MLS kicks off the 2021 season on Friday with 27 teams. Here's a look at the 27 players everyone will be talking about, from MVP candidates to Homegrown players breaking into their first teams.
MVP candidates ...
Two Argentines, two Spaniards, two Uruguayans. What has become a consistent formula for success in MLS.
1. Lucas Zelarayan (Columbus). One of the first moves the Crew made following a change of ownership in 2019 was to shell out $8 million -- the biggest transfer fee it ever paid for a player -- to complete Zelarayan's transfer from Mexico's Tigres. Despite injuries that limited him to 16 regular-season games, Zelarayan was named the 2020 MLS Newcomer of the Year. In the Crew's four playoff games, he was involved in seven of the nine goals it scored. Zelarayan scored twice in MLS Cup and assisted on the third goal scored by Derrick Etienne Jr.
2. Emanuel Reynoso (Minnesota United). Bebelo carried the Loons to the 2020 Western Conference final. They scored 11 goals in four games and he was involved in 10 of them (two goals and eight assists). In his first full season following his transfer from Boca Juniors, Minnesota United could be MLS's highest-scoring team.
3. Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto FC). A lot of Spaniards have played in MLS, but Pozuelo was just the second, after David Villa in 2016, to win the Landon Donovan MVP Award in 2020. He stepped into the Toronto FC lineup following the departure of Sebastian Giovinco in early 2019 and has registered 21 goals and 22 assists in two seasons.
4. Carles Gil (New England). The 2019 MLS Newcomer of the Year (10 goals and 16 assists) missed all but six regular-season games in 2020 after being injured at MLS is Back. The Revs' surprise run to the Eastern Conference coincided with his return to health. Bruce Arena isn't one to lavish praise on his own players, but the third-year Revs head coach expects "to see a player that plays at a really high standard, and we could argue could be among the best players in the league.”
5. Diego Rossi (LAFC). With Carlos Vela sidelined for much of the 2020 season, the 23-year-old Rossi stepped up and led MLS with 14 goals in 19 games, becoming the youngest player to lead the league in scoring. The Uruguayan has been eyeing a move to Europe, which was put off because of the 2020 pandemic, so this will be a big year.
6. Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle). In five seasons in MLS, Lodeiro has led the Sounders to MLS Cup four times, winning in 2016 and 2019 and finishing second in 2017 and 2020. How important has he been? "He’s the cornerstone of our franchise. He’s the best player on the team. He’s already the best Sounder ever," Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey said in re-signing the Uruguayan through 2023.
On the comeback trail ...
The 2018 and 2019 MLS MVPs played a combined eight games in 2020 because of injuries. They are just two of the stars looking to rebound in 2021.
7. Josef Martinez (Atlanta United). Can the Five Stripes put their 2020 collapse behind them? Their 2021 season will likely depend on the return to form of Martinez, the MLS MVP when they won MLS Cup 2018. The Venezuelan, who set a league mark with 31 goals in 2018, tore his ACL in the opening game of the 2020 season. He wasn't a factor in Atlanta United's two wins over Alajuelense in the Concacaf Champions League, a pair of uninspiring 1-0 wins, but it has been careful about bringing him back too quickly.
8. Carlos Vela (LAFC). Vela broke Martinez's MLS scoring record with 34 goals and won the MLS MVP award in 2019, but an MCL knee injury limited him to seven appearances in 2020. He told the Los Angeles Times he wants to fight for the MLS award again. "When you play good," he said, "you do good things, the team is also doing good things. Everything is going in the same direction.
8. Sebastian Blanco (Portland). The Argentine was the MLS in Back MVP, leading the Timbers to the summer tournament championship. They looked like MLS Cup contenders when Blanco went down with an ACL tear in the first minute of Portland's match at Seattle on Sept. 6. The Timbers like his progress in the last month and are counting on him to help in their run at MLS Cup 2021.
10. Javier Hernandez (LA Galaxy). Few big-name signings have been bigger flops than the 32-year-old Chicharito, who scored just two goals for the Galaxy in 2020. A calf injury limited to 12 appearances. He's admitted he considered retiring last season. During the lockdown, his grandfather, Tomas Balcazar, who scored for Mexico in the 1954 World Cup, died and later his wife, model Sarah Kohan, left for her native Australia with their two young children.
New in 2021 ...
There weren't a lot of big signings in the offseason, indicative of the caution MLS teams are taking as they face a second season impacted by the pandemic.
11. Brenner (FC Cincinnati). The signing of the 21-year-old Brazilian striker from Sao Paulo drew a lot of attention. It showed FC Cincinnati, last in MLS in 2019 and 2020, means business about turning things around in 2021 when it moves into its new West End stadium. It also raised eyebrows, coming as MLS's tense negotiations with the MLSPA on new cuts in compensation were reaching the final stages. The transfer fee was reported to be $13 million with incentives in the deal that could push the total outlay to $15 million. Without giving financial details, Sao Paulo described the fee as the largest paid for a player coming from South America to North America.
12. Tomas Pochettino (Austin FC). If Austin FC is going to be respectable in its first season, it will need a big year from the 25-year-old Argentine midfielder Tomas Pochettino. Midfield is expected to be one of Austin FC's strengths -- no surprise given that its sporting director is former U.S. midfield maestro Claudio Reyna -- with Pochettino playing in front of Alex Ring, who was acquired from NYCFC.
13. Alan Franco (Atlanta United). It's rare for MLS teams to spend DP money on a defender, but Atlanta United made Franco its third DP after Ezequiel Barco and Martinez, signing him to a five-year contract after arriving from Argentina's Independiente, where he played with Barco when they won the 2017 Copa Sudamericana.
14. Alexandre Pato (Orlando City). With the return of Daryl Dike looking less and less likely, the Lions will need help up front. At 31, Alexandre Pato is a gamble, but he certainly comes with name recognition in Orlando's large Brazilian community. Pato was considered one of the top prospects of his generation and scored 160 goals in 398 club appearances.
Eye on USMNT ...
The next 12 months will bring unprecedented demands on the U.S. national team. All 14 World Cup 2022 qualifiers will be played over a span of less than seven months, beginning with three games in September. And they will follow back-to-back regional play with the Concacaf Nations League final four in June and Gold Cup in July. The latter will require a large contingent of MLS players, given Gregg Berhalter's desire for his young European-based stars to get much-needed rest after the Nations League.
15. Aaron Long (NY Red Bulls). With World Cup qualifying just around the corner, Long is the only MLS player who likely figures in Berhalter's first-choice starting lineup. He's the only defender who started all three U.S. matches in 2021. On the Red Bulls, who are in the process of a serious makeover, his leadership will be needed.
16. Matt Turner (New England). Like Long, Turner waited several years before his career took off. He was undrafted out of Fairfield University in 2016, but five years later he is battling for the top spot among MLS keepers on the national team. He preserved a shutout in his debut in January, saving a penalty kick in the 7-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago.
17. Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy). At Berhalter's first national team camp in January 2019, it was uncertain if Lletget would hang on. But he has emerged as one of the national team's most important veterans. When the USA resumed play in November against Wales, Lletget was a last-minute addition to the squad -- and started as the center forward.
18. Kellyn Acosta (Colorado). Acosta, on the other hand, didn't even survive Berhalter's first national team camp. He was dropped when the team broke camp in Chula Vista, and it wasn't until December 2020 that he returned to the fold. He has returned to the two camps in 2021 and started both friendlies in March after Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie were unable to play.
19. Jackson Yueill (San Jose). Yueill was one of the few U.S. players to come out of Olympic qualifying with his status enhanced. He is behind Adams on the U.S. depth chart at the No. 6 position, but he is one of the best passers the USA has.
20. Eryk Williamson (Portland). Williamson's omission from the under-23 national team roster for Olympic qualifying was a surprise. He was outstanding in his first season as a starter in midfield for the Timbers. He will get a chance to travel to Mexico and show off his game in the international arena when Portland plays Club America in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals, and he could get a call for the Gold Cup.
21. Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC). Zimmerman's stock on the national team has fallen -- he didn't play in the first three games in 2021 -- but he was a big reason Nashville SC enjoyed the best playoff run by an expansion team since the 1998 champion Chicago Fire. He was the 2020 MLS Defender of the Year and one of only two repeat selections on the MLS Best XI.
Homegrown watch ...
MLS teams continue to stock up on Homegrown players, signing them in record numbers.
22. Efrain Alvarez (LA Galaxy). Alvarez had a quite eventful offseason, attending both U.S. and Mexico national team camps and earning his first El Tri cap. Efra rarely got off the bench in two seasons under Guillermo Barros Schelotto but he should get more time under new coach Greg Vanney.
23. Caden Clark (NY Red Bulls). Clark was never a Homegrown player, but the Red Bulls had to pay Minnesota United $75,000 in GAM for its homegrown territorial rights to Clark, who left Minnesota before the Loons even had an academy and played for the Barca Residency Academy in Arizona. All he did after being promoted from NYRB II in the fall was score a pair of golazos in his first two MLS games and score in his playoff debut. The important date to remember: May 27. That's when he turns 18, making him eligible to register with a European team.
24. Anthony Fontana (Philadelphia). In his fourth season with the Union, Fontana, 21, has big shoes to fill, replacing Brenden Aaronson in the starting lineup. He started both Concacaf Champions League matches against Saprissa and scored one goal and drew a penalty that led to another in Wednesday's 4-0 win in Chester.
25. Andres Jasson (NYCFC). Jasson grew up in the NYCFC academy with Gio Reyna with whom he played for the USA at the 2019 U-17 World Cup. But while Reyna moved to Germany to play with Borussia Dortmund, Jasson stayed at home, enrolling at Yale University and signing a Homegrown deal. A strong spring with NYCFC could lead to considerable playing time in 2021.
26. Noble Okello (Toronto FC). The 20-year-old Toronto native made one 22-minute appearance in 2020 before being sent to Denmark for seasoning on loan at second-tier HB Koge. (Toronto FC II was shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic.) He started both Concacaf Champions League games in midfield for the Reds in their surprise series win against Leon.
27. Tanner Tessmann (FC Dallas). FC Dallas has the most productive academy program in MLS, having five graduates make their first-team debuts in top-tier foreign leagues in the last year, but the 19-year-old Tessmann is the only Homegrown product projected to start when FC Dallas opens on Saturday against Colorado. He was signed on the eve of the 2020 season, foregoing a soccer and football scholarship to Clemson, and played 21 games in 2020. In the offseason, he made his U.S. senior debut and was a late addition to the under-23 team.