We have officially entered Year-End Awards season, which means the ballot boxes soon open and the discourse is running red-hot.
Now, I’m too smart (read: scared) to get burned by dropping my actual MLS award ballot into this story. Instead of sharing my picks just yet, I’m turning to – drum roll please – the underlying data! A dive into the numbers can tell us a lot about which award candidates deserve the love they’re getting and which ones deserve a bit more love.
Let's dig into the data’s favorite for a handful of the biggest end-of-season awards. We've got honorable mentions in each category, too.
Favorite: Roman Bürki (St. Louis)
Shock! Horror! Is that… a goalkeeper?
Why, yes. Yes, it is. A goalkeeper has won MLS MVP in the past: Tony Meola took home the crown back in 2000 after a stellar season for the then-Kansas City Wizards. This year, Roman Bürki is worthy of the league’s top honor. According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, no player in MLS has added more value this year than Bürki. Largely thanks to the veteran’s shot-stopping exploits, he’s added more than nine goals’ worth of value. Only one other MLS player has added more than seven.
Sure, there’s an argument to be made for Luciano Acosta as the best player on the best team in MLS; he leads the league in goal contributions (29 - 16g/13a). And there’s also Thiago Almada, who has even better underlying numbers than Acosta. But Bürki has been the biggest driver behind St. Louis’ shocking rise to the top of the West.
Let’s give the man his flowers.
Honorable mentions: Luciano Acosta (Cincinnati), Thiago Almada (Atlanta), Daniel (San Jose)
Favorite: Wilfried Nancy (Columbus)
Make no mistake: No coach carries as much narrative juice as Bradley Carnell (St. Louis), or even Pat Noonan (FC Cincinnati), heading into the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs. But the data suggests Wilfried Nancy deserves this nod for the work he’s done in Columbus.
In the buildup to Decision Day, the Crew are fourth in MLS in expected goal differential per 90 minutes, according to FBref. Their ability to create chances is second-to-none and the data paints them as a team capable of sustained success. In so many ways, Nancy has been the architect of that success since arriving in the winter from CF Montréal. Yes, it’s the players who do the heavy lifting, but more than with most teams in MLS, the Crew’s players operate with clear ideas and structures that stem from their manager.
Like Nancy and Columbus, Carnell and St. Louis have a defined approach. That’s a differentiator in this league. However, the data doesn’t paint St. Louis as the most stable of teams. Per FBref, they’re just 22nd in MLS in expected goal differential (xGD) per 90.
The numbers (and let’s be honest, at least some of the eye test) say Nancy is the more impactful coach. After placing second in this award in 2022, the Frenchman might get his moment in the sun.
Honorable mention: Bradley Carnell (St. Louis), Pat Noonan (FC Cincinnati)
Favorite: Thiago Almada (Atlanta)
I plugged the question “Who should win this year’s Young Player of the Year award?” into the magic data machine (which is totally how all of this works, by the way) and it spit out a small piece of paper with just three words on it.
Thiago Almada. Duh.
The Argentine international is the obvious choice on this one. He leads the league, not just eligible young players, in non-penalty goals plus primary assists (23) so far in 2023 and is fourth in MLS in non-penalty xG plus xA. Per American Soccer Analysis, he’s third in the entire league in goals added among field players. Regardless of age, Almada has become a true superstar for Atlanta United this season.
Honorable mentions: Juan Mosquera (Portland), Yerson Mosquera (Cincinnati)
Favorite: Giorgos Giakoumakis (Atlanta)
Look, I know there’s someone down in Miami who became the best player to ever set foot in MLS from, well, the moment he set foot in MLS. But Lionel Messi’s limited availability means it feels wrong to give him the nod.
We’ve instead got Atlanta striker Giorgos Giakoumakis, who has been awesome this season. The 28-year-old Greek international plays like the Aldi Erling Haaland. To borrow my own line from earlier this year: He’s a ferocious goalscorer who loves slashing behind the opposing backline, running into space with clever diagonal runs and slamming the ball into the back of the net.
Giakoumakis currently co-leads the league in non-penalty goals (15), while only having played in 25 games. He also leads all players with at least 500 minutes this year in non-penalty goals per 90, illustrating his ruthless efficiency. Giakoumakis is the real deal, folks, and Atlanta United wouldn’t be the same without their wintertime signing.
Honorable mentions: Daniel (San Jose), Eduard Löwen (St. Louis)
Favorite: Roman Bürki (St. Louis)
If he’s winning this year’s MVP award, you’d best believe Bürki deserves the Goalkeeper of the Year award, too. But because we’ve already established Bürki's statistical excellence, I’ll shine a quick light on Daniel here instead.
Signed from Brazil before the season, the 29-year-old has been a revelation this year. Per FBref, he’s saved 7.6 goals more than expected, which puts him above every goalkeeper in MLS outside of Bürki. Daniel also leads MLS in goals saved above expected per 90 minutes (0.39). It’s hard to envision San Jose being in the playoff picture without him.
Honorable mention: Daniel (San Jose)
Favorite: Matt Miazga (Cincinnati)
It’s harder to parse through defenders than any other position group, simply because of the limited supply of useful data. Still, handing this award to Matt Miazga shouldn’t ruffle too many feathers. He’s been such a well-rounded, useful player for FC Cincinnati ever since he arrived mid-season in 2022.
This year, Miazga has brought a bit of everything to Cincinnati’s back three. The US international has been dominant in the air, ranking in the 90th percentile in aerials won among MLS center backs. He’s also shown comfort and confidence on the ball, ranking positively in both the dribbling and passing categories in ASA’s goals added metric.
In games where Cincinnati are forced to control the ball, Miazga helps facilitate possession. In games where Cincinnati defend in a deeper 5-2-1-2 block, Miazga wins the ball in the air and helps sweep in behind. He’d be a worthy winner.
Honorable mentions: Steven Moreira (Columbus), Kamal Miller (Miami), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville), Jakob Glesnes (Philadelphia), Jack Elliott (Philadelphia), Miles Robinson (Atlanta)
Favorite: Miles Robinson (Atlanta)
After tearing his Achilles in May 2022, thus missing the World Cup, Miles Robinson has burst back onto the scene for Atlanta United. The 26-year-old center back started Atlanta’s opener against San Jose and never seemed to look back – he’s currently sitting at more than 2,000 minutes played in 2023.
Robinson still has the recovery speed that has helped make him a truly special defender. Plus, he’s just solid at basically everything at this point in his career. When you scroll through his scouting report on FBref, you see a whole lot of green.
The USMNT center back deserves a ton of credit for working his way back from a serious injury to reach this level once more. Now here’s the question: Is this his last year with the Five Stripes? His contract is winding down and there’s no new deal just yet.
Honorable mentions: Robin Jansson (Orlando), Keaton Parks (New York City), Alan Pulido (Kansas City)