Columnist: Jonathan Sigal

Hany Mukhtar, repeat MLS MVP? 2023 All-Stars weigh in


WASHINGTON – Hany Mukhtar's MLS history chase appears on track with two-thirds of the 2023 season complete.

That was a prevailing opinion, at least, among MLS All-Stars upon gathering Monday morning on American University’s campus to train before Wednesday’s showdown with Arsenal at D.C. United’s Audi Field (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

The milestone the Nashville SC star is pursuing? Becoming the first back-to-back Landon Donovan MLS MVP in league history, and just the second two-time winner after Preki accomplished that twice (1997, 2003) while playing for the then-named Kansas City Wizards.

New York Red Bulls left back John Tolkin was among those vouching for the German attacker.

“I think just overall it's Hany’s ability to create,” said Tolkin, an emerging US international and this year’s youngest All-Star. “You see what he's done for Nashville and he's the driving force in that team. He does a lot of stuff on the ball with them, goals and assists. That's the criteria for MVPs these days, so just the technical ability and his ability to create is massive.”

Philadelphia Union center back Jakob Glesnes, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, delivered a similar message when praising the 28-year-old.

“There are other guys, but the biggest one up there is Hany,” said Glesnes. “He is drifting all over and you can see how he makes that Nashville team tick. The goal part speaks for itself. He always finds a way. Everyone knows how good he is now, but still he's doing his thing over and over again.”

Worthy competition

Mukhtar boasts a league-leading 21 goal contributions this season (13g/8a), putting the Designated Player on track to challenge the 34 goal contributions (23g/11a) he produced last season. He’s also in the Golden Boot presented by Audi lead, hoping to recapture that year-end trophy.

Mukhtar has previously made no secret of his ambitions, yet made sure to praise his fellow All-Stars when the topic was broached.

“Tons of players have the talent to be in that conversation,” said Mukhtar, before referencing dominant players at FC Cincinnati and LAFC. “It would be not fair to pick just one. It's Lucho \[Acosta\], \[Dénis\] Bouanga – so many good players. I have to do my job though and I have to focus on myself.”

The MVP debate has plenty of variations, especially with so much soccer still to be played. And one player expected to deliver a wire-to-wire finish is Acosta, whose 20 goal contributions (12g/8a) are second-most in MLS. He also wears the captain’s armband for the current Supporters’ Shield leaders, a clear deciding factor in the eyes of New England Revolution midfielder Carles Gil.

“Almost every week it's changing with one, two, three games. But maybe Lucho, no?,” Gil, the 2021 MLS MVP, said of Cincy’s creative hub.

“He's having a very good season and also his team, we are trying to catch them but it's difficult. He's the best player for at the moment the best team. He's a very good player. He can do many things – he can assist, he can score, he works for the team and he's having an incredible season.”

St. Louis CITY SC goalkeeper Roman Bürki also highlighted Acosta, plus gave Gil a shoutout. The Spaniard boasts a league-leading 12 assists, while his 56 key passes are tied for second-most in MLS.

“It's their quality and goalscoring, also playmaking,” said Bürki. “They bring so much to their teams and make everything work.”

Almada's case

Another No. 10 in the hunt? Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada, who last December became the first-ever active MLS player to win a World Cup title when Argentina defeated France in penalty kicks. Now, Almada has 18 goal contributions (8g/10a) while speculation mounts about the reigning MLS Newcomer of the Year potentially setting a league-record outbound fee in the upcoming transfer windows.

“Thiago’s talent is incredible, it's amazing,” said Atlanta striker Giorgos Giakoumakis. “His ability, his vision is amazing. … It's all about his ambition and where he wants to end up. If he wants to make the next step, it will be up to him. If not, he will be one of our leaders in Atlanta and I'm really happy I've shared the field with him.”

The MVP conversation will take several twists and turns in the sprint to Decision Day on Oct. 21 – perhaps even through South Florida after Inter Miami CF, this past Saturday, made official the landmark signing of Lionel Messi.

But for now, it might be Mukhtar’s race to lose.

“There are many, many players for me on the same level and it's going to be really tight,” said Giakoumakis. “Who's going to cross the line at the end of the day?

“But even if you don't win the MVP now and you're right in that conversation, you're still a top player. I think we have many options this year. The level of MLS – I've been watching the last couple of years – it's improved a lot. Much more is going to come for this league.”