It’s go time, baby.
Matchday 1 of the 2023 MLS regular season arrives Saturday (Feb. 25), which means we can finally start talking about soccer in the present tense again instead of in the past or future tense. There are plenty of players to watch closely in 2023, either because they’re superstars, because they could break out in a big way, or simply because they’re extremely fun and chaotic.
So, in my last column before the games resume, I’m spotlighting one player at each position you must watch this year – and I’m going to tell you why.
Let’s go from back to front.
Look, if Manchester United are reportedly watching Djordje Petrovic, then you should probably keep your eyes on him, too. The Serbian international came to the Revs midway through last season and just went off, averaging the best shot-stopping numbers in MLS’s analytical history. If you want to get in on the ground floor for one of the next big goalkeepers in global soccer before he moves to Europe, this is your chance.
- Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union)
- Dayne St. Clair (Minnesota United FC)
- Brad Stuver (Austin FC)
If you like watching inch-perfect crosses, then Julian Gressel is the outside back for you. His delivery on both set pieces and open-play crosses into the box are the best in the league from the right side. Gressel finished in the 94th percentile among fullbacks in MLS last year in expected assisted goals, per FBref.
If you give him space, he’ll do this to your defense:
The only catch? Vancouver might play him in midfield.
- Aaron Herrera (CF Montréal)
- Brooks Lennon (Atlanta United)
Jakob Glesnes is pure entertainment. Need someone to absolutely clatter an opposing attacker just outside the box? Glesnes can do that. Need someone to stride forward into central midfield on the ball? Glesnes can do that. Need someone to take a ridiculous shot from 40 yards out that buries itself in the back of the net? The 2022 MLS Defender of the Year can do that, too.
If Glesnes is the chaos pick, Robin Jansson is the smooth, calm, cerebral, on-ball pick. With his ability to manipulate the opponent’s press thanks to elite passing range and vision, Jansson is a huge asset for Orlando City in the back. Even Preseason Robin Jansson is fantastic.
The Swede is one of the most underrated defenders in the league. Why don’t we change that in 2023?
- Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
- Kamal Miller (CF Montréal)
- Giorgio Chiellini (LAFC)
Allow me to present Exhibit A (which is the only exhibit I’ll be presenting at this time, thank you very much):
At just 20 years old, John Tolkin doesn’t pass up an opportunity to try, um, stuff from his left back spot. In a July friendly against FC Barcelona last year, the rising US international tried to scoop Ronald Araujo. Was it the right time to try to scoop him? Absolutely not. But was it entertaining and have I been watching this three-second video clip on loop for at least a full minute now? Yes, yes I have.
- Kai Wagner (Philadelphia Union)
- DeJuan Jones (New England Revolution)
- Raheem Edwards (LA Galaxy)
José Martínez just wants to have a good time, man.
It just so happens his version of having a good time also involves covering a ton of ground, putting in hard challenges, and keeping the Philadelphia Union’s midfield diamond running. Martínez is beautifully wild and free… it makes for great TV.
- Ilie Sánchez (LAFC)
- João Paulo (Seattle Sounders FC)
- Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
I'll admit this one is a bit of a positional stretch. Riqui Puig isn’t exactly a box-to-box midfielder, but he’s not a No. 10 either. He plays on the left side of Greg Vanney’s central midfield group in possession and he defends as a No. 10. Regardless of the positional debate, he has to be on this list (and he’s more fun to watch than just about any other midfielder in MLS).
Why? Because he can do this.
Puig makes the Galaxy a must-watch team.
- Darlington Nagbe (Columbus Crew)
- José Cifuentes (LAFC)
- Erik Thommy (Sporting Kansas City)
You could pick from about 10 different players here and be totally right. Even as other parts of the world have left No. 10s by the side of the road, MLS is still a league where those players thrive. Lucho Acosta is my pick here, though, not least because the forwards in front of him bring serious quality.
What other No. 10 in the league has players as good as Brandon Vazquez and Brenner to supply? Cincy's captain could tally even more assists than he did last year (19).
- Carles Gil (New England Revolution)
- Thiago Almada (Atlanta United)
- Xherdan Shaqiri (Chicago Fire FC)
Lorenzo Insigne arrived midway through last season after finishing up the year with Napoli in Serie A. Toronto FC struggled, but Insigne still recorded 6g/2a to close out 2022. Now, with a retooled Toronto FC squad supporting him, Insigne seems well-positioned to put up some truly eye-catching numbers.
With his right foot and vision on the left wing, the Italian international is absolutely a Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate.
- Federico Bernardeschi (Toronto FC)
- Dénis Bouanga (LAFC)
- Gabriel Pereira (NYCFC)
Hany Mukhtar was Nashville SC in 2022. He accounted for 44% of the team's goals (23 total), winning the MLS MVP award and firmly establishing himself as one of the league’s biggest attacking stars. Between his ability to float between the lines, crash the box on the break, and make plays with the ball at his feet, Mukhtar is a threat in almost every facet of the game.
- Diego Rubio (Colorado Rapids)
- Damir Kreilach (Real Salt Lake)
Talk about fun. William Agada arrived in Kansas City from Israel last summer and tore MLS apart. He finished the year with eight goals in roughly 1,000 minutes and looked sharp with his off-the-ball movement and hold-up play.
The Nigerian striker is also not afraid to celebrate – and I mean really celebrate.
Agada is the striker to watch in MLS in 2023. On an improved Sporting Kansas City team, he could be in position to score a boatload of goals.
- Chicharito (LA Galaxy)
- Brandon Vazquez (FC Cincinnati)
- Brenner (FC Cincinnati)