MLS preseason is in full swing from Arizona to Florida, and with just a month to go before the 2014 season kicks off, teams are working quickly to figure out which players will be starters this season, and which players are ready to take on bigger roles than in 2013.
There are plenty of new faces coming into MLS this offseason, be they American or international players, but every team has a player who could be considered a good candidate to break out in 2014.
We've come up with a list of 19 players who are poised to surprise people with big and/or surprising seasons for their respective clubs. What we looked for were players who stand a good bet to improve considerably on their 2013 seasons. The list is made up almost entirely of younger players, and features some top prospects coming off strong 2013 seasons, as well as some other players looking to overcome disappointing seasons.
Here are each team's candidates for breakout MLS seasons in 2014:
CHICAGO FIRE- Dilly Duka
Duka took a major step in 2013 toward realizing the potential that once made him one of the more promising members in the U.S. youth national team setup. His creativity and ability to set up teammates as well as generate his own chances has improved considerably and this year, he should be ready to break out.
CHIVAS USA- Andrew Jean-Baptiste
Unloaded by the Portland despite enjoying a solid run as a starter, the 21-year-old Jean-Baptiste should benefit tremendously from playing with former U.S. national team captain Carlos Bocanegra, and while he won’t just step in and start right away (he’ll have to beat out veteran Bobby Burling), Jean-Baptiste has the talent to become a force in the back for the Goats.
COLORADO RAPIDS- Shane O’Neill
Overshadowed a bit in 2013 by the rookie exploits of Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown, O’Neill had a very impressive year as a starting central defender at such a young age (20). Now, with a full season as a starter and a U.S. national team camp under his belt, O’Neill could really shine in 2014 as one of the best young defenders in the league.
COLUMBUS CREW- Wil Trapp
Though it took him half a season to break through as a rookie and play his way into the starting lineup, Trapp never did relinquish that starting role once he had it and now he heads into 2014 with some lofty expectations. A poised and cerebral player who can provide a perfect link between the defense and attack, Trapp should play a very important role in Gregg Berhalter’s possession-oriented system.
D.C. UNITED- Nick DeLeon
A disappointing sophomore season made it easy to forget just how good he looked as a rookie, but injuries and D.C. United’s awful team form had more to do with his struggles than a real loss of form. Now healthy, DeLeon should step in and help pick up the slack in midfield left by the departure of Dwayne De Rosario.
FC DALLAS- Kellyn Acosta
When he quietly took over the starting right back spot for FC Dallas in the final months of the 2013 season, Acosta had his share of ups and downs, but what the 18-year-old U.S. youth national team player did show was the qualities that could help him hold onto that starting role in 2014. One of the best young American defender prospects in MLS, Acosta should thrive under new head coach Oscar Pareja, who is very familiar with Acosta from his time as head of FC Dallas' academy system. Acosta will face stiff competition from veteran Zach Loyd for the starting spot, but if he can win that battle, he could really blossom.
HOUSTON DYNAMO- Tony Cascio
Joining a team with as many wing options as Houston might not be considered an ideal loan move for a player like Cascio, but with Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia potentially missing time due to national team duties, and given Dom Kinnear’s willingness to try a variety of lineups, Cascio should get his share of playing time. That could mean a chance to show the quality he displayed as an impressive rookie in 2012.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY- Gyasi Zardes
A broken foot in preseason last year cost him a chance to hit the ground running in 2013, but by season’s end, Zardes was one of the more impressive rookies in the league. Heading into 2014, Zardes has the potential to be a real breakout player, even with the amount of competition Bruce Arena has brought in to contend for playing time.
MONTREAL IMPACT- Andrew Wenger
The former No. 1 overall pick has become a bit of a forgotten man, but a new coach eager to utilize him should help Wenger show more of the quality that made the Impact take him first overall back in 2012.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION- Paolo DelPiccolo
The Revs have had success converting castoffs from Canadian clubs into standout contributors (see: Lee Nguyen), and DelPiccolo could wind up being a steal after being unloaded by Montreal. The versatile midfielder can provide some bite and good work rate in central midfield, and even offer some depth at full back if needed.
NEW YORK RED BULLS- Amando Moreno
On a team with few true breakout candidates heading into 2014, the 18-year-old Moreno comes to mind as a talented young forward who garnered good reviews in 2013 despite not playing much (only two minutes last season). The U.S. youth national team forward might still need another year of seasoning, but given the relative lack of quality forward options after Thierry Henry and Bradley-Wright Phillips, don’t be surprised if Moreno gets thrown into the mix and excels.
PHILADELPHIA UNION- Ethan White
When the Union traded veteran defender Jeff Parke in a move that helped pave the way for Maurice Edu’s arrival in Philly, picking up White was seen as a potential steal. Now it will be up to the young central defender to make that a reality by playing well enough to partner with Amobi Okugo. If White emerges as a strong starter, the Union could coast into the playoffs and be a real factor in the postseason.
PORTLAND TIMBERS- Max Urruti
The 22-year-old Argentine striker arrived in Portland late in the 2013 season, but still managed to impress with his tenacity, touch, work rate and ability to put himself in good spots. With a full preseason under his belt, and with a chance to play alongside countrymen Diego Valeri and Gaston Fernandez, Urruti could have a monster season for the Timbers.
REAL SALT LAKE- John Stertzer
It won’t be easy for new faces to break through on a RSL team bringing back all of its key pieces, but Stertzer is a player who could force his way into some minutes after playing scarcely in 2013. The former first-round pick has the traits to be able to hold his own in RSL’s demanding system, and could get his chance this year with Kyle Beckerman facing likely international duty and Luis Gil gaining more interest from international clubs.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES- Tommy Thompson
Though this category isn’t really supposed to feature rookies, we’ll make an exception for Thompson, who could really be a force in his first season as a pro. The Indiana University standout is the type of dynamic threat, either wide or as a second forward, who can disrupt opposing defenses and give the Earthquakes an element their attack hasn’t had in recent memory.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS- Jalil Anibaba
After playing his first two years as a pro out of position at right back, Anibaba made the move to Seattle this winter with a chance to finally see regular playing time at his natural central defender slot. A supremely gifted athlete who now has the improved technical qualities courtesy of two years at right back, Anibaba could wind up being the perfect center back partner for Chad Marshall.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY- Teal Bunbury
A torn ACL in 2013 made Bunbury a bit of a forgotten man on a Sporting KC squad with plenty of forward options, but now with a full offseason to help strengthen his knee and fully recover, Bunbury should come into 2014 ready to challenge for a starting role.
TORONTO FC- Doneil Henry
For all the high-priced players brought in by Toronto FC this winter, the reality is that the team’s success could still hinge in large part on the preparedness of one of the team’s youngest players. Henry is one of Canada’s most highly-regarded young prospects, and expected to start again in 2014. If he can cut out the silly mistakes that plagued him last year, and blossom into a force, Toronto FC could really be a strong team in 2014.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS- Omar Salgado
Foot surgery turned into an ordeal for Salgado, who spent more than a year recovering and finally regaining health. Now apparently fully recovered, and sporting considerable muscle added during his rehabilitation, Salgado looks poised to have a breakout season. Adding strength to his size and impressive technical ability for a big man will make Salgado a handful for defenses this year, and makes him a good pick for MLS Comeback Player of the Year.