MLS Players to Watch in 2023
Each of the 29 teams taking part in the 28th season of Major League Soccer have players in their ranks whom they hope will make the difference in their initial quest in the 2023 campaign, which is to make the post-season playoffs.
That will be the aim of every side as they assemble their rosters within the MLS rules and regulations, with the ‘Designated Players’ (DP) often tipped to be the stars of the show.
While it’s true the DPs are the highest paid players, they are not always the most eye-catching. Each team will be hoping to get their money’s worth from those big-money players, but they also need support from elsewhere, and there are plenty of others waiting in the wings to be the stars in 2023.
New signings are naturally among the most interesting players to look out for as fans anticipate a seamless introduction to the team and an instant impact. There are also the usual crop of young players coming through at various clubs across the league.
Here are six players who fall into various categories to look out for in Canada and the United States in 2023.
On arriving in MLS from Barcelona midway through last season, Riqui Puig immediately showed what a class act he can be in the center of midfield.
He pulled the strings from the middle of the park for LA Galaxy with faultless passing of all shapes, sizes, and angles, immediately becoming one of the best playmakers in a league already full of good creative players.
The passing and creative side of his game was off the charts in the 10 regular season games he played towards the end of the 2022 campaign. Of all players to play at least 1,000 minutes of MLS action across regular and play-off games, Puig averaged the highest tally of successful open-play passes per 90 minutes (65.4). He also featured ninth among the same group of players for progressive open-play passes per 90 (6.3).
On top of this, he was also carrying his team forward with the ball at his feet, jinking through midfield before setting up others. Of the 15 outfield players to play 1,000 plus minutes of MLS action in 2022 for Galaxy, Puig was the standout leader for carries per 90 (25.8), progressive carries per 90 (11.8), as well as leading the distance metrics for both at the club (296m per 90 in total, 126m/90 progressive).
Puig’s play doesn’t always translate to direct chance creation as seen in basic numbers such as assists or even key passes, but his creativity is evident, and vital, nevertheless. That more obvious creativity might emerge in MLS in 2023, more so than it did during his time in Spain, as the Galaxy will look to feed most of their attack through him at some point in each move.
Puig has become an MLS version of what Kevin De Bruyne is often described as: a “free eight” – a midfielder who is part of the midfield three when the team shape is set, but in possession has a license to roam forward and create chances or pick the ball up in deeper positions and take the team forward via passing or dribbling.
For the Galaxy, whose out-of-possession shape is often 4-4-2, this saw Puig sometimes take up a defensive position alongside the striker (usually Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez) something De Bruyne has also ended up doing for Manchester City at times.
The extra attacking impetus is evident in Puig’s shooting stats from last season, which were also on the high side for an MLS midfielder. He averaged a shot every 32 minutes in MLS last season, which was only less frequent than Chicharito (31) and Efraín Álvarez (29) at the club.
Galaxy fans will be eagerly anticipating a full season with the Spaniard controlling the play, dictating the tempo and, they hope, propelling the team back to the upper echelons of MLS.
Los Angeles FC
On the quiet, or perhaps not given his team won the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup last season, 23-year-old Jose Cifuentes was one of the best midfielders in MLS in 2022. He’s been one of the biggest prospects in the league since his arrival in Los Angeles from Ecuador in 2020 and could be considered one of the players most primed for a move to Europe.
He might not grab the headlines in LA in the way Carlos Vela, Gareth Bale, or even Cristian Arango did last year, but even at a relatively young age, he’s become one of the reliable mainstays for the Californian MLS powerhouse and one of the standout players in the league.
Though they are not identical players, there are some similarities with Puig over at the Galaxy. Cifuentes slots into the LAFC style as a player who looks to get the ball through midfield to attack directly. The pair on opposite sides of the LA divide are similarly creative but there is something more urgent in Cifuentes’ game which leads to a lower pass success rate compared to Puig, but more activity off the ball and some high pressing.
That’s not to say he isn’t as effective and as clever a playmaker as Puig, he just goes about it in a slightly different manner. Puig will rarely misplace a pass, while Cifuentes will naturally do so occasionally given the way LAFC play in a more up-tempo, high-intensity style.
Across MLS in 2022, Cifuentes was LAFC’s second-most involved player in open-play attacking sequences (150), behind only Carlos Vela (159). The Ecuadorian had a near even split with regards to stages of his involvement, however, showing his importance to his side’s overall play – 54 of his involvements saw him take the shot, with the same number of involvements seeing his only role being in the build-up to the move, while 42 of his involvements were the creation of a chance for a team-mate.
He can create openings by carrying the ball as much as he can through passing and can regularly be found in the final third. A lot of LAFC’s ball progression is down to him, with only seven central midfielders across MLS having a higher progressive ball carry distance total than his 2,016m in the 2022 season.
Seeing as Cifuentes is regularly tipped as one of the players most likely to get a big move from MLS to Europe, you wouldn’t be surprised to see turn up at a team like Brighton before, suddenly, half the top teams in Europe are interested in him. For now, he’s still in LA as a vital part of the team that look to defend their crown in 2023.
Tipping a DC United player as one to watch is a risk given how poor the team have been in recent seasons. They could easily be the place a promising player goes to stagnate, or where a star player goes to burn out. On the other hand, there is a big opportunity at this club for players to come in and help turn this ailing team around and make a name for themselves in the process. Mohanad Jeahze’s character, temperament, and style of play mean he is far more likely to fall into the latter camp.
Arriving from Hammarby, the 25-year-old Sweden-born Iraq international is a technically sound left-footed player who could also help galvanize the team. Head coach Wayne Rooney will be looking for strong characters and Jeahze fits this mould. It is also handy that he is a proficient, creative left-sided player who can also be a threat from set pieces.
His technical ability means he can work in midfield areas from his position on the left and is sound enough defensively for Rooney to better set up with a back four – a formation he used towards the end of last season at DC who had played a back three/five earlier in the year.
The addition of Jeahze should give Rooney plenty of options in 2023 as he gets closer to the style of player he wants in each position — something DC hope will see a turnaround in fortunes after they finished bottom of the pile in 2022.
One of the outstanding ‘defenders’ in MLS last season was Kai Wagner of Philadelphia Union. Jeahze has the potential to make a similar impact in the league and might appear similar in style. DC United hope he will provide similar output, too, as Wagner was one of the most creative players in the league last season from left-back.
The signs are good. Only two players assisted more goals in the Swedish Allsvenskan last season than Jeahze’s nine, and both of those were midfielders – Nahir Besara and Moustafa Zeidan with 10 assists apiece. Jeahze also sent in 128 open-play crosses from left-back which was more than any other player in the Swedish top-flight in 2022.
And of players to play at least 1,500 minutes of league action for Hammarby in 2022, Jeahze’s average of 4.5 open-play attacking sequence involvements per 90 was the joint-third highest.
Those comparisons with Wagner are again evident in all this.
It might be difficult for Jeahze due to him joining a team that struggled so much last year, but as an individual player he certainly has the potential to be among the best in the league in his position. The Scandinavian leagues should be a good region for MLS clubs to scout, and as one of the Allsvenskan’s best players Jeahze should be a good, savvy signing for DC United.
New York Red Bulls
In Belgian forward Dante Vanzeir, New York Red Bulls hope to have acquired a goalscorer who can take them to the next level and seriously challenge for trophies in 2023. Despite being present in the league since its first season in 1996, when they were known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, the New Jersey-based club are yet to lift an MLS Cup title.
Much of the Red Bulls’ attacking output last year came from Scottish winger Lewis Morgan while striker and DP, Patryk Klimala, only managed five goals in 2022. Vanzeir replaces Klimala for 2023, and coach Gerhard Struber will hope his new man will improve greatly on his predecessor’s return and compete with Morgan in the team’s goalscoring charts.
Based on Vanzeir’s time at previous club, Union Saint-Gilloise, the signs are good that this could be the case.
Since the start of the 2021-22 Belgian Pro League season, the 24-year-old has been one of the most prolific attacking players in that league and is in the top 10 for non-penalty goal involvements and non-penalty shot involvements. He has already netted 10 goals for Union SG in their 2022-23 campaign, so is arriving at the club in confident goalscoring form.
The Red Bulls had the joint second-best defence in the Eastern Conference last year, conceding 41, but their total of 50 goals scored was 22 behind the Eastern table-toppers Philadelphia Union. They need to up that goal difference if they’re to be a force.
Having occasionally played on the wing, Vanzeir boasts a good amount of pace and this, combined with good off-ball movement, can make him tricky for defenders to keep track of. In this sense, he could be compared to the Union’s Mikael Uhre who joined the league from Brøndby last season and netted 13 goals.
If the Red Bulls can find their own regular, consistent goalscorer who looks convincing in the final third and comfortable in front of goal, or at least one who pulls opposition defences around to create space for others, they could turn into a real challenger in MLS. Vanzeir is as good an attempt as any to find such a player, and if he can link up well with Morgan and Brazilian midfielder Luquinhas, the Red Bulls’ attack could be formidable in 2023.
Another playmaker? The 20-year-old Ecuadorian attacking midfielder Pedro Vite is the youngest player on our list and one who may be about to have his breakthrough season.
Despite finishing ninth in the Western Conference last season, the Whitecaps’ Canadian Championship victory meant qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League in 2023 (Canadian clubs now qualify via their own tournaments rather than on the back of MLS). It gives the team more games in this coming year, which means more chances for Vite to show his talent, as well as the chance to do so at continental level (which is also useful for work permit purposes should English clubs be interested in the future).
He began last season as a regular bench player and continued as one who was in and out of the team, but a run of five games as a starter towards the end of the campaign saw him score twice and register an assist, giving a hint of what might be to come in 2023.
With youth comes an element of inconsistency, but there is no doubt the talent is there. He can be a playmaker from the No. 8 position as well as the 10, or out wide on the right. In this regard, he could be compared to Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott. Vite is similarly left-footed and, at just a year older, of a similar age.
The Ecuadorian is on a similar wavelength to Vancouver’s Scottish attacking playmaker Ryan Gauld, and if Vite can be in midfield what Gauld is in attack, then the team on Canada’s west coast could pose an attacking threat to any opposition in MLS.
There can be a slightly different dynamic in MLS compared to other leagues around the world which can suit young players such as Vite. Along with the physical test, there is a certain freedom and a lack of pressure that can be good for young players to find the space they need to develop, and also for young players to literally find the space they need on the pitch to play. In 2023 Vite could appear more regularly in the Whitecaps lineup and be given the chance to make the most of that space.
MLS has long been a home for Argentinian players, and in recent years soccer talent arriving from the South American country has given the league a distinctly Argentine flavor.
Since 2014, Argentinian has been the most common nationality in the league after the home nations – America and Canada – and in 2015 Argentine players even outnumbered Canadians.
Orlando City has had a South American touch to its roster since its first season in MLS in 2015, and this is especially the case in 2023. One such new signing is 24-year-old Argentine Martín Ojeda.
The left-footed attacker might be useful cutting in from the right, but he has played regularly on the left as well as through the middle. A year earlier, in 2021, he had a breakthrough season and reached double figures for goals scored with 15, along with four assists across all stages of the Argentina Primera.
Across all stages of the Argentinean top flight in 2022, Ojeda attempted the most shots (151) and created the most chances (137) of any player. Of his total chances created, 64 came from open play, another league high, meanwhile only Sebastián Villa (14) assisted more goals than Ojeda (13) in 2022.
Ramiro Enrique, 21, also arrives from the Argentine Primera División, joining from Banfield and taking the number seven shirt. Orlando fans will be looking forward to seeing how these new signings link up with players such as their Uruguayan stars Facundo Torres and Mauricio Pereyra, as well as returning 21-year-old Argentine Gaston Gonzalez who signed last year but was injured shortly before he arrived.
There’s keen anticipation of this new season in Orlando under Colombian head coach Óscar Pareja as last year’s US Open Cup winners look to make their mark in MLS in 2023. Ojeda could play a key role.
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