The 26th season of Major League Soccer kicks off on Friday, April 16 (catch MLS all season long on ABC/ESPN/ESPN+). With fresh faces, returning stars and a new team in Austin, there will plenty of talking points throughout the season. ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura, Jeff Carlisle, Gus Elvin, and Danny Guerra bring you the top names to watch ahead of the season opener.
Jump to: Key returning players to watch | New arrivals to make mark | Coaches with lots to gain (and lose) | Season-long storylines
Key returning players
Javier Hernandez | Forward | LA Galaxy | 32 — The 2020 campaign couldn’t have gone worse for Chicharito. The Mexico men’s national team icon was a complete bust on the field, scoring just two goals in 12 appearances, and failing to replace the departed Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the Galaxy missed out on the postseason. Injuries explained the forward’s ineffectiveness in part, but personal issues — his grandfather died in April, while his wife and children spent much of the year in her native Australia — also were a factor.
Chicharito has vowed to make amends in 2021, but he’ll need help. The Galaxy has retooled its attack to a degree with the acquisitions of midfielders Kevin Cabral from Valenciennes, Samuel Grandsir from AS Monaco, and former Toronto FC creator Victor Vazquez. The hope is that this trio will be more adept at getting Chicharito the ball in dangerous spots than the team was last year. A new coach in Greg Vanney will also give the Galaxy a different look. If the team clicks, Chicharito should be one of the major beneficiaries. If not, he’ll go down as one of the worst signings in league history. — Jeff Carlisle
– MLS on ESPN: Games, rivalries you can’t miss this season
– Carlisle: Where does expansion stand after Sacramento drama?
– ESPN+ viewer’s guide: Bundesliga, Serie A, MLS, FA Cup and more
Paxton Pomykal | Midfielder | FC Dallas | 21 — After being named an MLS All-Star and turning in a standout performance for the United States at the U-20 World Cup in 2019, Pomykal entered the 2020 season with lofty expectations. However, injuries limited him to just 150 minutes over five appearances — with one start — before Dallas shut him down for the season to have surgery in late August. If he had been fully recovered, Pomykal likely would have played a key role for the U.S. during its failed attempt to qualify for the Olympics.
However, he remains one of the most intriguing young American prospects. If he can get back on the trajectory he showed prior to 2020, Pomykal should generate plenty of interest from European suitors as an attacking midfielder who has shown he can be effective both centrally and on the wing. — Kyle Bonagura
Diego Rossi | Forward | LAFC | 23 — While Carlos Vela remains the star for Bob Bradley’s side, Rossi emerged in Vela’s extended absences last season to lead the team to the playoffs and win the MLS Golden Boot with 14 goals. The pandemic hindered two objectives for Rossi — earning his first senior cap for Uruguay and a possible transfer to a Europe.
But the 23-year-old Rossi, entering his fourth season in Los Angeles, recently told the L.A. Times he remains focused on winning LAFC’s firtst MLS Cup. And the team has the talent and depth to do just that. Bradley can expect for either Vela or Rossi to carry the goal-scoring should the other miss time. And if Rossi has another stellar season, expect him to make his move to Europe soon enough. — Danny Guerra
Josef Martinez | Forward | Atlanta United FC | 27 — The biggest “addition” to any team this offseason in MLS maybe the return of Martinez, who returns for Atlanta United after missing all of 2020 after tearing his ACL in their season opener. The Venezuelan striker, who has scored goals at a record pace (77 in 84 games) since arriving from Torino, has much to prove, as do the Five Stripes, who look to bounce back after finishing 23rd out of 26 teams last season.
Martinez, who has been an MLS Best XI member in all three of his full MLS seasons, should help them do just that, as the 2018 MVP and MLS single-season scoring record holder is one of the best players in the history of the league. — Gus Elvin
Atlanta United star Josef Martinez opens up about the team’s struggles in 2020 after he tore an ACL.
New arrivals ready to make a mark
Brenner | Forward | FC Cincinnati | 21 — No one could have foreseen FC Cincinnati landing one of South America’s top young talents but that is exactly what happened this summer with the arrival of Brazilian forward Brenner. Signed from Sao Paulo for a reported $13 million (the third-largest transfer fee ever paid by an MLS club), expectations are sky-high for the 21-year-old, who was also linked with the likes of Juventus, Arsenal and AC Milan last season.
Coming off a breakout campaign in Brazil in which he netted 22 times in 38 games, Brenner will now be tasked with helping drag the Orange and Blue out of the basement, a place they have finished in both of their seasons in MLS. FC Cincinnati desperately need to score more goals — only 12 in 23 games a year ago — and the hope is that the speedy and instinctive Brenner can help them do just that both in the immediate and the future. — Elvin
Caden Clark | Midfielder | New York Red Bulls | 17 — Clark made his debut late last season so he isn’t a true newcomer, but his immediate impact after joining the first team from Red Bulls II in October makes him a worthy player to keep an eye on. The expectation is he will spend the 2021 season at NYRB before heading to RB Leipzig in Germany. That type of ascent is reserved for only the best prospects, which makes Clark — who won’t turn 18 until May — as interesting a young player as there is in MLS.
Clark scored in his first two appearances in MLS and put the Red Bulls up 1-0, briefly, against Columbus, the eventual MLS Cup champions, in the first round of the playoffs. He played primarily on the right wing last season but has the ability to play more as a No. 10 or on the left side. — Bonagura
Alexandre Pato | Forward | Orlando City SC | 31 — Amid a more subdued offseason, Pato’s arrival to Orlando probably counts as the most notable of the usual splashy signings of players with a European club degree. The ex-AC Milan and Chelsea player, 31, had been playing in China and his native Brazil the last several seasons, so his move was a bit surprising. But Orlando has history of bringing in Brazilian stars (remember Kaka?), and Pato will strengthen Oscar Pareja’s attack options while on-loan striker Daryl Dike continues his great form at Barnsley.
Behind ex-Manchester United winger Nani and rising U.S. prospect Chris Mueller, the Lions finally reached the playoffs last season and were runners-up at the MLS is Back tournament. And if Pato continues to impress as he has this preseason, Orlando should be a viable contender in the Eastern Conference. — Guerra
Ramón Ábila | Forward | Minnesota United FC | 31
The Loons have been looking for a dependable forward for what seems like forever. Four out of last season’s group of strikers — Luis Amarilla, Kei Kamara, Aaron Schoenfeld and Mason Toye — are all gone. This season Ábila is the one manager Adrian Heath is counting on to get the goals. For whatever reason, Heath hasn’t yet been able to find a striker who fits his system and is consistent, but Ábila has some advantages that his predecessors didn’t.
Ábila is already familiar with creative force Bebelo Reynoso given the two were teammates at Boca Juniors, and the likes of Ethan Finlay, Robin Lod and Jan Gregus return to provide a varied and dynamic supply line. Minnesota has shown steady improvement during its previous four seasons in MLS. Ábila could be the man to push them over the top. — Carlisle
David Beckham tells ESPN why he’s confident Inter Miami can recruit stars like Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar.
Coaches with lots to gain (and lose)
Gabriel Heinze, Atlanta United FC — After Frank de Boer’s unmitigated disaster in overseeing Atlanta’s fall from MLS Cup champions to Eastern Conference also-ran, Heinze already has his work cut out for him. The Five Stripes have the financial backing and general infrastructure to be a perennial contender and hope the former Argentina international can return the club to the form it showed under its first manager, Tata Martino. The return of Martinez from injury helps, of course, and Atlanta showed promise in Heinze’s debut at Alajuelense in the CONCACAF Champions League on Tuesday, where it won 1-0 despite playing down a man the whole second half. — Bonagura
Phil Neville, Inter Miami CF — The new boss is under pressure before managing even a single game, as questions continue to swirl over whether Neville’s credentials — a disappointing spell as the England women’s national team manager — matched the job description. Miami owner David Beckham has tried to squash claims that Neville was hired simply because he is his friend and former Manchester United teammate, but the only way to truly do that is for Neville and Miami to deliver results on the field. With an ambitious project and players like Gonzalo Higuain, Blaise Matuidi, Rodolfo Pizarro and Lewis Morgan already on the books, Inter Miami fans will be expecting the team to win now, and Neville can ill-afford a slow start. Is Neville the “right man for the job” as Beckham says? Let’s just say there will be a lot of eyes paying very close attention to how the manager fares right out of the gate. — Elvin
Matias Almeyda, San Jose Earthquakes — The narrative surrounding the Quakes last season was one of significant improvement. Yet closer inspection reveals something a bit different. Sure, the team qualified for the playoffs and pushed Sporting Kansas City to the limit. But the reality is it wasn’t the Quakes’ performances that changed, but rather the league’s generous addition of another playoff place. In 2019, San Jose averaged 1.29 points per game. In 2020, that was almost identical at 1.30 PPG. So is San Jose poised for something bigger under Almeyda, or will it be more of the same?
The Argentine raided old club Chivas and acquired attacking midfielder Javier “Chofis” Lopez, but that looks to be a high risk acquisition. Youngster Cade Cowell does look set to break out. The more pertinent question is: Can the team find more consistency defensively. And will Almeyda stick around if it doesn’t go well? He’s looked at other opportunities before, and talked of the team’s lack of investment. A significant rise up the Western Conference table makes it more likely he’ll remain in San Jose. — Carlisle
Chris Armas, Toronto FC — His two-season tenure at New York Red Bulls had its ups and downs, but Armas has landed a good spot in this offseason where he inherits a veteran-laden side that fell just short of winning the Supporters’ Shield. Armas promises an aggressive and pressing style, previously saying he wants an “injection of intensity.” The Reds feature U.S. stalwarts Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez, and Michael Bradley — as well as reigning MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo — so Armas will have some key pieces at his disposal. But this is not a young team, and the team hasn’t made any notable acquisitions. Add that Toronto are playing their all their games in the U.S. due to Canadian travel restrictions, Armas must balance his preferred playing style to maximize a talented but aging squad. — Guerra
LAFC coach Bob Bradley speaks to Herculez Gomez ahead of the 2021 MLS season.
How will new side Austin FC fare?
Atlanta, LAFC and Nashville SC all showed over the past four seasons that expansion teams can find success right away in MLS, so it’s fair to allow for the possibility that Austin FC will be competitive out of the gate with the roster Claudio Reyna has assembled. Veterans Matt Besler and Nick Lima are expected to anchor the backline in a 4-3-3 for head coach Josh Wolff, who worked under coach Gregg Berhalter in Columbus and with the USMNT.
– Vickery: Austin FC tapping South America for talent
Austin has two designated players on the books in Paraguayan forward Cecilio Dominguez and Argentina playmaker Tomás Pochettino. With an open Designated Player spot available, the team is keeping itself flexible to address any personnel issues arise as the team finds its footing in their debut season. — Bonagura
Can the Crew repeat AND break Liga MX’s CONCACAF hold?
The MLS Cup winners bring back all 11 players that started MLS Cup and have strengthened their ranks further with the depth additions of Kevin Molino, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Alexandru Matan and Marlon Hairston. That should make them a strong favorite to win another MLS Cup crown. But whether they are good enough to become the first MLS side to win the CONCACAF Champions League remains to be seen. On paper, they look to have a side that can go far in the competition but will have a tricky road against probable quarterfinal opponents (and three-time CCL winners) Monterrey.
– ESPN’s MLS 2020 Season Review: The Crew were worth saving
Caleb Porter’s side not only has the depth needed to compete on multiple fronts, but is also built strongly down the middle with a spine of Gyasi Zardes, last year’s MLS Newcomer of the Year Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe, and reigning MLS Defender of the Year Jonathan Mensah. Add in that the gap between MLS and Liga MX appears to be shrinking and narrow CCL final defeats in recent years by Toronto FC and LAFC, and the Crew appear well set-up to make a deep run. — Elvin
Are LAFC poised to keep their key players?
LAFC is one of the most talented teams in the league, an obvious contender for MLS Cup. Bob Bradley and Co. have bolstered the back line with the additions of left-back Marco Farfan and right-back Kim Moon-Hwan. This was on top of the late-season addition of center-back Jesus David Murillo. The midfield remains insanely deep with Francisco Ginella and Jose Cifuentes ready to step in if one of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta or Latif Blessing goes down. Keeping the attack together is another story. Brian Rodriguez is on loan with Spanish second-tier side Almeria, and it’s still to be determined if he stays there or returns. As mentioned above, there is overseas interest in Rossi and if the right offer came along, it’s tough to see LAFC standing in his way. LAFC has long been adept at adding replacements before selling a player, and another offseason acquisition, Corey Baird could be a replacement, though word is he’ll start centrally to begin the season. — Carlisle