Records are fun. Recognizable numbers like 56 (game hitting streak - baseball), 100 (points in a game - basketball), 2,000 (rushing yards - football), 61 70 73 (home runs - baseball) give everyone something to root for and an easy way to track the greatest games or seasons of all time.
For a long time, MLS had 27. In the inaugural 1996 season, Roy Lassiter scored 27 goals, and no one was able to match it for a decade and a half. But then a man named Wondo hit the figure in 2012, Bradley Wright-Phillips did it again in 2014, and a seemingly very angry young man named Josef Martinez obliterated the mark with 31 goals last season.
So if we’re going with the one recognizable number like 56 or 100 or 73, Josef is the owner of the most impressive season in all of MLS history...for at least a couple more months, depending on whether or not anybody can stop Carlos Vela’s finishing kick.
But there are more stats than just goals! What if we add some context and think about some other ways to measure best seasons in MLS history? After all, plenty of literature on this site has shown that goals are hardly the be-all end-all of determining who’s best. Let’s widen the scope from just 27 and 31 to see what other historic accomplishments in MLS have long been discounted or under-publicized. We’ll do this in the format of a conversation with ourselves, mainly because I can’t think of another simple and straight-forward way to organize this column. And we can re-visit next year when the answer to half of these will include, if not start with, “2019 Carlos Vela.”
Quick housekeeping notes: to qualify for the list this column is based on, a season had to meet one of the following criteria: 20+ goals, 15+ assists*, 10+ goals and 10+ assists, 100+ shots, or the league leader in any one of those categories during a given season. As far as I can tell, the old-school shootout goals from the first few years of the league are not included in MLS’ record keeping, but I’ll admit I’m not entirely certain about that.
*Using MLS’ official record book here, so secondary assists are counted. Sorry, it wasn’t up to me.
Alright, so Josef scored the most goals in a season last year. What if I’m interested in efficiency - who scored the most goals per minute played in a season?
Josef Martinez. But not last year! In an injury-shortened 2017 season, Josef actually had a higher goals:minutes ratio, averaging 1.12 per 90 minutes played. Last season he was at a paltry 0.96 when he set the total record with 31.
A couple others to note: two more guys eclipsed a goal per 90 minutes - Stern John (more about him later) and some guy named Wolde Harris in 1998 - though he only played 1,133 minutes.
Okay so Josef is good, this has been established. Wasn’t there some stuff about him scoring lots of penalties last year?
Yeah. 8 of his 31 goals were penalties, which is the most of any of the seasons I gathered. Still, 23 non-penalty goals is hardly something to sneeze at.
Sure, but is it THE MOST?!
No! If we want to look at who scored the most non-penalty goals in a single season, the mystical number isn’t 31, or 27 for that matter. Instead, it’s 25. This was hit in Stern John’s magical 1998 season for the Crew, as well as Mamadou Diallo’s 2000 campaign with the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Both of those guys only added one penalty though, so their season totals of 26 have been sadly overlooked for many years.
Wow, who knew? Alright, enough with scoring goals, I’m more of a facilitator anyway. Who has the assists record for a season?
This isn’t even close. Carlos Valderrama had 26 in 2000 (conceivably with lots of them to Mamadou Diallo), and only one other guy has broken 20 (Sacha Kljestan in 2016).
That’s quite the season, but Valderrama almost never scored, right? How about a combination of goals and assists, who stands out there?
Correct, El Pibe had one goal in that season, a penalty. If you want the most goals + assists, your king is our dearly departed mighty mite Sebastian Giovinco - he had 22 goals and 16 assists in 2015. Before you ask me to strip out the three penalties he scored, it doesn’t impact the bottom line - his season still comes out on top in non-penalty goals + assists with 35 total. For the record, Seba also took an MLS record 181 shots that season.
That seems like a lot of shots. Is that a lot of shots?
That is a lot of shots. The three highest shot volume seasons in MLS history are: 2015 Sebastian Giovinco (181), 2016 Sebastian Giovinco (177), and 2018 Sebastian Giovinco (167). A weird fact is that of 53 100+ shot seasons in MLS history, only 17 of them happened before 2012 (32%). So I guess somebody in the last handful of years figured out that shooting more is good. #analytics
Okay okay, but remember I think volume is overrated and I like production on a per minute basis. Who had the most goals + assists per 90?
That standard was set by Diego Serna of the 2001 Miami Fusion. 15 goals and 15 assists in just under 2,000 minutes for a total of 1.37 G+A per 90. Not even padded by a single penalty. Cobi Jones also had quite the 1998 with 1.35 G+A per 90 (19 goals, 13 assists).
Wow, those are some truly fun and ultimately useless factoids. What other weird or interesting things did you learn from this dataset?
I thought you’d never ask. In bullet point form, to keep this history lesson from rambling on for too much longer:
The league definitely had something of an offensive lull in the early 2000s through about 2013. Here’s a quick chart showing the number of guys’ seasons who qualified for my list by year - started strong and has bounced back in recent years, but yuck to that middle section:
Yes, 2018 stands out on that chart. We should be happier that the soccer we watch contains good attacking players scoring many goals.
Jaime Moreno was really good. He had six seasons that met my criteria, first a threepeat from 1997-1999, then came back and did it in 2004, 2006 and 2008. The man had four seasons of 10+ goals and 10+ assists.
The next most accomplished guys are Carlos Valderrama, Preki, and Diego Valeri, with five such seasons that made my list. Valeri is looking likely to add #6 this year - the numbers say he’s also good at soccering.
I ignored playoff stats for the list-making criteria, but a few guys really stepped it up in the postseason. In 2002 Carlos Ruiz had a helluva year with 24 regular season goals (3 pens), and followed it up with 8 more in the playoffs. If we’re gonna add up regular season and playoff goal totals, here are your historical leaders:
With penalties, four guys broke the 30 barrier:
2018 Josef Martinez: 35
1996 Roy Lassiter: 33
2002 Carlos Ruiz: 32
2014 Bradley Wright-Phillips: 31
Without penalties, just one:
1996 Roy Lassiter: 30
2002 Carlos Ruiz: 28
1998 Stern John: 28
One last oddity - I’ll freely admit I wasn’t following MLS very closely in the late ‘90s/early 2000s. But there are some names on here that I have never even heard of, and some truly sad seasons where even the league leaders were not particularly impressive:
In 2006, someone named Terry Cooke led MLS in assists with 12 for the Colorado Rapids (honestly, he sounds like he would’ve been a good fit for an Anthony Hudson team). He didn’t score once and didn’t even hit 2,000 minutes played.
The 2004 Golden Boot was a tie between Brian Ching and Eddie Johnson with….12 goals. Woof.
In 2005, Chris Klein led the league with 84 shots. That’s like a decent road trip for Giovinco - or a standard trip to Epcot for Dom Dwyer and Alex Morgan.
Praise be to guys like Taylor Twellman, Carlos Ruiz and Jeff Cunningham for getting us through some of those lean years in the 2002-2008 range.
Who in the world is Martin Machon? John Wilmar Perez? Gustavo Garcia? Junior Agogo? Lawrence Lozzano? I only made up one of those names - I promise the rest actually qualified for this list.
There’s a solid list of semi-anonymous one hit wonders to make this list in recent seasons, too: Cristian Maidana (15 assists in 2015), Deshorn Brown (121 shots in 2014), Octavio Rivero (101 shots in 2015).
So wait, wasn’t the whole point of this to remember one number that represents the best of the best?
I guess that was sort of how I started. But really, there have been lots of impressive seasons in MLS history! Sure, give Josef Martinez a ton of credit for his 31 goal season, or the one where he averaged even more goals per 90. But don’t forget that Stern John and Mamadou Diallo once racked up 25 non-penalty goals, that Sebastian Giovinco sought shots like Kobe Bryant on his farewell tour, or that Carlos Valderrama is the assist king. And then feel free to ignore all of these great seasons in 2020 when Carlos Vela has overwritten all of them.