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The Unique Challenge of MLS MVP Race in the Age of Messi: Balancing Fame and Recognition



As another Saturday night of Major League Soccer action drew to a close with an enthralling match out west between LAFC and the New York Red Bulls, Apple TV broadcasters Max Bretos and Mariano Trujillo speculated on who was currently the frontrunner to win the league’s MVP award.

The two agreed: For now, it was Cristian Arango’s to lose.

Earlier Saturday, Arango had scored his MLS-leading seventh and eighth goals of the season for Real Salt Lake in a 4-0 victory at the Chicago Fire. That left the Colombian as the only player above Lionel Messi in the MLS Golden Boot chase for the time being. And at least until the LA Galaxy’s game on Sunday, it placed his team where few expected when the season began: in second place in the Western Conference standings.

And the sentiment expressed by Bretos and Trujillo has been echoed elsewhere by experienced followers of the league who have a good feel for what an MLS MVP season typically looks like.

Only there’s zero chance this will be a typical MLS MVP race.

If Arango or anyone else other than Messi — who only recently as the World’s best player in 2023 — is going to take the league’s honor, it is going to have to do so while fighting a wholly unique and uphill campaign. Because independent coverage of the league is as scarce as it has ever been, while MLS-produced content is at its most-widespread in league history. And the latter category is understandably devoted to making Messi as big an MLS success as possible.

And of course Messi is also deserving of MVP buzz on merit. With seven goals and six assists through only six MLS appearances, he is on a pace of production well above even what Carlos Vela produced during a 2019 campaign that is widely regarded as. And even accounting for Messi’s expected absences for the Copa America and other national team commitments, a 20-goal, 20-assist season seems plenty attainable and is the kind of production that would make winning the honor a virtual formality.

Even so, it’s pretty weird when you start considering how much of the content consumed by those who decide league awards is authored by the league, and when you take inventory of how much of that content is focused on amplifying Messi’s presence in MLS.

For example, on early Sunday morning East Coast time, the MLS’ official website ( featured a centerpiece story on Messi continuing to score and assist goals at an unprecedented pace. Scroll down just a bit, and it also featured an entire section of content devoted to the star, with links to highlights of his three best performances in the league so far (prior to Saturday).

To the right of Messi’s centerpiece story, there’s a much smaller thumbnail on Arrango and his MVP candidacy. That’s his only mention.

The balance is only slightly more even on , which includes a “Best of Chicho Arango” category showing some of the Colombian’s top recent contributions. Of course, that section is directly beneath the section labeled “All Eyes on Messi (en Espanol) section” which is in turn beneath a section featuring links to several of the key moments in Messi and Miami’s 3-1 win over Nashville on Saturday.

None of this is nefarious or even poor judgment. If MLS wasn’t doing everything humanly possible and reasonable to feature content about Messi — — it would be neglecting its core duty. It’s just an unfortunate that a side effect is stacking the deck against a lot of other great MLS players who might deserve more attention.

Maybe that’s worth the sacrifice for what Messi can bring to the league in the remaining portion of his two-and-a-half year MLS stay. We won’t know if that’s the case for years though, or maybe decades.

In the interim, it’s worth remembering that while the hope is for Messi’s rising tide to life all boats, there are a lot of players out there for whom it won’t be true in the short term. And it might actually be worst for those having the best seasons, the once-in-a-career kind that Arango just might be constructing.

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Rachel Adams

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