Voices: Joseph Lowery

Most improved: 7 MLS players who have leveled up in 2023


Who doesn’t love a good superlative?

We’re not quite to awards season yet, which means we’re not dishing out all of the superlatives at this point in the 2023 season. But in the spirit of generosity, we are diving into a key one today: the most improved players in MLS.

Whether that improvement stems from genuine skill development, a change of circumstances, or something else entirely, a handful of MLS players have taken a step forward this season.

And a quick reminder: Successfully developing players remains a key indicator of success in this league. Look no further than the last two MLS Cup champions: LAFC and NYCFC. They both got massive boosts from breakout players like Diego Palacios and Taty Castellanos, respectively, en route to silverware.

Let’s dive into a group of the league’s most improved players.

Hlongwane has been on a tear this year for Minnesota United FC. He’s helped push them into contention for a home playoff game in the Western Conference and he went on an absolute tear in Leagues Cup earlier this year, finishing second in the entire competition for goals (7) only behind a fella named Lionel Messi. In MLS play, the 22-year-old South African winger has added another six finishes, which is three times his league total from last season.

According to American Soccer Analysis, Hlongwane is fifth in all of MLS in goals added, a metric that measures a player’s total on-ball contribution. With his speed, skillful right foot and energetic defending, Hlongwane is in the midst of a true breakout season.

After being picked up in the Expansion Draft by St. Louis ahead of the club’s MLS debut, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what Gioacchini’s role would be this season. The 23-year-old forward didn’t make much of an impact in limited minutes once he joined Orlando City SC from France in July 2022.

This year, though, is an entirely different story. As a regular starter in Bradley Carnell’s high-flying system, Gioacchini has 10 goals so far in MLS play. His well-rounded skill set on the ball and his impressive work rate have proven to be major advantages for St. Louis this season. An injury to Designated Player João Klauss cracked open the door for Gioacchini, but his performances have blown it wide open.

It’s hard to remember at this point, but there was a time last season when Thiago Almada was a young, talented MLS player, rather than the young, talented MLS player. In more than 2,300 minutes last year, Almada scored six goals and wracked up seven primary assists. This year, Almada has developed into an even more dangerous No. 10, and finally got the jersey number to show for it.

The 22-year-old Argentine international has nine goals and 13 primary assists, to go along with improved expected goals (xG) and expected assisted goals (xAG) per 90 figures. At this point, Almada is a true triple-threat attacker: he can blow by defenders on the dribble, he can set up his teammates for chances and he can score through individual brilliance.

Enjoy Almada while he’s here, MLS fans.

There’s no clearer way to see Wilfried Nancy’s influence in Columbus than with Moreira.

Under Caleb Porter last year, Moreira was a middling right back who struggled to change games. This year, we’ve gotten a whole new Moreira. The 29-year-old is now playing in what looks like a perfect role for him: a right-sided center back in Nancy’s back three. As a center back, Moreira can still get forward, but he can also use his quality on the ball and savvy spatial awareness to find weak points in the opposing defense and exploit them with clever progressive passes.

So far this year, Moreira is in the 96th percentile among MLS center backs for progressive passes per 90 and the 99th for progressive carriers per 90. And according to ASA’s goals added metric, he’s the most valuable defender in MLS. Moreira has become an indispensable part of a red-hot team in the Eastern Conference.

If last year functioned as Buck’s first taste of MLS, this year has been his first taste of truly changing games in MLS.

Buck, only 18, played just under 300 minutes last year and fought to get his feet under him before the end of the season. Now in an expanded role, Buck has found a host of ways to contribute to the Revolution. His left-footed passing is some of the best in the league and his late-arriving runs have repeatedly helped tip the balance in New England’s favor.

The young box-to-box midfielder still has plenty of room to grow – starting with his quickness, consistency and decision-making – but it’s easy to see why England’s youth setup is welcoming the multinational, who is also eligible to play for the US and Wales.

Sitting down in 13th in the West, this year hasn’t gone according to plan for the LA Galaxy. But frankly, it’s easy to imagine Greg Vanney’s team slipping even more than they have without Bond’s massive improvement in goal.

After finishing last year as the 24th-best shot-stopper in MLS based on post-shot xG, Bond has skyrocketed up to fifth. He’s saved 0.18 goals more than expected per 90, according to FBref, which puts him squarely in that second tier of MLS goalkeepers underneath Daniel, Djorde Petrovic (enjoy him, Chelsea fans), and Roman Bürki. That +0.18 figure is a massive bump from the -0.17 figure Bond registered last year.

Goalkeeper numbers can be volatile, but the Galaxy will be hoping this is a sign Bond will be a top shot-stopper moving forward.

Since arriving in Vancouver from Portugal, Gauld has had some good seasons. But until this year, he’s never had a great MLS season. So far in 2023, he’s wracked up eight primary assists (career high) and has bettered any of his non-penalty xG or xAG per 90 figures from the last three seasons.

According to ASA’s goals added metric, Gauld has created more value than all but four No. 10s in MLS this year: Almada, Luciano Acosta, Emanuel Reynoso and Carles Gil. Being in the top tier with those guys? That means something. Gauld has been an elite attacker in Vanni Sartini’s high-flying team this year.

Chú still has a ways to go to become a key figure for Seattle Sounders FC ahead of next season and beyond, but he’s made a noticeable leap for Brian Schmetzer’s team in 2023. He’s scored four league goals in 2023, which is four times his MLS total coming into this season (1). Chú’s also added seven primary assists.

Now, three of those came in a demolition of Sporting Kansas City back in March. But even outside of that one-game burst, the young Brazilian attacker has found ways to turn his speed and close control into chance creation: he’s 33rd in all of MLS for non-penalty xG plus xAG per 90 minutes, according to FBref. There’s room for more consistency in his game, but Chú has carved out a nice role for himself in Seattle.