Best XI: Who were the stars of Round One, Game 1?


The first chapter of every Round One Best-of-3 series is in the books.

Before Game 2s begin this weekend, let's highlight players who stepped up and charted a positive course in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs.

We've organized a Best XI (3-4-3 style), just like our Team of the Matchday presented by Audi series during the regular season. The full group is outlined below:

  • F: Dénis Bouanga (LAFC), Cucho Hernández (CLB), Alan Pulido (SKC)
  • M: Héctor Herrera (HOU), Luciano Acosta (CIN), Gadi Kinda (SKC), Wilder Cartagena (ORL)
  • D: Álvaro Barreal (CIN), Nouhou (SEA), Ryan Hollingshead (LAFC)
  • GK: Andre Blake (PHI)

Some honorable mentions: Pedro Gallese (ORL), João Paulo (SEA) and Dániel Gazdag (PHI).

Bouanga, the 2023 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner, tallied 20g/7a during the regular season. And he isn't cooling down anytime soon.

With a brace in LAFC's 5-2 win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the Gabon international has 8g/1a in the defending champs' last four games. Before Bouanga's man-of-the-match performance, Black & Gold co-president and general manager John Thorrington formally gave him the Golden Boot.

"I knew I was going to receive it beforehand, so I wanted to do something special in order to receive it," Bouanga said. "By scoring two goals, I was able to underline getting the award."

In his first taste of playoff soccer, Cucho Hernández scored a brace in the Columbus Crew's 2-0 win over Thiago Almada-less Atlanta United.

After Leagues Cup and the club transferring Lucas Zelarayán to the Saudi league, Cucho has 13g/1a in 12 games. Are you watching, Colombia?

“It’s very important to be in form at this moment for the team and for myself personally, having this confidence in the playoffs," he said postgame. "But the work is not done yet. Tonight would count for nothing if we don't qualify for the next round."

After a, uh, less-than-stellar penalty kick in Sporting Kansas City's Wild Card win vs. San Jose Earthquakes, Pulido needed to rebound. He most certainly did.

The Mexican striker had two assists in SKC's 4-1 win at Midwest rival St. Louis CITY SC, helping fuel the only road victory (so far) of Round One.

A Comeback Player of the Year finalist, Pulido provided helpers on Logan Ndenbe's first professional goal and Dániel Sallói's right-place, right-time finish – starting and capping the West's No. 8 seed knocking off the No. 1 seed.

Herrera scored a fantastic opener with his left foot and was dominant in midfield as Houston Dynamo FC earned a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake.

After tallying 4g/17a in the regular season and steering the club's US Open Cup title, this was a big-time player meeting a big-time moment.

"The way he pulled the strings today was what we expect of him," head coach Ben Olsen said postgame. "I don't doubt him when the game becomes more important. The goal was a bonus."

The Landon Donovan 2023 MLS MVP frontrunner, folks.

Acosta, who posted a league-leading 31 goal contributions (17g/14a) in the regular season, provided 1g/1a as FC Cincinnati displayed their Supporters' Shield-winning plaudits in a 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls.

Kinda, after missing the entire 2022 MLS season due to a long-term knee injury, hadn't quite found second gear. That may have changed as SKC sprung a 4-1 upset on St. Louis at CITYPARK.

The Israel international had 1g/2a while stepping into midfield for Erik Thommy, putting the West's No. 8 seed in the driver's seat and 90 minutes away from a Conference Semifinal spot.

"Obviously Gadi has a lot of things on his mind with his home and his family and everything else," manager and sporting director Peter Vermes said postgame.

" … I thought he was a force today. He was exactly the person that we needed when we brought him in here to begin with. Today he showed that he's kind of back to himself, which was very important for us."

With halftime nearing, Cartagena unleashed a golazo that ultimately sealed Orlando City SC's 1-0 win over Nashville SC.

"I decided to just hit it, with a lot of confidence," the Peruvian international said postgame. "Thankfully I hit it in a spot that was really difficult for the goalkeeper."

That might be underselling it.

The platinum blond effect.

Barreal, with two goals in Cincy's 3-0 win over RBNY, reinforced why he's (in this observer's opinion) the best attacking fullback in MLS.

Don't just take our word for it.

Speaking after his team's 2-0 win over FC Dallas, head coach Brian Schemtzer said Nouhou put in a "tremendous performance" and it was "one of his better games that I've seen since he's been at the club." The Cameroon international, for the record, has been in Seattle's organization since 2016.

Sounders fans are going to be watching Nouhou's cross to Jordan Morris on repeat.

LAFC scored four set-piece goals in their 5-2 win over Vancouver, two of which came from Hollingshead.

“Even more than scoring goals, I’ve been a lot more proud of my defending," Hollingshead said postgame. "Defending hard and making it really difficult for guys to get by me and when I can combine the two of those things well, it makes our backline really strong and difficult to get through."

Or, as the right back noted, it's the playoff 'stache in full effect.

Three first-half goals got all the headlines after the Philadelphia Union's 3-1 win over the New England Revolution. But Blake deserves plenty of credit, too.

The Jamaican international had five saves, including several jaw-droppers to frustrate the Eastern Conference's No. 5 seed.