Ranking the five leading candidates for 2023 MLS MVP so far

Now with a big enough sample size, it’s time to assess potential candidates in the MLS MVP race 2023. These are the elite-level players who have (or will) changed the game in Major League Soccer. Hany Mukhtar stormed to the accolade last year, could he do it again?

MLS MVP race 2023

5. Lionel Messi – Inter Miami CF

Ok, starting our MLS MVP candidates is potentially the gaudiest of suggestions. Lionel Messi is yet to kick a ball for Inter Miami but let’s face it, in just half a season at this level, he could still tear apart opposition defenses.

As long as he doesn’t take an extended holiday or adapt too well to the Miami nightlife, he should be able to score a multitude of goals to give him a late surge for the MVP award.

4. Cristian Espinoza – San Jose Earthquakes

One player already in the MLS MVP race 2023 is Cristian Espinoza. The Argentinian might have been on the books at San Jose Earthquakes since 2019 but seldom made a difference like he has this year. After all, Luchi-ball has completely changed the fortunes of the franchise.

Espinoza has personally benefitted from the wide play (usually going down Espinoza’s right side) as he’s been able to cut through opposition defenses, as well as being rather nifty from direct free-kick opportunities. So far he’s scored eight goals and set up another for his teammates as the Earthquakes have rapidly improved their stature compared to last season.

Add in that he’s made 49 key passes (as of June 2023), the most in MLS, and he’s easily one of the most creative players. Can he keep it up and earn the MVP accolade?

3. Thiago Almada – Atlanta United

Another Argentinian? Yep. As a nation, they’re certainly taking the headlines in Major League Soccer this year. The MLS MVP race 2023 wouldn’t be complete without Thiago Almada. The World Cup winner returned to Atlanta United in exceptional form for the season notching  seven goals and eight assists, making him one of the most overall productive players in the division.

His partnership with former Celtic man Georgios Giakoumakis has been nothing short of sensational as the pair have set the division alight with Almada doing the hard work by setting up his partner on the majority of plays.

The only thing that could stop him from the MVP award would be if he decides to leave the league. There’s more than just the one rumor linking him away from the US as AC Milan, Napoli, and even Newcastle United have been touted as interested parties.

2. Lucas Zelarayan – Columbus Crew

The MLS MVP race 2023 simply has to feature Lucas Zelarayan. The Armenian international can execute almost all distribution tasks with a football. Whether it’s a short, medium, or path-changing long pass, Zelarayan has the range to do it well. But he’s also great on the ball as he seldom gives up possession. Evidently, one of the best MLS players in 2023, having claimed multiple man-of-the-match awards.

Eight goals and seven assists so far in Major League Soccer make for pleasant reading as his contributions have put the Columbus Crew at the top end of the Eastern Conference standings. Add in his successful key passes even when a goal doesn’t materialize, and he’s paramount to the franchise doing well. If he keeps it up, he could easily take the MVP award for the year.

1. Hany Mukhtar – Nashville SC

Last year’s winner. Hany Mukhtar might have started slow this year but is now truly involved in the MLS MVP race 2023, potentially as the front-runner. The German forward is a complete attacking player. While technically listed as a midfielder, no coach is leaving him out of the front line.

13 goals in the season already are complemented with seven assists, validating his skills not only to bustle the net but also to be the architect in Nashville attacks. His hat trick against St. Louis City thumped the new franchise back in its place as the GEODIS Park faithful were treated to a 3-1 win.

The 2022 MVP won’t scoff at the chance to win the prestigious award again but would also like to challenge for the MLS Cup. Nashville is currently in third in the Eastern Conference, well on course to qualify for the postseason. Mukhtar will surely be in the end-of-season award ceremony conversation and depending on how far Nashville goes, could end up with a glut of silverware to show for 2023.

Honourable mentions

There are, of course, some players that could still sweep their way to the MVP award. It’s always hard for non-attacking players to catch the eye for an overall ‘best player’ style plaudit due to their role on the pitch. In theory, Seattle Sounders’ Sebastian Frei could be in contention having recorded 10 clean sheets already. With another 10, he could be up there. By the same merit, his defensive teammate, Yeimar, could be considered to have made a lot of key interceptions for Seattle.

Carles Gil has been instrumental in the best parts for New England which could see him end up being part of the MVP conjecture. While Denis Bouanga has scored a lot of goals for LAFC, his game isn’t as complete as the other players ranked 1-5 on our list. Although, if he ends up topping the goal tally, he could sneak the award.

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