Roughly two months remain in the 2012 MLS season, but there's no doubt about who is the favorite to win the MVP award. In a survey of SB Nation's soccer editors, San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski is named as one of the top 3 candidates on all 20 of the ballots that were cast. In contrast, no other player (in this case Columbus Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum) was named on more than five.
It's not hard to see why Wondolowski is such an overwhelming favorite. If the season were to end today, Wondolowski would have one of the strongest MLS resumes in league history.
In all but one of the previous 16 seasons, the MVP was given to a primarily offensive player. The one exception was in 2000, when Kansas City goalkeeper Tony Meola posted one of the greatest seasons of all time for the Supporters' Shield winners. In seven of those seasons, the MVP was either the Golden Boot winner (most goals scored) or MLS Scoring Champion (a formula MLS used from 1996-2004 in which a goal counted as two points and an assist as one).
Wondolowski's 18 goals are already more than any player since Landon Donovan scored 20 in 2008. Up until a few weeks ago, Wondolowski was on a pace that made challenging Roy Lassiter's 17-year-old record a real possibility. As it is, he could still break into the top 5 all-time single-season goal totals by scoring five more in his final seven matches.
Further boosting Wondolowski's case is that he plays for the team that is currently leading the Supporters' Shield race. Eleven of the past winners played for either the Shield winners or the runners up. On their current pace, the Earthquakes wil register 67 points, which would be tied for the second highest point total in MLS history.
It's worth noting that Wondolowski's scoring pace has slowed considerably over the last couple months. Since bagging a hat trick on July 14, Wondolowski has scored just once in his past seven games. That's allowed the likes of Kenny Cooper (14 goals) and Alvaro Saborio (14) to get back into the Golden Boot race. Of course, neither one of them appear to be much challenge to Wondolowski in the MVP race, as Saborio only appeared on one ballot and Cooper wasn't on any.
Who might be able to challenge Wondolowski if he continues to fade?
Gruenebaum is the player who appears on the second most ballots, but only one voter tapped him as No. 1. His numbers are strong, but he's not even the clear frontrunner for goalkeeper of the year and doesn't lead the league in a meaningful statistical area. Making matters worse is the possibility that the Crew won't even make the playoffs. It's very hard to see him gaining much traction in the race.
Behind him are a couple of defensive midfielders, a position with zero history of winning MVP awards. If someone were to break through, Sporting Kansas City's Roger Espinoza and the Seattle Sounders' Osvaldo Alonso seem like good candidates. Both provide some decent offense, but more importantly are the most visible components of very effective defenses. They are also routinely listed among the MLS players most likely to see success in Europe. If Sporting KC or the Sounders make a surprise run at the Supporters' Shield, they could be worth watching. Both of them are currently showing up on four ballots, but there's only one first-place vote between them.
If someone is going to challenge Wondolowski, it could come from the next tier of vote-getters. Landon Donovan, Mauro Rosales, Patrice Bernier, Dax McCarty and David Ferreira all show up on at least two ballots. All of them except McCarty are primarily offensive players, through whom their teams' offenses flow. Ferreira has probably missed too much time to really get in the race and McCarty just seems like a longshot based on past criteria, but Rosales, Donovan and Bernier could have a chance.
Donovan, of course, seems to be in the conversation every year and is trying to become just the second player in league history to win the award twice. He's quietly putting together one of the best years of his career (nine goals and 11 assists) and is a major reason the Galaxy are surging up the table.
Rosales was considered a MVP darkhorse candidate last year before injuries cut short his season. Right now, his 2012 is arguably better, as he's already on two goals and a league-leading 13 assists. Five of those assists have been game-winners as the Sounders have managed to remain vaguely in the Shield race.
Bernier probably qualifies as this year's darkhorse candidate. Playing for the expansion Montreal Impact, he is coming off a Player of the Month award and his nine goals and eight assists are a major reason his team is making a bid for the playoffs. If the Impact can somehow get into the playoffs and his numbers continue to rise, he seems to be someone worth keeping an eye on.
SB Nation will periodically ask our editors to update their picks and we'll be sharing those results as the season progresses.