By Jeff Rueter – SAINT PAUL, MN (Nov 9, 2017) US Soccer Players - This international break is always a bit of a strange one for Major League Soccer. The two-week layoff occurs right in the thick of the postseason, as we’ve pared the field down to the final four teams. There are plenty of questions to ask moving forward. Who scores the away goals Toronto clung to in getting past the New York Red Bulls? Can Columbus ride a wave of momentum and fan support to an MLS Cup? How did everyone sleep on this Houston side for so long?
There’s a time for that, and it’ll likely come after the USMNT faces off against mighty Portugal. For now, let’s take the intermission to look at the other 18 teams in the league. Eight have seen their fates spurned in recent weeks, some in heartbreaking fashion while others just broke down (looking at you, San Jose). For those teams and the ten that didn’t qualify, who are the faces that did the most to improve their chances at key minutes in 2018?
To me, these players fall into three categories. The first (and probably most catalyzing) group are the kids. These players most likely failed to get minutes right after being drafted or signed and took advantage of a chance as the season wound down. The second group is the steady players who may either be rotation players or starters on a team that could have considered an upgrade before their strong play. The final (most fascinating) group are the players who defied age or expectation to show that there’s still plenty left in the tank for 2018.
Play Your Kids
- CHI - Djordje Mihailovic
- COL - Kortne Ford
- DC - Russell Canouse
- LA - Bradford Jamieson IV
- NYRB - Tyler Adams
- ORL - Tommy Redding
- POR - Jeremy Ebobisse
- SKC - Daniel Salloi
This year’s SuperDraft appeared to lack the depth of past classes. However, a strong core of homegrown players helped ensure the future is bright. Portland capitalized on Jeremy Ebobisse’s unexpected fall on draft day, trading up to make him the fourth pick. The US youth international saw his minutes increase as the season went on, and should be ready to challenge Darren Mattocks as Portland’s main backup. Djordje Mihailovic rode a wave of confidence after scoring the MLS Homegrown match winner, cracking the starting lineup alongside Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Kortne Ford became something of a cult hero for the disappointing Rapids this year, claiming a starting post alongside Axel Sjoberg and displacing last year’s defensive ace Jared Watts. Meanwhile, Daniel Salloi benefitted from an increased role after the Dom Dwyer deal. The SKC Homegrown’s season was strong enough for him to make Hungary’s most recent roster for U-21 Euro qualifiers.
Is this finally the breakthrough for Bradford Jamieson IV? Signed before 2014, the striker nearly doubled his career minutes this year, adding three goals for a rotating cast in Los Angeles. The Galaxy may be poised to acquire another attacking star, but Jamieson seems ready to become a regular contributor. Orlando’s record may not have been as moribund as the Galaxy’s, but it’s tough to identify a player who made a step forward this year. US youth international Tommy Redding continued to carve a space for himself in the Orlando backline and should be a starter going into 2018.
The final two young breakouts could see USMNT action in the coming year. Russell Canouse’s signing may not have gotten the national attention of teammate Paul Arriola’s, but the midfielder is as key a part of the DC United revival as the winger. Canouse joined on from Hoffenheim, and the midfield of Canouse, Ian Harkes, and Luciano Acosta seems like a solid starting place for DC. Meanwhile, no player broke out more in 2017 than Tyler Adams. Benefitting from an increased role after the McCarty transfer, Adams thrived both in the midfield and at right back and seems ready to take the lead to potential stardom next year.
One Step Forward
- DAL - Maxi Urruti
- MIN - Brent Kallman
- MTL - Anthony Jackson-Hamel
- NE - Kelyn Rowe
- NYC - Rodney Wallace
- PHI - Fafa Picault
- RSL - Luis Silva
Maxi Urruti’s talent has always been on display. However, this was his most complete year in MLS. While FC Dallas suffered a historic tailspin in the second half, Urrutimade his claim as one of the top ten strikers in the league. Meanwhile, Anthony Jackson-Hamel took the Montreal striker post long occupied by the likes of Marco Di Vaio, Didier Drogba, and Matteo Mancosu. He may lack the international pedigree, but the Homegrown looked every bit worth starting for a rebuilding Impact side.
Kelyn Rowe continued to be one of the most underrated playmakers in MLS. Overshadowed by teammate Lee Nguyen, Rowe earned a call-up of his own and may have been the USMNT’s brightest star in the Gold Cup group stage. Elsewhere in CONCACAF, Costa Rican winger Rodney Wallace finally put it all together in NYC, forming a lethal attack fleet alongside David Villa and Jack Harrison.
Two former NASL stars made their mark in their MLS debuts. Fafa Picault formed a lethal tandem with C.J. Sapong, helping the striker in his breakout year and beating out higher-paid options in Philadelphia. Further north, Brent Kallman was called into action early to remedy the disastrous signing of Vadim Demidov. The center back added grit and maturity to the Loons backline. Minnesota conceded three or more goals in 6 out of 11 games without Kallman, compared to 5 games out of 24 for with him in the lineup.
No RSL player may have benefitted more from Mike Petke’s arrival than Luis Silva. Long seen as a talented midfielder for DC United, Silva returned from a year in Liga MX for his best MLS campaign since 2014. His goal opened the floodgates for a plucky RSL side in the final weekend, who fell just short of the sixth seed out West.
Not Done Yet
- ATL - Michael Parkhurst
- SJ - Chris Wondolowski
- VAN - Marcel de Jong
At 33, Michael Parkhurst was excess to Columbus’ plans going into the season. Atlanta United swooped in, trading some General Allocation Money for the 25-time capped US defender. He not only had a steady performance on the pitch, but his leadership helped him captain the expansion side to a historically good debut.
In Vancouver, Jordan Harvey has long been synonymous with the left back position. However, De Jong earned five starts down the stretch for the Western contenders. With the Canadian international thriving and young Brett Levis coming back from injury for some key minutes with VW2, there may be an open competition for the LB position next spring.
Sometimes, a player is consistently great for so long, people forget how historic their success is. Chris Wondolowski is a prime example of this. The World Cup veteran led an attack that often had to overcome their own team’s porous defense. While his 13 goals were on par for the active MLS goal-scoring leader, his 8 assists were a career high. If San Jose is going to build on their sixth-seed showing, Wondolowski is undoubtedly still part of the foundation.
Jeff Rueter is a reporter and analyst covering Major League Soccer for The Guardian, ESPN FC, The Athletic - Minnesota, and US Soccer Players. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffrueter.