With the new MLS campaign kicking off this weekend, we take a look at 10 players who could be the breakout stars of 2016.
Sam Adekugbe – Left-back, Vancouver Whitecaps
Adekugbe looked to be in the midst of a breakout season last year after starting seven of Vancouver’s opening nine games, but a serious ankle injury meant he was limited to just two more appearances over the rest of the campaign.
Nevertheless, the 21-year-old left-back is now fully fit again, and after a productive offseason training stint with Brighton & Hove Albion, he appears primed to push the experienced Jordan Harvey for a regular starting spot in Carl Robinson’s side.
A full Canadian international, the three-time capped defender has shown plenty of promise in his 14 MLS appearances since signing a Homegrown deal with the Whitecaps in August 2013, and his ability on both sides of the ball could see him develop into one of the league's top full-backs down the road.
Sean Davis – Midfielder, New York Red Bulls
A four-year standout at Duke University, Davis signed a Homegrown deal with the Red Bulls in December 2014 but saw limited action during his first season in MLS, settling for four starts in 14 appearances due to the impressive form of midfield trio Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins and Sacha Kljestan.
The 22-year-old certainly looked the part when given a chance to play, though, and the fact that his preseason displays have received high praise suggest he’s ready to become a bigger part of head coach Jesse Marsch’s plans in 2016.
If his two-goal performance in last summer’s 4-2 friendly win over Chelsea was anything to go by, the club could have a real difference-maker on their hands.
Jesse Gonzalez – Goalkeeper, FC Dallas
Gonzalez burst on the MLS scene late last season in the wake of an injury to the since-departed Dan Kennedy, leapfrogging Chris Seitz on the depth chart to start the club’s final 11 regular season games and all four playoff matches. The 20-year-old Homegrown keeper didn’t look at all out of place either, recording five clean sheets and some spectacular saves to boot, and he now goes into the new campaign as first-choice starter.
Called up the US national team’s January training camp, the Mexican-American ultimately declined the invite in favour of linking up with El Tri’s Under-23 squad and looks a good bet represent the reigning Olympic champions at Rio 2016 this summer.
Karl Ouimette – Centre-back, New York Red Bulls
The Impact’s first-ever Homegrown signing, Ouimette was surprisingly waived by his local club in February 2015 – a decision they could well come to regret. Soon reuniting with former Montreal boss Jesse Marsch at the Red Bulls, the 23-year-old Canadian international went on to show some good things as a spot starter over the course of last season and is now preparing to fight for a regular place this term with Matt Miazga sold to Chelsea and Damien Perrinelle set to miss considerable time recovering from a torn knee ligament.
Ronald Zubar and new signing Gideon Baah will be Marsch’s first-choice centre-back pairing to start the campaign, but if the former struggles like he did in 2015, Ouimette could force his way into the starting XI sooner rather than later.
Zach Pfeffer – Attacking Midfielder, Colorado Rapids
Pfeffer was tipped for big things upon making his MLS debut for the Philadelphia Union at the age of just 16 in September 2011, but things didn’t quite go to plan over the subsequent seasons.
After returning from an uneventful loan spell with Hoffenheim in 2014, the club’s first-ever Homegrown signing struggled to find a place in the side and it wasn’t until last term that he finally saw some noteworthy playing time, making 11 starts and 10 substitute appearances. He certainly offered moments of promise in the process, recording two goals and an assist, but the mid-season arrival of Tranquillo Barnetta subsequently put paid to any hope the 21-year-old playmaker had of earning a regular starting spot either during the run-in or for 2016.
However, having since been traded to the Colorado Rapids during the 2016 SuperDraft, a fresh start across the country could be just what’s needed to help him kick-start his career.
Cameron Porter – Striker, Montreal Impact
Selected out of Princeton in the third round of the 2015 SuperDraft, Porter went from relative unknown to club hero last March when he scored the stoppage-time goal that sent Montreal through to the CONCACAF Champions League semi-finals at the expense of Mexican giants Pachuca. Unfortunately, though, that was the 22-year-old striker’s only significant contribution of the season, as a knee ligament injury suffered just 18 minutes into his first MLS start a few weeks later subsequently wiped out the rest of his rookie campaign.
The club have since brought him back slowly over the course of preseason, but with main man Didier Drogba expected to miss plenty of time this term due to his issues with turf, there could be a lot of opportunities for the fit-again front man to impress.
Cristian Roldan – Midfielder, Seattle Sounders
A product of the nearby University of Washington, there’s every reason to believe that the Sounders got a steal when Roldan fell to them at the No. 16 pick of the 2015 SuperDraft. The 20-year-old midfielder was a versatile workhorse during his rookie season, making 11 starts on 22 regular season appearances in various different roles – including left-back, and he even earned a couple of US Under-20 caps prior to the World Cup in New Zealand.
A spot in Tab Ramos’ final 21-man squad ultimately alluded him, but if he takes another big step forward with Seattle this term, there could well be talk of a potential future in the senior setup.
Khiry Shelton – Striker, New York City FC
The second overall pick in the 2015 SuperDraft, Shelton featured in all but one of NYCFC’s opening 13 games last season before a knee injury kept him out of action until the final month of the campaign. Nevertheless, the 22-year-old striker did make a positive impression when fully fit, and as testament to his obvious potential, he was one of several US Under-23 internationals called up by Jurgen Klinsmann to the senior squad’s January training camp.
His seven starts and 10 substitute appearances in 2015 resulted in just one goal, but as a projected starter on the right wing going into the new campaign, the 6ft 3in speedster will have a prime opportunity to improve those numbers under new head coach Patrick Vieira.
Tommy Thompson – Attacking Midfielder, San Jose Earthquakes
Hailed as a future US national team star upon signing a Homegrown deal with the Earthquakes in January 2014, Thompson has since struggled to make his mark on MLS, earning just 1,551 minutes of playing time with no goals or assists.
Nevertheless, the 20-year-old attacker’s technical ability is undeniable, and a solid preseason offers some hope that 2016 could finally be the year when he shows everyone that he was worthy of the hype. With the versatility to play out wide or through the middle, there are plenty of roles in which Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear could use him.
Maximiliano Urruti – Striker, FC Dallas
Urruti may be somewhat older and more experienced than the other youngsters on his list, but he has yet to really showcase his full potential at the MLS level. In 2015, the 25-year-old Argentine saw his production drop from 10 goals to four in his second season as the Portland Timbers’ super sub striker, before salary cap limitations ultimately forced the club to part ways with him at the end of the campaign.
At the same time, though, the hard-working forward did play a key role in the team’s run to their first-ever MLS Cup title with his industrious displays off the bench, and having subsequently been picked up by Dallas in the Re-Entry Draft, he’ll finally have the chance to be a regular starter this term. What’s more, with playmaking compatriot Mauro Diaz lining up behind him, he’ll be getting arguably the best midfield service in the league.