San Antonio FC's Mitchell Taintor is having the best season of his career so far, and it could be enough to propel him into conversation for the Championship's MVP award. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
What do you think of when you think about the profile of a league’s Most Valuable Player?
In soccer, it’s usually the players at the attacking end of the field, who score the goals or provide the assists that lead their teams to success.
You only need to look at the USL Championship’s history to see the pattern. Last season, Hadji Barry’s 25-goal campaign for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC claimed the award, and before that Solomon Asante won consecutive honors after recording a combined 28 goals and 26 assists across 46 appearances. In 2018, it wasn’t the leading scorer that claimed the award in Cameron Lancaster for Louisville City FC, but instead FC Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Ledesma, who notched 16 goals and 16 assists in a groundbreaking season.
The message is the numbers are hard to outrun.
San Antonio FC Head Coach Alen Marcina, however, believes it would be good to look deeper than just the numbers, because in center back Mitchell Taintor he believes his side has a player worthy of MVP status.
“I played as a striker, so it’s very easy to get drawn to the striker who scores the most goals in the season and sometimes that is earned and deserved,” said Marcina this week. “Hadji Barry last year, just my opinion, was the league MVP, hands down, and he happened to be the top goalscorer in the league as well. But not always is it that the top goalscorer has the same level of impact as a player in a different position.
“From the technical and tactical performance standpoint, Mitchell has been dominant. From a set piece standpoint, dominant. From the mental facet, dominant. From a leadership facet, dominant. To me holistically, for all those reasons, is why I believe Mitchell Taintor is the MVP thus far.”
San Antonio FC's Mitchell Taintor has recorded four goals and one assist this season, proving a key element at set piece opportunities for his side. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
As it stands, Taintor is without doubt a frontrunner for the Championship’s Defender of the Year award and All-League First Team. Nominated by USL on ESPN announcers Mike Watts and Devon Kerr as their mid-season selection – when Kerr also stumped for Taintor as an MVP candidate – the 27-year-old is having by his own estimation the best season of his career.
The reason? Some of it can be attributed to the changes in offseason routine Taintor employed – “I wanted to bet on myself and believe in myself,” he said – but he also points toward the influence of Marcina and the culture San Antonio has built over the past three seasons.
“For me, Alen Marcina has been a godsend,” said Taintor. “He is the reason why I’m playing as well as I have. Every year that I’ve been in San Antonio has been better and better, the best years of my career, and he’s fully believed in my potential, my ability as a player.
“He's brought the best out of me, and so have my teammates. I think a lot of other guys deserve a lot of recognition as well because it takes more than one person to have the season that we're having, and it takes more than one person to have a good year. It’s about the people to the right to the left and behind me who are all having fantastic years as well.”
Signing with San Antonio for a second time – having previously played for the side in the abbreviated 2020 season – after a loan brought him back to the Alamo City from Sacramento Republic FC last year, the Connecticut native has been the centerpiece to a defensive trio that has helped the Western Conference leader sit tied for the fewest goals conceded (15) and most shutouts (11) through the first 21 games of the season.
Individually, Taintor has four goals, one assist and 12 chances created and sits tied for third in the league with 47 interceptions. He’s won 62.6 percent of duels and 64 percent of aerial duels, and his +5.19 Goals Added mark is the highest among all center backs according to American Soccer Analysis, 23rd overall in the league.
He’s accomplished that playing in one of the most unique tactical set-ups in the Championship, where his ability to control space and one-on-one matchups has been paramount as San Antonio looks to put opponents under high pressure to tilt games in their favor.
“There are definitely moments where you feel like an island by yourself, but that’s part of the way we play,” said Taintor. “We want to be the aggressors without the ball, and in order to do that it goes back to our mentality. Everyone is hard-nosed, working hard every day, no excuses, and we find ourselves in situations, good or bad, and we have to find a way through it and figure out ways to make it work.
“I think that’s one of our strengths, adapting to the way teams have played against us the way we’ve played against certain teams. It’s definitely taxing. Physically taxing, for sure, with the amount of running we do, mentally taxing with how teams are trying to break us down, but that's part of the game.”
San Antonio FC's Connor Maloney, PC and Mitchell Taintor have been key pieces to the collective success SAFC has achieved two-thirds of the way through the regular season this year. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
That mentality is central to San Antonio’s success this season. For Taintor, the disappointment of falling in last year’s Western Conference Final to Orange County SC didn’t come from the fact it came in a penalty shootout, but that there were moments both in the game the side might have capitalized on better, and in the regular season that could have given San Antonio the edge in the overall standings and the chance to host at Toyota Field.
Those lessons feel evident in the drive San Antonio has shown throughout this campaign. Last weekend it equaled the Championship record for the fewest games to reach 50 points after a drama-filled draw with the LA Galaxy II, and SAFC has claimed 10 road victories in 12 games, putting it in with a chance to surpass the league record for most away wins in a regular season of 13 set by the New York Red Bulls II side that featured Tyler Adams and Aaron Long in 2016.
As of now, the road to the USL Championship Final looks set to go through Toyota Field, with Taintor admitting that anything but a title at the end of the season would feel like a disappointment. That’s even with the understanding that the team with the best record at the end of the regular season doesn’t always go on to win it all, with that same Red Bulls II side the last to win the Championship title after finishing with the best regular season record.
“It’s about finding ways to win,” said Taintor. “Great championship teams all over the world, they find ways to win. If it’s going their way, then it’s great but I think the real test of a team is when you are facing adversity and you’re still finding ways to grind out points and continue chipping away at the quest to the top.”
Should San Antonio end the campaign with the best record in the league, then the MVP conversation could start in earnest. As – according to the numbers so far – the best player on the best team in the league in the regular season, could the voters select a center back as MVP?
For Marcina, there’s no debate.
“He provides a complete package,” said Marcina. “That’s what I would look for in an MVP. Who's providing the complete package. Mitchell Taintor, for me, does.”