Self-reflection is important: Here at MLSsoccer.com, we talk about the league’s biggest names and stars a lot.
But we also want to give some love to those who don’t always have their name up in lights or lead the conversations.
Here’s a collection of 10 players, ranging from goalkeeper to forward, who are deserving of more hype and attention at this stage of the 2023 season.
Bürki, the first-ever captain of St. Louis, has statistically been among the best (if not the best) goalkeepers in MLS this year. He’s tops in goals prevented with 5.53, per TruMedia via StatsPerform, as well as goals added with 5.98, per American Soccer Analysis. Plus, the former Swiss international has three clean sheets in 13 games amid plenty of highlight-reel moments.
Now, there were some skeptical eyebrows raised in March 2022 when it was announced Bürki was joining the expansion club and leaving German Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, particularly since their front office was allocating big resources to an international goalkeeper. Three months into CITY SC’s maiden MLS season, those concerns have dried up.
Cremaschi, 18, is arguably one of the most talented homegrown prospects coming through MLS right now. He’s courted by both Argentina and US youth national teams, and reportedly is already drawing interest from European scouts.
After slowly getting worked into Inter Miami’s first-team plans by head coach Phil Neville, this box-to-box talent is now an indispensable piece after long-term injuries to veterans Gregore and Jean Mota. It’s sink-or-swim time for the youngster in his first MLS season, and so far he’s taken this opportunity right in stride.
Quick quiz: Who is Austin FC’s leading scorer in 2023? Understandably, you might guess superstar Sebastián Driussi after he recorded 29 goal contributions (22g/7a) last year, or even veteran striker Gyasi Zardes since he now sits one regular-season goal away from 100 for his MLS career.
The answer is Gallagher, a fullback who can play on the right or left in head coach Josh Wolff’s front-foot system and has 4g/2a in nearly 1,000 minutes this year. The winger-turned-defender can also adapt to whatever formation Austin opt for, soaking up valuable minutes for a club looking to regain last year’s glories.
Wait, a DP No. 10 needs more hype? Yes, especially in a league where South American playmakers like Thiago Almada (Atlanta), Luciano Acosta (Cincinnati), Lucas Zelarayán (Columbus), Carles Gil (New England) and more are usually the ones getting all the headlines.
Gauld is third in MLS in key passes (33) and does so much two-way work to help Vancouver play some of the best soccer in the league, according to the underlying numbers. The Scotsman only has 0g/1a in 11 games this year, so the boxscore stats need to pick up, but his all-around contributions are fantastic. The Whitecaps might go as far as Gauld takes them.
Hlongwane, affectionately known as “Bongi” by Loons fans, has taken a big step forward in 2023. He’s already scored a team-leading four goals in 12 games, doubling his total from a season ago (his first in MLS) and helping carry Minnesota’s offense while awaiting the return of Emanuel Reynoso.
When Wilfried Nancy was coaching at CF Montréal last year, we saw Canadian international defenders Kamal Miller and Joel Waterman level up while learning under the renowned head coach. With Nancy now leading the Crew, it looks to be Steven Moreira’s turn to increase his league-wide standing.
The French defender, who joined the Crew as a right back, has played as a right-sided center back in the Crew’s three-man defense (with wingbacks bombing up/down each flank). That background makes Moreira uber-comfortable on the ball, as is necessary in Nancy’s system, and he’s even chipped in three assists. Toss in injuries to CBs Milos Degenek and Josh Williams, and Moreira’s importance becomes even more pronounced.
Defensive midfielders inherently don’t get much attention, as their skillset is more function than flair. But Nwobodo is vital to FC Cincinnati’s realistic aspirations of competing for a trophy in 2023, continuing the club’s ascent from three straight last-place finishes upon joining MLS (2019-21) to the early Supporters’ Shield lead and record-challenging form at TQL Stadium.
The Nigerian No. 6, signed just over a year ago from the Turkish Süper Lig as the new regime’s first major transfer, is a hugely important piece in shielding FCC’s three-man backline and providing a foundation for Luciano Acosta to be a top-end playmaker. Nwobodo occupies a Designated Player spot as well, doing the grunt work while breaking up opposing attacks and quickly moving the ball forward.
A most unusual set of circumstances created an opportunity that Wayne Rooney and D.C. United capitalized on in March, landing Lewis O’Brien on loan from Nottingham Forest. The short version: the 24-year-old’s minutes dried up on a robust English Premier League squad, then a proposed wintertime loan back to the Championship fell through. In need of minutes, he landed in MLS.
O’Brien has 1g/1a through eight appearances (all starts) and does great work as a box-to-box midfielder. His original move continues through July 16 with an option to buy, and there’s an expectation the Black-and-Red explore that path based on early returns (presuming the transfer fee is right).
When Palencia joined the defending MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield winners on a free transfer in February, he was viewed as right-back depth behind Ryan Hollingshead. But the 27-year-old FC Barcelona youth product has proven incredibly versatile, playing all across LAFC’s backline as they balance squad rotation amid a hectic schedule.
A late-season loan from Toronto FC to Nashville SC in 2022 turned into a permanent transfer this past offseason – and what a fit it’s been. The 23-year-old is boosting his Canada national team prospects and is really coming into his own as a field-stretching winger/forward who threatens behind the backline.