Voices: Sam Jones

MVP Power Rankings: FC Cincinnati's Luciano Acosta pulls away from the pack

MVP Power Rankings - September 2023

It’s been a second since we’ve checked in, but the MVP Power Rankings are back. That’s right, it’s a somehow even more subjective rankings column than the regular Power Rankings. A place where voters not only get to arbitrarily define “power,” but “most valuable” too.  

Each month we check in with MLS talent, staff, writers and editors to get their thoughts on the 2023 Landon Donovan MLS MVP race so far. Thirteen ballots were cast for this one

A first-place vote received 10 points, a second-place vote received five points, a third-place vote received three points, a fourth-place vote received two points and a fifth-place vote received one point.

Also receiving votes
  • Lionel Messi - Inter Miami CF (7 points)
  • Dénis Bouanga - LAFC (4 points)
  • Ryan Gauld - Vancouver Whitecaps FC (4 points)
  • Carles Gil - New England Revolution (3 points)
  • Cucho Hernández - Columbus Crew (2 points)
  • Drake Callender - Inter Miami CF (2 points)
  • Facundo Torres - Orlando City SC (1 point)
  • Brian White - Vancouver Whitecaps FC (1 point)
  • Alan Pulido - Sporting Kansas City (1 point)

This might be the biggest “also” section we’ve ever had. Fourteen players picked up at least a point from 13 different voters. We’re going to have to hustle to get through all these.

  • Messi has just one goal and two assists on the season; not sure why such a below-average contributor has been included. Though that Leagues Cup heater (10g/4a) might have something to do with it.
  • Bouanga started the year as a favorite for this award but has cooled off considerably. He still has 12 goals and six assists on the season and his goal contributions across all competitions are sky-high after he scored six times across three Leagues Cup games. But he hasn’t scored in MLS since July 8.
  • Gauld rules. He’s scored 10 times while dishing out eight assists and has been a driving force for a Vancouver attack that leads the league in xG created. Gauld is second in the league in expected goals plus expected assists.
  • Just another year of Gil throwing up double-digit assists. Nothing new. Since he arrived in 2019, he’s had at least 14 assists in every season except 2020. He needs just two more to reach that mark this season.
  • Cucho hasn’t quite hit the goal-scoring highs we expected when he arrived in 2022, but he’s turned into a surprisingly effective chance-creator. Hernández has nine goals on the year to go along with 10 assists.
  • Callender has been solid all year, not just since Messi and Co. arrived. It’s not surprising to see him have a bit of a star turn now that they’re here. His numbers haven’t been as outstanding as some of his peers, but he’s shown up when it matters. And it’s mattered a lot lately.
  • Torres has been effective in his second year in MLS. He has six non-penalty goals and four assists on the year for one of the league’s best teams.
  • White is my own personal “I know he ain’t gonna win but I added him just to talk about him” vote. He has 10 goals on the year and leads the league in xG. He’s tied for third in the league with 10 non-penalty goals. There’s another timeline that isn’t too far from ours where he’s the Golden Boot presented by Audi leader. He’s been awesome.
  • Pulido has quietly put up 12 goals this season and is probably a decent bet for Comeback Player of the Year unless Gonzalo Higuaín wins it again. He’s fourth in the league in goals per 90.
Héctor Herrera
Midfielder (9 points) · Houston Dynamo FC

The Dynamo are one the hottest teams in the league and one of the season’s best surprises. Herrera is a huge reason why.

The 33-year-old has three goals and 13 assists on the season and plays a critical role in everything Houston does. In fact, he plays the biggest role of any player for any team in the league. Per American Soccer Analysis, he leads the league in “touch percentage,” the share of a player’s touches compared to their teammates. Everything runs through Herrera, and the Dynamo are having their best season in years with him leading the way.

Roman Bürki
Goalkeeper (18 points) · St. Louis City SC

Bürki is the undisputed shot-stopping champion for 2023. Per FBref, he’s saved 7.5 goals more than the average goalkeeper relative to the placement of the shots on target he’s faced (aka “Post-shot xG”). The next closest player in MLS, Daniel, has saved 4.5 more. Bürki has been far and away the best 'keeper in the league. Yes, even before Djordje Petrovic left for Chelsea (6.0 post-shot xG differential). Bürki has been key to St. Louis’ surprise run to the top of the West and has more than lived up to his hefty price tag.

Thiago Almada
Midfielder (39 points) · Atlanta United

If we’re only counting primary assists, Almada is the league leader in goal contributions. If we’re only counting primary assists, Almada is the league leader in assists by four. If we’re counting primary and secondary assists, Almada is still the league leader in assists. If we’re just looking at expected assists, Almada is the league leader there too. If we’re looking at non-penalty xG plus expected assists, Almada is also, in fact, the league leader. If you’re looking at goals added, he’s not the league leader. (Just kidding, he’s the league leader.)

If we’re looking at a whole lot of different variables and measures in attack, Almada is very likely the league leader. He’ll break the MLS transfer record soon enough. Even if he isn’t likely to win the MVP award in the end.

Hany Mukhtar
Midfielder (51 points) · Nashville SC

By almost any measure, Mukhtar has put together one of the best three-year stretches in MLS history. Mukhtar’s 53 goals over the last three years is 16 more than the next closest player in that span. His 23 primary assists are the third most behind only Gil and Lucho Acosta. His expected goals plus expected assists total is 12 more than the next-closest player. And all of this while carrying Nashville’s attack on his back.

He hasn’t quite reached the highs of 2022, or even 2021, this season. Not yet anyway. But he’s still been stellar. Mukhtar has 14 goals and eight assists on the year and is second in the league in non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists. Those numbers may improve considerably down the stretch now that DP forward Sam Surridge is here to give him some help up top.

Luciano Acosta
Midfielder (130 points) · FC Cincinnati

Unanimous. For good reason. Acosta is carrying FC Cincinnati to their first Supporters’ Shield and, potentially, a record-breaking points total. He has 13 goals and 11 assists on the season. He has a league-best 24 goal contributions on the season. And when Cincy have needed him most, he’s come up with moments like this.

I don’t know about the rest of the voters, but that sealed it for me. He’s been unstoppable and clutch as all hell for the best team in the league. They’re nowhere near that level without him. For now, Acosta is the clear favorite.