back in 1996.

Given that Messi is guaranteed to fall short of the typical 30-game threshold for MVPs, if he continues to average a goal per game and better than an assist per game and Miami wins the Supporters’ Shield, how many games does he need to play to win the league?

Will 25 games suffice? 23? 20? We may be in uncharted territory, because when he is on the pitch, he is so much better than anyone else in the league. — Ryan Rosenblatt

2024 stats: 12 matches, 11 goals and one assist

There’s been no more imposing force in front of goal this season than Christian Benteke. He’s second on the scoring charts with 11 goals, and seven have come with his head as he’s made a habit of dunking on opposing center-backs.

While Benteke has unquestionably been one of the league’s most potent players this season, he’s been even more valuable than the goal numbers let on. D.C. United is in the midst of a rebuild, with a new chief soccer officer in Ally Mackay and a new manager in Troy Lesesne, so you’d think they’d be hovering near the bottom half of the table. However, they’re one of the league’s most surprising teams and currently sit in a playoff spot. Benteke scoring more than half of the team’s goals on the campaign plays a big role in that, but he also enables how they play.

D.C. is one of the league’s most direct teams and it runs through Benteke’s head, not just in front of goal, but in the build-up. They funnel everything through the striker with long balls, which shouldn’t work, but it does because of how good Benteke is in the air.

Benteke has won 154 aerial duels, the most in MLS and a staggering 100 more than the next closest player. He’s doing it efficiently too, winning 78.2% of his aerial duels. That’s fifth-best in the league, and 10% better than the next-closest forward. How DC plays doesn’t work unless Benteke is truly next level in the air, and he is.

DCU are winning and it’s entirely because of Benteke, in the buildup and in front of goal. He makes the whole thing go. That sure sounds like the most valuable player to me. — Rosenblatt

2024 stats: 14 matches, 13 goals and four assists

At the time of writing, Cristian “Chicho Arango is leading the MLS Golden Boot race with 13 goals in 14 games. With four assists to add, Arango’s goal + assists contributions are second in the league, surpassed only by Messi.

Arango had been an impactful player in Major League Soccer before this season. That includes the 30 regular season goals he slotted in for LAFC through two years with the Black and Gold. He was LA’s regular season top goal scorer, a league MVP finalist, and key playoff contributor en route to the 2022 Supporters Shield and MLS Cup. The year previous, he earned Newcomer of the Year accolades in 2021 after scoring 14 goals in 17 games.

Yet despite the success, there was a sense he had more to give and with Real Salt Lake — he signed there midseason in ’23 after a stint in Mexico with Pachuca — he seems to be finding it.

With RSL ranked third in the Supporters Shield standings after 14 games, it’s impossible to extricate RSL’s success from that new level of form “Chicho” has tapped into. The Colombian has scored 13 of RSL’s 27 goals and assisted four others, with an overall impact felt far beyond the goal tally.

Manager Pablo Mastroeni said it best after RSL picked up a win on the road against Philadelphia on April 27: “Chicho sets the standard every day, whether it’s training or the game. And as Chicho goes, we’ll go. And that’s what big players do. They have big shoulders and they’re not scared to put the burden of the group on their backs.”

Arango’s heroics for RSL have twice earned him Player of the Matchday honors from Major League Soccer. That includes on matchday seven, as his second league hat trick helped his side clinch a come-from-behind victory against last year’s debutante darlings, St. Louis City SC. His second Player of the Matchday nod (and fourth all time in league play) came on matchday 10 this year, as he notched two goals and two assists in a 4-0 victory over Chicago Fire. — Megan Swanick

2024 stats: 14 matches, 11 goals and five assists

Preseason speculation regarding the health of Miami’s 37-year-old Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez has proved immaterial to his performance. Very real knee problems notwithstanding, Suarez is the top scorer for the Supporters Shield front-runners, slotting home 11 of the club’s 36 goals. Suarez also has five assists, placing him tied for second in the Golden Boot race (even with Benteke, trailing just Chicho Arango) and tied for third in total goals + assists (even with Luciano Acosta).

Coordinating with Miami’s marquee maestro named Messi, among others, Suarez contributes comprehensively to the team’s attack — an attack that has nine more goals than their closest contender. The understanding between Messi and Suarez, with Suarez there to set up or complete Messi’s moments of brilliance, has been a delight for Herons’ supporters and a blight for opposing fans.

While Messi may garner more attention, though, it would be a mistake to discount the unique and still lethal impact of Uruguay‘s generationally talented striker. His talent, touch, and trademark fire is all still there.

Suarez, in an interview for MLS earlier this season, said: “These are different times. Yes, obviously we are getting older and our physical shape is changing. But our competitive DNA, both Jordi, Busi and Leo, is to want to win regardless of our age.”

There have been games when Suarez turned fate in Miami’s favor, no matter the cast around him or in a game absent Messi. That includes a March 14 meeting with D.C. United, when El Pistolero came off the bench to score a second-half brace, earning a 3-1 victory for the Herons after they’d trailed early in the first half. That Suarez-powered victory made him just the 12th player in MLS history to score multiple goals in their first five appearances.

It also marked one of two MLS Player of the Matchday honors this season, the other coming in Week 3 when Suarez scored twice and assisted twice in a 5-0 drubbing of Orlando City. — Swanick

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Orlando keeper denies Luis Suarez with fine save

Orlando keeper denies Luis Suarez with fine save

2024 stats: 14 matches, seven goals and nine assists

Lucho Acosta won last year’s MVP award, taking home the award after a 17-goal, 14-assist campaign that saw him lead FC Cincinnati to the Shield. So what’s he doing for an encore? Playing even better this season.

Acosta already has seven goals and nine assists this year, putting him on course for another 17 goals, but an astounding 22 assists. Oh, and the club he’s leading is currently top of the league on goals per game, so a Shield repeat is very much in play.

It’s not just the goals and assists that make Acosta such a fabulous player either. He’s a one-man hack against any packed-in defense, be it on the ball or with the space he creates as defenses have to choose between marking Acosta’s teammates or leaving the Argentine even a yard of space, the latter being extremely foolish.

If Acosta was MVP-worthy last season, how do you deny him the award if he’s even better this season? All things are not equal year-to-year. After all, the competition — you know, like a full season of Messi — might be different, but Acosta might be the best player on the best team once more, giving him a chance to be the league’s first back-to-back MVP.

Acosta is making a run at history, and a compelling one at that. — Rosenblatt

JUST MISSED THE TOP FIVE

2024 stats: 13 matches, eight goals and five assists

Denis Bouanga’s 20 goals were enough to win him the Golden Boot rather comfortably last season, but he didn’t rest on his laurels. The LAFC man has scored eight already this year while also increasing his creative output with five assists. If he maintains this pace, he’ll finish with 21 goals and 13 assists, which is absolutely MVP-level production.

The Gabon international isn’t simply putting up better numbers than he was a year ago, either. He’s doing a little bit of everything after the departure of Carlos Vela and overall turnover at LAFC made him the hub of everything the team does. He’s the scorer, the creator and the man through whom everything runs.

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Denis Bouanga’s superb brace secures win for LAFC

Denis Bouanga scores two fine goals as LAFC see off St. Louis CITY SC in MLS.

While the Black and Gold were a little uneven to start the season, Bouanga made sure they’d cobble together enough points to remain within striking distance of the top of MLS. It’s just like how Bouanga shines just bright enough to keep him within striking distance of the league’s best players, waiting to finish strong and put him on top of the rest of the league.

If Bouanga and LAFC turn things up, last year’s Golden Boot winner just might be this year’s MVP. — Rosenblatt

2024 stats: 12 matches, nine goals and one assist

Lewis Morgan’s nine goals — tied with Philly’s Dániel Gazdag for fifth-most in MLS — have played a pivotal part in NYRB’s strong start to 2024. Last year, NYRB scraped their way into the playoffs via the wild-card game, ending the year as a decent mid-table team that lacked a reliable goalscorer. They’re sitting more comfortably this year, easily among the best teams in the early run of games (though they recently fell 2-1 to NYCFC for Rivalry Week) as they sit fourth in the east and sixth overall in the Supporters Shield race.

That early success has a lot to do with Morgan’s return from prolonged injury and his ability to find immediate form. The Scottish midfielder scored 14 goals in the 2022 season but missed the majority of 2023 with repeated aggravations to a hip injury.

Coordinating well alongside the squad’s newly acquired Swedish international, Emil Forsberg, and under the tutelage of new manager Sandro Schwarz, Morgan’s attacking impact on matches has helped take a team’s strong foundation to its next level.

Morgan’s nine goals have been the decisive factor in multiple games, including his 59th-minute goal against Houston Dynamo to secure all three points on March 2, his 54th-minute decisive goal against FC Dallas in the next match, and a second-half goal on April 27 to draw level for a point against Vancouver Whitecaps.

Morgan also secured a hat trick against his former club Inter Miami on March 23, part of a 4-0 victory for New York that earned Morgan MLS Player of the Matchday honors for Matchday Six. — Swanick

ON THE BUBBLE MVP CANDIDATES

2024 stats: 13 matches, three goals and five assists

The Galaxy added Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec as Designated Players (DPs) in the offseason, but everything still runs through the DP they brought back from last season.

Need proof? Just look at their scoreless draw with Seattle Sounders that Puig missed. The Galaxy had a season-low 0.4 xG in that game as they struggled to do much of anything with the call without their talisman.

Puig is one-of-a-kind in MLS, just roaming the center of the pitch until the ball finds him. At that point, it’s full speed ahead for LA, who let everyone fly forward and trust Puig to turn it into a chance at goal. Sometimes that’s with his carrying, more often it’s with his audacious passing, and every once in a while it’s with a blast from distance.

Puig is up to four goals and eight assists on the season so he doesn’t lack production, but it takes watching him regularly to really appreciate how good he is, and how much he impacts the Galaxy. The inventiveness and skill to pull off passes that few others in the league can even see are the engine of a team that has turned itself into one of MLS’s best after years in the wilderness. — Rosenblatt

2024 stats: 11 matches, four goals and seven assists

As Finnish veteran midfielder Robin Lod came off the bench to level the score against Portland on May 18th, he also became the Loons’ all-time leading scorer across all competitions in the process. The performance kick-started a comeback 2-1 victory for Minnesota (Lod helped set up the second decisive goal as well), who now sit a commendable fourth in the Supporters Shield standings, and earned Lod his third Team of the Matchweek acknowledgment of 2024.

That record-setting goal against Portland also marked Lod’s fourth this season, adding to an impressive seven assists, which has Lod involved in 11 of Minnesota’s 21 goals — at least four more goal involvements than his next closest teammate.

Lod has at times been an unappreciated performer in Major League Soccer, and the 31-year-old missed the majority of last season with a meniscus tear. But Lod’s creative impact on the Loons’ successful 2024 is impossible to ignore. According to FBref, Lod is tied for fifth in goal-creating actions (nine) across Major League Soccer and tied for fourth in goal-creating actions per 90 (1.04). While he’s fourth in total assists (seven), he’s second in assists per 90 (.81) behind only Messi. Lod’s expected assists per 90 (.48) are the highest in the league. — Swanick