The oddity of the 2020 MLS season detracts from the awards and trophies given out each year, as this website has argued. Long interruptions, an unbalanced schedule, and logistical circumstances that deeply compromise the competitive integrity of the matches have made it impossible to see champions or MVPs the way we do it every year. While a strong case can be made about a player like Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo, his 8 goals and 10 assists are not that far from those of Darwin Quintero (7 goals and 10 assists), who is going to watch the playoffs on TV with the rest of the Houston Dynamo. Let’s be honest, it’s impossible to judge a season reduced to 23 games (or 18 games in some cases) and with almost zero interconference play.
But there is one award where I see a notable exception, where a full season is not necessary to see players achieve the award’s requirements. That would be the Comeback Player of the Year award, which is usually given to players that overcome injuries or other career setbacks. If a player recently stared down a potential end to his career, it doesn’t require more than 23 games for his resurgence to be clear.
Leading to the final week of the “regular” season, it seems that everything is set for familiar face to capture this year’s award, New York’s all-time leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips. After a brutal 2019 season where a mixture of injuries and staff priorities saw the now-35-year-old lose his starting role, a free transfer to Los Angeles FC has been a huge success with 8 goals and 6 assists so far this year. The English striker proved MLS circles that he still has some miles left on his legs, and his contribution to LAFC in the absence of Carlos Vela helps make for a storyline too difficult to pass up.
However, my vote for the award goes to Red Bulls midfielder Florian Valot. The French midfielder came into the 2020 season after suffering back to back ACL injuries that caused him to miss almost the entire last two years. Valot was a massive success in his brief first team stint in early 2018 after a couple of years of play in USL with New York Red Bulls II. He provided versatility in multiple positions and facets of the game, compiling 3 goals and 6 assists in all competitions while serving in wing, central midfield, and even occasional fullback roles for the team that would eventually win the Supporters Shield that year. However his dream season was cut short in July after suffering an ACL tear in his left knee during a training session.
The Monaco academy product promisingly came back in 2019 and registered an assist in the first league match of the season. However, bad fortune struck again in the next game against San Jose Earthquakes when his right knee took the worst part of a hard tackle committed by midfielder Judson and he was back in the operating room after only 125 minutes of return action.
2020 came with questions about not only whether his knee would hold up again, but whether the now-27-year-old Valot still retained the skills he possessed over two years prior. But these questions evaporated quickly when Valot assisted Kyle Duncan and Kaku in the 3-2 win over FC Cincinnati in the home opener and he never looked back. Valot has played in every game in 2020, providing 2 goals and 3 assists although these numbers don’t tell the whole story. The midfielder became the team’s motor from a variety of positions again as well a key veteran leader that keeps everyone accountable. Before the game against NYCFC, Valot was tied for second on the team in interceptions (33), and was second in dribbles completed (31), successful passes (568) and recoveries (144). While it has not been a wildly successful season for the Red Bulls, the only other player in the squad with a case for being the team’s most valuable player this year would be attacking fullback Kyle Duncan.
In fact Valot’s case gets more compelling when one thinks about the difficult surroundings in New York compared to BWP’s green grass in Los Angeles. I don’t want to take anything away from my favorite MLS player all time, but Wright-Phillips landed in a well-built team and has benefitted from the service provided by Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez, probably the best set of wingers in the league. In the meantime, Valot helped keep afloat a ship that appeared to be sinking.
It’s likely that BWP’s relative star status and more quantifiable production will carry him to the award anyway, and he would certainly still be a deserving winner. But fans in New York and elsewhere should know the strong case that can be made for Flo.