By Tom Sweezy
The starting 11 for the 2021 MLS All-Star game (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Sounders FC)
On July 19th a group of 26 MLS players will head to our nation’s capital to take on the English Premier League runner-ups, Arsenal FC, for the 2023 version of the MLS All-Star Game. The roster will be put together consisting of 12 players from fan votes, 12 players from manager Wayne Rooney’s selection, and two players from MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s selection. But just for fun… let’s just imagine a world where the man behind MLS Aces (me) gets to select the entire 26-man roster to take on Matt Turner, Martin Ødegaard, Bukayo Saka, and the rest of Arsenal FC. Here are my votes:
Starting Keeper - Roman Celentano (FC Cincinnati)
Backup Keeper - Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders)
For me, FC Cincinnati’s young keeper Roman Celentano has been the best in MLS through 18 weeks as he has commanded his net and led one of the best defenses in the league. Celentano is second in MLS with eight clean sheets as well as finishing second in both goals added and shot-stopping (via the amazing people at American Soccer Analysis) for keepers with over 1,000 minutes played.
Stefan Frei squeaked out a handful of others around MLS but the league leader in clean sheets “won” the backup job. After 18 weeks the veteran is a top 10 keeper in the league in shot stopping and top three in goals added from the position.
Just missed out - Roman Bürki (St. Louis CITY SC), Steve Clark (Houston Dynamo), Đorđe Petrović (New England Revolution)
Starting Left Back & Right Back - John Tolkin (New York Red Bulls) & Alex Roldán
Backup Left Back & Right Back - Kai Wagner (Philadelphia Union) & Paul Marie (San Jose Earthquakes)
The difference in size between my left-back (LB) and right-back (RB) pools was amazingly different. I had five left-backs that I felt could earn a spot on this team with only two RBs really standing out to me. The easy pick on this backline was the Sounder’s Alex Roldan. Roldan is one of the few right-sided defenders who has impacted the game consistently on both ends all season long.
The Sounders also do have one of the better defenses in MLS through 18 weeks. My backup RB option here is Paul Marie who quietly has done it at both fullback positions for the Quakes. Unfortunately, Marie is just one of those MLS lifers who won’t get the All-Star spot he deserves in 2023. For LB, John Tolkin got the nod here. Is this because I got to see him live in 2023 and his on-field presence just stood out to me? Maybe… but he also is statistically one of the best defending fullbacks in MLS (via American Soccer Analysis).
I went with Kai Wagner as my backup LB spot mainly after his recent positive run in MLS action over the last five or so weeks. Wagner beat out a large group of other LBs in the league but when I looked at minutes played and consistency, I had to give it to the German.
Just missed out - Diego Palacios (LAFC) & Daniel Lovitz (Nashville SC)
Starting Centerbacks - Kyle Heibert (St. Louis CITY SC) & Rodrigues (San Jose Earthquakes)
Backup Centerbacks - Jack Elliott (Philadelphia Union) & Robin Jansson (Orlando City SC)
I can already feel your fists clenching at my starting center-back (CB) picks… I will be honest, I don’t care that you are angry. The numbers prove my point and the eyeball test does as well. Both St. Louis and San Jose have proven to have two of the better defenses in MLS to start 2023 and in large part to stellar seasons from Heibert and Rodrigues.
Kyle Heibert has an amazing story and his rise into MLS this season has also seen him rewarded with his first cap for Canada earlier this year. Heibert has been the best true defender on this expansion side in 2023, even outplaying a veteran like Tim Parker (who also has been very good in 2023).
San Jose's Rodrigues stands out to me via the eyeball test. He has been the anchor for this new-look Quakes defense under Luchi Gonzalez. Offensively, the Brazilian has even added almost a goal a game for the California side. My other CBs to make this roster are Jack Elliott and Robin Jansson, two big-bodied Europeans who have consistently been top defensive talent in MLS over the last few years. These two are proving it once again with solid 2023 campaigns.
Just missed out - Jackson Ragen (Seattle Sounders) & Sebastian Ibeagha (FC Dallas)
Starting Defensive Midfielder - Obi Nwobodo (FC Cincinnati)
Backup Defensive Midfielder - Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew SC)
This was maybe my easiest positional group to select outside of RB. I’ll easily select the most talented six in MLS on the best team in MLS. Obi Nwobodo is an absolute force when you watch any Cincy game. His ability to intercept a ball and really just end an opposing team’s attack is almost unmatched in MLS.
The only other defensive midfielder that I feel deserves a shout on the All-Star team is Nwobodo’s Hell Is Real Derby rival, Aidan Morris. The U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder has continued his rise since 2020 and now can cement himself as one of the best in his position in MLS.
Just missed out - Nobody
Starting Attacking Midfielder Duo - Lucas Zelarayán (Columbus Crew SC) & Thiago Almada (Atlanta United FC)
Backup Other Midfielder Options - Héctor Herrera (Houston Dynamo), Eduard Löwen (St. Louis CITY SC), Lucho Acosta (FC Cincinnati), & Carles Gil (New England Revolution)
I mean rounding out a MLS midfield is always a tough task. In my starting eleven I am going with two attacking midfielders in order to get the most talent on the field as I can. One of those two attackers has to be 2022 World Cup winner Thiago Almada. I mean the kid has a league-leading nine assists and in total has 16 goal contributions.
Pairing this young talent with someone who has been overlooked in the MVP conversation, Lucas Zelarayán is a must. Outside of hitting BANGERS this year, Zelarayán has been the consistent goal scorer for a side with Cucho Hernandez and Christian Ramirez on it. The Armenian international has 15 goal contributions so far this 2023 season. Rounding out the bench options for this midfield I added other true 10s like Lucho Acosta (eight goals & three assists) and Carles Gil (six goals & seven assists).
But the two options I love are Eduard Löwen and Héctor Herrera. Not their side’s best attacking or defensive options, but I’d argue their team’s best players so far in 2023. Without these two, I don’t know if we are talking about St. Louis and Houston in the same light as we are currently.
Just missed out - João Paulo (Seattle Sounders) & Dániel Gazdag (Philadelphia Union)
Starting Wingers - Dénis Bouanga (LAFC) & Cristian Espinoza (San Jose Earthquakes)
Backup Wingers - Álvaro Barreal (FC Cincinnati), Amine Bassi (Houston Dynamo), & Lionel Messi (Inter Miami)
Easily the top two wingers in MLS for 2023 have been Gabon international Dénis Bouanga and long-time Quakes staple Cristian Espinoza. Bouanga is tied for the MLS lead in goals with 10 so far as well as tacking on two assists. Add in his 18 key passes and it’s no wonder why he’s heavily involved in the MVP conversation.
Espinoza has been my sneaky dark horse MVP pick all season long as the winger has 13 goal contributions, 40 key passes, and has the most tackles by a true winger in this league with 20. The other Houston Dynamo player to make my All-Star Team is Amine Bassi. The new addition this off-season leads Ben Olsen’s side in scoring and has tactically been one of the most versatile players in all of MLS. I may also be sort of cheating here but I had to get Alvaro Barreal on my roster.
The kid has been playing wingback for Cincinnati, but he is a true winger. With all the left-back options to pick from I decided to add Barreal to my winger core with me “playing” a back four. Finally, I mean… I don’t care if the All-Star Game is the first game he actually plays in MLS, you have to have Messi on the roster.
Just missed out - Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders) & Mateusz Klich (D.C. United)
Starting Striker - Hany Mukhtar (Nashville SC)
Backup Strikers - Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas) & Christian Benteke (D.C. United)
So the striker pool so far this season has been very close. So close in fact that there are about seven strikers that I could realistically include and not be upset. So, I pulled a Gary Smith and decided to just play Hany Mukhtar as a striker! The 2022 MLS MVP has been on fire once again this season as he is tied for the MLS goal-scoring lead with 10 goals.
Mukhtar also has seven assists to his name in his campaign to repeat as MVP. The backup options for me here were tough but Jesus and Benteke had to take it. Ferreira is another player tied atop the MLS league lead in goals with 10, and he tacks on two assists as well this season. Ferreira continues to score at such a high rate in MLS as well as be a top passer, right now with 28 key passes in 18 weeks.
The final striker, for me, had to include a D.C. United pick since they are the side hosting this match. But, that does not mean that Benteke doesn’t deserve this selection. The D.C. striker has eight goals and two assists so far in 2023 being a huge reason why D.C. is back in the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference. Benteke also has 22 key passes on the season for Wayne Rooney’s men.
Just missed out - Giorgos Giakoumakis (Atlanta United), Julián Carranza (Philadelphia Union) & Mikael Uhre (Philadelphia Union)
Tom Sweezy’s Starting XI:
Dénis Bouanga-Hany Mukhtar-Cristian Espinoza; Lucas Zelarayán-Thiago Almada; Obi Nwobodo; John Tolkin-Kyle Heibert-Rodrigues-Alex Roldán; Roman Celentano