Can anyone really doubt that Eric Hassli is a legitimate talent at this point? It wasn't just his equalizing wondergoal on Saturday. It wasn't just that it came in the 85th minute. It wasn't just that it was at the home of the Vancouver Whitecaps' biggest rivals. It wasn't that he beat one of the league's best goalkeepers. Although, all of those things make a compelling case just by themselves.
But look at the bigger picture. Look beyond his penchant for punishment and you'll see a player that is making his team considerably better. You'll also see an early contender for the Major League Soccer's MVP.
It might sound ridiculous that a player who has missed 47 percent of his team's minutes, mainly due to various disciplinary reasons, could be considered a MVP candidate, but hang with me a little bit here. During the 723 minutes that Hassli has been on the field for the Whitecaps, they are actually +1 on goal difference. During the 637 minutes that he's missed, the Whitecaps are -7. Basically, that's a difference of more than a goal per 90 minutes (1.11 to be exact).
Granted, some of that negativity is due directly to his picking up red cards and forcing his team to play down a man. Even throwing out those numbers, though, we're still left with a team that plays to .98 goals better per 90 with Hassli than without him.
In matches where Hassli scores, the Whitecaps are downright decent, averaging 1.5 points per match. Even in matches where he avoids picking up a red card, the Whitecaps are at 1.14 PPM. Even counting games where he picks up a red card, the Whitecaps are still averaging 1.0 PPM. All of that is in contrast to the .2 PPM the Whitecaps are averaging in the four matches in which he hasn't played. If those numbers don't scream "MVP candidate," I'm not sure what does.
But maybe I'm focusing too much on numbers. Chances are, we can take any player and construct a narrative around various statistics.
Hassli really seems to bring something not entirely quantifiable to this team. Benjamin Massey of 86 Forever has pointed out that Hassli's style is borderline dirty, but there's an edge that comes with that. There's no shortage of talent on the Whitecaps' roster, whether we're talking about Davide Chiumiento, Alain Rochat, Shea Salinas or Camilo Sanvezzo. This team has the potential to be at least decent, and all indications are that Hassli allows them to reach that potential.
Hassli is easily the most physical offensive player on the Whitecaps roster. For the time being, at least, Tom Soehn seems to prefer a two-forward set up and as long as Sanvezzo is that other forward, he's going to need someone like Hassli to create any kind of room in which to operate.
The trick now, will be figuring out how to keep Hassli on the field. Hassli seems to have dialed back his physical style, which up until this week had also coincided with reduced production. After scoring three goals in his first three matches, but also accumulating two red cards, he had scored just once and picked up one red card in his past six matches. Not surprisingly, the Whitecaps' fortunes also took a turn for the worse during that period, as they picked up just five points in their past 10.
Maybe the Sounders game proves to be the turning point. Hassli scored, avoided a sending off and the Whitecaps earned a hard-fought point on the road.
If Hassli is really going to make good on his MVP-caliber talent, we'll need to see many more games like that. Hassli doesn't need to score two goals a game, he doesn't have to avoid ever getting sent off again -- in fact it might even be advisable just to make sure he maintains that "bad boy" edge -- but he does need to do a better job of staying on the field. Assuming he can, I fully expect to see the Whitecaps make a run at the playoffs and for him to make a legitimate bid for MVP.