By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 8, 2023) US Soccer Players – In a league where spending on international talent has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, clubs looking to make a splash in the international transfer market often make striker a position of focus. But whether because of a shift to bigger spending on players who play off of center forward or because clubs are getting smarter about utilizing the domestic talent available, several American strikers are making a mark on the MLS season halfway through the 2023 campaign.
The most accomplished of the group is Austin FC’s Gyasi Zardes, who signed as a free agent before the season. Coming off a season in which Austin scored 65 total goals and finished second in the Western Conference standings, the addition of a proven MLS goal scorer like Zardes represented a coup for the club.
Zardes joined MLS veteran Maxi Urruti as center forward options for head coach Josh Wolff. The club also signed Will Bruin via free agency, a nod to the busy schedule ahead for 2023. Those three players figured to share minutes in front of 2022 MVP finalist Sebastian Driussi and a combination of wingers, including Emiliano Rigoni, Diego Fagundez, Ethan Finlay, and others.
A slow start and a series of injuries, most notably for Driussi, contributed to an underwhelming start to the season for Austin. Zardes, for his part, kicked in three goals in three consecutive games in May. Though the third of that run came in a 2-1 home loss against the Dynamo, it was a milestone goal for Zardes, the 100th MLS goal of his career.
Zardes became the 12th player in league history to reach the century mark for scoring. With Driussi back on the field, Austin FC’s attack stands to improve with more opportunities for Zardes.
In Ohio, two American forwards are center stage in the quest for the playoffs and trophies this season. Brandon Vazquez’s 18 goals in 2022 made him one of the top goalscoring center forwards in MLS. His partnership with Brazilian forward Brenner was one of the most prolific in MLS history.
2023 is playing out in good, if slightly unexpected ways, for FC Cincinnati. A club that scored plenty of goals in 2022 now relies more on a stiff defense and an opportunistic attack. Cincinnati is not only thriving with the change in character, but it’s also setting a record pace for points under head coach Pat Noonan.
Vazquez’s production doesn’t match last season’s so far, but he does have four goals all in Cincinnati wins. With Brenner set to move to Udinese, Vazquez has had to adjust to playing with other partners in Cincinnati’s two-striker system. Both Sergio Santos (three goals) and Dominique Badji (one goal) should get time next to Vazquez.
Christian Ramirez is the other player in Ohio holding down a center forward role and thriving, doing it up the road in Columbus. The Crew signed Ramirez in the winter, initially as depth to play behind 2022 acquisition Cucho Hernandez. Ramirez returned to MLS after a stint in Scotland playing for Aberdeen, where he collected ten goals in 45 appearances.
Sixteen games into the season, Ramirez is the club’s second-leading scorer with five goals. Meanwhile, Hernandez is starring not as a goal scorer, but as a provider. His seven assists, including several to Ramirez, put him in a tie for third in MLS.
Most impressive might be Ramirez’s efficiency. Only Atlanta’s Giorgios Giakoumakis (1.08) and LAFC’s Denis Bouanga (0.89) have a better goals-per-90-minutes number than Ramirez’s 0.71. Columbus is still evolving under Nancy, and Ramirez is a key reason why.
Bobby Wood can’t match Ramirez’s efficiency, but he can match Ramirez’s goal total. Wood’s five goals for New England put him top on the team, tied with 2021 MLS MVP Carles Gil. That number equals Wood’s goal total from his last two seasons combined with Real Salt Lake and makes 2023 his best season for scoring since 2016-17 when he played with Hamburg in the Bundesliga. The Revs figure to be even more dependent on Wood’s scoring with Dylan Borrero ruled out for the season due to injury.
Jeremy Ebobisse set a career high in scoring last season with San Jose when he put in 17 goals for the Quakes. A new coach is in charge in Northern California, but Ebobisse hasn’t missed a beat. Through 16 games his six goals put him on pace to challenge last year’s total. A shade short of halfway through the season Ebobisse is second on the team in goals behind Cristian Espinoza (8).
No American forward, or any player not named Denis Bouanga or Hany Mukhtar, can match Jesus Ferreira’s ten goals on the season. Ferreira ties for the league lead in scoring after finding the net in a resumed match against St Louis City on Wednesday night in Frisco.
Ferreira is now firmly established as one of Major League Soccer’s elite goalscorers at the age of 22. Only Mukhtar has more goals over the last two years than Ferreira, with the reigning MVP scoring 33 combined goals to Ferreira’s 28. His development into a top goalscorer is part of a makeover of FC Dallas under head coach Nico Estevez. Ferriera plays his position very differently from many of his compatriots already discussed, a nod to his ability to play facing goal with the ball at his feet.
Halfway through the 2023 MLS season, MLS strikers are having something of a moment.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Andrew Katsampes – ISIPhotos.com