Every MLS team’s very early MVP candidate: Eastern Conference

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The international break is here and while there is a reduced slate of MLS games, most teams are taking a welcome break to tune up tactics and rest tired legs.

We are, of course, still very early into the 2022 season, but already some individual players are rising above the rest are carrying their teams to early success.

So, for a little bit of fun and to distract yourself from the nail-biting tension of the USA and Canada’s World Cup qualifying run-ins, join us as we take a look at every MLS team’s very, very early MVP candidate.

Up first is the Eastern Conference:

Josef Martinez is a very different player than he was prior to his ACL tear in 2020. He’s not quite as mobile or explosive and has to manage his minutes carefully.

But he remains a lethal goalscorer and is arguably even better at linking play than he was before. Already this season, he’s hit the net twice and provided two assists in just four appearances.

Martinez is still Atlanta United’s talisman and the scary thing is, he’s clearly nowhere near his best form yet.

He’s only actually scored in one of the three games he’s played so far, but Karol Swiderski’s brace against the New England Revolution showed what he’s all about. Tight control, composure, and ice-cold finishing.

But moreover, this pick is actually based a little more on just how much better Charlotte FC are when he’s on the field. The Poland international gives them direction, cohesion, and structure. Something to aim for.

If he keeps leading the line like this, and scoring goals as he did against the Revs, there’s no doubting Charlotte FC will remain competitive during their expansion year.

He’s not always been the most popular figure with some performances not befitting of his DP status, but Gaston Gimenez has led the Chicago Fire brilliantly under new head coach Ezra Hendrickson.

The Paraguayan midfielder has been excellent on both sides of the ball so far. Defensively, he’s first among his teammates for tackles (11) and recoveries (59), and third for interceptions (8). And at the other end, he’s top for successful dribbles (6), third for passes into the attacking third (11), and has one assist.

For far too long, Brandon Vazquez was stuck behind other, more heralded strikers like Josef Martinez and Brenner, meaning he was seen as little more than an option to throw on when things get desperate.

But the kid has talent and this season, he’s really showing it.

In his last two games specifically, Vazquez has four goals and an assist, helping FC Cincinnati beat Orlando City and Inter Miami by a 5-2 combined scoreline. He played a part in every single one of those five goals and without him, Cincy would likely still be winless.

Vazquez is likely not playing in a team good enough to maintain his place at the top of the early Golden Boot rankings, but just watch how many he ends up on come the end of 2022.

The Crew have very quietly gone about their business and head into this international break second in the East and unbeaten after four games. No team in their conference has scored more than their 10 goals so far, and you’ll get absolutely no points for guessing who has been behind their attacking brilliance.

Lucas Zelarayan already has four goals and an assist to his name so far this season, has created 16 chances – 10 more than any other Crew player – and has completed a team-high 15 dribbles. He continues to pull defenders this way and that with dancing feet and clinical finishing.

The Crew had a scare recently when Zelarayan hobbled out of their 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls, but the injury is confirmed to only keep him out for a couple of weeks at the most. Zelarayan is absolutely a long-term MVP candidate again.

DC United have lost their last two games and allowed four goals but prior to that, had back-to-back wins with clean sheets in each.

Overall, that’s a big improvement on their defensive record in 2021, but it wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of Bill Hamid in goal.

The veteran stopper has made more saves (20) than any other goalkeeper in MLS so far this season. Sure, he probably should have done a little better with the second goal in DCU’s 2-1 defeat to Toronto, but then Hernan Losada’s side would have been far worse off without some of his gravity-defying efforts.

Hamid’s form is great, but DC United supporters will be hoping someone else emerges in this spot as the season progresses.

Inter Miami have made a disastrous start to the season.Inter Miami have made a disastrous start to the season.

Inter Miami have made a disastrous start to the season. / Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

We really are fulfilling our obligation to pick a player from every team here because nobody has been good for Inter Miami.

Brazilian midfielder Gregore has done more than anyone to stop the bleeding with team-highs for tackles (14), pressures (112), and recoveries (39). He’s also played 23 passes into the opposition third – more than double any teammate.

The problem is, nobody is doing anything with those passes, and Gregore didn’t have his best game at all in the 2-0 defeat to LAFC, so we’re really clutching at straws here.

CF Montreal haven’t fared much better than Inter Miami but then, they have had to juggle Concacaf Champions League commitments.

They ultimately crashed to a late 3-3 draw having been 3-1 up against Atlanta United last time out but looked much improved, so we’ll go with the architect of that performance: Ismael Kone.

The 19-year-old midfielder was caught in possession for Josef Martinez’s opener but from there, was flawless. Kone – who was recently called up to the Canadian Men’s National Team – ended the match with a goal, an assist (his second of the season), three key passes, and two completed dribbles.

It’s little wonder John Herdman wants Kone around the CanMNT camp.

The Revs have had a disastrous couple of weeks, crashing out of CCL and losing their last two MLS matches. But that hasn’t stopped Carles Gil from topping out on pretty much every key offensive metric.

Goals, assists, shots, key passes, dribbles. You name it, Gil does it.

The reigning MLS MVP needs some more help from his teammates if he’s to defend his title, but he’s certainly doing his bit.

Talles Magno has been on fire in CCL with three goals in four appearances. In MLS, he’s had to be a little more patient, but has still scored once and set up another goal. He’s also first among his teammates for successful dribbles (8) and third for chances created (5).

Many were tipping Talles Magno for a breakout year in 2022 and while he’s more bubbling under the surface right now, he looks to be reaching boiling point.

Many were left wondering if Frankie Amaya’s move to the Red Bulls was the right choice after a tough 2021 but at the start of this season, he’s silencing all the critics.

The young American already has two assists and is second only to Lewis Morgan (8) for chances created (7). But even more impressively, he’s still found time to shut down opposition moves, posting team-highs for tackles (33) and interceptions (9).

Amaya has been all-action, is making up for lost time, and has guided the Red Bulls to a very respectable start in 2022.

Antonio Carlos has led the Orlando City defense well this season.Antonio Carlos has led the Orlando City defense well this season.

Antonio Carlos has led the Orlando City defense well this season. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

With just four goals scored and two allowed, Orlando City’s solid start to 2022 has been totally predicated on solid defense.

Posting the best numbers among the Lions’ backline has been Antonio Carlos. The Brazilian center-back tops out among his teammates for aerial duels won (6) and clearances (31) – he’s 23 clear of any other player in the latter. He’s also second for interceptions (4) and has been using the ball pretty well, too.

Just what you want from a center-back.

Whereas the Fire are unbeaten near the top of the East based on defensive solidity, the Philadelphia Union are top, haven’t lost, aren’t conceding goals, and are also scoring.

In fact, Daniel Gazdag has been particularly lethal, scoring three of their seven goals so far – a winner against Montreal, and clinchers against San Jose and NYCFC.

The Hungary international has also found time to be a regular creative outlet, while he chases more than most in a Union team well known for their relentless hunting of the ball.

A two-way player in the No.10 hole, Gazdag is a dream Jim Curtin player.

Everybody is holding their breath for the arrival of Lorenzo Insigne but for now, Alejandro Pozuelo is holding down the fort and slowly returning to the goalscoring, playmaker extraordinaire we know he can be.

The Spaniard already has one goal and one assist, as well as team-highs for chances created (9) and successful dribbles (11). We’re just as excited as you to see how he teams up with his star Italian teammate this summer.

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