Fredy Montero scored 12 goals and had nine assists in 2011. He didn't get so much as a sniff for MLS MVP consideration. David Beckham had 15 assists and no one seemed to notice. Thierry Henry bagged 14 goals in just 26 matches and was a complete afterthought. Omar Gonzalez helped anchor one of the best defenses in league history and was hardly even mentioned.
The 2011 MVP race was as wide open as any we've seen in recent history, but it wasn't for lack of standout performances. Dwayne De Rosario's was so good, in fact, that voters were willing to overlook the fact that he was traded twice during the season. His 28 combined goals and assists were the most since 2008 and the second highest total since 2003.
This year's race promises to be just as wide open, if not more so. There are no fewer than eight players I could make a very strong case for and probably another 5-10 who could reasonably be called legitimate darkhorse candidates. Nearly ever team in the league has at least one player I could see making a case for himself. Here's some of the players I'll be watching:
Favorites (in no particular order)
LANDON DONOVAN is a perennial contender for the award, having won it just once but being named to the Best XI five times. It's not remotely hard to see him building on his 2011 campaign when he had 12 goals and three assists in just 23 matches.
ROBBIE KEANE, if his recent form with Aston Villa is indicative, might be the most offensively gifted player in the entire league. He's unlikely to play enough games to make an assault on the record books, but he'll score plenty.
FREDY MONTERO is one of the players who might give Keane a run in the "most talented offensive player" department. Consider that nine games into the 2011 season, Montero had just one goal and two assists and through 16 matches, he was at three goals and four assists. If Montero's preseason is any indication -- he's scored five goals, including an absolutely deadly chip in the Sounders' preseason finale -- he should be poised for a much faster start and a much more impressive resume.
Before MAURO ROSALES missed most of the Sounders' final five games of the season, his five goals and 13 assists had him on the MVP short list. Now fully recovered, a year of experience under his belt and a Designated Player contract to live up to, expectations are that he'll pick up right where he left off.
Last year, I picked JAVIER MORALES as my preseason MVP favorite. A poorly-executed Marcos Mondaini tackle ended any of those hopes, but Morales seems to be fully back. Real Salt Lake still has the weapons that make Morales' pinpoint passing effective and he's got Kyle Beckerman to cover his back.
BREK SHEA was just about everyone's MVP pick midway through last season, but an almost unbelievable work load finally caught up with him as he faded badly down the stretch. His schedule is looking far more open this year as FC Dallas won't have CONCACAF Champions League and his national team duty will probably be more confined to the Olympics.
DWAYNE DE ROSARIO is the defending champion and may well be the favorite again. If he wins it, though, he'd be bucking a pretty significant trend. No player has ever repeated as MLS MVP and only Preki has won the award twice in his career. De Rosario will have some better talent around him, though, and new teammate Hamdi Salihi should help provide him with plenty of space.
With all the talent the Vancouver Whitecaps have added during the offseason, DAVIDE CHIUMIENTO seems to have almost been lost. But no player may stand to benefit more from all those moves than the shifty Swiss. Last year, he finished with two goals and nine assists while playing less than 1,700 minutes, dealing with a coaching change and playing for the lowest-scoring team in the league.
In GRAHAM ZUSI's third professional year, he broke out in a big way. The Sporting Kansas City central midfielder finished with five goals and seven assists and seemed to gain confidence as the season wore on. He's got so many attacking options around him that he should be able to pile up the assists and once again find space to unleash his wicked shot.
It wasn't so long ago that TORSTEN FRINGS was a world class defensive midfielder. He's probably not at that level anymore, but by the end of last season he was giving us reminders. I'm expecting a big year from Toronto FC and Frings will be a major reason they end their playoff-less existence.
Another reason I'm bullish on TFC is striker DANNY KOEVERMANS. His game is not nearly as complete as almost anyone else on this list, but he might be the best goal poacher in MLS. His eight goals came in fewer than 800 minutes last year. If he plays closer 2,500, a 20-goal season is not out of the question. If he scores 20 goals and TFC makes the playoffs, all that other stuff will be easy to overlook.
Injuries limited SEBASTIAN GRAZZINI to just 780 minutes a year ago. But those were some glorious minutes. The Chicago Fire were a completely different team with him on the field and his five goals and four assists probably undervalue what he meant. If he stays healthy, watch out.
If BENNY FEILHABER had any kind of goal-scoring forward to pass to, he could really put up some quality numbers. But the Revolution are going to be awful and I don't think Feilhaber will do enough to overcome that. If they aren't, though, he will deserve a huge heaping of credit.
A year ago, I really thought OMAR CUMMINGS was poised to take over the league. Well, 2011 did not exactly go as planned for him. He battled injuries and ended up with three goals and six assists, his worst season since 2007. Maybe new Colorado Rapids coach Oscar Pareja can inject some life back into him.
Call me a homer if you must, but I really think this is the year Montero breaks out. He's gone through slumps in each of his first three MLS seasons, but if he can avoid those kind of lulls he could put together a magical season. Seriously, look at that chip he scored against Jaguares again. That's the kind of creativity you just don't see very often. This may very well be his final season in MLS, but I really think he'll make his mark.