By Tom Sweezy and Sam Vanolinda
Lionel Messi (Photo courtesy of Cisco's Art)
The 2023 Leagues Cup has come and gone. It was the first of its kind. There were many exciting performances throughout the month. Our writers Tom Sweezy and Sam Vanolinda break down an argument for players they think deserve to be in the Leagues Cup Best XI.
GK- Elliot Panicco (Nashville SC)
Tom - There is an argument here for another keeper to be in this spot, but I had to give it to Elliot Panicco. The young American keeper made a name for himself in this tournament by coming up clutch game after game. Panicco subbed in for Nashville SC for the club to go into PKs against Mexican giants Club América. The decision paid off as Panicco would make the key PK saves against Miguel Layun (and with some VAR help) allowing Nashville to advance. Then, Pannico would get the start against Minnesota United making three saves in a 5-0 shutout win. Panicco would have another three-save shutout win, but this time in the semi-finals against C.F. Monterrey. Then even in the final loss to Inter Miami, Pannico would push the opposition to their limits as the PK shootout to decide the winner of the Leagues Cup went to the 11th round! Panicco would save the PK attempt from Victor Ulloa to push things as far as they went. Unfortunately, the man could not convert his own PK attempt against Drake Callender but after an entire tournament of coming in clutch, Panicco deserves this spot.
Sam - Recency bias would say Drake Callender should be in this spot, but throughout the Leagues Cup Panicco has made some crucial saves to get Nashville SC to the final. He gave it his all for Nashville and made the key save against Ulloa before he, unfortunately, couldn’t convert, but he is still the best goalkeeper in this tournament.
LB- Kai Wanger (Philadelphia Union)
Tom - Two players from the Philadelphia Union made this Best XI for the Leagues Cup and if I had to squeak one slightly past the other as far as impact? Kai Wagner takes it for me. Wagner was one of only two standout left backs from this tournament. The German defender would rack up two assists in the Leagues Cup, impacting and helping secure wins in the knockout rounds against the Red Bulls and Querétaro. But defensively, Wagner played a huge role for a defense that only allowed four goals in five games leading up to their rough 4-1 loss to Inter Miami. Even in the club’s third-place game against CF Monterrey, Wagner was one of the best players on the field that helped lead the club to a shutout 3-0 win over the Liga MX side. As far as left backs go, you won’t find many better in the region outside of Wagner.
Sam - A lot of people would argue for Alba, but as Tom said, Wagner made a large impact on both sides of the ball for the Philadelphia Union in this tournament. The 26-year-old was able to contribute two assists and put in a shift defensively until Messi arrived and skewed the stats a little bit.
CB- Serhiy Kystvstov (Inter Miami)
Tom - The second center back on our Best XI was personally the toughest decision for me. There were a lot of center backs that I feel could have been placed here, but one that does deserve some love is Serhiy Kystvstov. I won’t deny that we’ve seen some mistakes from the overall Inter Miami backline, but one solid anchor for the Miami defense was Kystvstov. The Ukraine international defender was the veteran that this club needed if you ask me. For me, he only got better as the competition went on as he had his best performances in the final against Nashville and in the semi-final against Philadelphia. The 32-year-old also grabbed himself an assist against Philadelphia that was a beauty to set up Josef Martinez’s third-minute goal. Do we see the older legs get to Kystvstov at points? Yes, and we saw it against Dallas and Cruz Azul. However, a veteran leader on that backline who lays it all on the line is what we saw from a complete competition point of view.
Sam - The veteran Ukrainian center back, who played 224 matches for Shakhtar Donetsk from 2010-2022, was key in the final for Inter Miami. He showed his experience, winning headers and being a brick wall defensively all night long. He also put up a Fotmob rating of 8.1 against Philadelphia Union, with an assist in the game. Miami would've leaked more goals and potentially would've not even made it to penalties in the final without him.
CB- Hector Moreno (C.F Monterrey)
Tom - He doesn’t physically play next to the right back we have on this list, but we are putting him there for this Best XI. The 35-year-old Mexican defender had a great game in every game during this competition, except for one in my eyes. Moreno was a key part of C.F. Monterrey’s shutout wins against Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers, and Tigres. And even though Monterrey had some mixed performances against Nashville and LAFC, Moreno put in great overall team performances. I would argue if you are looking at complete tournament performances, Moreno was the best in the 2023 version of the Leagues Cup.
Sam - Moreno is an excellent passer from the center-back position, with 87.7% pass completion and 4.21 progressive passes per 90 minutes for Monterrey in Liga MX. He continued to show this in the Leagues Cup as well as his defensive abilities. He took a Mexican team further than any other in the tournament.
RB - Erick Aguirre (C.F Monterrey)
Tom - We have to give some Liga MX players love right? I’m joking around here, but if any club was going to get Best XI representation from Liga MX it was players from C.F. Monterrey. Monterrey put together a very solid tournament even though they didn’t play many of their starters in the 3rd place game against Philadelphia. Monterrey didn't have the best complete defensive performances at times, but we saw some of the best defensive halves from this club, especially against Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders, Tigres, LAFC, and Nashville SC. Aguirre was maybe the best defender on this club’s side this tournament, even racking up an assist against Real Salt Lake. His best performance came against LAFC however, he had four chances created on the offensive end but also put in nine recoveries on the defensive end as well.
Sam - As Tom said, Monterrey represented their league more than any in this competition, and Aguirre was incredibly solid in the right back position.
CM - Jose Martinez (Philadelphia Union)
Tom - José “El Brujo” Martínez proved in the Leagues Cup that he is not only one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS but in the CONCACAF region as well. The 29-year-old Venezuelan continued to do what he does best for Philadelphia, affecting the opposing team’s attackers. Whether he was getting a little physical with the opposing attacker, or he was supporting his backline by getting back for an opposition attack, El Brujo continued to make his magic. He is the prototypical player and if you have him on your team, you love him. But, once you are playing against him, he gets under your skin and your team’s skin quickly! Martinez was one of the main reasons why the Union made it to a Leagues Cup semifinal against Inter Miami.
Sam - Martínez showed what a defensive central midfielder should be in this tournament. He had over 85% passing accuracy in three games and is in the 82nd and 92nd percentile of tackles and interceptions in the MLS this season according to fbref.com. Not only did he make key tackles, but he also was able to connect play with his passing ability, leading the Union to a deep run.
CM - Sergio Busquets (Inter Miami)
Tom - The former Barcelona stars took over the Leagues Cup and this man has a deserved spot in this Best XI. Outside of not looking a step slow even at 35 years old, Busquets was able to connect with the rest of his Miami teammates well, putting on a passing clinic. He was able to defend intelligently, getting into the right channels at the right time. Busquets showed his world-class abilities in so many different ways for Miami in this tournament. But now, he just has to match his buddies Messi and Alba in getting his first goal for his new club!
Sam - Busquets showed in this tournament why he is one of the most underrated players in the history of the game. His contributions might not show up in the basic statistics, but his ability to slow down the game and connect the midfield and attack is still at an elite level. He was the perfect player to accommodate Messi in Miami.
CAM- Lionel Messi (Inter Miami)
Tom - Without a doubt, the first name written into this Best XI is Inter Miami’s star attacker, Lionel Messi. The Argentine showed out in his first seven games for Inter Miami in this tournament. Messi would go on to win the tournament’s best player award as well as the golden boot, leading the way with 10 goals. This man scored in every single game he played in this tournament, coming up clutch with game-winning free kicks and hitting home penalty kicks when needed. You would feel like Messi’s blurb here would be one of the longer ones in this article, but to be honest, it’s the shortest and maybe easiest to write. The greatest player of all time has arrived at MLS and the Leagues Cup was just an appetizer for what we are going to see.
Sam - Messi is a no-brainer, arriving in the tournament with 11 goal contributions in seven matches and lifting the trophy. He showed the world what he is going to do in the MLS: dominate. Whether it's cutting inside and curling balls into the top corner or providing that perfectly weighted pass for his teammates, he made the rest of the competition, including Charlotte FC, look like they were running in slow motion compared to him.
LW- Denis Bouanga (LAFC)
Tom - I mean Denis Bouanga is a star in literally every competition he has played in since arriving at LAFC. From CONCACAF Cup (formerly CONCACAF Champions League), the MLS season, U.S. Open Cup, and now the Leagues Cup… we’ve seen Bouanga just go out and score in loads for the 2022 MLS Cup Champions. LAFC did have a meltdown in their Quarterfinal game against C.F. Monterrey, but the attack the entire competition was dominated by Bouanga as he scored against; Monterrey, Real Salt Lake (twice), and FC Juarez (three times). Add into that fact that he also had three assists?! It's easy to see why the Gabon international attacker made this Best XI.
Sam - If LAFC could’ve made it past C.F. Monterrey we might be talking about Bouanga being the MVP of the Leagues Cup. He was surpassing Messi’s pace with goal contributions, with nine in just three games. In those three games, he had Fotmob ratings of 9.7, 9.4, and 9.0. The Gabonise international could not put a foot wrong in this tournament and had to make the team despite being eliminated in the Quarterfinals.
ST- Hany Mukhtar (Nashville SC)
Tom - You can credit Nashville SC’s final run to a lot of players, and there were a ton who allowed Gary Smith’s side to make it to the final against Inter Miami CF. But, there is one player that without him, I don’t think we see any type of success in Nashville SC’s MLS history at all, Hany Mukhtar. Every game this tournament for Nashville SC was dominated by Hany and what he could do on the offensive end. Hany only had two goals in this competition overall, but he ended up leading the tournament with six assists! Hany was creating constant chances for all of the pieces around him and the reigning MLS MVP proved that he is one of the best players in the league, even while going head-to-head with Lionel Messi’s side in the final.
Sam - The Nashville talisman Hany Mukhtar continued to show why he is one of the best players in the MLS in the Leagues Cup. He put on his Chris Paul boots in this tournament, dishing out assists for fun, with six total and three against Minnesota United. Nashville would’ve been nowhere near the finals without the supreme technical ability that Muhktar possesses.
RW- Bongokuhle Hlongwane (Minnesota United)
Tom - Before this Messi guy showed up, Bongokuhle “Bongi” Hlongwane was scoring in bunches for Minnesota United in this Leagues Cup! Finishing with a Quarterfinals appearance, Hlongwane led Minnesota in the attack with seven goals, all of them coming inside of the 18-yard box. There is no doubt in my mind that the young South African attacker proved to himself, his teammates, and the fans of Minnesota that he is a game-in and game-out starter for this club for the rest of the season. His impact on the wing was felt just as much as their star-attacking midfielder Emmanuel Reynoso.
Sam - Hlongwane is an electric player. His first goal against Minnesota shows what type of player he is. A solo run from the right wing including a Ronaldo chop and a nutmeg, before he made his way into the box and finished Camly. “Bongi” is the type of player that makes football exciting, and he showed that in this tournament.
Jordi Alba (Inter Miami)
Robert Taylor (Inter Miami)
Emmanuel Reynoso (Minnesota United)
Jacob Shaffelburg (Nashville SC)
Drake Callender (Inter Miami)
German Berterame (C.F. Monterrey)
Jack Elliott (Philadelphia Union)
Nathan Harriel (Philadelphia Union)
Esteban Andrade (C.F. Monterrey)