This year's Landon Donovan MLS MVP award? Check. Lifting MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9? A work in progress.
FC Cincinnati midfielder Luciano Acosta, recognized Monday with the league's premier individual honor, is two games away from raising the league's biggest collective prize. And that opportunity, which continues with Saturday's Eastern Conference Final showdown vs. Hell is Real rival Columbus Crew (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), carries arguably more weight for the Argentine playmaker.
"We have bigger things that we're striving to achieve," Acosta said through a translator at Monday's press conference. "We're in the Conference Final and we're against a big rival, an in-state rival. A trophy like this is motivation for us to keep going."
Acosta was considered the odds-on MVP frontrunner for much of his spectacular 2023, which saw him log a league-leading 31 goal contributions (17g/14a) while helping deliver FC Cincinnati's first-ever Supporters' Shield title.
He's continued that torrid form in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, dishing out two assists and scoring another goal as Cincy marched past the New York Red Bulls in Round One and topped the Philadelphia Union in their Eastern Conference Semifinal.
"I feel like this is the best moment I’ve experienced as a soccer player," Acosta said in Spanish. "It’s the best moment of my career. … It’s been an incredible year and it’s not over yet. We’re going for many more things."
The Orange & Blue's ascension may have seemed improbable after the club's inauspicious MLS beginning. They finished bottom of the league table in each of their first three seasons (2019-21), unable to shake the Wooden Spoon.
But head coach Pat Noonan and general manager Chris Albright engineered a turnaround that began in 2022, all with Acosta the chief catalyst, captain and No. 10. The Boca Juniors product, who was rewarded with a long-term contract extension earlier this year, has become a bonafide star.
"I think when I first arrived here, the moment I arrived here, there was something special about this city," Acosta, who joined in 2021 from Liga MX's Atlas FC, said. "I felt at home from the moment I arrived here. Someone asked me how I'd respond when asked about how special this city was and that's what I remembered, is just the moment that I came here, how special it felt.
"And even in moments when at this club it felt impossible that we'd become this great club, now we're sitting here with this MVP trophy, we've got the Supporters' Shield, we're in a Conference Final. I look over to my left and I see my family and the family we've created here in this city and the family we've created here at this club, it's incredible."
Now, Acosta and Cincinnati will look to stop Columbus' high-flying attack that posted a league-leading 67 goals in 2023. The stakes are palpable, as the winner secures MLS Cup hosting rights against either LAFC or Houston Dynamo FC from the Western Conference.
"All the players on Columbus are going to have to know that they're playing against the MVP," Acosta said.