Picking a midseason MLS Best XI

MLS All-Star voting closes tonight, Wednesday, June 14. With a mandated 4-3-3 formation and questionable positional designations, voters aren’t afforded much flexibility with how they cast their ballots.

At the midway points of the 2023 MLS season, we at Broadway Sports Media decided to rectify this. Ben Wright, Chris Ivey and Valair Shabilla each picked our own Best XIs, aggregating the results to come up with a single team. Being named to this highly prestigious eleven will certainly make up for the disappointment of any player who isn’t selected to the actual All Star roster.

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2023 midseason MLS Best XI

Goalkeeper – Joe Willis
Nashville SC

Willis leads MLS with just 12 goals allowed and is third on the list with six clean sheets. In years past it may have been easy to chalk this up to his elite defensive unit, Willis has been called on more than ever before in Nashville. He’s faced 65 shots and saved 53, for a league-best save percentage of 83.1%.

Left back – Álvaro Barreal
FC Cincinnati

Barreal has been arguably the best outside back in MLS this season. The Argentine youth international has already contributed an impressive five assists and two goals in 17 matches, and has been a massive part of Cincinnati’s dominance in the first half of the year.

He also does stuff like this:

Center back – Tim Parker
St. Louis CITY SC

St. Louis entered MLS with low expectations, and have blown those out of the water so far. Currently on top of the Western Conference table, only LAFC (14), Cincinnati (16) and Nashville (12) have allowed fewer goals than their 17.

Veteran center back Tim Parker has started 14 of St. Louis’s 16 matches and has locked down the backline, bringing veteran leadership to the expansion team.

Center back – Jack Maher
Nashville SC

Walker Zimmerman typically grabs the headlines, but in his first season as a full-time starter, Jack Maher has been Nashville’s most consistent and reliable defender. With Zimmerman missing six games due to injury, Maher has stepped up and lead a backline on pace for a historic season.

Maher leads all MLS players, regardless of position, with an 84.6% tackle success rate. He’s also grown more assured on the ball, completing 88.7% of his passes, the ninth-highest rate among MLS center backs. At just 23 years old, he’s quietly turning into one of the better defenders in the league.

Right back – Julian Gressel
Vancouver Whitecaps

Did we shoehorn Gressel into this lineup? Maybe. Does he deserve to be here? Absolutely.

After playing mostly as a right back, Gressel has been used as a box-to-box midfielder in Vancouver’s system. He still tends to drift wide, where he can whip crosses into the box. He’s added three goals to his five assists, and earned a call up to the USMNT Gold Cup roster.

Center midfield – Ilie Sánchez

Ilie has been a consistent presence in LAFC’s midfield, while injury, form and rotation have kept the other two spots in Steve Cherundolo’s three-man midfield in flux. He’s been instrumental, not just in LAFC’s run to the Concacaf Champions League final, but in keeping the Black and Gold in third place in the Western Conference during their cup run.

Ilie has played in all 14 of LAFC’s league matches, with only Dénis Bouanga and Diego Palacios playing more minutes. He’s been the heartbeat of LAFC yet again this season, and has elevated the entire team. He’s irreplacable.

Center midfield – Eduard Löwen
St. Louis CITY SC

Like St., Löwen didn’t enter MLS with high expectations. He’s blown those out of the water. Five goals. Six assists. 31 tackles won, the third-most in the league. 122 progressive passes, the seventh-most.

He has been absolutely crucial to how CITY play, and is the type of all-action, box-to-box midfielder that adds tempo and urgency to everything they do.

Left wing – Cristian Espinoza
San Jose Earthquakes

While he’s cooled off a bit since the early part of the season, Espinoza has played at an MVP level for much of the season. His eight goals and five assists have him firmly in the Golden Boot race, and he’s among the best in MLS at receiving the ball in dangerous positions.

It’s been six matches since Espinoza found the score sheet. He’s certainly not in the blistering form we saw to start the season. But he showed a different level at the start of the year. If he can get back to that in the second half of 2023, look out.

Attacking midfield – Hany Mukhtar
Nashville SC

There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said. Mukhtar leads MLS in combined goals and assists for the third consecutive year. He’s the most dangerous open field in the league, maybe even league history. He does it all for Nashville on a weekly basis, despite every team knowing exactly where the danger comes from.

With 10 goals and seven assists already in 2023, Mukhtar is in the middle of one of the best three season stretches ever seen in MLS. Might he become the first back-to-back MVP in league history?

Right wing – Lucho Acosta
FC Cincinnati

Lucho Acosta certainly won’t let Mukhtar take the 2023 MLS MVP award without a fight. He’s been essential for Cincinnati, who lead the Supporters’ Shield race by eight points and have been far and away the best team in MLS through the first half of the year. He’s also one of the few players in MLS capable of this:

With Brenner injured and transferring out of Cincinnati, and Brandon Vázquez slowing down significantly from his 2022 pace, Acosta has stepped up even more. Eight goals, three assists, and a leadership role that doesn’t show up in the stats sheet, Acosta has been a joy to watch.

Forward – Dénis Bouanga

Dénis Bouanga is a machine. He has 10 goals and two assists in just under 1,100 league minutes. Add in his Golden Boot-winning performance in Concacaf Champions League, and he’s already managed a staggering 17 goals and five assists in 22 games.

The craziest thing about Bouanga is that is doesn’t seem like he’s playing at his highest level. He drifts in and out of matches and misses his share of chances, but he gets in lethal positions for 90 minutes every week and pops up with a goal virtually every time he steps on the field. He’s the best goal scorer in MLS right now.

Honorable mentions

Roman Bürki (St. Louis CITY SC), Richie Laryea (Toronto FC), Kai Wagner (Philadelphia Union), João Paulo (Seattle Sounders), Hector Herrera (Houston Dynamo), Thiago Almada (Atlanta United), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Julian Carranza (Philadelphia Union), Giorgos Giakoumakis (Atlanta United)

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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