In the middle of January, an MLS Cup winner was scrolling through his phone, having just woken up. The beach was a few yards away but was no longer as appealing as it was when he arrived on vacation. Before he started his morning exercise he stopped scrolling through Instagram, went to his messages, hit the blue button at the top right corner and sent a message to his head coach.
“I’m ready. Let’s go. It’s our year.”
It was a long off-season for Major League Soccer – even for those who played the final game of 2019 back on Nov. 10. Those who didn’t make the playoffs went almost five months without a competitive match. Too long.
Long gone are Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose final social media post told people to go back to watching baseball. There will be some who will and will see the loss of global stars as a negative. Clearly the fact that two of them – Rooney and Ibrahimovic – continue to play and went back to Europe to meet their competitive demands is not ideal, but for MLS it is a case of what was rather than what could still be, an opportunity for the league to say thank you and move on.
Players of that calibre will always improve the league quality on a match day, but the impact they left on their teammates every day cannot be overstated. For the league to move forward it needs a mentality shift, where every player treats every game like it truly matters.
The league had internal meetings about this very point during the off-season, reiterated it to the media as they travelled throughout the winter and explained to teams the importance of sending a message that every game matters.
In reality, under the current format where seven teams in each conference make the playoffs every year, the regular season is very forgiving compared to the competition in Europe, where promotion and relegation ensure that there are very few meaningless matches.
That still seems a long way off for MLS. Without it comes a rare opportunity to accelerate the growth of the league as it reaches the pivotal age of 25. Without the ultimate fear of relegation, coupled with more teams and players committing at a high level every minute of every game, teams have a chance to work on progressive football that can take the league forward in its overall quality and appeal.
Gone are three global stars, but what remains is a growing group of exciting players in their primes who are now the pillars that need to take this league forward.
To celebrate MLS turning 25 and to welcome the return of a new season, here are my top 25 players in MLS at the start of 2020:
25. Aaron Long, Defender, New York Red Bulls
Arguably the best defender in MLS, the American centre-back grows in stature every season. A late bloomer who struggled to find minutes in the league after being released by Portland and Seattle, his emergence as a top-class defender with the New York Red Bulls has surprised many, but this is a skill set that has yet to plateau. Long reads the game really well, relishes the physical side of the game and is technically sound enough to be trusted inside a possession-based style.
24. Alexandru Mitrita, Midfielder, New York City FC
In the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, where space is at a premium, the Romanian attacking midfielder is a master of finding it. With a low centre of gravity when in possession of the ball, he is very difficult to defend. Alongside Maxi Moralez, Mitrita has turned New York City FC into an attacking force with a different dimension since the departure of David Villa.
23. Jordan Morris, Forward, Seattle Sounders
After two difficult seasons with injury, the U.S. winger improved rapidly in 2019 on his way to an MLS Championship. Still only 25 and playing inside an excellent structure with stars like Lodeiro and Ruidiaz, it will be exciting to see Morris continue to improve in 2020, bringing pace and power to wide areas where he excels in transition and thrives in one-on-one battles with defenders. Europe is blessed with direct, goal-scoring wide players, but in MLS many in this position are playmakers. Morris brings a different profile.
22. Cristian Espinoza, Midfielder, San Jose Earthquakes
The San Jose Earthquakes DP in the man that makes them play, the centrepiece of their team and could find another gear in 2020 after signing a permanent deal following his loan spell last season. The 24-year-old finished the season with 13 assists in 30 games – 0.46 assists per 90 minutes in MLS play, higher than New England’s Carles Gil, Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro and Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo.
21. Jurgen Locadia, Forward, FC Cincinnati
A newcomer to MLS with FC Cincinnati. Locadia comes to the U.S. less than 18 months after being signed by Brighton in the English Premier League for a transfer fee and other clauses that were close to $20 million. Locadia arrives with a lot to prove, and if he is motivated will see a $10 million purchase activated by the Orange and Blue this summer. His directness from wide areas, pace, movement and finishing ability should see him excel this season despite a lack of real quality around him.
20. Sebastian Blanco, Midfielder/Forward, Portland Timbers
Valeri’s teammate in Portland is often overlooked because of bigger names in the same squad but he is quite often the first name brought up by the opponents wary of what he can do. A playmaker often deployed on the left, he is amongst the elite in MLS and that was rewarded again this off-season with the Timbers extending his DP contract. One of few players in MLS who could get double-digit goals and assists in 2020.
19. Diego Valeri, Midfielder, Portland Timbers
Few see what Valeri, who has been sprinkling greatness on matches in this league since 2013, sees on an MLS pitch. He has won a league MVP and an MLS Cup, in a game in which he was named MVP. Valeri is an artist with his range of passing and skills. A selfless star, Portland’s all-time leader in goals and assists delighted their fans when he agreed a new deal this winter to continue as their skipper.
18. Jonathan dos Santos, Midfielder, LA Galaxy
The Mexican midfielder is amongst the league’s best at his position. The former Barcelona technician is comfortable playing the deepest in midfield inside a three or further forward as a number eight and has the ability to cover a lot of the right kind of space thanks to his supreme reading of the game. An excellent passer, he will bring calmness to an improved Galaxy squad in 2020.
17. Darlington Nagbe, Midfielder, Columbus Crew
The U.S. midfielder returns home to Ohio in 2020 to play for Columbus Crew and his former coach, Caleb Porter, and will instantly make them better. Nagbe has played in a lot of big games, winning MLS Cup with Portland Timbers in 2015 and Atlanta United in 2018 and was brilliant in them, marshalling a midfield that benefited greatly from his supreme reading of the game. Nagbe is a big player in big moments.
16. Carles Gil, Midfielder, New England Revolution
At this time last year, the New England Revolution was in trouble. Once a powerhouse in the league, they had been overtaken by teams that scouted better and spent considerably more than them. While those teams set records at the front of the pack, the Revs crawled around at the back of the grid knowing they needed new parts. Those parts came but had to be right. In Carles Gil they found a gem who can rapidly force his team to go through the gears. The Spaniard is one of the league’s best dribblers, blessed with a terrific left foot that can open up any defence and terrify goalkeepers with his accuracy from long range. Rightfully an MLS best XI selection, Gil helped the Revs get back where they belonged in the playoffs in 2019.
15. Maxi Moralez, Midfielder, New York City FC
Last season, the Argentine became just the third player ever to amass 20 assists in a single season, and with 45 in 90 career league games with New York City FC, averages one every two games. Moralez, who won the 2007 FIFA U20 World Cup with Argentina on Canadian soil, is a magician with the ball, showing trickery and passes few others at this league can do.
14. Raul Ruidiaz, Forward, Seattle Sounders
The Peruvian punisher has turned out to be a magnificent signing for Seattle. He has brought a selfless style to the number nine position, ensuring that people almost talk as much about as his workrate as they do his finishing abilities. Ruidiaz’s movement is fantastic and, because internally he never takes a minute off, whether the team is in possession or defending, he often finds himself in the right spot at the right time to score crucial goals – including seven in just six career MLS playoff games.
13. Jozy Altidore, Forward, Toronto FC
The Toronto FC striker is one of the most dangerous finishers in the game when healthy and on the field. His eight playoff goals in 12 appearances for Toronto FC, including the game winner in Seattle in MLS Cup 2017, only tells part of the story when it comes to how often Altidore has delivered when the lights have shone the brightest. With 56 goals in 110 regular-season games, his goals-per-game record is also excellent, but he knows the next step for him is boost the games played per season. He currently averages 22 – the same number as he played in 2019.
12. Ezequiel Barco, Midfielder, Atlanta United
The young playmaker flourished under Frank De Boer in Atlanta last season after a disappointing 2018. With teams worried about Josef Martinez, Barco lived a life of luxury in the space between opponents’ defence and attack and was able to consistently show why he is one of the brightest young South Americans in the game. Inside a disciplined system that is likely to have seven players behind him in a 3-4-3 shape. Alongside Pity and Josef, 2020 could be a massive year for a player who at 20 already has multiple MLS All-Star appearances.
11. Nani, Midfielder, Orlando City SC
There were times last season that Nani made it look too easy but, unfortunately for Orlando City, that didn’t happen enough. This is no reflection on the former UEFA Champions League and European Championships winner, however. He was placed into a very average side that wasn’t dangerous enough with the ball and a liability defensively. Nani brings much-needed class and bravado to a team that has to make significant strides in 2020. Expect a few more backflips than we saw last season.
10. Eduard Atuesta, Midfielder, Los Angeles Football Club
The best central midfielder in MLS has the attention of European scouts after a stellar 2019 for Bob Bradley’s record-breaking LAFC side. With more and more money coming into MLS, teams have decisions over where to place it. With much of it going in attacking areas, the midfield remains the area where the sharpest front offices can gain an extra edge by finding players who have the strength, athleticism and passing range to run games from the base of midfield. In Atuesta, LAFC have set a new standard and left others in the league envious and calling agents in South America “wanting an Atuesta.” With the addition of Francisco Ginella, LAFC may already have another one for when the inevitable comes and Atuesta is sold. A look at the last few MLS Cup champions shows teams who won many games because of their midfield. LAFC will hope to do that in 2020 before losing the Colombian.
9. Rodolfo Pizarro, Midfielder, Inter Miami
In his prime at just 26, the Mexican attacking midfielder is unquestionably one of the most important signings to ever come to MLS, having left behind his homeland to sign for expansion side Inter Miami. Pizarro has a little bit of everything – when in possession, power to drive through opponents, guile to open up opponents and two quick feet to cause defenders a lot of problems. In many ways, he is the modern-day midfielder who can play deep and dictate a game if needed, but is the most dangerous as a playmaking number 10 who can arrive late into the box and score many goals. He is a future MVP in this league if Miami build well around him.
8. Alejandro Pozuelo, Midfielder, Toronto FC
The Spaniard brought panache, prowess and Panenkas to Toronto FC in his debut season on his way to being rightfully named in the best XI of the season. Pozuelo is a maverick on the field who often operates at a level of football intelligence that teammates and opponents can’t get to. The next step for him to be a complete player at this level is to be trusted more when his team doesn’t have the ball, which could see him occasionally being played inside a midfield three with three other attackers beyond him. This may see him operate more centrally where he is more comfortable, but his versatility does bring more options for Toronto FC, including playing in a false nine role in last season’s playoffs. It’s a role he doesn’t enjoy as much, but one where he was the best player on the pitch in MLS Cup for an hour.
7. Cristian Pavon, Forward, LA Galaxy
This league has yet to see the best of the Argentine international, who arrived for the final third of last season on loan from Boca Juniors. LA Galaxy have managed to keep him again for 2020 and will climb up the standings because of it. Pavon is a dynamic winger who treats the ball gently in possession, with soft touches from both feet before exploding with pace and technical ability past defenders and into positions to set up forwards. Pavon made a big difference for Lionel Messi and Argentina at the 2018 World Cup and will do the same for Javier Hernandez and the Galaxy in 2020.
6. Diego Rossi, Forward, Los Angeles Football Club
MLS fans need to enjoy this talent while he is here. When the league talks about taking next steps and becoming more of a “selling league” the profile of this player and his career path should be used as the example. Rossi turns just 22 in the first week of the season and is a modern-day forward who is comfortable in any of the front three positions, relishing the one-on-one battles in wide areas while also having the directness and goal-scoring skills that can be occasionally used through the middle. The next step for him is to reach a level of consistency in performance and convert more chances. It feels like it’s coming. Rossi is a potential 2020 MVP candidate. If that happens, it will be his last season in MLS.
5. Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez, Midfielder, Atlanta United
2019 turned out to be a year of false starts for the Argentine attacking midfielder. Pity arrived in Atlanta with a big price tag ($17 million) and big boots to fill as Miguel Almiron left for Newcastle United. As 2020 begins, we all still wait to see the real Martinez. He showed glimpses of his playmaking skills in 2019 but at times struggled to fulfil coach Frank De Boer’s requirements on both sides of the ball. With an extended break finally behind him, expect to see the player many fell in love with at River Plate when he guided them to a Copa Libertadores title over Boca Juniors in his final game before moving to MLS.
4. Nicolas Lodeiro, Midfielder, Seattle Sounders
The Uruguayan playmaker may well be the league’s most under-appreciated star, unless you talk to people within Seattle who get to watch him regularly. On the field, as a number 10 who glides across the field to create overlaps, he is the ideal playmaker who makes his team go, bringing an appreciation of space like few others and a left foot that he uses as a weapon like a passing wizard. Simply a winner everywhere he has gone, he has now won two MLS Cups – including lifting the last one as captain at home in 2019.
3. Javier Hernandez, Forward, LA Galaxy
Chicharito fans in Los Angeles have been teased for some time with the fantasy of seeing the Mexican star play for their team. Even when he was scoring goals for Manchester United in his 20s, it always felt like a matter of when and not if the striker would make the move to MLS. After a disappointing season with Sevilla, his final spot in an excellent European career, he makes the move now to LA Galaxy to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic and instantly makes the team better on the field. Hernandez is a completely different player to the iconic Swede. He will help Galaxy press and defend from the front while still scoring goals aplenty, with almost most of them coming inside the penalty box.
2. Carlos Vela, Forward, Los Angeles Football Club
Like Josef Martinez, the Mexican international failed to reach the final at the last hurdle last season, with his LAFC falling at home to Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference final. In the regular season, Vela, the 2019 league MVP, reached a consistent ceiling each week with performances we have rarely ever seen in MLS, finishing the campaign with a remarkable 34 goals (a record) and 15 assists. He remains at his best playing with a number nine rather than as the central striker as he is occasionally needed to do, but make no mistake – he is a force for arguably the league’s most talented team.
1. Josef Martinez, Forward, Atlanta United
Atlanta United’s prolific striker is a gift to MLS, bringing an insatiable appetite for scoring and a competitive spirit that is infectious. The Venezuelan has scored 82 goals in 92 league and playoff games, including the team’s biggest-ever goal, the opening strike in the crown jewel of games for the Five Stripes when they defeated Portland Timbers to lift MLS Cup at home in 2018. Martinez has it all to excel at this level: pace, intelligent movement, aggressiveness, finishing ability and a unique skill set for a number nine that can see him often look like a playmaker driving towards goal and creating his own destiny rather than a penalty box reference point waiting on service.