The 2014 MLS MVP race has a number of viable candidates. This is the fourth and final piece in our series in which Planet Futbol writers state the case for why a specific candidate sticks out above the rest. The league will name its MVP on Dec. 2.
It may not be applicable, but it is indicative.
On Oct. 5, 2013, the first-place Seattle Sounders traveled to Denver and got thrashed, 5-1, by the Colorado Rapids. Forward Obafemi Martins, who was battling a groin injury, missed that match and would start only one of Seattle’s ensuing seven games. The Sounders won just one of those as their season imploded. It then ended in Portland with a 5-3 aggregate loss to the Timbers in the Western Conference semifinals.
Martins entered the decider as a second-half substitute, after which Seattle struck twice to make the score a bit more respectable. Martins, 30, was healthy this season and played a far more active role during the stretch run. After helping the Sounders lift the U.S. Open Cup for the fourth time in six years, Martins tallied four goals and four assists in the final five matches of the regular season.
In the home-and-home series with the L.A. Galaxy that determined the 2014 Supporters Shield title, Martins set up three of triumphant Seattle’s four goals. Somewhere in that year-to-year discrepancy lies the definition of value, and it illustrates why Martins, now in his second MLS season, has such a strong claim on the league’s MVP trophy.
There were other factors in play for this year’s Shield winner, certainly, but Martins health and consistency was paramount.
“Having an offseason -- which he needed – and having a proper preseason, I think he’s been able to really sustain what he brings to our team. On the field, his physical abilities to do the things he’s capable of doing were enhanced so much,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid told SI.com.
“I think he’s definitely worthy of the [MVP] award. He’s had a great season. He’s been very influential for our team. The amount of time Clint [Dempsey] missed at the World Cup, Oba was the guy who had to carry our team in that period of time.”
Martins had fewer goals (17, a club record) and assists (13) than fellow MVP finalist Robbie Keane (19 and 14), who arguably is the favorite to claim the award in a three-way race that also includes New England Revolution midfielder Lee Nguyen. But the Nigerian’s influence on the league’s top team proved greater than the sum of those stats.
Martins and Keane each had a goal or an assist in 19 games (Nguyen struck in 17). But L.A. remained a winning team when Keane didn’t start (3-2-1), while Seattle fell below .500 without Martins in the first 11 (2-3-0). When Keane started without Landon Donovan, the Galaxy went 2-1-1 (1.75 points per game). When Martins started without Dempsey, Seattle was 5-1-2 (2.13 points per game).
New England’s 8-1-1 regular season record with Jermaine Jones – the Revs were 9-12-3 without him – could cloud Nguyen’s case. Martins went consecutive starts without a goal or assist only once, during a three-game slump over the summer, and his impact was felt across the squad.
When he scored, Seattle was 12-0-0. He had seven game-winning goals or assists (Seattle won 20 matches) and he assisted on six of Dempsey’s 15 markers. Martins’ movement and ability to carve open opposition defenses on the dribble created ample space for his teammates. Lamar Neagle (nine and nine) had his finest pro season and forward Chad Barrett’s seven goals tied a career high.
There’s also the eye test, which Martins passes with flying colors. There may be no player in MLS as dynamic or dangerous with the ball at his feet than the former Inter Milan and Newcastle United attacker. He’s especially deadly in tight spaces, where it can by impossible to pry the ball away.
His goal in Seattle’s August win at Portland, where he executed a quick give-and-go with Gonzalo Pineda and dribbled through four Timbers defenders, was testament to his game-changing prowess.
“A lot of people don’t realize how hard he works, how much he battles off the ball. He’s one of those guys you knock balls up to and he’s scraping out of things and putting together the touches and in tight situations, you wonder how he’s going to do it and all of a sudden he’s through,” Schmid said. “His dribbling is so sharp and so good in tight quarters that all of a sudden he’ll draw two or three defenders then be able to skip that ball … That’s an ability that’s a little unique to him."
Schmid also emphasized that Martins has been “really good in the locker room.” It was a room that needed to forge stronger bonds after last season’s calamitous finish. MVPs not only have the skill to pull off plays like that one in Portland, they do it in big games – ones against a heated rival or when a trophy is on the line. They exert a positive influence over their teammates and prove to be critical to their club’s success. They put up gaudy numbers. They win.
Martins has checked those boxes in 2014.