Columnist: Jonathan Sigal

MLS Abroad XI: Who were the best exports in Europe's 2022-23 season?


As the 2022-23 European season concludes, the overseas presence of Major League Soccer alumni grows with each passing year.

For this Best XI-centric story, we considered players who are either a) homegrown products b) came through the SuperDraft or c) used MLS as a springboard to their next step.

The end result is a 5-3-2 formation (or 3-5-2 depending on how you look at it) that encapsulates some of MLS’s best representatives overseas.

Given the sheer number of players to consider, we landed on some “bench” options:

  • GK: Matt Turner (Arsenal)
  • D: Chris Richards (Crystal Palace), Bryan Reynolds (Westerlo), Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
  • M: Ismaël Kone (Watford), Jack Harrison (Leeds United)
  • F: Diego Rossi (Fenerbahçe), Cyle Larin (Real Valladolid), Daryl Dike (West Brom)

Those like Tajon Buchanan (Club Brugge), Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United), Jhon Durán (Aston Villa) and Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp) were also considered. Since they never played MLS first-team minutes, Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) and Weston McKennie (Leeds United/Juventus) fell outside this purview.

Let's get to it.

  • European team: Middlesbrough (EFL Championship)

Steffen faces an extended spell on the sidelines (reportedly 3-4 months) after recently undergoing knee surgery, ending his 2022-23 campaign on a sour note. But the former Columbus Crew standout still had a solid year on loan, rebounding from missing out on the USMNT’s 2022 FIFA World Cup roster to help Middlesborough reach the Championship promotion playoffs. He posted 10 clean sheets in 45 games across all competitions

The injury complicates matters, with Steffen stating “I want to be playing” – meaning likely away from Manchester City. With Ederson locked in as the champion’s No. 1 goalkeeper, another loan or transfer out appears in the cards (assuming Steffen recovers fully).

  • European team: Bayern Munich (German Bundesliga)

There’s no higher-profile MLS export than Davies, who, in ho-hum fashion, added a fifth straight Bundesliga trophy to his résumé this year. That came despite some turbulence around Bayern’s season, replacing manager ​​Julian Nagelsmann for Thomas Tuchel in late March and axing some club leadership after eeking out a title.

The Canadian superstar and Whitecaps alum had three goals and eight assists in 38 matches across all competitions, reinforcing his place as one of the world’s top left backs. Only 22, Davies also was the face of Canada’s first men’s World Cup trip in 36 years.

  • European team: Birmingham City (EFL Championship)

Trusty was named Birmingham City’s Player of the Season as they finished 17th in the grueling, unrelenting Championship. The 24-year-old center back was on loan at the second-tier club from Arsenal, who he originally joined last summer after completing a pre-arranged transfer from the Colorado Rapids.

It will be challenging for Trusty, who had four goals and two assists in 48 games across competitions, to consistently break into Arsenal’s first-team plans given who’s already part of Mikel Arteta’s squad. Maybe the US international gets loaned out again for 2023-24 or secures a permanent move to another English side?

  • European team: Fulham FC (English Premier League)

Ream, who spent 2010-11 with the New York Red Bulls before heading to England, is enjoying a late-career renaissance. The 35-year-old center back was among the USMNT’s best players at the 2022 FIFA World Cup and helped Fulham finish 10th in the Premier League table, their best top-flight finish since Clint Dempsey was scoring for the London-based club.

The only negative is Ream got hurt in late April, necessitating surgery to repair a broken arm. The St. Louis native had already signed a contract through the 2023-24 season, and the expectation is he’ll return to form that drew rave reviews from Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola at one point.

  • European team: KRC Genk (Belgian Pro League)

McKenzie quietly had a fantastic season in Belgium’s top flight, tallying four goals in 39 games across all competitions as Genk topped the regular-season table. They nearly won their country’s playoff system as well, but agonizingly fell short against Royal Antwerp.

Beyond the goals, the US international defender and Philadelphia Union homegrown export has enjoyed his steadiest season yet in Europe, really coming into his own for the Blauw-Wit. He originally went to Genk in January 2021 after earning MLS Best XI presented by Continental honors in 2020 upon helping Philadelphia secure a Supporters’ Shield title.

  • European team: Celtic FC (Scottish Premiership)

With three titles in quick succession (league and cup), Johnston has enjoyed a trophy-filled start to life at one of Scotland’s two mega-clubs. He's chipped in one goal and two assists across 20 matches, immediately fitting into manager Ange Postecoglou’s system as a versatile (and borderline irreplaceable) defender.

This all follows Johnston’s wintertime move from CF Montréal to Celtic on the tail-end of his key role for Canada at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. He’s only been a professional for three-and-a-half years after initially joining Nashville SC via the 2020 MLS SuperDraft presented by Audi.

  • European team: Leeds United FC (English Premier League)

If Adams didn’t suffer a long-term hamstring injury, would Leeds United have avoided getting relegated to the Championship? That question might give fans of the West Yorkshire club fits, as Adams was among the Premier League’s most effective defensive midfielders before getting hurt in mid-March. He recently took to social media to discuss watching their struggles from the sidelines, too.

Now, all signs point to Adams possibly departing Leeds after last summer’s big-money move from Bundesliga side RB Leipzig that reunited him with former manager Jesse Marsch. USMNT fans will closely watch the New York Red Bulls homegrown product’s future.

  • European team: Venezia FC (Serie B)

Tessmann was a key figure for Venezia as they earned the final Serie B promotion playoff spot, only to miss out on returning to Italy’s top-flight after a short-lived stay in 2021-22. He had three goals and two assists in 34 games (over 2,600 minutes) for a squad that also featured Sporting Kansas City homegrown export Gianluca Busio.

The FC Dallas academy product is hoping to break into the USMNT picture during the 2026 World Cup cycle, turning his ascent from MLS to Europe into a bigger role. It’s worth tracking if Tessmann remains for Venezia’s promotion push next season or heads elsewhere.

  • European team: Newcastle United (English Premier League)

Almirón was instrumental in Newcastle snapping a 20-year absence from the UEFA Champions League, tallying 11 goals and two assists in 34 games as they finished fourth in the Premier League table. The Paraguayan international was near-unstoppable before the World Cup break.

Three-plus years later, Almirón still holds the MLS outbound transfer record – a reported $27 million from when he moved to Newcastle from Atlanta United in January 2019. Might that mark get broken this summer if the right number comes ATLUTD’s way for Thiago Almada, their latest South American gem?

  • European team: Girona FC (LaLiga)

Castellanos, while becoming Girona’s top scorer with 13 goals, tied for eighth in the LaLiga Golden Boot race with Atletico Madrid's Álvaro Morata. The 2021 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner was a smash hit in the Spanish top-flight, memorably scoring four goals against giants Real Madrid and helping Girona almost qualify for the Europa Conference League.

Castellanos’ loan from New York City FC to Girona is up after this season. It’ll be fascinating to see where he lands (he’s expressed wanting to stay in Europe) and what sort of payday could be coming NYCFC’s way as the 24-year-old possibly ascends the global soccer landscape.

  • European team: FC Groningen (Eredivisie)

Groningen got relegated and finished bottom of the 18-team Eredivisie, but it’d be entirely unfair to shift blame toward Pepi. The FC Dallas homegrown product had a phenomenally productive loan in the Dutch top-flight, finishing as their top scorer with 12 goals in 29 matches.

Now, it becomes a question of where the 2021 MLS Young Player of the Year plays next season. Does he return to parent club FC Augsburg in the German Bundesliga or head elsewhere in Europe this summer? His reported $20 million fee from a couple of winters ago looms large, too.

MLS Abroad XI: 2022-23 European season
  • GK: Zack Steffen (Middlesbrough)
  • D: Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Auston Trusty (Birmingham City), Tim Ream (Fulham FC), Mark McKenzie (KRC Genk), Alistair Johnston (Celtic FC)
  • M: Tyler Adams (Leeds United), Tanner Tessmann (Venezia), Miguel Almirón (Newcastle United)
  • F: Valentín Castellanos (Girona FC), Ricardo Pepi (FC Groningen)