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Move over Messi: Why Luciano Acosta is MLS’ Most Valuable Player

<span>Photograph: Andy Lyons/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The best player in Major League Soccer this season has been an Argentine, but not that Argentine. While 2023 will forever be remembered as the year Lionel Messi changed the American soccer landscape by joining Inter Miami, compatriot Luciano Acosta has shone brightest of all for the best team in the league.

FC Cincinnati finished dead last in each of their first three seasons as an MLS franchise. Their improvement since then, however, has been dramatic. Acosta has been the central component around which Pat Noonan’s Supporters’ Shield-winning team revolves. His 17 goals and 10 assists are should earn the 29-year-old this year’s MVP award.

There have been other standout performers. Hector Herrera has caught the eye for the Houston Dynamo while Los Angeles FC’s Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga certainly deserves consideration. Thiago Almada, Cucho Hernandez, Hany Mukhtar and Ryan Gauld have also been put forward as MVP candidates.

Nobody has had a greater impact on the outcome of as many matches as Acosta who is a one-man difference-maker in all areas of the game. He is a finisher and a creator, a passer and a dribbler. Noonan has even managed to get his most talented attacking threat to help out on the defensive side. He’s grown into a leader too.

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When Cincy needed one of their players to step up in the first half of the season amid some roster uncertainty, Acosta obliged. His goals alone accounted for 12 points by July, when it started to become clear FC Cincinnati wouldn’t be caught in the Shield standings. Without Acosta, Cincy almost certainly wouldn’t have built the momentum that ultimately carried them through the entire campaign.

Acosta’s numbers have masked a significant drop in Brendon Vazquez’s output from last year as well as the mid-season sale of Brenner to Udinese. Aaron Boupendza has chipped in with five goals, but he only arrived at TQL Stadium in June. For a long part of the campaign, it was on Acosta to drive the team forward.

Highlight reel moments were plentiful. Acosta’s sensational solo dribble and finish from inside his own half against Charlotte FC was one of the goals of the season as was his one-touch lob over Yohei Takaoka against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The give-and-go strike away to Atlanta United in late August wasn’t bad either.

Related: MLS playoff predictions: The championship road runs through Luciano Acosta and Cincinnati

Noonan has built around Acosta, not just as a soccer player, but as a person. The 29-year-old has played a key role in establishing the culture on and off the pitch over the last three seasons with Acosta, who recently took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper to send a message to Cincy’s fans, much more than just a symbolic club captain. FC Cincinnati have one of the most vibrant support scenes in MLS and Acosta understands that.

All this surely makes Acosta an attractive option to Gregg Berhalter who might be able to call up the attacking midfielder to the US men’s national team in the near future. Acosta is reportedly nearing his United States citizenship which would make the Boca Juniors academy product eligible to play for his adopted homeland at international level.

The USMNT could use a player like Acosta to round out its squad which is lacking a natural number 10. Attacking all-rounders like the 29-year-old are hard to find and it’s easy to envisage Acosta linking up with the likes of Christian Pulisic and Folarin Balogun in the final third. Berhalter needs all the talent he can get in the build up to the 2026 World Cup.

Of course, Acosta has more immediate matters – like the MLS playoffs – to concern himself with. FC Cincinnati allowed their form to tail off towards the end of the regular season, but they enter the playoffs as the number one seeds with the soon-to-be-crowned MVP in their team. By almost every metric, Cincy are the MLS Cup favourites.

Only the Seattle Sounders conceded fewer goals than FC Cincinnati over the regular season, highlighting the solid foundations upon which Noonan has built his team. They play with width through Santi Arias and Alvaro Barreal as wing backs while Obinna Nwobodo is one of the best defensive midfielders in the league.

Playoff soccer is notoriously difficult to predict – last season was the first time in five years that MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield was won by the same team – but the field is more open than it has been in recent times. LAFC and the Philadelphia Union are weaker than they were 12 months ago. The Seattle Sounders are old. The Columbus Crew concede goals.

Acosta’s reign as the best Argentine in MLS will probably be a short one. Most expect Messi to refuel over the offseason and return fitter for an Inter Miami team that will have built out a new-look roster for 2024 – Luis Suárez has been strongly linked. For now, though, Acosta isn’t just Argentina’s best in MLS, he’s the best by anyone’s measure.

• This article was amended 27 October 2023 to correct the spelling of Luciano Acosta’s name in the headline.