Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to be asked to assign awards for the 2023 MLS season.
I like working more in the background and reporting on the here and now on the pitch. I like certain players, and I’m impressed with others, but I don’t have my finger on the pulse of each and every player who wore a kit and stepped onto a Major League Soccer pitch (and Yankee Stadium).
Giving me a ballot for an award is like that toddler in the popular video meme joyfully announcing to his concerned mother that he found a knife. I shouldn’t be entrusted with this much power, as microscopic and fleeting as it may be. However, I do think I have some sort opinion on who really outperformed their metrics. I may not be as verbose as a Matt Doyle, as observant as a Tom Bogart, or as knowledgeable as a Taylor Twellman, I can at least be as important as a Cincinnati Soccer Talk-er can be.
Here are my choices for this season’s MLS superlatives (in no random order).
Referee of the Year, Assistant Referee of the Year, Impact Player of the Year: [REDACTED]
You guys really don’t need to know these votes, as important as they are to the people receiving them. We’ll all have good and bad opinions on why a certain referee deserves recognition or why a player did more for off-field philanthropic merits, but in the end mine really shouldn’t matter. Every player that does something special for the community deserves recognition, and every referee will never be perfect or imperfect.
Let’s just go to the meat of the awards.
Goalkeeper of the Year: Roman Bürki, St. Louis City SC
The numbers didn’t seem meteoric enough to push Bürki into the elusive MVP range. The Swiss goalkeeper managed eight clean sheets in 33 appearances, but eight keepers had better numbers than that. He also faced the second-highest number of penalty kicks this season (7), but was unable to save any of them.
That’s not to say Bürki wasn’t deserving to be the runaway candidate for the Golden Glove. The keeper was in the Top 5 in goals prevented (1st), total clearances (1st), save percentage (3rd), and saves per 90 minutes (5th). Only Pedro Gallese and Roman Celentano had higher win percentages.
There is no doubt that Bürki was the difference when opponents penetrated the back line. Three goalkeepers made 120 saves or more this season, and two of them (Drake Callender, Brad Stuver) are playing for nothing in the postseason. The third was Bürki (123 saves).
It was a great roll of the dice by the St. Louis front office to sign him in March 2022. The test will be to see how far he can carry CITY into the postseason.
Runners-up: Stefan Frei, Seattle Sounders SC; Daniel, San Jose Earthquakes
Defender of the Year: Matt Miazga, FC Cincinnati
Was Miazga the best defender in MLS this season? Honestly, I’m not sure if he was the best defender on FC Cincinnati this season—Yerson Mosquera participated in more successful duels than Miazga, while Obinna Nwobodo led the team in total interceptions and successful tackles.
However, the amazing defensive turnaround on an FC Cincinnati squad that leaked goals under the previous regimes can be attributed to Miazga’s arrival and appearances.
With Miazga: 27 games, 28 goals allowed (1.03 per game), 58 points earned (2.15 per game)
Without Miazga: 7 games, 11 goals allowed (1.57), 11 points earned (1.57)
Despite missing seven matches due to USMNT callups and yellow-card suspensions, Miazga was involved in 10 clean sheets. Only Seattle’s Yeimar had a higher percentage of clean sheets to games played.
Miazga was also fifth in percentage of aerial duels won (73.8%), meaning that his challenges were not only plentiful, but beneficial. Add to this the fact that, despite his physical play, Miazga did not draw any red cards in play this season.
I can only see things with my own eyes, and Miazga was the difference FC Cincinnati needed to turn this defense around.
Runners-up: Rodrigues, San Jose Earthquakes; Robin Janssen, Orlando City SC
Comeback Player of the Year: Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City
As the 2023 MLS season unfurled, Sporting Kansas City was expected to have another difficult path to the playoffs. The squad’s first MLS win didn’t come until May 7th, the 11th match of the MLS season.
The match winner was scored by Pulido, his first MLS goal since August 2021.
Pulido would go on to score 14 goals this season, one less goal than he scored since joining SKC in 2020. Ten of those goals from the Mexican striker either equalized or broke the draw at the time, so his goals have come at very convenient periods.
SKC likely would be playing golf had Pulido not had this return to prominence, but considering he missed the final game due to injury, it’s a reminder that he is still in his early thirties and not out of the woods when it comes to injuries.
Runners-up: João Paolo, Seattle Sounders SC; Damir Kreilach, Real Salt Lake
Young Player of the Year: Duncan McGuire, Orlando City SC
I already have “Selector’s Guilt” when it comes to this pick.
Yes, Thiago Almada tied for the league lead in combined goals / assists (27) to help Atlanta make the playoffs, but I wanted to take this category at face value. Big things had been expected from Almada, especially after helping Argentina win the World Cup last year, so I wasn’t as impressed by the numbers. Almada performed at a high level before this season began.
McGuire was the only name from this year’s draft that truly pulled his weight, and I felt that deserved recognition. True, McGuire played around half the minutes that Almada played, but he also hammered out 13 goals and 3 assists in that same period. McGuire also led the league in goals and assists per 90 minutes (1.04), the only player to score over 1.0 G+A per 90.
The recognition had to be made, even though I’m certain Almada runs away with the award.
Runners-up: Thiago Almada, Atlanta United; Aidan Morris, Columbus Crew
Newcomer of the Year: Giorgos Giakoumakis, Atlanta United
This choice may have come down to the last match of the season, but it was pretty cut and dry beforehand. Despite a few bumps and injuries during the season, the Greek striker for Atlanta has made waves as the perfect replacement for Martinez.
Giakoumakis scored 45 goals over three seasons with Dutch club VVV-Venlo and Scottish powerhouse Celtic, and the move to MLS hadn’t slowed him too much. While my vote was pretty much set in stone, his brace against a fairly competitive FC Cincinnati squad on Saturday sealed the deal. 17 goals over 27 games in the MLS season feels like a significant stat alone to deserve recognition.
Runners-up: Eduard Löwen, St. Louis City SC; Evander, Portland Timbers
Coach of the Year: Bradley Carnell, St. Louis City SC
It’s hard not to recognize Carnell’s work in St. Louis this season, although people arguing against this honor might note that Carnell had time to work with the pieces in place. This first St. Louis City SC season wasn’t a plane being built while it was in the air. Carnell had the time to get his pieces in place.
Let’s also not dismiss the potential in Carnell—he took over for Chris Armas in September 2020 to pilot New York Red Bulls into the abbreviated postseason and almost knocked out Columbus, the eventual MLS Cup champions.
You could argue that St. Louis took advantage of a weaker-than-perceived Western Conference—13 points separated first place from 10th—but Carnell did make St. Louis the third strongest offense in the league behind Columbus and Atlanta. MLS pundits, myself included, expected St. Louis to struggle at the bottom of the standings, so it feels only fitting to reward the team’s coaching mentality and process.
Runners-up: Pat Noonan, FC Cincinnati; Ben Olsen, Houston Dynamo
MVP: Luciano Acosta, FC Cincinnati
Granted, we’re talking about the local club here, so I tend to skew my vision here, but no matter which way you slice it, Lucho should be the obvious favorite to win.
The potential was there, but the actuals showed a step backward with the possibility of the window closing. Brenner was out the door both mentally and physically this season, and the overall forward position took a bit of a step in reverse. Brandon Vazquez and Alvaro Barreal were getting European attention. The pin keeping everything together was Acosta, and it felt unfair that at times he was locked on Cheat Mode.
Yes, Acosta has improved in offensive categories over the three years at FC Cincinnati (15 G+A 2021, 22 in 2022, 27 in 2023) and actually took a step back in overall assists. However, his progression numbers (carries, passes, and received passes) all improved this season. Acosta was in the 99th percentile in shot-creating and goal-creating actions, second only to Minnesota’s Emanuel Reynoso and Atlanta’s Thiago Almada, respectively. His penalty kicks converted and attempted were up this season, but he only missed once out of eight attempts, still a solid conversion rate for the amount taken.
Simply put, the game changed in FC Cincinnati’s favor with him on the pitch, the first time that could be said about someone from the Orange & Blue since their USL days. The goals scored may not have come in bunches, but the quality and timeliness of them seemed so different this year, and most of them could be attributed to Acosta just being present.
Am I a homer for saying all this? I’ll gladly take that admission of guilt, but Acosta would make any non-playoff team make the postseason.
Runners-up: Denis Bouanga, LAFC; Hector Herrera, Houston Dynamo
Best XI (3-5-2):
Hey, if the 3-5-2 worked for the team that won the Supporters’ Shield, then it works for my Starting XI.
Roman Bürki (STL)
Matt Miazga (CIN)
Kai Wagner (PHI)
Hector Herrera (HOU)
Alvaro Barreal (CIN)
Luciano Acosta (CIN)
Hany Mukhtar (NAS)
Thiago Almada (ATL)
Denis Bouanga (LAFC)
Brian White (VAN)