Voices: Joseph Lowery

One MLS star to follow at each position in 2024


We made it.

The 2024 MLS regular season kicks off on Feb. 21 when Inter Miami CF host Real Salt Lake (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), which means we can finally start talking about soccer in the present tense again instead of in the past or future tense. With plenty of established superstars and more than a few fun, chaotic players who could turn into fully-fledged stars, there’s no shortage of players to watch closely in 2024.

Before the games resume, I’m spotlighting one player to watch at each position – and I’m going to tell you why. Let’s get to it, moving from back to front.

St. Louis had a crazy 2023, finishing atop the Western Conference in an expansion year that almost everyone outside of the club thought would be a slog rather than a triumph.

So much of their success was due to Roman Bürki’s performances in goal. The former Borussia Dortmund standout saved more goals than expected than any of his positional peers, according to FBref, and came up big for the newcomers time and time again.

With his elite shot-stopping, Bürki provides the foundation for Bradley Carnell’s aggressive, high-pressing system. Even when the occasional ball slips through the cracks and into a dangerous area, Bürki has St. Louis covered.

Honorable mentions

  • Daniel, San Jose Earthquakes
  • Hugo Lloris, LAFC

Juan Mosquera is a force of nature bombing forward down the right side for the Portland Timbers. At just 21, the Colombian international has an impressive mixture of on-ball skill, strength and speed. It’s that combination of traits that makes it so difficult for opposing defenses to stop his overlapping or underlapping runs in the final third.

According to FBref, Mosquera finished in the 80th percentile or higher in each of the following categories among fullbacks in MLS last year on a per-90-minute basis:

  • Non-penalty expected goals
  • Progressive carries
  • Successful take-ons
  • Passes into the penalty area

Mosquera’s first full season was a huge success in Portland. This year should be the year he establishes himself as one of the top defenders in MLS.

Honorable mentions

  • Jon Gallagher, Austin FC
  • Ryan Hollingshead, LAFC
Steven Moreira
Right center back · Columbus Crew

2023 was quite the year for Steven Moreira

Shifted away from his right back role, the 29-year-old became a right-sided center back in Wilfried Nancy’s back three. Moreira quickly grew into an elite possession center back, carrying the ball forward into the final third, breaking lines with his passing, and even adding an extra number in midfield to give Nancy a different look in the buildup.

An impressive all-around performance against LAFC in last year’s MLS Cup capped off what was already a fantastic season for the Cape Verde international. Moreira will be an anchor for an ambitious Columbus team in 2024.

Honorable mentions

  • Walker Zimmerman, Nashville SC
  • Jakob Glesnes, Philadelphia Union
Robin Jansson
Left center back · Orlando City

Whether it’s with his elite distribution or his excellent 1-v-1 defending, Robin Jansson is a crucial part of Oscar Pareja’s team.

When he’s back defending, the 32-year-old rarely loses his man. He finished in the 85th percentile among MLS center backs last year in challenge efficiency per 90, according to FBref. With the ball, Jansson is a top-tier distributor and ball carrier with his left foot. Orlando City don’t often ask for a ton of ambitious progressive passes from their defenders, but Jansson has that tool in his belt against bunkered opposition.

One thing is for sure: the veteran earned his contract extension over the offseason.

Honorable mentions

  • Jack Elliott, Philadelphia Union
  • Jackson Ragen, Seattle Sounders FC

Álvaro Barreal created more expected assisted goals (xAG) than all but eight players in the entire league last season – and he did it as an outside back. Sure, playing with an extra center back behind him in Pat Noonan’s 3-4-1-2 shape makes life a bit easier for Barreal going forward. Regardless, the Argentine put in a slew of game-changing performances in 2023.  

European clubs have already come knocking on FC Cincinnati’s door to ask about Barreal. A summer move is absolutely on the table.

Honorable mentions

  • Kai Wagner, Philadelphia Union
  • Jordi Alba, Inter Miami CF
Sergio Busquets
Defensive midfielder · Inter Miami CF

There are tons of elite No. 6s in this league, to the point where even a couple of honorable mentions don’t do the depth and quality of that position group justice. Still, Busquets is the most must-watch of a pretty must-watch bunch. With his incisive, disguised line-breakers, the Spanish legend will be at the center of so many of the most important moments for Inter Miami in 2024 as he often was for FC Barcelona in LaLiga.

Busquets’ ability to find Lionel Messi at the heart of an opposing defensive shape will propel Miami’s attack forward. There’s no one else quite like him.

Honorable mentions

  • Victor Wanyama, CF Montréal
  • José Martínez, Philadelphia Union
Héctor Herrera
Box-to-box midfielder · Houston Dynamo FC

Héctor Herrera was a changed man in 2023, really hitting his stride in midfield for Ben Olsen. The 33-year-old snagged four goals and 11 primary assists, all while leading Houston to a trophy.

Herrera is truly an MVP-level player. With his distribution, the Mexican legend can carve opposing defensive shapes wide open. With his on-ball gravity and savvy off-ball movement, he can even pull apart those shapes without having to touch the ball.

According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric, which measures a player’s total on-ball contribution, Herrera added more value than all but four players in MLS in 2023. There’s no reason to expect anything but a quality 2024 campaign from him.

Honorable mentions

  • João Paulo, Seattle Sounders FC
  • Eduard Löwen, St. Louis CITY SC
Thiago Almada
Attacking midfielder · Atlanta United

Very, very few players better than Thiago Almada have ever set foot in MLS. The 22-year-old brings everything you could ask for to the attacking midfield position: he’s an excellent passer, he’s elite on the dribble, and he’s a genuine goal threat on set pieces and in open play. Almada is the kind of player who can carry Atlanta United to a trophy – though he’ll almost certainly be playing for a UEFA Champions League team by the time August comes around.

Enjoy Almada while he’s here, folks.

Honorable mentions

  • Emanuel Reynoso, Minnesota United FC
  • Luciano Acosta, FC Cincinnati

Uh, duh?

Regardless of whether he’s playing on the right wing or as a second forward with Luis Suárez pinning the opposing backline, Lionel Messi is the must-watch player on this side of the Atlantic. He’s the greatest of all time. His left foot is made of gold. He’s the model of consistency on the field, which is what makes him great. Virtually every professional soccer player can pull out a moment of individual brilliance once or twice a season. But Messi? Messi can pull one out every five minutes. 

He’ll win games single-handedly for Miami this year.

Honorable mentions

  • Cristian Espinoza, San Jose Earthquakes
  • Johnny Russell, Sporting Kansas City

Few players in MLS can rival Bouanga’s right foot. 

The 29-year-old, who collected last year’s Golden Boot presented by Audi, loves to cut in from the left wing, knifing past opposing defenders with a skillful touch before using his speed and strength to ditch the remaining pressure.

It’s not just his on-ball skill that makes Bouanga special, though. He’s smart off the ball, crashing the back post to pick up easy goals in moments where other lesser attackers simply wouldn’t make the run at all. Bouanga is a real threat to repeat and earn another Golden Boot this year.

Honorable mentions

  • Bongokuhle Hlongwane, Minnesota United FC
  • Diego Rossi, Columbus Crew

Before Lucas Zelarayán moved to Saudi Arabia last summer, the Columbus Crew’s attack belonged to Cucho Hernández and Zelarayán. Now it’s mainly the Cucho show (with some Diego Rossi tossed in there). And you know what? It’s a really, really good show.

In 2023, the striker proved himself to be both an elite goalscorer and an elite chance creator in MLS, getting himself into the Colombian national team picture along the way. He finished in the 98th percentile for non-penalty xG plus xAG per 90 among strikers in MLS, according to FBref.

With his fluid movement off the ball and versatile skill on it, few in MLS require more defensive attention than Cucho.

Honorable mentions

  • Aaron Boupendza, FC Cincinnati
  • Giorgos Giakoumakis, Atlanta United