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MLS MVP race: 5 attacking midfielders leading the way in chances created

2R27AWR FC Cincinnati's Luciano Acosta (10) reacts after scoring a goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against CF Montreal Wednesday, May 17, 2023, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

The MLS season has reached its half-way stage and as much as the play-off race continues to take shape, so, too, does the list of contenders vying to be MVP.

FC Cincinnati, boosted by an unbeaten home record, sit atop of the Supporters’ Shield and have once again had Luciano Acosta front and centre of their attack. Pat Noonan’s side have fulfilled what many were predicting before the season started that Cincy would be a strong contender after reaching the play-offs for the first time in 2022.

Nashville, Philadelphia and New England have done the same as the teams trailing Cincy at the top of the Eastern Conference, while St. Louis City’s expansion season continues to take all by surprise as the team on top in the Western Conference.

And while St Louis’ Roman Burki and Joe Willis have been in fine form as goalkeepers, at the other end of the pitch it is attacking midfielders who are in good supply in the MVP conversation.

Acosta slots inside the top five players in PFF’s chances created per-90 metric as even after selling striker Brenner to Udinese, Cincy continues to lead the way.

1. Carles Gil, New England Revolution

New England Revolution forward Carlos Gil
2R7BNMM Foxborough, USA. 10th June, 2023. June 10, 2023; New England Revolution midfielder Carles Gil (10) in game action during the first half against Inter Miami CF in Foxborough Massachusetts. Eric Canha/CSM/Sipa USA(Credit Image: © Eric Canha/Cal Sport Media/Sipa USA) Credit: Sipa US/Alamy Live News
Chances created per-90: 3.2

The 2021 MVP winner sets the standard in the metric with 3.2 chances created per-90 and has registered three assists in 16 appearances.

Gil has been key to the Revolution’s efforts in the final third as the league leader in second assists (5), and the MLS’s highest-graded attacking midfielder as a passer — 90.9.

The former Valencia and Aston Villa midfielder has been highly accurate, completing 55% of his 67 through ball attempts and 93% of his standard passes.

2. Thiago Almada, Atlanta United

Chances created per-90: 3.0

Serie A champions Napoli are just one club interested in the MLS’ assists leader, who is widely expected to fetch Atlanta United a new league record transfer fee should he depart the club in the future.

The Argentine’s quality as a passer has seen him earn a 90.0 grade, a marginal improvement on his impressive 89.5 grade from a year ago, en route to amassing eight assists for Atlanta and adding seven goals.

Player Club Assists Chances created p-90 PFF passing grade
Carles Gil New England Revolution 3 3.2 90.9
Thiago Almada Atlanta United 8 3.0 89.7
Luciano Acosta FC Cincinnati 3 2.8 67.4
Lucas Zelarayán Columbus Crew 6 2.8 79.4
Cristian Espinoza SJ Earthquakes 3 2.6 75.3

Almada’s 108 line-breaking passes completed leads all players in the league as does his tally of 970 pass attempts.

Despite trailing Carles Gil on a per-90 basis, Almada has recorded the highest number of chances created overall with 52 — six more than Gil — as he bids to add the MLS Cup to his World Cup winners’ medal.

3. Luciano Acosta, FC Cincinnati

Chances created per-90: 2.8

Lucho Acosta is close to gaining citizenship and becoming eligible for the USMNT as a result. Almost seven years on from arriving in the MLS as a DC United player, Acosta could be a welcome option for the next head coach of the national team as the 2022 MLS assist leader (14) has carried his form into the current season.

Acosta’s 2.8 chances created per-90 from 1,336 minutes played claims third spot in this list, but a passing grade of 67.4 is the lowest of the players on this list and ranks 28th out of 35 qualifiers in his position (min. 300 pass events).

4. Lucas Zelarayán, Columbus Crew

Chances created per-90: 2.8

His goal scored from the half-way line deep into stoppage time against Chicago Fire last week may have Lucas Zelarayán’s shooting ability lauded above all else, but his creative qualities also rank amongst the MLS’ best.

Like Acosta, Zelarayán has created 2.8 chances per-90 and has recorded double the number of assists in his displays for Columbus Crew (6) than the Cincy No.10.

This has led the Argentine to a PFF passing grade of 79.4, the 13th highest at the position, while his shooting grade of 87.2 ranks fourth.

5. Cristian Espinoza, San Jose Earthquakes

Chances created per-90: 2.6

Luchi Gonzalez has Earthquakes fans dreaming of a MLS Cup play-off berth for only the second time in the last six seasons, with Cristian Espinoza instrumental in San Jose’s attack.

Espinoza has set a career-high eight goals for fifth-place Earthquakes, which represents a 38% share of the team’s total number of goals in the Western Conference. As a creative source, Espinoza has been the most-targeted player (987) together with midfielder Jackson Yeuill (976) and has received 13 passes which have broken the opposition defensive line — the highest of any player on this list.

In possession, Espinoza has generated a passing grade of 75.3 and the second-highest crossing grade in the MLS, 89.9.

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