Are David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco the most dynamic duo in MLS history?
The vote for the top spot in ESPN FC's #MLSRank couldn't have been any closer.
Eighteen MLS writers and pundits filled out ballots, with 30 points going to the first-place selection, 29 for second place, and so on down the line with the 30th selection getting one point. The final tally? David Villa edged out Sebastian Giovinco 512-511.
The closeness of the vote is fitting given that the two players have become increasingly intertwined in the past two years. Without question, their stats are eye-popping. Giovinco has the better balance between goals and assists with 52 tallies and 39 helpers including the playoffs. Villa has 55 and 19 by comparison.
They each have won the league's MVP award, though the fact that Giovinco wasn't even in the top three last year remains an injustice. They even squared off in the playoffs last year, with Toronto running away from New York City FC 7-0 on aggregate.
This season, Giovinco's numbers are down slightly due to the fact that he's missed five games, but he's still managed 11 goals and five assists. Villa meanwhile has shown no signs of slowing down from his MVP form of a year ago, having racked up 14 goals and seven assists.
This isn't to imply that the two have been leading their teams on their own. This season the likes of Michael Bradley, Victor Vasquez and Jozy Altidore have provided ample support to the Atomic Ant. Alex Ring and Jack Harrison have aided and abetted Villa in New York. But Giovinco and Villa remain the players that make their teams go, capable of taking over a game on their own. As such, they are worth every bit of the praise that has come their way.
The stratospheric performance levels of both players lead to an intriguing thought. Every league has its virtuoso performers, but has MLS ever witnessed a period when two players were this dynamic, this influential and this far above the rest of the league?
MLS has seen its share of maestros vying for league supremacy over the course of its history. You had D.C. United's Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno duking it out with the LA Galaxy's Cobi Jones in the league's first years. That gave way to Landon Donovan, then of the San Jose Earthquakes, vying against the Galaxy's Carlos Ruiz in the early 2000s. Dwayne De Rosario of San Jose/Houston Dynamo teams contested MLS Cups against the Taylor Twellman-led New England teams in the mid-2000s.
But set the Wayback Machine to 2014 and that's where you'll see the most competition for the Giovinco/Villa duo. This was a time when the league's power center resided on the West Coast with the LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders.
Down south, Robbie Keane was at the peak of his MLS powers, winning an MVP award and leading the Galaxy to their third MLS Cup in four years. Seattle won that year's Supporters' Shield thanks to the exploits of Obafemi Martins. Donovan and Clint Dempsey delivered exceptional seasons that year as well, with both players hitting double figures in goals and assists, yet it was Keane and Martins who led their respective teams. Combined with the 2015 campaign, Keane delivered 39 goals and 22 assist, while Martins found the net 32 times and assisted on 19 others.
Yet throughout the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Villa and Giovinco have bettered those marks with the NYCFC forward totaling 41 goals and 12 assists and the Italian going 39 and 31. Having kept that form going into 2017, both seem capable of adding some longevity to their spells of success.
If there is one area where Keane and Martins have an advantage, it's that their respective teams won trophies during this time. Neither Villa nor Giovinco have yet to claim either a Supporters' Shield or an MLS Cup.
There is still time to make that right, of course. Both teams are in the hunt for the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup, though the Chicago Fire -- who have a couple of dynamic attacking players in their own right in David Accam and Nemanja Nikolic -- will have something to say about that. If Toronto and NYCFC can start winning titles, then the Giovinco/Villa duopoly that already has edged in front will stand well above the rest. MLS fans should take the time to enjoy what both players can do while they can.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.