MLS is back! Almada, Puig, Shaqiri and all of the players to watch this season
From young up-and-comers to World Cup stars, and a few that fit in both categories, there are plenty of interesting players to keep an eye on in MLS this season.
The action kicks off this weekend after a typically chaotic offseason. There are a host of new signings but also some familiar faces in different locations, with MLS having seen several seismic changes in recent months.
And that's without even getting into the events in Qatar, which produced the league's first World Cup winner in Thiago Almada. Could a certain Argentina teammate join him on this list sometime soon? It's too soon to say...
But Messi or no Messi, Almada is far from the only star on offer in MLS these days and there are numerous intriguing storylines to follow as the league gets set to kickoff.
So, with all of that in mind, GOAL is here to run through the most interesting players to watch this season...
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The first active MLS player to win a World Cup, and he's only 21.
Atlanta United have high hopes for the young Argentine heading into 2023 after his 2022 ended with him lifting the World cup trophy next to Lionel Messi. He played limited minutes in Qatar but the fact that he was in Argentina's triumphant squad in the first place speaks volumes for his limitless potential.
After finding his feet a bit last season, the expectation is that Almada will take a big leap forward this season and become one of the better players in MLS.
His six goals and 12 assists were obviously a positive return, but there's reason to believe he could now go nuclear and put up MVP-caliber numbers.
If he does, he won't be long for this league, as European giants will no doubt be watching him closely.
The reigning MLS MVP, but can he do it again?
Mukhtar has been a revelation since Nashville SC moved him into that second-striker role, as he led MLS with 34 goal contributions (23 goals, 11 assists) in 2022. If Nashville get anywhere near a goal, there's a pretty good chance of Mukhtar being involved. No MLS player is as important to his team.
Nashville are expected to be among the contenders once again and, for them to truly make an MLS Cup push, Mukhtar will have to maintain, or perhaps even exceed, his 2022 level.
It didn't take long for Riqui Puig to show MLS what he's all about.
After arriving from Barcelona midseason, the Spanish maestro immediately solidified the LA Galaxy's midfield by establishing himself as one of the top young stars in MLS. He had his struggles at Camp Nou and certainly needs some seasoning, but there's no doubting Puig's quality.
And that's what makes him the player to watch for the Galaxy. You know what you get from Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, even if there are some major question marks on the wing.
Puig, though, is the potential difference-maker, the one that can help the Galaxy move closer to where they expect to be near the top of MLS.
- Inter Miami
They say success is the best revenge, and there's no doubt Martinez will be out for revenge this season.
The Venezuelan traded Atlanta United's Five Stripes for Inter Miami's black and pink, giving the latter a bona fide MLS superstar to replace the retired Gonzalo Higuain. Martinez hasn't quite been the same in recent years due to injury issues, but you can't doubt his determination to prove himself as elite once again.
His play will likely be the difference between success and failure for Miami, who opted for Martinez rather than spending big on an international-based striker. They still may spend big this summer, targeting a certain Argentinian icon perhaps, but Martinez will get his chance to show who he is once again after several difficult seasons.
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2022 was Vazquez's breakout year. 2023 needs to be the year he proves that he's here to stay.
The FC Cincinnati forward scored 18 goals in 2022 – double the amount he'd scored since making his MLS debut in 2017. The 24-year-old striker took an unprecedented leap last season as he rapidly rose up the rankings of the league's most dangerous strikers.
The key, though, is consistency. Teams know who Vazquez is now and many will be a bit more prepared for everything the forward brings to the table. A pure finisher, Vazquez may see fewer opportunities this season as defenses crack down, but can he make the most of them?
Making things even more interesting is Vazquez's future, both on the club and international level. As Europe or Liga MX come calling, Vazquez will also have to commit to either the USMNT or Mexico, likely at some point this year.
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A second consecutive FC Cincinnati forward, and another whose club future is up in the air.
For part of the offseason, it looked like Brenner wouldn't be back for 2023 as interest mounted overseas. The Brazilian starlet looked set to be the next MLS youngster to earn a big-money transfer but here he is, still in Cincinnati.
Like Vazquez, Brenner scored 18 times last season as they formed the league's most dangerous strike partnership. The question is now how long the club can keep hold of those two as interest, particularly in Brenner, continues to evolve.
His countryman Lorenzo Insigne gets most of the headlines in Toronto but Bernardeschi is actually the more intriguing of the two Italians.
Unlike Insigne, who was and remains a legend at Napoli, Bernardeschi was never truly a star in Serie A with either Juventus or Fiorentina, although he did show signs of being a very, very good player. And that's what made his move to MLS so interesting: it didn't feel like he needed to do it.
Upon arriving in MLS, Bernardeschi ran wild, scoring eight goals in 13 matches. He may never put up Sebastian Giovinco numbers – few do – but Bernardeschi emerging as TFC's true star this season looks a safe bet.
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It's been a busy offseason for the Chicago Fire, but not necessarily because of who is currently with the team.
The club sold both Gaga Slonina and Jhon Duran for mega-money, but there are still massive questions about the product they'll put on the field this season. Their best player is, and will have to be, Shaqiri, who will be asked to do a whole lot this year.
The former Liverpool and Bayern Munich midfielder had seven goals and 11 assists in 2022 – a respectable number all things considered – but for the Fire to be much of anything, it'll fall on Shaqiri to play at an MVP-like level.
If you want to bet on this season's best newcomer, Evander is probably your guy.
The 24-year-old midfielder joined the Portland Timbers this summer after emerging as a star in Denmark with Midtjylland and will now look to fill the role left by club icon Diego Valeri. That's a big ask, but Evander certainly has the pedigree and the track record in the Champions and Europa League.
In recent years, there have been some big misses on signings from that level of European league, but Evander looks like he's for real. The Brazilian could be the league's next great No.10.
Arsenal have been sniffing around a player that could be MLS' next big export.
Torres already has a trophy to his name, having lifted Orlando City to the U.S. Open Cup last year. His heroics earned some interest from north London, but he's still in MLS for what will be his second season in Orlando.
At 22, he already has 10 Uruguay caps to his name and could be a vital player for them on the road to 2026.
Indeed, it's hard to shake the suspicion that Torres won't be in MLS much longer, especially if he improves on the nine goals and 10 assists he provided the Lions in 2022.
A lot of eyes will be on how Giorgos Giakoumakis does up top, but the big question for Atlanta comes from their top defender.
Robinson's catastrophic Achilles injury robbed him of basically the entirety of the 2022 season and, more importantly, a World Cup. The centerback is healthy now, though, as he looks to rediscover himself after a legitimately life-altering injury.
When healthy, Robinson may just be the league's best defender, but he'll have to prove first that he is, in fact, healthy. His injury isn't one that's easy to come back from, so we'll have to see how quickly he'll get up to speed in 2023.
This might just be the year Cowell goes from really, really good prospect to really, really good player.
The San Jose Earthquakes star was spectacular for the USMNT in January, showing signs of what makes him such an interesting talent. He's fast, he's direct and, perhaps most importantly, he's seemingly more confident than he has ever been.
That's good news for the Quakes, who look to have a star on their hands. But that's also good news for the USMNT, who could very well give Cowell a look this year as he looks to break out for club and country.
In 2021, Joao Paulo was an MVP candidate but, in 2022, his season got derailed during the Sounders' run to the CONCACAF Champions League title.
The Brazilian is now back, having featured in the Sounders' Club World Cup defeat. He'll feel like a new signing, giving the Sounders one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS after surviving last year without him.
The Sounders, as usual, have plenty of talent all over the field, but it's the return of their star midfielder that will likely make them MLS Cup contenders.
The winger was totally overshadowed last season by the arrivals of Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, but this could be his year.
After a slow start to life in MLS with LAFC, Bouanga started to find his footing, demonstrating why LAFC spent $5 million (£4m) to sign him. And, with Bale and star forward Chicho Arango gone, it'll be up to the Gabon international to aid Carlos Vela in LAFC's attack.
There are questions over that attack, but Bouanga is the player that is most likely to answer them for the defending MLS Cup champions.
Talles Magno and NYCFC already have one MLS Cup but, after several key departures, it is now imperative that the Brazilian becomes their main man.
He's shown flashes since arriving from Vasco de Gama on what always seemed to be a layover on his way to Europe. His haul of seven goals and 10 assists in 2022 were solid, but NYCFC will likely need more.
With Taty Castellanos, Sean Johnson and Maxi Moralez all gone, this is a brand new NYCFC team, and Magno should be their face as he prepares for his own seemingly inevitable departure.
If you're looking for a little bit of fun, John Tolkin is your guy.
With his ever-changing hair and his desire to simply try things on the field, Tolkin is one of the most fascinating players in MLS.
He earned his first USMNT cap in January and, given the left-back situation, he could earn several more this season if he isn't a fixture with the youth national teams.
And then there's the transfer talk, as Tolkin could follow the likes of Tyler Adams to Europe after shining for the New York Red Bulls.
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The Columbus Crew's record signing should be an MVP candidate.
Hernandez joined the Crew in July and immediately became one of the league's most fearsome forwards. The former Watford attacker is an absolute workhorse, who should be better in year two in MLS.
New Crew coach Wilfried Nancy is known for getting the best out of players from his time in Montreal, and he certainly can get a lot out of Hernandez, who could be a Golden Boot contender throughout 2023.
Driussi is Austin FC's star and very well could be the best player in MLS this season.
He contributed to 22 goals last season, helping catapult Austin toward the top of the Western Conference.
With Emiliano Rigoni set to play a bigger role this season, there should be even more room for Driussi to operate at the heart of Austin's attack.
The Argentine recently signed a new contract in Austin, until 2026, and the potential is there for him to become the club's first true legend.
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It's almost impossible to single out just one player from the Philadelphia Union, which is testament to the amount of talent they've collected from all over the place in recent years.
But if there's one guy to really watch out for on last year's MLS Cup runners-up, it's Gazdag.
He was one of two Best XI selections after contributing 22 goals and 10 assists last season, becoming just the sixth MLS player to join the 20-10 club.
The Union attack comes in waves, and it may have even more juice this season as homegrown stars evolve, but Gazdag will likely be the key player once again.
He's played at a World Cup, so what's next for the FC Dallas star?
The 2022 Young Player of the Year will have a new set of expectations in 2023 after taking a massive step forward last season.
He scored 18 times, establishing himself as a legitimate MLS star while adjusting to the No. 9 position on the fly. In the process, he booked his World Cup spot and remains a potential starter for the USMNT up top.
Can he follow up 2022 with an even better 2023? Will Europe come calling now or later? Those questions will likely determine FC Dallas' fate this season.