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The Mid-Season Artisan's Choice XI
My Favorite Players of the 2023 Season, Based Entirely on Fun and Artistry
I forgot to put in an All-Star Ballot again. I do this every year, I think intensely, I have plans and metrics and philosophies I bring to it, but inevitably, I fall to my knees at the pressure inherent to the discipline. Who am I to say who is best? Who am I to declare the all-stars? Me? I am to say these men are all-stars, get their game on, go play, et cetera, and so on? I am but a man, here.
However, I know what I like. The guys I’m honoring here are providing panache, artistry, joie de vivre, soul to the game, these are the guys that I tell people less entrenched in this whole thing than I to look out for on the drive to matches. Skill and talent are an expectation and duly noted, but effort and spirit are what I come for, and what I’m honoring here midway through the 2023 season. There are a few players who have something of an emeritus status, guys like Nouhou Tolo, Maxi Urruti, and the unfortunately injured Tommy McNamara, who should be noted as significant to the development of the Artisan’s Choice, but will not be present in this one.
Brian White (Vancouver Whitecaps FC)
Nobody does it like Brian White. Brian White is almost always right where he needs to be -- it's really an impressive thing to watch his movement over the course of a match. A lot of the time, it translates to scoring, but he has some of the worst fortune of anyone in the league when it comes to actually putting the balls into the net, he's the inverse of Sebastian Driussi last year or Denis Bouanga from like two months ago. It doesn't seem to faze him, though -- he just keeps getting himself right where he needs to be, and on the nights when it does come together, he's one of the best strikers in MLS.
Justin Meram (Charlotte FC)
Anybody who not only doesn't celebrate but earnestly apologizes for scoring against an old club is good in my book. Justin Meram is 34 years old, in his thirteenth season in MLS, on his fifth team, and in the midst of what feels like his third late-career renaissance with a surprisingly dynamic Charlotte team.
Jeong Sang-Bin (Minnesota United FC)
I watched this man, at the end of what I believe was his first ever match with the Loons, fall to the artificial turf floor in disappointed exhaustion and sit with his head in his hands for a solid ten seconds after nearly, but not quite scoring to steal a road point in a mid-May match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. To show this sort of emotion in a match that some might be tempted to regard as meaningless or unimportant endeared him to me, and the relentless energy that he brings to every game he's played since has only furthered cemented my appreciation of the Korean international.
Bongokuhle Hlongwane (Minnesota United FC)
He kept the Loons scoring when they were burdened by the absence of Emanuel Reynoso and the presence of Luis Amarilla, and the presence of mind he shows in coming up with different dances for each of them is truly admirable as well.
Corey Baird (Houston Dynamo FC)
I am aware that I am one of few people that are this interested in this whole deal, and this has helped me only sparingly (I was able to very quickly pull up the picture of the two crew fans lighting the smoke bomb in a bathroom stall to convince my friend that soccer fans could be as unhinged as Anime fans once, the “Did you know Gil-Scott Heron's dad broke the color barrier in American soccer?” factoid is also always a hit), and one of those times was at a January 2019 USMNT friendly in Phoenix, when someone asked “Who the hell is Baird?” and I could say “He's from Real Salt Lake, he's been alright, could be pretty good in a few years.” And you know what? He has been pretty good this year with this resurgent Houston team.
Kei Kamara (Chicago Fire FC)
He is one of the guys who really got me into soccer as a teenager, and I appreciate, as I grow ever older, any time that I get to see a guy I watched in high school succeed in athletic competition. I also feel kinship with anyone else who moved out of Canada bitterly.
Nico Gioacchini (St. Louis CITY SC)
It is truly incredible how Gioacchini's career has turned here in St. Louis. He went from a goalless season in Ligue 1 to a difficult stint in Orlando to a string of wonderful performances with St. Louis. You are all very fortunate that I am from Kansas City, because, were I approaching this neutrally, I would be annoyingly verbose, shoving out paragraph after paragraph about the romanticism of how many otherwise overlooked, written-off players like Gioacchini have shined with the Allcaps. Luckily for you, envy holds my tongue ever so slightly.
Jacob Shaffelburg (Nashville SC)
Gary Smith's merry band of Hany Mukhtar and the Pan-Concacaf All-Stars gets most of its goals from the only player I named in the preceding part of the sentence. Hany also assists, and several of those have found their way to the feet of Jacob Shaffelburg, who's parlayed a fast start to the season into a Canada national team call-up.
Federico Bernardeschi (Toronto FC)
Anybody who gets suspended for rebellious vaping, accuses teammates of being the coach's son regardless of whether they are actually the coach's son, gets envious of teammates for getting clothing deals and going to a hotel in San Jose to appear in league promotional materials, and even then still underperforms is worth watching in my book — or at least, I do end up watching them.
Bryce Duke (CF Montreal)
This is a young man who grew up in the suburbs of Phoenix, played youth soccer in Salt Lake City, signed his first professional deal in Los Angeles, and then was traded to Miami last year. This is a warm weather kid who, ironically or something like that, has really turned up the heat on his career once since his move up north of the border. He had the misfortune of being a part of a trade that baffled the media – Montreal gave up their best defender and a lot of money for he and Ariel Lassiter, but Duke's been worth the price, or at least he's been worth the price of admission with the Club de Foot.
Conor Ronan (Colorado Rapids)
Oh, but there is nothing more endearing to me than a midfielder who is very good trying very hard to drag a very bad team along. Playing for the Colorado Rapids in any case gets a player overlooked, which might have artificially moved him up my ranks here. Somebody on this damnable Rapids team is interesting, and I will take this opportunity to say as much.
Gaston Brugman (LA Galaxy)
Oh, but there is nothing more endearing to me than a midfielder who is very good trying very hard to drag along a very bad team.
Nemana Radoja (Sporting KC)
The fatal flaw of Sporting Kansas City is that they fall to pieces without a good Central Defensive Midfielder and also employ about one and a half Central Defensive Midfielders per season, so if one of them gets injured, or signs for Venezia, or fucks up so badly that he gets subbed on and then promptly subbed off in a thirty minute span in the 2022 season opener in Atlanta, then they're fucked. The returns of Gadi Kinda and Alan Pulido from injury in aarly May were significant for Sporting KC's turnaround, but Radoja's return provided foundational stability from which those two players' excellence could grow.
Miguel Perez (St. Louis CITY SC)
When the year started, this kid was in school! He scored goals for a professional soccer team and then went to school, took College Algebra and Sociology or something the next day! How can I not give my heart to that?
Andrew Gutman (Atlanta United FC)
Gutman seems to be something of a scapegoat for Atlanta fans, which is unfortunate because I like watching him, he's very fast and compact (which combines with the Mercedes-Benz Dome turf to trigger what we in the business call the Darren Sproles effect, where a fast and compact guy running on artificial turf [crucially here this was the green carpet at the old Kansas State football stadium] looks like the fastest man in history), the ball always seems to find the way to his feet, and he's adept at whipping in the crosses that lead to the goals which make Atlanta the team scoring the most goals in MLS. I don't know that I consider him a great defender, which I understand is what the Five Stripes are lacking given their position as the team giving up the most goals in MLS, but from my chair, which is quite far away from Georgia, he's a piece of what's made Atlanta the most watchable team in MLS this year.
Donovan Pines (DC United)
The mustache has taken him to another level for me. I've liked Donovan Pines, I thought he was a good defender, especially as an aerial annuller of late-match crosses and set-pieces, and I saw him get time with the USMNT in front of my very eyes at the 2021 Gold Cup, but the mustache has taken him to another level. The mustache brings an NASL flair to him, he could be playing for the Diplomats in the late '70s with the mustache, brings a veteran leadership quality, a worldliness, a knowingness to him that DC United's going to bank on late in the year. I'm getting shades of when Walker Zimmerman grew his hair out during COVID and turned from the unsung center back on a lot of good defenses to the guy who looks like Thor that won Defender of the Year and became a starter at the World Cup. He’ll do that, then he’ll tell you in APA formatting with peer-reviewed academic references how he did it.
Nkosi Tafari (FC Dallas)
Ema Twumasi (FC Dallas)
How do they keep finding these guys in Frisco? This Dallas team was supposed to be the famous FC Dallas July 4th fireworks show, spread out over a 34-match season, with free-running aggressive attacking talent, but instead, what we’ve had was one effective but tragically scapegoated striker paired with a few breakout defenders to drag this team to a very good record built on 1-0 victories. We're never surprised to see FC Dallas, the one with the famously prolific academy, develop young players into effective starters, but both of these guys were SuperDraft picks! This is how they built the spine of Hedges, Zimmerman, and Hollingshead in the mid-2010s, and it’s happening again a decade later! They just develop good players there!
Javain Brown (Vancouver Whitecaps FC)
He's found the Nouhou territory, where you know he's good, but you don't know how that's gonna manifest when he gets the ball around him. All eyes on Javain.
Jake Davis (Sporting KC)
It is such a delight when a young prospect finds his way to the first team, fills in out of position for the club legend, and performs astoundingly well, especially when I like that team.
Khiry Shelton (Sporting KC)
I think we found his role! I think you put him in at right back late in the match!
Steve Clark (Houston Dynamo FC)
To have left multiple MLS Cup finals with egg on his face and still successfully play the heel role that he does this late into his career is impressive, but to do it so microcosmically: To antagonize the fans at BC Place like he did in the first place is funny enough, but to do it after giving up SIX goals is just incredible. Steve Clark is unflappable.