Voices: Joseph Lowery

By the numbers: 10 early-season All-Star performers


We’re heading towards a nice round number in the 2023 MLS season: Matchday 10. But that isn’t just a clean figure. It’s also the point where we can feel fairly confident about what we’re seeing play out on the field and what we’re seeing on the stats sheet. We’re starting to learn which players are in for a big year, which is exactly what we’re here to talk about.

We’re spotlighting 10 early-season MLS All-Stars (unofficial ones), based on the numbers. From the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference, there are plenty of strong performers turning heads.

Maybe we’ll see some (or most) of these players at the 2023 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target on July 19 at Audi Field, home of D.C. United.

If there’s one player who’s benefiting from the Luchi Gonzalez era in San Jose, it’s Cristian Espinoza. The Argentine winger currently leads MLS in non-penalty xG+xAG (expected assisted goals) this year with 6.9, according to FBref. He already has six goals, which is just one fewer than he scored in almost 3,000 minutes last year. And his 22 key passes are leading the league.

Espinoza has been incredibly dangerous on the right side of the Earthquakes’ attack, knifing into the final third and beating opponents with his 1-v-1 dribbling. Now that he gets to be a true wide threat in a stable system, Espinoza is thriving. He’ll struggle to get enough narrative oomph behind him for a true Landon Donovan MLS MVP push, but don’t expect him to be far off that level in 2023.

Just in case you haven’t heard, Thiago Almada is good. Like, potential-league-record-outbound-transfer good.

The Argentine World Cup winner is second in all of MLS this year (behind only Espinoza) in xAG with 4.6, according to FBref. With his ball control, high IQ and technical ability, Almada regularly pulls apart opposing defenses. Per American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, he’s added more value with his passing in 2023 than any player in the league with over 500 minutes.

With his mixture of passing vision and dribbling, Almada is one of the most difficult attackers to stop in all of MLS.

Nobody plays central midfield quite like Julian Gressel. As an outside back turned right-sided No. 8, Gressel loves to start narrow before going on long, aggressive overlapping runs. Once he’s out wide or in the right halfspace, he fires heat-seeking missiles in the form of crosses towards his teammates. I’m not sure Brian White could have missed this one…

So far this year, Gressel has been an elite chance-creator (he’s third in xAG with 3.9, per FBref) and he’s adding real value on the right half of the field for Vancouver every matchday.

Jefferson Savarino consistently finds good spots in Real Salt Lake’s attack – and once he arrives in those spots, he’s been dangerous in 2023.

Per American Soccer Analsysis’ goals added metric, Savarino is fourth in the league in value added via receiving. What does that mean? Well, it means Savarino picks up the ball in useful spots that increase his team’s chances of scoring and lessen their chances of conceding.

With three goals and an assist in just over 550 minutes, it’s safe to say the production is following the Venezuelan international winger’s underlying numbers. And with U22 Initiative/club-record signing Andrés Gómez on the opposite flank, RSL have the makings of a really dangerous one-two punch forming.

The LA Galaxy have struggled so far in 2023. I wrote about that last week! But despite issues in the back and trouble identifying the right attacking personnel, there’s one part of the field that has held strong this season in LA: the midfield.

Gastón Brugman, who plays at the base of Greg Vanney’s central trio, has been an incredibly reliable, high-usage No. 6. He doesn’t jump off the screen, but with good defensive awareness and ball-progression skills, the Uruguayan veteran is leading MLS in goals added, per American Soccer Analysis.

Brugman certainly benefits from how the Galaxy lead MLS in possession, but he’s been a very effective cog in a somewhat dysfunctional machine this season.

We have to give the goalkeepers some love, and no goalkeeper deserves more love in 2023 than Brad Stuver.

Stuver continues to be an excellent shot-stopper – he currently leads the league in goals saved above expected, based on FBref’s post-shot xG statistic. Stuver has conceded 12 goals this year but has faced 16.4 post-shot xG, which means he’s saved 4.4 goals above the expected figure. When you look at things on a per-90-minute basis, Austin’s goalkeeper is still the best in the league, saving 0.55 goals more than expected per 90.

The next closest? Sporting Kansas City's Tim Melia with 0.47.

It’s hard to find a more productive attacking outside back in MLS than Álvaro Barreal. Actually, strike that. It’s impossible to find a more productive attacking outside back in MLS than FC Cincinnati's left wingback.

So far this year, the Argentine winger-turned-defender leads all defenders in non-penalty xG+xAG (2.7). His speed, ball control and comfort both out wide and in central areas make him unique for one of the Eastern Conference's top squads.

Sometimes D.C. United let Christian Benteke pretend to be an NFL-style wide receiver running a fade route in the end zone, and let me tell you…it’s a lot of fun. With the Belgian international's big frame and hold-up play, Benteke can body a small group of defenders and create space for his teammates.

That’s exactly what happened on this kickoff goal against CF Montréal a couple of weeks ago:

Per American Soccer Analysis, Benteke is third in MLS in value added via receiving so far this year. The former Premier League striker has been more than a handful for opposing defenders.

Man, this version of Héctor Herrera is fun, isn’t it? The 33-year-old Mexican international has been so much more involved on both sides of the ball in his 600-ish minutes this year than he was in his 600-ish minutes last year. Per Stats Perform, here’s a look at some of Herrera’s increased numbers (all per 90):

  • 2.43 tackles in 2023, 1.72 in 2022
  • 1.14 interceptions in 2023, 0.66 in 2022
  • 8.16 ball recoveries in 2023, 5.15 in 2022
  • 101.45 touches in 2023, 84.85 in 2022

He’s moving more, doing more, and impacting games in a bigger way this year. Part of that is likely due to new coach Ben Olsen’s system, but the other part could be due to motivation. Per FBref, he’s in the 85th percentile or higher among central midfielders in MLS in non-penalty xG+xAG per 90, shot-creating actions per 90, progressive passes per 90, and progressive carries per 90.

With long, rangy runs forward out of central midfield, St. Louis DP Eduard Löwen has been a force in MLS this year. The German Bundesliga product created 42 shots, per FBref, which puts him tied for first in the league among central midfielders with LA Galaxy’s Riqui Puig and ahead of players like Philadelphia Union’s Alejandro Bedoya and Houston’s Héctor Herrera.

Löwen is also an elite set-piece taker. So far in 2023, he’s created 11 shots for his teammates via dead ball situations, according to FBref, which is fourth in the league. He’s a huge driving force behind the Western Conference leaders, who have defied all external expectations as an expansion team.

Given that Löwen is just 26 years old, it looks like St. Louis have found a cornerstone in their spine for the foreseeable future.