Will they or won’t they? Analyzing the top contenders in the MLS Golden Boot race

Quick Hits
  • With Taty Castellanos and Adam Buksa gone, a slower Josef Martinez, and quieter years for Chicharito and Raul Ruidiaz, this year’s MLS Golden Boot race features a host of new faces
  • So who are the favorites to top the league in goals? Let’s look at why each contender will win the Golden Boot. And why they won’t
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This year’s MLS Golden Boot race features a host of new faces. 

Taty Castellanos and Adam Buksa are gone. Josef Martinez doesn’t look like the same player he used to be. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Raul Ruidiaz are having slower years. Ola Kamara is coming off the bench. So who are the favorites to top the league in goals? And which players have the most compelling argument for why they’ll take home the award at the end of the season? 

Let’s look at why each contender will win the Golden Boot. And why they won’t.

Sebastian Driussi, Austin FC

Goals: 14

Odds of winning the Golden Boot: +275

Why he will win: Well, Driussi is the top scorer on the highest-scoring team in the league. He averages the second most shots per 90 minutes for Austin with 2.4, trailing only Maxi Urruti’s 2.53. Driussi also takes the penalties for Austin FC, which could be an advantage during this last stretch of the season.

The midfielder’s five assists could come into play as well. Why? Because the first Golden Boot tiebreaker is assists, so not only does Driussi have a slight edge in goals now, but he also has the tiebreaker if someone catches him.

Why he won’t win: If you’re searching for a reason why Driussi won’t win the Golden Boot, look no further than a major talking point surrounding Austin’s entire season: xG over-performance. Driussi’s 14 goals have come on shots worth 9.3 expected goals. Per FBref, his 4.7 goals over xG is the highest in the league. Although he’s taking the second most shots on his team per game, Driussi’s shot totals rank quite low when compared across the league.

Could Driussi stay hot? Absolutely. But if you’re looking for a reason why the pack might catch up, there’s a plausible scenario where Driussi stops outpacing his xG by such a wide margin, and his relatively low number of shots per game keep him from getting enough chances.  

Hany Mukhtar, Nashville SC

Goals: 12

Odds: +350

Why he will: Mukhtar is Nashville’s go-to option in the attacking third and he’s been a massive part of their offense. Mukhtar’s 12 goals account for more than 40% of Nashville’s total. More than that, he’s taken 30% of the team’s shots and accounted for 44% of its efforts on target. He also leads MLS in xG, is third in the league in non-penalty xG, and his 4 shots per 90 rank fourth in MLS.

With Nashville holding on for a playoff spot out West, Mukhtar will have to keep up his pace to keep the team in the top seven spots. 

Why he won’t: Most of Nashville’s games are at home to close out the year, however, in a small sample size, Mukhtar has been worse at home in 2022, averaging 0.49 xG/90 as opposed to 0.65 xG/90 on the road. His role as the talisman of Nashville’s attack could be an issue as well.

Clearly, MLS teams have struggled to contain him to this point in the season, but as games become more important, shutting down Mukhtar will likely be a more vital part of opponents’ game plans. Whether teams actually can shut him down remains to be seen.

Brandon Vazquez, FC Cincinnati

Goals: 13 Goals

Odds: +550

Why he will: Vazquez is on meteoric rise from an afterthought toiling on the bench of a Wooden Spoon winner (Loser? Awardee?) to a legitimate MLS star and potential World Cup call-up. This season, Vazquez has shown he can score in a variety of ways in the box, leading the league in headed goals. He now leads current MLS players in non-penalty expected goals, too.

Playing ahead of an MVP candidate in Lucho Acosta, Vazquez will keep finding himself in scoring positions. And given some of the Orange and Blue’s defensive issues, he’ll need to keep scoring if Cincy are going to make their playoff debut.

Why he won’t: Vazquez’s pedigree might be the biggest question mark, because if we’re going by the numbers, he has a convincing case. While most of his competition is made up of Designated Players and highly regarded prospects, Vazquez’s circuitous route to MLS stardom leaves some room for doubters. He also hasn’t taken any penalties in 2022, shutting off a potential avenue for Golden Boot chances. Lastly, though they’ve played well together so far, Brenner’s return to FCC’s starting lineup in June could mean less of a reliance on Vazquez as the primary scoring option.

To be clear, that hasn’t happened yet – in fact, Vazquez is playing better since Brenner’s return. But playing with another in-form striker could ultimately lead to fewer shots.

Jesus Ferreira, FC Dallas

Goals: 12

Odds: +900

Why he will: Ferriera is one of the favorites to lead the attacking line for the U.S. men’s national team in November at the World Cup. He’s very much still in the Golden Boot conversation because of his start to the 2022 season, scoring nine goals over a 628-minute stretch. If Ferreira can recapture that goal-scoring form, he has a chance to take the Golden Boot.  

Why he won’t: After his 628-minute goal-scoring spree, he’s scored just three times in more than a thousand minutes. Ferreira is still having an excellent season and he does things that will help the USMNT in Qatar. His 13.3 non-penalty xG plus xA ranks third among current MLS players, but Ferreira’s lack of scoring form doesn’t bode well for his Golden Boot hopes.

Taxi Fountas, DC United

Goals: 11

Odds: +900

Why he will: All he’s done in MLS is score goals. Fountas has racked up 11 goals in 14 games and his 0.64 xG per 90 is the highest among current players. If Fountas can add a few assists in the remaining matches and keep up his scoring record, he’ll be in a strong position because the second tiebreaker for Golden Boot is the fewest minutes played.

If there really is a new manager bounce for D.C. United and Wayne Rooney, Fountas might be able to sneak into contention by the end of the season.

Why he won’t: DC United has been, uh, pretty bad this season and almost certainly won’t have much to play for down the stretch. Will Fountas keep playing the minutes he needs to have a chance at the Golden Boot? Add in the multi-goal deficit he’s already dealing with and the fact that his season started last July in Austria (though he had a two-month break before joining D.C. United) and Fountas might need a break towards the end of the year.

Jeremy Ebobisse, San Jose Earthquakes

Goals: 12 

Odds: +900

Why he will: Ebobisse, when finally given a chance to play as a striker, has proven to be an efficient goalscorer. His 0.53 xG per 90 is in the top 10 in MLS. He’s scored three goals in San Jose’s last six games and put up 4.1 xG. If Ebobisse can continue to get into good positions, he can keep himself in the race for top scorer. 

Why he won’t: Similarly to Fountas’ situation, it looks like the season is pretty much over for San Jose. Ebobisse hasn’t been the most consistent striker either, scoring braces in four matches this year and coming up empty in 14 other games. Even if he doesn’t make a push from here until the end of the season, there should be more to come from Ebobisse next year when the Quakes have some additional stability. 

Daniel Gazdag, Philadelphia Union

Goals: 11

Odds: +2200

Why he will: Gazdag is the top scorer on a Philadelphia team that is absolutely rolling right now. The Union have won five straight league games and outscored their opponents 18-1 during that stretch. Gazdag isn’t taking a ton of shots, just 1.64 per 90 minutes, but when he does shoot, he’s in dangerous positions: Gazdag leads MLS in shot quality, with 0.23 non-penalty xG per shot. Playing in an attacking system firing on all cylinders is a recipe for more goals. 

Why he won’t: As mentioned above, Gazdag isn’t called upon to take a lot of shots in Jim Curtin’s system. Factor in the Union’s midfield depth in the form of Paxten Aaronson and Jack McGlynn and some potential rest to prepare for the playoffs and Gazdag could see fewer minutes towards the end of the season.