Voices: Sam Jones

MLS MVP frontrunners: The definitive (or not) list for the 2023 season


It wouldn’t be entirely correct to call this a Landon Donovan MLS MVP Tiers column. We’re not trying to rank folks yet. We’ll do that later when the MVP Power Rankings start up next month.

This is more trying to set a baseline feeling for how the MVP voting public writ large is thinking about players before the 2023 season starts on Feb. 25. Trust me, you don’t want to start making ironclad predictions on these things.

Anyway, here are some definitive and not-so-definitive MVP frontrunners as MLS returns this weekend. Starting with our first category…


Absolutely nobody will be surprised if either of these two lead the way at the end of the season.

The only real concern as Mukhtar mounts an MVP-defending season is whether or not his back can handle carrying Nashville’s attack again. In 2021, he put up 16 goals and 12 assists. Last year, he found the net 23 times while delivering 11 assists. There’s no reason to believe he’s going to stop putting up absurd numbers this year.

But is he going to get enough help from his teammates to put up MVP-caliber numbers? Hany didn’t really need it last year, of course. How long can you shoulder the load by yourself, though?

Yeah, Driussi overperformed his expected goals numbers by the second-largest amount of any player since 2013. Another 22-goal season may not be in the cards. But it feels important to consider that even if the Argentine DP produced at exactly the number his underlying numbers suggested he should be producing, he would have finished with 16 goals and five assists for Austin.

Driussi had the fifth-best expected goals + assists total in the league last year. It’s not hard to envision him building on that in 2023 in the same manner Mukhtar did last season.

If they do it for a full season

We got a sense of what this group could accomplish last year. Now we get to see what they can do over 34 games.

Hernandez introduced himself to MLS in early July as Columbus’ club-record signing. When their season ended in early October, he ranked eighth in the league in shots (88). Were all those shots from great positions? No. Not at all. There’s a reason he hit a wall down the stretch and it’s his shockingly-low 0.07 expected goals (xG) per shot. The MLS average for per-shot xG is 0.10.

However, if the Crew take a step forward under new manager Wilfried Nancy like many are expecting them to, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Hernandez get calibrated and find himself in increasingly excellent positions to score. We know at that point the Colombian international is going to do whatever it takes to try and find the net. If he gets rolling, a Golden Boot presented by Audi award feels plausible.

We only got to see Bouanga for about 800 minutes last year after he arrived from Ligue 2. The Gabon international scored three goals in that timeframe. He should have had more as LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup double.

Per American Soccer Analysis, Bouanga put up 0.67 xG per 90 minutes during the regular season. That’s slightly better than Mukhtar’s league-best among starters 0.65 xG per 90 minutes. Almost no one had a better introduction to the league than Bouanga and, in an LAFC attack that should be as dynamic as it always is, he should thrive.

Keep in mind though, I did say “almost no one”...

Agada entered SKC’s starting lineup in late July and almost single-handedly dragged them out of a dark hole, all in a little over 900 minutes. Agada scored eight times and delivered two assists while putting up a league-best xG per 90 among players with as many minutes. Agada’s 0.73 xG per 90 would have put him on pace for somewhere around 20 goals throughout a full season. 

Maybe the Nigerian striker just got hot at the right time. Or maybe it’s a strong indicator of what’s to come for Agada in Kansas City.

Bernardeschi got about 1,100 minutes in after he arrived last summer from Juventus. In that time, the Italian international winger put up eight goals and three assists with an xG+xA per 90 of 0.68 that ranked among the best in the league.

Toronto as a whole could be set for a classic Year Two bump under Bob Bradley, and you can expect Bernardeschi to play a major role in that if it happens (maybe even more so than compatriot Lorenzo Insigne).

We're talking about possibly the best playmaker in MLS. Dude was incredible, far beyond his 3g/5a in 10 games, when arriving last August from FC Barcelona. If the LA Galaxy go far, it may be significantly because of Riqui Puig.

If they take a plausible leap forward

This could happen! I mean, it may not. But it totally could!

There’s a recent trend of second-year players on second-year teams putting up big numbers, and Swiderski is by far the most probable candidate for Charlotte after a 10-goal, six-assist 2022. If new DP striker Enzo Copetti allows Swiderski to thrive in a new role that’s been described as very similar to what Driussi played in Austin last year, then the Polish international could be in for a season that looks eerily familiar.

I’m going to put him on every potential MVP list every preseason until they drag me kicking and screaming off this website. I feel like the scientist being ignored in every apocalypse movie, but I know what I’ve seen, dang it. I KNOW WHAT I’VE SEEN. 

Atlanta’s attack should be far more balanced this year behind the additions of winger Derrick Etienne Jr. and DP striker Giorgos Giakoumakis; World Cup winner Thiago Almada is around (for now) to help pull the strings; Araújo seems to have a renewed energy that’s being noticed by his teammates and coaches; and Araújo seems to understand that taking multiple shots from 30 yards out each game isn’t an ideal way to find the net.

The Brazilian winger has the talent to make an MVP-type year happen. It’s probably Araújo's last chance to prove that in MLS after arriving in August 2021 from Ligue 1 side Lille for a reported eight-figure transfer fee. My gut says it happens this year. Finally.

He’s not officially on the roster right now, but all reports indicate Rodríguez will soon be back for NYCFC. That’d be huge after they lost a handful of cornerstone pieces this offseason, namely playmaker/maestro Maxi Moralez

Rodríguez, who’d been on loan from Uruguayan side Montevideo City Torque, put up four goals and 13 assists during his second MLS season last year. All the 23-year-old has to do is add five assists to his 2022 total to match Carles Gil’s 2021 output exactly (and hey, the Revs’ talisman won MVP that year). If he becomes The Guy for an NYCFC team near the top of the Eastern Conference, he has the potential to put up the kind of numbers that put you in the MVP discussion.

I’m already mad about how this player isn’t getting talked about for MVP.

Already mad.

Last year, Petrovic put up the single-best statistical season by a goalkeeper in MLS history but didn’t quite have the minutes to surpass Philly’s Andre Blake for year-end silverware. Now we’ll probably get to see something similar across a full season – if he’s not transferred midseason to Europe like Matt Turner last year – and there will be a small but vocal contingent of us screaming that the Serbian international should be getting MVP consideration. We may be ignored. But we will fight the good fight.

Too many good teammates, unless…

MVP voters do weird things like detract from a player’s outstanding season just because other players are having outstanding seasons around them. It’s where the whole “Most Valuable” thing is kind of a bummer. Maybe, just maybe there’s a world where one of these guys is so stellar that they break away from the pack, but it’s hard to envision it right now.

  • Luciano Acosta (M)
  • Brenner (F)
  • Brandon Vazquez (F)

They combined for 46 goals and 33 assists last year.

  • Andre Blake (GK)
  • Dániel Gazdag (M)
  • Julián Carranza (F)

Two of these players were on the 2022 MLS Best XI presented by Continental Tire. The other has been compared to Taty Castellanos.

New guys

They could do something very cool.

The most expensive transfer of the offseason at a reported $10 million! What could go wrong when you join a list with players like Ezequiel Barco, Rodolfo Pizarro and Pity Martinez?

I guess we might find out, but it does feel like Evander could make an immediate major impact. He put up 50 goals and 38 assists in 167 appearances for Denmark's Midtjylland, and now he should be the focal point for the Portland Timbers' attack.

Ojeda has apparently been a preseason all-star already and the Lions are expecting big things from their newest DP winger. He’ll be tasked with reigniting an attack that looked sluggish at times last year despite its talent.

If Orlando take the kind of leap forward people are expecting this year, you can bet he (and Facundo Torres) will be a key part of that.