Yeah, yeah, we all love underdogs. From the unheralded role players who make a team tick to the slept-on prospects that burst onto the scene, cheering on proverbial Davids is one of sports’ great joys.
But what we probably love more than that, if we’re being honest, is stars. The players who get the most hype, wear that burden like a crown and deliver the goods. It’s the Jordan crossover to pull-up jumper, the Woods chip shot that hangs on the edge of the cup for dramatic effect before dropping in, and the Messi PKs that coolly wrong-foot the goalkeeper no matter how high the stakes.
But are the purported stars of the 2023 MLS season delivering? Let’s take a look at a mixed list of established Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidates, past MVP winners, big-name signings and young USMNTers to see how they’re faring.
NOTE: There are a number of high-profile players who could've been in the "exceeded expectations" tier – Jordan Morris, Dénis Bouanga, João Klauss and Eduard Löwen, to name a few. However, none of them carried the burden of having either world-renowned names, serious USMNT/transfer interest, or legit MVP expectations (or histories in the case of Josef Martínez) to live up to. Therefore, they just miss out on this list.
It’s hard for star players to exceed expectations because, by definition, expectations are already sky-high. The added scrutiny is just the price they pay for fame and fortune.
But occasionally it happens, and when it does, it’s rad. Enter Thiago Alamada, the 21-year-old wunderkind, who, following a 2022 World Cup win with Argentina, has experienced an absolutely bonkers start to the 2023 season.
We’re talking two AT&T 5G Goal of the Matchday wins, two Player of the Matchday presented by Continental Tire selections, two Team of the Matchday presented by Audi spots and, of course, one Player of the Month award.
But it hasn’t just been two great games for Atlanta United's star. He’s got 4g/5a in six matches, finding his way onto the score sheet in every game he’s played but one. So far this season, he’s been completely unplayable.
There are players lower on this list who are arguably having better seasons, but the key metric here is expectations. By virtue of having a pretty tough 2022 season, the former LaLiga champion’s 2023 campaign is looking very solid. Houston Dynamo FC were predicted to finish bottom two in the Western Conference by nine out of 13 MLS pundits, and instead, largely thanks to Héctor Herrera, they’re sitting seventh with a game in hand.
Herrera’s been at the heart of everything for the Dynamo and, according to TruMedia, is averaging (per 90) the most touches on the team (nearly 50% more than the next-highest player!), the highest passing percentage, third-highest chance creation rate, third most tackles, second most recoveries… you get the idea. For a team that's aggressively changed their style to become more ball-dominant under new head coach Ben Olsen, the two-way Mexican star's ability to boss the midfield has been crucial.
HH's getting on the score sheet, too, already notching 2g/2a in 539 minutes, a marked improvement over last year’s 0g/1a in 682 minutes.
Jesús Ferreira is very quietly having another great season, following up on last year’s 18g/6a campaign – good enough to earn Best XI presented by Continental honors – with five goals through eight matches in 2023.
But it’s not the end product that’s particularly notable for the USMNT forward who started against the Netherlands at last year’s World Cup; it’s the way he’s achieved the end product. Last year, FC Dallas were often methodical in their buildup, and Ferreira’s technical ability allowed him to float between the lines, help dictate possession and then show up at the ideal time to finish long-sweeping moves.
Dallas have been more direct this year, and Ferreira is still feasting. Most recently, he’s made quick-burst runs in the box to finish off wide crosses. The ability to switch styles will do wonders for his profile as both a national team staple and a potential transfer target.
It’s maybe harsh for Hany Mukhtar to not make the above category; 3g/2a in 2023 is not a bad haul, particularly considering he couldn’t start the first two matches of the season due to a lingering preseason hip injury.
But where Herrera’s lackluster 2022 helps bolster his “meeting expectations” case for the year, Mukhtar’s scintillating 2022 campaign (MVP and Golden Boot presented by Audi recognition) puts him behind the 8-ball. It’s almost impossible for him to match last year’s 23g/11a output that accounted for 65.4% of Nashville's 52 total goals.
And speaking of that offense, the Coyotes have sometimes been a tough watch in 2023, once again struggling to create chances that don’t spring from Mukhtar’s foot in one way or another. Their 0.9 expected goals per game in 2023 are 28th in the league.
Nashville’s sputtering attack may not be Mukhtar’s fault, but until it’s back on track, the German attacker may continue to find himself on the outside of MVP talk this year.
“Approaching expectations” may feel generous for a playmaker with no goal contributions on the season and who's built up his own MVP case, but anybody who watched last Sunday’s El Trafico knows Riqui Puig has at least, at times, played some very good soccer. The former Barcelona man was everywhere in that match, in one moment blasting a long-range effort off the post and, in another, slipping Chicharito in on goal with an absurd line-splitting pass.
On the one hand, Puig’s value has always come more from his build-up play than his end product, playing more as a center mid in his Barcelona days than an out-an-out No. 10 – and that ability has at least helped the Galaxy earn the seventh-best xG per match mark in the league this year. On the other, he racked up 3g/5a in 10 matches last season, and the Galaxy could sure use that type of output right about now.
At some point, if LA’s wingers and strikers continue to lack production, Puig will need to stop dropping deep to collect the ball in possession and instead take up high higher positions on the field to force the issue in attack.
There’s no way around the fact it’s been a slow start to 2023 for Brandon Vazquez, who burst onto the scene last year with an 18g/8a, Best XI performance. Just 1g/1a through eight starts is nowhere near his pace from 2022, but contrary to Mukhtar and Puig, the team results for Vazquez’s FC Cincinnati help his case.
Cincy sit second in the Eastern Conference – despite last matchday’s 5-1 walloping at St. Louis CITY SC – and a large part of their success has been their ability to grind out 1-0 wins; they already have four of them on the season. And while Vazquez hasn’t found the net as often as hoped, he’s been a crucial part of the Orange & Blue’s gritty identity this year, ranking second among all forwards in the league for total aerials and seventh for duels.
No striker would rather be known for their dirty work than their goals, but providing more than the final product can do a lot to carry a player through a dry spell.
The soccer Gods have a way of rewarding selfless play, which bodes well for Vazquez.
Of the players below him on this list, Sebastián Driussi’s 2023 season has been the least disappointing, but, unlike the players above him, there are few laudable elements to his campaign (just 1g/1a so far). He doesn’t have Mukhtar’s goal contributions, Puig’s standout derby performance or Vazquez’s win-loss record.
Yes, the Argentine No. 10 scored a fantastic chip in Matchday 1 and a brace in Austin FC’s Concacaf Champions League exit against Haiti’s Violette AC, but both of those performances came in what amounted to poor results for last year's Western Conference finalists. More to the point, he’s 143rd in the league for xG per 90 and 126th for xA per 90 this season. Not great.
The ability is undeniably there for Driussi, so it would be foolish to write his season off so early. But combined with a bad start for Austin, 2023’s first-quarter slump is a pretty massive letdown. Things aren’t quite at LA Galaxy levels of dysfunction for the Verde & Black, but the vibes are definitely off – and there's no denying that Driussi needs those around him to pick up the slack as well.
The good news for the Portland Timbers is their four goals in 18 minutes against rivals Seattle Sounders FC may have kickstarted what had so far been a bummer of a season, beset by injuries and lackluster performances. The bad news for Evander is those four goals began to flow roughly five minutes after he was subbed off in just his third start of the season. TBD if there's any correlation = causation effect there.
The Brazilian attacker joined the Timbers in a club-record transfer (reported $10 million) this offseason from Denmark’s FC Midtjylland, where he put up 3g/6a in 12 Europa League appearances over the last two seasons. But so far in Portland, he’s just been one of many names cycling on and off their injury report.
There’s still plenty of time for Evander to get on track in Portland, but middling early-season results for the club don’t give head coach Giovanni Savarese a lot of room to tinker with his lineups. If the Timbers' offense continues to click without Evander on the field, it may take a while for him to become the offensive focal point – and potential Diego Valeri heir apparent – he was signed to be.
There’s an argument to be made that including Josef Martínez on this list is unfair to the Venezuelan striker who tore his ACL in 2020 and has struggled to find consistency amid injuries ever since. But the three-time MLS Best XI player/one-time MVP (2018) still put up impressive per-90 stats during his last two seasons, and his arrival at Inter Miami CF was celebrated with a halftime ceremony during a preseason match and proclamations of becoming MLS’ all-time leading goal-scorer.
All that’s to say, expectations were high for Martínez heading into 2023, fair or not. With no goal contributions on the year and Miami's offense struggling with a capital “S” (two goals in their last five matches), those expectations have not been met.
Martínez’s form is far from the only problem for the South Florida club on a five-match losing streak, but it’s not helping. Perhaps revving up his partnership with strike partner Leo Campana can inject some life into things.
The problem here for Insigne is pretty simple: health.
In a 14-minute substitution cameo last Saturday, the highest-paid player in MLS (by some margin) made his first appearance since suffering a groin injury on Matchday 1, bringing his season total to 48 minutes.
It’s not the Italian international star’s fault that he’s been hurt most of the season, but the harsh truth is that with his salary of record proportions, he has to be at an MVP level for the bulk of the season for the investment to be close to worth it.
There’s still enough time for that to happen, but with Toronto FC sitting ninth in the Eastern Conference, Insigne needs to start tearing it up like... now.