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Every MLS team’s breakout player candidate in 2023 | MLSSoccer.com

Every MLS team’s breakout player candidate in 2023 | MLSSoccer.com

Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

By Matthew Doyle


Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Ok, it’s time to start ramping up our countdown-to-first-kick coverage and rolling out our suite of season preview content before the Feb. 25 openers. Here is the first from me, my annual look at each team’s most likely potential breakout player.

Bear in mind I have no real idea of which players are going to get the call and answer the bell, especially since the Primary Transfer Window doesn’t close until April 24 – a few of these guys might not even be regulars by the time this winter/early spring’s wheeling and dealing is all said and done. So a lot of things can and will change, but it remains a fun thought exercise to look at each team’s roster and try to identify some hidden gems or guys about to make The Leap.

Per usual, I’m automatically ruling out first-year players and Designated Players for what I feel are obvious reasons. Reverse alphabetical order for fun:

Why he’ll break out:

  • Through ball artist for a team that tries to create space in behind.
  • Can flex between a pure playmaker in a 3-4-1-2 to a sort of hybrid playmaker/forward in a 3-4-2-1.

The argument is simple: the now-20-year-old Vite allows Ryan Gauld, Vancouver’s other playmaker (and best overall player), to spend more time off the ball like a raumdeuter rather than on the ball as an orchestrator.

Once the Ecuador youth international started getting more minutes in the second half of last season, Vancouver became more dangerous in possession and came alive down the stretch, damn near making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

This year, Vite should be in the XI from the first kick.

What’s his upside this year: Top of the 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list and generally regarded as the best young playmaker in the league.

Last year’s breakout player: Ranko Veselinovic

Why he’ll break out:

  • A youth attacker who’s spent years now learning how to play at fullback.
  • Simply too talented not to.

Marshall-Rutty was considered the very best prospect in Toronto’s very impressive youth development pipeline, but lost most of 2022 to injury and looked lost at fullback when he did manage to get on the field.

He’s a year older and wiser, and while he’s not in line to start either on the wing or at right back, it certainly seems like he’ll get rotation minutes. And my guess is they’ll be good ones.

What’s his upside this year: Remember a couple of years ago when Bryan Reynolds parlayed 1,000 first-team minutes with FC Dallas into a nearly $10 million move to AS Roma? Something like that is very possible for Marshall-Rutty.

Last year’s breakout player: Jayden Nelson

Why he’ll break out:

  • His energy translates perfectly to the Energy Drink Soccer approach in St. Louis.
  • Finally has a chance to consistently play his best position.

I liked Vassilev a lot the past couple of years when he was on loan with Inter Miami, though his style (as I implied above, he sprints a ton) doesn’t exactly mesh with Phil Neville’s game model. That won’t be an issue with Bradley Carnell.

Beyond that, St. Louis kind of need him to break out as there’s almost no other MLS experience in that attack. It feels like the perfect situation for the kid.

What’s his upside this year: Consistent starter with something like a dozen goal contributions (goals + assists).

Last year’s breakout player: n/a

Why he’ll break out:

  • Did you see him???
  • Did you freaking see him?????

You could argue that Agada already broke out and that I’m cheating by putting him here. And you may be right, because anybody who paid attention to MLS during the second half of last season was seeing Agada in the highlights and in the boxscore just about every single weekend.

Willy is not just fast, but fast and clever – he doesn’t sprint until he’s out of the CB’s peripheral vision. And once he does start to sprint, if the final ball is even medium-good, he’s going to beat any defender in the league to it.

And understand that Agada didn’t just provide goals and the occasional assist. Rather, he destroyed field balance and entire build-out patterns for Sporting’s opponents, which is why the entire team played better with him out there. He was 2017 Josef-esque.

What’s his upside this year: Winning the Golden Boot presented by Audi. I’m not brave enough to say “and MVP,” but I wouldn’t be shocked if that happens.

Last year’s breakout player: No one. Sporting were miserable until the midseason arrival of Agada and Erik Thommy.

Why he’ll break out:

  • Looked comfortable in high-leverage moments in the highest-leverage games on the schedule last year.
  • Seems to be in line for a starting job this year.

Ragen’s not a future MLS Defender of the Year – he simply lacks the footspeed that the very best center backs possess. But he nailed everything else in the first half of last season, including in some big moments during Seattle’s CCL run, before falling off (along with everyone else) during the second half of the year.

With Xavier Arreaga’s future in doubt, Ragen’s a pretty natural choice to slide into the starting lineup. We could see it as soon as the Club World Cup, as a matter of fact.

What’s his upside this year: Solid, unspectacular, mistake-free starter.

Last year’s breakout player: Obed Vargas

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • No more uncertainty in his role – he’s a winger now.
  • The team around him is better and more proven.

The other two guys on the front line are Best XI presented by Continental Tire candidates, and the midfield is filled with solid pros in their respective primes. Behind Cowell at left back is a Peruvian international in Miguel Trauco.

Everything is in place for him to take a massive step forward and become the type of attacking force his youth dominance suggested was his first-team future. And judging by his performance with the US men’s national team in January, Cowell’s ready to make good.

What’s his upside this year: Topping the 22 Under 22 list and generating bids approaching eight figures.

Last year’s breakout player: Jeremy Ebobisse

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • Analytics darling who has always shown the ability to find chances no matter which team he’s on.
  • As of now, the only guys between him and the starting No. 9 job are a career backup and a child.

This one could look bad if RSL finally go out and go big with one of their DP slots, but there just hasn’t been much suggesting that’s the case. And if so, that means Musovksi’s got a real shot at winning the job.

He’s never really had that before despite putting up the type of numbers – 11g/5a in about 1,900 minutes – that suggest he’s starting caliber.

What’s his upside this year: If he puts up 11g/5a in 1,900 minutes, that’d beat any of RSL’s center forwards from last year. Seems like it’s within reach.

Last year’s breakout player: Andrew Brody

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • Familiarity with the league as he enters his third year in MLS.
  • Less flux around him with Evander as the centerpiece.

Moreno was actually very good last year with 7g/8a in about 2,500 minutes, but he isn’t the type of player to be the focal point of a dominant team. Rather, he’s better suited as a secondary or tertiary attacking piece – the kind of role player who takes the gaps the star creates and busts them wide open.

He should have a big, big year on that right wing.

What’s his upside this year: There’s a world in which he makes the Best XI.

Last year’s breakout player: Aljaz Ivacic

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • Got a taste of big minutes last year and should be ready for more.
  • Brings a change of pace that nobody else on the Union – and few in the league – can replicate.

McGlynn has a distinct way of controlling tempo with the ball and, while that doesn’t necessarily jibe with how the Union usually want to play, we all saw during the summer that Philly’s attack was supercharged (for a while anyway) when he was out there. His ability to throw defenders off with his eyes and his body shape, and then to open the field in entirely unexpected ways unleashed guys like Julian Carranza, Mikael Uhre and especially Daniel Gazdag.

I expect McGlynn to keep doing that, and to have added both strength and athleticism, which should make him better in the other phases of the game (i.e., the phases when he’s not physically on the ball making the guys lined up across from him look dumb).

What’s his upside this year: He would win a starting job and a spot in the top 5 of 22 Under 22.

Last year’s breakout player: There were honestly like six of them, but if I were to point at one it’d be Gazdag (who is now a DP but wasn’t last season).

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • The 20-year-old has a shot to win the starting job following Ruan’s offseason departure.
  • Head coach Oscar Pareja has never shied from getting Homegrown products onto the field.

Halliday’s progression through the ranks for Orlando has been fairly steady, and it’s telling that they felt comfortable parting with Ruan despite having only Halliday and career backup Kyle Smith on the depth chart at right back (they signed 18-year-old Homegrown Alex Freeman last year as well).

So this is the kid’s first real chance to stake a claim. I wouldn’t be shocked if Smith won the job at first and played most of the CCL minutes (however many there should be – starting off with Liga MX’s Tigres means it’s tough to imagine more than 180) with Halliday steadily carving out a large role as the year wears on.

What’s his upside this year: Starter.

Last year’s breakout player: Nobody, really.

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • He had outings last season where he completely locked down some of the league’s best forwards.
  • At age 23, entering his fourth year in the league and with Aaron Long gone, there’s no more uncertainty about his environment or his role.

Just in terms of pure “I’m gonna lock this guy up” defense, I’m not sure there’s a better center back in the league than Reyes. He’s a one-man torture chamber when he’s locked in.

RBNY need him to be locked in like that about 25 times this season. Given the talent he’s shown and the experience he has, it’s far from outrageous to ask that from him.

What’s his upside this year: I could see him working his way into Defender of the Year conversations.

Last year’s breakout player: Lewis Morgan

Why he’ll breakout this year:

  • Surgery to fix compartment syndrome means he should no longer get sidelined for months at a time.
  • With all the offseason departures, it sure looks like it’s his midfield to run.

Parks is a field-tilt machine, a one-man ball-progression hub who can’t be hurried and always gets his attackers on the ball in their optimal spots at the optimal time. He is basically the exact player that USMNT fans are hoping Jack McGlynn becomes – they just haven’t noticed the right-footed version up in the Bronx (or Queens).

Here’s the upshot in NYCFC terms: Having a healthy Parks at the base of the midfield means they don’t necessarily have to go big in finding Maxi Moralez and Santi Rodriguez replacements. They can be more experimental there because Parks in the Pirlo-esque role means the attackers have bigger margins.

What’s his upside this year: Best XI and a regular spot in the USMNT, plus maybe one or two glowing columns about how he should be in the MVP race.

Last year’s breakout player: Santi. Sure wish they’d get him back.

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • Second-year winger/midfielder showed everything necessary to be an elite MLS attacker in last year’s injury-shortened season.
  • Positional flexibility means he can fit no matter what formation Bruce Arena uses.

I’m still not sure whether Bruce will go with a 4-2-3-1 with Borrero on the wing (that’s where we saw him last year) or a 4-4-2 wide diamond with Borrero as a shuttler (more analogous to the role he played with Colombia and in Brazil). But either way, he should be able to add significant value with his off-ball movement and instincts in the final third.

And I like that even though he’s primarily an off-the-ball threat in the Revs’ scheme, he still finds the ball a ton. Dude understands the game.

What’s his upside this year: Something like 10g/8a and a regular spot with his national team seems very possible.

Last year’s breakout player: Nobody.

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • The starting job is his.
  • He’s got the measurables and the experience to lock it down for a decade.

The ‘Yotes traded away Dave Romney for General Allocation Money (GAM) at least in part to open up playing time for Maher, a former No. 2 overall SuperDraft pick who, at age 23, should be ready to be a full-time starter.

It’s that simple.

What’s his upside this year: Let’s say 3,000 minutes and maybe a look with the national team?

Last year’s breakout player: Nobody.

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • In preseason last year, he was neck-and-neck with Ismaël Koné for the role Koné eventually won and parlayed into a multi-million move to Watford.
  • Montréal are committed to promoting from within and moving homegrown talent into the first team.

Zouhir, who’s a year-and-a-half younger than Koné, might not be ready to start right from the kick, but my guess is he’ll get minutes right away and it’ll be because he brings a lot of the same stuff to the table that Koné did as the No. 8: cleverness on the ball, creativity in his movement off the ball, and field coverage.

He’s a real talent.

What’s his upside this year: He could replicate what Koné did last year.

Last year’s breakout player: Koné

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • The starting job is his.
  • Minnesota’s fullbacks tend to get real high in Adrian Heath’s 4-2-3-1 formation.

Taylor got his real shot in late spring of last year. After splitting time at right back over the first two months of the season, he got the start on May 18 and won the position more or less for good, starting 22 of Minnesota’s final 24 outings across all competitions.

He’s a dogged, two-way fullback who’s shown some spark in attack, though I’m not sure anyone outside of Minnesota has noticed.

What’s his upside this year: I wouldn’t be shocked if he started all 34 games and doubled his counting stats.

Last year’s breakout player: Robin Lod (in central midfield)

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • Elite youth talent who can fit into multiple spots in the Miami midfield.
  • Has the kind of two-way game that coaches trust despite his age.

I’ll admit this one’s a stretch – I think it’s more likely Cremaschi plays very limited minutes, rather than breaks out this season. But the way Miami’s roster is constructed makes it very difficult to find other breakout candidates, and Cremaschi’s got the kind of talent that makes it fun to project out his career path.

What’s his upside this year: If he plays a bunch, nobody would be shocked if he topped the 22 Under 22 list and commanded a significant fee from a big European side.

Last year’s breakout player: Drake Callender

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • As he showed with the USMNT, he’s got the physical tools and passing range to play real minutes.
  • The Galaxy are old and injury-prone at CB, so those minutes should be there.

It’s kind of a cheat to put Neal here since he’s never actually played any first-team minutes – I think I’m breaking my own rule.

But it’s my column, so I’m gonna do what I want. Neal, who’s now 19, has been with the Galaxy since he was 12 and just so obviously fills a need that it’ll feel like a true breakout when he starts getting on the field regularly.

What’s his upside this year: He should start for the US at the U-20 World Cup and parlay that into regular first-team minutes with the Galaxy during the second half of the season.

Last year’s breakout player: Dejan Joveljic

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • As it stands, there are no other real options on the roster currently.
  • As it stands, there are no other possible center forwards on the roster currently.

I kind of boxed myself in here by doing this column before LAFC have made all their moves, but even if they do make some more moves, I don’t think they have a real breakout candidate. All their guys will have either broken out already (I’m talking like Best XI, World Cup or MLS MVP-type stuff) or will be DPs or will be new to the league. Or, I guess, will be homegrowns who have no chance of playing significantly.

That leaves Mahala, who I love – I’d be trying like hell to trade for him if I was running another team right now. I don’t think he’ll actually start the season as the only possible No. 9 on the roster, but I do think he’ll play an even larger role this year than he did last year, when he was indispensable.

What’s his upside this year: Starter for the champions of Concacaf.

Last year’s breakout player: Jose Cifuentes

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • Has always had the talent to be one of the better wingers in MLS, and at age 27, now’s the time.
  • The starting RW job is there for the taking.

This is basically it for Baird, who was the Rookie of the Year in 2018 but has spent the subsequent four seasons putting up worse and worse stats. If he doesn’t win the job this preseason, it’s hard to imagine him being anything but a career backup until he hangs ‘em up someday.

Like I said above, he’s always had the talent – this guy’s highlight reel is one of the best in the league. Can he bring that every week?

What’s his upside this year: Let’s say 10g/6a, which would be better than his 2018 season (8g/5a), but not wildly so.

Last year’s breakout player: Nobody.

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • With Matt Hedges’ departure for Toronto, the starting job is there for the winning.
  • Has had stretches of very high-level play before.

I’m not sure Nkosi’s gonna get it done – Dallas let Hedges go, but they brought in Sebastian Ibeagha as a free agent for a reason. Ask me to bet on one of the two, and it’s probably Ibeagha.

But Tafari’s ceiling is higher, and he’s shown us more than glimpses (three straight excellent outings last September in the midst of a playoff race) that suggest he can make good on his talent.

What’s his upside this year: Full-time starter and lockdown defender. Basically the center back version of Marco Farfan’s year at LB last year.

Last year’s breakout player: Farfan

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • He’s coming into the year as a full-time starter for a coach who rates him.
  • His flexibility means he can always find a spot in the XI.

I’ll admit I was always most interested in Durkin as a ball-playing center back, so the fact he had some very good moments as a box-to-box central midfielder who’d flare out to the right in order to create overloads speaks volumes to his positional flexibility and game intelligence.

Wayne Rooney certainly seemed to appreciate it.

What’s his upside this year: Starter.

Last year’s breakout player: There wasn’t one.

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • The job is his.
  • A high-level ball-winner who’s playing for a coach with a very good track record of developing talent.

I don’t have many doubts about Morris on the defensive side of the ball, though it probably bears mentioning he did struggle with some of the USMNT’s principles in rest defense last month against Serbia, and those principles are very similar to new Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy’s.

Even so, the baseline on that side of the ball is going to be pretty high. Morris reads the game well and has always been an animal at winning the ball back.

The question is in possession, where he’s more limited. But I’ll point out Samuel Piette was a consistently safe or even regressive passer from 2017 to 2020 in Montréal. In 2021 and ‘22 under Nancy, however, he became much more expansive and effective. You could see it just by watching the games, and it’s there in his underlying numbers, which showed the same thing. American Soccer Analysis’s goals-added metric for passing had Piette’s 2022 season in line with guys like prime Dax McCarty, Jack Price and Eduard Atuesta – and while I think that overstates it somewhat, it speaks to just how much of an improvement a central midfielder can make playing for the right coach in the right scheme.

What’s his upside this year: Starter and a spot near the top of the 22 Under 22 rankings.

Last year’s breakout player: Nobody.

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • The only true target forward on the team.
  • He’s young but has the physical tools to compete and is killing it in preseason.

This could be a bit of wishcasting – Yapi’s not considered to be the same level of prospect that Jhon Duran or Ricardo Pepi were, and you basically have to be that level of prospect to get regular minutes as an 18-year-old striker in a league as good as MLS.

But the Rapids are committed to build-and-sell principles, and it sure looked like Robin Fraser was committed to playing Diego Rubio underneath a striker rather than as a false 9 over the past couple of years. And so as of now, Yapi’s probably competing with Kevin Cabral and Calvin Harris for minutes.

The chance is there for him.

What’s his upside this year: If he can get into the US U-20 World Cup squad, then parlay that into, say, 700 or 800 minutes with the Rapids, and four or five goals, that’d be pretty great.

Last year’s breakout player: Nobody.

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • Has always had the tools, but according to sources lacked focus and drive.
  • Got his chance in the second half of last season and put together the best sustained stretch of his career.

Jones is outrageously gifted, with soft feet, elite body control and the ability to hit the kinds of disguised passes that the best d-mids use to get their team into attacking overloads. He didn’t always (or even often) do the other work that players in that spot have to do in order to stay on the field, which is why he so rarely played despite his gifts.

That changed when Christian Lattanzio took over last year, and honestly, Jones could be penning the d-mid version of Brandon Vazquez’s “forgotten former US youth national teamer-to-Best XI” story. He’s got that kind of talent.

What’s his upside for this year: You just read it. And like Vazquez, if Jones plays that well, the national team will come calling.

Last year’s breakout player: Brandt Bronico

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • He’s a big, left-footed center back who reads the game well and moves well.
  • Cincy’s 3-5-2 formation puts him in a situation where his responsibilities are simpler than in a back four.

Murphy’s rookie season slid under the radar, but it probably shouldn’t have, as he logged more than 1,400 minutes across 26 appearances for a playoff team. There aren’t many rookie center backs who’ve checked those boxes over the past decade.

Cincy should be better this year, and even with Yerson Mosquera coming to town on loan, I think Murphy projects as a starter. Folks will take note.

What’s his upside this year: Full-time starter.

Last year’s breakout player: Vazquez

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • Has the creativity and flexibility to play as a No. 10 or on either wing.
  • Even as an 18-year-old, he was more productive on a per-minute basis than the other options.

A lot of things in 2022 were disappointing for the Fire, but youth development was not one of them. In addition to selling Jhon Duran and Gaga Slonina for up to $37 million combined, Gutierrez grabbed a chunk of the spotlight with 2g/7a in about 1,600 minutes, most of them as an attacking midfielder.

Gutierrez moves slow but thinks quick, and while he’s not precisely a magician on the ball, he’s comfortable in traffic and is always working into good spots to become a progressive option for teammates. He’s the type of player who makes the game easier for everyone else on his side.

What’s his upside this year: Winning a full-time starting job and providing a dozen goal contributions.

Last year’s breakout player: All due respect to Gaga, it was Duran.

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • Austin will play a ton of games this year, so Djeffal should get reps as both the backup 6 and the backup 8.
  • He was really pretty good for a bad D.C. team last year.

I don’t really understand why D.C. let Djeffal go this offseason, because I think there was a decent argument that he was their best midfielder. He’s got good feet and awareness, and while he needs to be a better ball-winner, he’s got the building blocks of a solid MLS player.

Put him on a much better team in a much more coherent system, which is what you’ve got in Austin, and he should be a real asset in the same role Felipe had last season. I don’t think that’s too much of an ask for him.

What’s his upside this year: 1,500 good minutes across all comps and a bunch of other teams asking if he’s available via trade.

Last year’s breakout player: Danny Pereira

Why he’ll break out this year:

  • Starting the season healthy and with a clear role on a coherent team for the first time in his professional career.
  • Was arguably the best LB in the league for a stretch last season.

I straight-up think Gutman’s the second-best LB in the USMNT pool already. People just haven’t noticed because he’s had the misfortune of bouncing from tire-fire-era Cincy to full-throttle Energy Drink Soccer RBNY to tire-fire-era Atlanta across the past three years, and has had to toggle between LB in a back four and LCB in a back three.

It’ll primarily be the former this year under Gonzalo Pineda.

What’s his upside this year: Something like 4g/8a and Kai Wagner’s spot in the Best XI, as well as multiple USMNT camps.

Last year’s breakout player: Nobody.

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