Handicapping The Race For The MLS Golden Boot

For most of the 2019 season, the MLS Golden Boot has seemed like a forgone conclusion. Los Angeles FC superstar Carlos Vela burst out of the gate with eight goals from the first seven games and has essentially kept that form throughout the year. Vela leads the circuit with 28 goals, just four short of setting a new MLS season record after Atlanta United's Josef Martinez set the record with 31 last year.

While Vela hasn't stopped scoring, though, it's now no longer safe to assume that he'll capture the crown as the league's top scorer. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is just two goals behind Vela, while Martinez himself has scored in 15 consecutive league games, setting a record, while moving within two goals of Vela. 

There's plenty to play for over the final couple of weeks in MLS, but who wins the Golden Boot might add just a bit more intrigue. Below, we'll break down the chances that each player has to win the award, but what might also prevent them from capturing individual glory. 

Carlos Vela | 28 Goals, 4 Remaining Games

What Vela has done in 2019 is essentially put together one of the greatest ever individual seasons in MLS history. A long time has passed since Vela bested Sebastian Giovinco's record of combined goals and assists for a season. At one point, it looked like Vela might even set a new record for most assists in a season, though that won't happen now despite a healthy 15 helpers in 2019. 

LAFC have a chance at setting a couple of team records as well, for most points in a season and the best goal differential for a team in a season. There are three homes games left for Vela this year, with his side hosting Toronto FC, Houston Dynamo, and the Colorado Rapids, with a trip to Minnesota United sandwiched in the schedule. 

The biggest thing that might prevent Vela from winning the Golden Boot — and beating Martinez's scoring record — might be the fact that there's not much left for LAFC to play for. Sure, they could set the points record and ensure they capture the Supporters Shield as well. But they already have the top spot in the Western Conference sewn up, so Bob Bradley might consider giving his star player some time off over the final four games.

Of course, when Vela was removed from the game against the LA Galaxy last month with an injury concern, the Mexican was unhappy about coming out of the game. He went on to miss the next two games before returning last weekend, and, of course, scoring against the Philadelphia Union.

Vela's still the favorite for the Golden Boot, but don't be surprised if he gets passed up right at the end of the season, as the other two players will play in more meaningful games down the stretch.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic | 26 Goals, 4 Remaining Games

The race for the Golden Boot is as close as it is right now because of Zlatan's recent scintillating form. The Swedish striker has scored an astonishing 10 goals in his previous six games, including a hat trick in Sunday's 7-2 win over Sporting Kansas City. The Galaxy haven't exactly turned those goals into points, though, having picked up just eight points of the available 18 in that stretch,

That's left the Galaxy right in the midst of a tight playoff race. Currently, they sit fifth in the West but are just two points ahead of eighth-place FC Dallas. That means that games against the Montreal Impact, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Houston Dynamo are of the utmost importance for LA. That should bring out the best in Zlatan, one would hope — although in last year's season finale, the striker came up missing as the Dynamo eliminated the Galaxy from making the playoffs in LA.

Whether or not LA get back to the playoffs, Zlatan might be as big of a favorite as Vela to either win the Golden Boot, break Martinez's record, or both. A two-goal deficit could be overcome in a blink of an eye at the rate that Ibra is scoring goals at the moment. 

LAFC and LAG have produced some ridiculously dramatic game since Bradley's side entered the league last year. Though they won't face off again in the regular season, Vela and Ibra chasing Martinez's record could produce just as many highlights between now and October 6.

Josef Martinez | 26 Goals, 4 Remaining Games

Don't forget about the Venezuelan, though. After a slow start to the season, one that mirrored the team's struggles out of the gate under Frank De Boer, all Martinez has done recently is obliterate the league record by scoring in 15 consecutive games. That puts the striker within touching distance of Vela and Ibrahimovic, though Martinez likely won't be able to reach the same 31 goals that he produced last year. 

The last time Martinez didn't score in an MLS game that he played in, Atlanta United lost 1-0 at the New York Red Bulls on May 19. Martinez did miss three league games while he was participating at the Copa America with Venezuela, but has otherwise scored 21 goals in his last 15 league games. Over 35 games, that scoring average would equal an incredible 48 goals. 

One advantage that Martinez has over his competitors is the fact that he gets to play an extra game. That started with a trip to FC Cincinnati last night, a team about to set the record for the most goals conceded in one season. Martinez, of course, bagged a brace and boosted his chances even more. Then there are trips to NYCFC and the Impact, bookended by home games against the San Jose Earthquakes and the New England Revolution.

Though Atlanta have already qualified for the playoffs, they will still have their eyes on one of the top two spots in the Eastern Conference. Currently sitting in third, that should mean that Martinez is given every opportunity to start the next four games. If he can continue his streak and score in every game, then he might just catch his competitors — or even match last year's haul. 

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