Voices: Sam Jones

10 MLS players primed for a Year 2 bump in 2022

Hany Mukhtar’s 2020 numbers: four goals and four assists in 1,092 minutes of play. The Nashville SC star's 2021 numbers: 16 goals, 12 assists and one heckuva MVP case in 2,505 minutes.

That may not be the greatest Year 2 bump in MLS history. But it’s definitely up there. Mukhtar and players like Adam Buksa and Marcelino Moreno settled in during their second seasons in the league, ratcheted up their productivity and began to match their potential (and price tag).

Now, who’s next in 2022?

Honestly, it's hard to predict from 2021's imports. I don’t think Mukhtar would have been anyone’s first guess to suddenly become a Landon Donovan MLS MVP contender. But we can at least take a shot at picking out a few potential candidates primed to make a major jump during their second season. Consider these educated guesses, if you will.

2021 arrival: Young Designated Player from Celtic FC on April 22

This list isn’t in any particular order. But statistically speaking, I feel good about Klimala being at the top of it. Few underperformed their expected goals numbers like the New York Red Bulls man last season. The Polish youth international still had a good year, racking up eight goals and seven assists in 2,094 minutes. He nearly produced too much to even be on this list. But he could have been a lot better.

There’s a 4.62 goal difference between his actual and expected numbers. Can you imagine if he stayed closer to the mean last year? Or better yet, outperformed his numbers like many of the league’s top scorers did? Klimala would have put up 12 goals or more during his first year in MLS and the 23-year-old would have easily been in the discussion for Newcomer of the Year. In fact, his total expected goals plus assist numbers were better than Albert Rusnak, Johnny Russell and Djordje Mihailovic.

Instead, he was a bit unlucky and a bit too unreliable. If he can catch a few more breaks, and finish a bit more consistently, he could become a star in New York in Year 2.

2021 arrival: Designated Player from Zenit St. Petersburg on July 29

There are two types of players on this list:

  1. Players who had the underlying numbers but not the production, like Klimala.
  2. Players included based on warm feelings inside my chest, star charts and the unbridled optimism of a blogger in their mid-20s.

Driussi, and most on the list, fall into the latter category. But hey, Mukhtar would have as well last year. Not that Driussi necessarily played poorly. In fact, five goals and five assists over 1,379 minutes put him nearly even on output with Mukhtar’s Year 1. What really gets him on this list is that Austin FC as a whole should be primed for a Year 2 bump.

Progress isn’t linear and players and teams don’t always increasingly get better over time. However, we can point to Atlanta United, LAFC and Nashville as recent examples of the success Year 2 can bring for an expansion team. The Verde & Black didn’t match the on-field success of those teams in Year 1, but they had a tactical identity and underperformed their underlying numbers by a significant amount. They couldn’t even accidentally score for large chunks of the year, but Driussi’s midseason addition helped with that some.

If Austin can improve with Driussi as a focal point of the attack and fellow Year 2 player Moussa Djitte occupying defenders at striker, then the 25-year-old Argentine could have a big year.

2021 arrival: Young Designated Player from Valenciennes FC on April 8

I kind of closed my eyes and put a finger down on the list of LA Galaxy newcomers last season. It felt like all of them but Rayan Raveloson underwhelmed last year. I’m glad I landed on Cabral because his underlying numbers at least indicate that he got into good positions with the ball in 2021. The French winger finished with five goals and two assists, but his expected goals and expected assists numbers put him closer to eight and three.

That’s not quite Klimala territory. Fortunately for Cabral, the Galaxy seem more likely to move forward as a team in Year 2 under Greg Vanney than the Red Bulls do under Gerhard Struber. That’s much more a comment on the status of each team’s actual offseason moves and rumored moves than either coaches’ ability. Cabral could be a major part of a Galaxy leap in Year 2 if it happens.

2021 arrival: Designated Player from Stade Rennais on April 23

Hunou … has a lower bar to clear than most others on this list. Because Year 1 objectively didn’t go well.

Hunou added just seven goals and one assist to the Loons attack over 1,723 minutes. The 27-year-old came to Minnesota from a top-end Ligue 1 club and, well, those are decidedly not DP-level numbers. The underlying numbers help him out very little. But Minnesota United as a whole probably needed to reset themselves a bit after a frustrating 2021. If Hunou and the collective can get the ship righted, then maybe everything will be much improved for MNUFC in 2022.

2021 arrival: Designated Player from Lille OSC on Aug. 6

Confession: I’ve got a bit of personal bias here. I see Araujo in training somewhat regularly and folks, he is magic. I've also seen Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez up close regularly, and Araujo does things in training that I don’t think anyone else that’s ever come through Atlanta United could even dream of.

Now, the big task is for him and Atlanta United is making sure that translates onto the field. Araujo certainly wasn’t bad last season. It just felt like the Brazilian winger had a ton more to unlock. That’s really how watching Atlanta United felt all year, though. The Five Stripes just never gelled in attack and anything that wasn’t a moment of solitary brilliance in transition fell flat. Araujo, in a team that can create in multiple game states, could easily be an MVP-caliber player.

Atlanta have to find a way to improve in that regard in Year 2 under Gonzalo Pineda, and Araujo has to make sure he’s extremely involved in that process. He disappeared just a little too often in 2021. These things are correctable. And if they get fixed, he could be special.

2021 arrival: Young Designated Player from São Paulo FC on Feb. 9

Brenner had a ton of pressure on him to help save Cincy from yet another Wooden Spoon, courtesy of a reported $13 million transfer fee from one of Brazil's most storied clubs. And, well, some burdens are too great to bear.

However, Brenner had eight goals and two assists in 2,799 minutes. It didn't go great, but little did for the Orange & Blue in 2021 aside from opening the stunning TQL Stadium. And there’s a reason he’s one of the most expensive transfers in MLS history. He clearly has potential and talent.

Brenner also, hopefully, has some stability around him as FC Cincinnati move into a new era with general manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan at the helm – trying to recreate the Philadelphia Union's ethos in Ohio with ownership that's clearly willing to invest. It might not be enough for him to go Full Mukhtar™. But it could result in a quality season.

2021 arrival: Young Designated Player from Vasco da Gama on May 19

Magno didn’t quite have the impact that might have been expected when he was being linked to Europe's biggest clubs. To be fair to him, NYCFC ended up being pretty good, as in winning MLS Cup 2021 pretty good. They were stacked. And it’s tough for 18-year-old kids in new countries to break into a team with more than enough attacking firepower.

Not that Magno didn’t contribute, of course. His goal against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Final sent NYCFC to MLS Cup. Now, after some attacking pieces have departed, Magno has a path to far more playing time than the 500 or so minutes he got last year. It just feels like he has too much talent to stay that quiet in 2022 (same goes for Thiago Andrade, by the way).

2021 arrival: U22 Initiative from Grêmio on Aug. 5

Just a friendly reminder that Seattle boast a roster that may be well beyond bordering on absurd. Chu came in toward the end of last season from Brazil’s Gremio as a U22 Initiative signing for a reported fee of about $2.5 million. Like Magno, he didn’t get a ton of chances to shine. He played just 146 minutes (one goal, one assist) last year as he settled in.

He’s still got plenty of competition in front of him for playing time, but 2022 could mean a few more minutes for Chu and maybe even a breakout year for the young midfielder. He’ll have to see the field for it to happen, but it’s not a bad bet if he does.

2021 arrival: U22 Initiative from América de Cali on July 29

Moreno came to Portland as a U22 Initiative signing and laid low until he started putting on a bit of a show in the playoffs. In particular, his performance against Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Final turned some heads.

He’s very likely going to be The Guy in Portland's attack this year and he’s got plenty of buzz around him. With a full season of playing time, he may not be around Providence Park long if he matches some of the hype.

2021 arrival: Designated Player from CF Monterrey on July 7

I figured we’d end a list inspired by Hany Mukhtar with a guy who could really provide some help for him. Nashville were excellent without Loba living up to his club-record price tag last year. A big year from Loba, though? That could take them to the next level.

Nashville dished out $6.8 million last year to get him from Monterrey and Loba acted as a super-sub, appearing in 19 games but only starting two of those. In 381 minutes, the DP added a goal and two assists. Nashville really, really need more from the Ivorian forward this year. If he gets comfortable and starts producing, this could be a Supporters’ Shield-quality team.