Why Messi in MLS has helped shine spotlight on MVP-elect Acosta

Luciano Acosta isn’t thinking about it. Well, that’s not quite true. The thought that he could be Major League Soccer‘s MVP this season has occurred to him, and why wouldn’t it?

The Argentine leads the league in goals with 15 and only three players have more assists than his 13. With FC Cincinnati capturing the Supporters’ Shield last weekend, Acosta is the best player on the best team. So yeah: he’s considered what it would feel like being MVP once or twice, but it’s not the primary goal.

“I’m not going to lie. Obviously you think, when you do things well, that you could win, but it’s not something I, like, anxiously desire or anything,” Acosta told ESPN. “If it comes, it would be really nice personal recognition, but you always aim for more important things like the Supporters’ Shield and now winning MLS Cup.”

Positive attention can be nice, especially considering he’s certainly not the most famous Argentine attacker in MLS after Lionel Messi‘s midseason arrival to Inter Miami.

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Paradoxically, Messi’s arrival actually stole the spotlight from Acosta as one of the league’s biggest stories of 2023, but it also made sure more light shined on him as the eyes of the soccer world, especially those in Argentina, turned to see what exactly was happening in MLS. What was happening, and what continues to happen even as Messi works through a knock that has kept him out of the past three matches for Inter Miami, is Acosta continually producing jaw-dropping moments.

There has been something for everyone who has tuned in back home.

Are you more of a Diego Maradona fan because of his fantastic runs? Acosta offered up a run from midfield that saw him beat an entire back line and the Charlotte FC goalkeeper.

More of a Messi stan with his keen eye for an impossible pass? Take your pick from any number of link-ups that resulted in goals, the standout perhaps a pass through traffic to Santiago Arias in a July rally to beat Nashville SC.

The 29-year-old is still far from the heights those Argentine legends were able to reach, but he’s getting more attention than past South American arrivals in MLS.

“When I got here, you saw that the league wasn’t being watched or appreciated in many parts of the world,” Diego Valeri, an Argentine midfielder who became beloved with the Portland Timbers between 2013 and 2021, said to ESPN. He now works on the league’s broadcasts. “Obviously, the fact the best player in the history of the world is in this league and playing for Inter Miami has drawn a lot more looks from people, not just in Argentina but all over the world.”

Acosta definitely has been feeling more attention from back home since Messi’s arrival, and not just because of their showdown in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals in late August, a game in which Acosta opened the scoring but Cincinnati lost on penalty kicks after a 3-3 draw. “Messi is a revolution in soccer where wherever he goes, people will talk about where he goes, the teams he’ll face, the Argentine players in that league,” Acosta said. “Obviously, a lot more people are calling me than before, but I’m trying to keep my feet on the ground and stay on the same, correct path.”

He’s not the only one fielding more calls. While South American imports are nothing new, it’s been a huge year for Argentine players in MLS.

Atlanta United‘s Thiago Almada leads the league in assists with 16 and also has garnered some noise for MVP. Alan Velasco and FC Dallas nearly knocked Messi & Co. out of Leagues Cup, with Velasco earning a call from the Albiceleste in September to train with the senior squad and suit up with the U23s. Emanuel Reynoso missed the start of the season, but still has registered six goals and a pair of assists in 15 games played for Minnesota United.

The common thread beyond nationality is lining up as a team’s creative center, being that player who a team wants to feed, knowing that when the ball gets to their feet something special will happen and scoring chances will be created.

“You have teams that play in a way that still appreciates having a [number] 10, having an attractive playmaker,” Valeri said. “For me, it’s a characteristic I love. It’s something that sets the league apart that we should conserve.”

Don’t expect things to change any time soon, with teams likely to go in search of a player who can be their Acosta. For now, Cincinnati has locked up their genuine article, announcing in September that they’ve signed their captain to a contract extension that will keep him in Ohio through 2026, with an option for 2027.

While he has performed well in previous stops, including with Atlas, D.C. United and Boca Juniors, he has raised his level this season, something he attributes to the staff, his teammates and the environment in Cincinnati. “I think it’s a bit of everything that has helped me have a season like I’m having this year,” he said.

It’s the type of season that makes a player start to think, Maybe I am the best player in the league this season. Maybe I can help bring joy to those fans so starved of success. Maybe it’s OK to let myself dream about lifting an individual award in addition to the team triumphs.

Even in a league boasting Messi, Acosta has earned that.

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