“He told me I had to carry the team, I had to be a leader, I had to be the captain,” Acosta told MLSsoccer.com about an early conversation with then-head coach Jaap Stam. “He gave me the armband.
“I think that’s the moment when I flipped a switch in my head and said, ‘Okay, I can make history at this club.’”
It’s safe to say Acosta has more than followed through on that promise, crowning a magnificent 2023 regular season Monday morning by being named the Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player.
The Argentine No. 10 was elite this year, producing a league-leading 31 goal contributions (17g/14a) while guiding the Orange & Blue to their first-ever Supporters’ Shield with 69 points (20W-5L-9D record).
He’s been just as influential in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, tallying 1g/2a in three games as Cincinnati prepare to host Hell is Real rival Columbus Crew Saturday night at TQL Stadium in the Eastern Conference Final (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
The winner will advance to MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9. Cincy, as the highest overall seed, have hosting priority.
Worst to first
As great as the present is for Acosta in the Queen City, this was no overnight success story.
Despite a solid 7g/10a output during his first season back in MLS after a brief spell with Liga MX side Atlas FC, the former D.C. United standout couldn’t avoid a third-straight last-place finish for Cincinnati. This prompted an institutional shakeup that produced the hiring of a new general manager (Chris Albright) and head coach (Pat Noonan) before the 2022 campaign.
“The arrivals of Chris, of Pat, were extra motivation,” according to Acosta, who last year formed a fearsome attacking trio with Brandon Vazquez and now-Udinese striker Brenner as Cincy made their first-ever playoffs, reaching the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“Speaking with Pat, who gave me different expectations along with his incredible coaching staff. I think that communication has been the key to what we’re achieving.”
Add in some vital signings – most notably defensive midfielder Obinna Nwobodo, USMNT center back Matt Miazga and Brenner’s de-facto replacement Aaron Boupendza – and Cincinnati’s transformation from perennial Wooden Spoon candidate to Supporters' Shield-winning, MLS Cup contender became complete in 2023.
Acosta, Cincy's guiding force on the field and in the locker room, has been at the center of it all.
“It happened naturally,” the 29-year-old said of growing into the captaincy role. “Obviously I learned many things along the way. I’m still learning things along the way: how to be a leader, how to be a captain, a good teammate.”
Still, Acosta’s bread and butter remains his unique playmaking and scoring skill set. Nowhere was this more evident than with his spectacular, Diego Maradona-esque solo run and finish against Charlotte FC in late September that earned him 2023 AT&T 5G Goal of the Year honors.
“We’ve won a lot of individual trophies this year, the Supporters’ Shield as well,” Acosta noted. “We have that winning mentality where we’re going for big things.”
Having a winning mentality comes naturally for Acosta, a product of famed Argentina club Boca Juniors whose ticket to stardom was punched abroad. After nearly a decade away, mostly in the United States, the midfielder has developed a strong bond with his adoptive country and was reportedly close to obtaining US citizenship earlier this year.
Since the MLS MVP is yet to represent Argentina on the international stage, he is eligible to wear the USMNT jersey should all the formalities go through.
“I’m happy to represent a country like the United States, which opened its doors for me,” Acosta said when asked about the possibility of playing for the USMNT. “My daughter [Valentina] was born here, my son [Constantino] has been raised here for eight years.”
However, Cincinnati’s talisman isn’t getting his hopes too high about earning a hypothetical call-up from head coach Gregg Berhalter as the 2024 Copa América and 2026 World Cup tournaments near.
“It’s a long process and we’re on the right track. I’m being calm about it because if it doesn’t happen, I don’t want to get frustrated,” Acosta revealed. “If it happens, I’ll honestly be very happy to represent the United States.”
MVP vs. Messi
Whether the USMNT come calling or not, Acosta and classic playmakers of his ilk remain in demand across MLS. And for the foreseeable future, they'll try to outdo the greatest No. 10 of them all: Lionel Messi.
“Thankfully he arrived six months after [the season started],” Acosta joked about his compatriot joining Inter Miami CF. The Argentines battled in an epic US Open Cup semifinal the Herons won on penalty kicks.
“If not, this [MVP award] would’ve been his. And I would’ve been happy competing with him for it.”
Fortunately, Acosta won’t have to wait too long before directly challenging Messi for the league’s top individual honor.
“I think next year is going to be harder, so I’m going to take very good care of this award,” he added.
However, MLS Cup is the prize that most drives Acosta as he looks to make even more history with Cincinnati. They're two games away from accomplishing that in the club's fifth MLS season.
“In order to prove we’re the best team in MLS, we have to follow that path, keep fighting with humility and reach the final,” Acosta said. “And win it, obviously.”
Edgar Acero contributed to this story