Nobody was better at finding the back of the net than Diego Rossi of Los Angeles FC a season ago. Alejandro Pozuelo is the reigning league MVP in Toronto and nobody was better in goal than Philadelphia’s Andre Blake.
Now players like Caden Clark, Cade Cowell, Ayo Akinola and Emanuel Reynoso are being talked about as potential breakout stars for the Major League Soccer season.
Here’s a look at players to watch as the 26th season of MLS gets started this week:
Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela, LAFC — No team in MLS can match the star power the duo of Rossi and Vela bring. Rossi led the league with 14 goals, but LAFC only finished seventh in the West in part because of Vela’s injury troubles. When healthy there is no better player in the league than Vela and that showed in the CONCACAF Champions League in December when Vela had five goals in leading LAFC to the final.
Josef Martinez, Atlanta United — The 2018 league MVP is back after missing last season with a torn ACL. In case you forgot, Martinez scored 27 goals during the 2019 season when Atlanta finished second in the Eastern Conference, reached the conference final and won the U.S. Open Cup. One of the big questions for 2021 is whether Martinez’s return will help Atlanta return to the ranks of the elite.
Gonzalo Higuain, Inter Miami — What does the former Real Madrid and Juventus star have left at age 33? This will be Higuain’s first full season in MLS. He arrived in Miami last September and made nine appearances with one goal. How will new coach Phil Neville use Higuain and can they unlock an exciting, entertaining style of play that fits with what owner David Beckham wants from his club?
Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto FC — The reigning league MVP was the engine for Toronto last season with eight goals and 10 assists. There’s no reason to think there will be a drop-off this year for the 29-year-old, who should be in the MVP conversation every season he’s in MLS.
Diego Valeri, Portland — He’s the “Maestro” for the Timbers and has been since his arrival in 2013. But at 34, how many more years can Valeri continue to perform at an elite level? His 2017 MVP season may never be matched, but he still remains one of the most talented playmakers in the league.
Andre Blake, Philadelphia — How good was Blake in goal a year ago? He finished fifth in MVP voting. Blake is probably the biggest star on a Philadelphia team that may not have many big names but could be the best team in the league entering the season.
THE NEXT TIER
Lucas Zelarayan, Columbus — You all realize Columbus won the MLS Cup last December, right? The Crew are as deep as any team in the league with the likes of Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes. But entering his second MLS season, Zelarayan seems poised to vault into stardom and give Columbus fans plenty to cheer when the team moves into its new stadium.
Ayo Akinola, Toronto FC — Akinola was the star of the MLS is Back tournament last summer with five goals in four matches. He scored just four more times the rest of the season. The potential is there for him to be a potent complement to Jozy Altidore in the Toronto attack if Akinola can be more like the summer 2020 version.
Emanuel Reynoso, Minnesota United — The Loons were minutes away from playing in the MLS Cup final last season before Seattle staged a shocking rally to end Minnesota United’s title hopes. Reynoso was the reason the Loons were on the cusp. The 25-year-old Argentinian had 10 assists and two goals in Minnesota’s final six games _ regular season and playoffs.
Raul Ruidiaz, Seattle — Ruidiaz scores goals. That’s why the Peruvian was brought to Seattle. This season he’ll be challenged by not having Jordan Morris on the wing. If Seattle expects to remain among the elite in the West, Ruidiaz must have a big season.
UP AND COMING
Caden Clark, NY Red Bulls — The 17-year-old is on the radar of European clubs with rumours of a transfer to RB Leipzig already surfacing. Clark appeared in eight matches total last season for the Red Bulls with three goals and plenty of optimism.
Cade Cowell, San Jose — Another member of the 17-year-old club, Cowell saw his first extensive playing time for the Earthquakes last year, appearing in 17 matches with one goal, one assist. Expect those numbers to increase in 2021.
James Sands, NYCFC — The 20-year-old defender established himself as a starter for NYCFC last season and was rewarded with a five-year contract extension last month even as he remains on the radar of European clubs.
Cole Bassett, Colorado — Bassett had a breakout 2020 season with five goals and five assists in just 14 matches. At age 19, Bassett is in line to get plenty more minutes on an improved Rapids squad.