The October international break is upon us, which means it’s time for understudies to take the stage and provide sweet relief for their clubs.
It's usually a tall ask, but obviously nothing is normal in 2020. This time, MLS clubs are dealing with a packed schedule, an elongated FIFA window and an extended return quarantine phase necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s also the timing of this international break, which falls as teams head into the home stretch with as blurry and unique an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs picture as ever.
Put it all together, and teams will be asking a lot more of these stand-ins. As such, we’ve compiled 10 players who await a critical workload under an increasingly hot spotlight over the next few weeks.
The work of LAFC's handiest man is truly never done. The former winger expertly transformed into a press-and-harass playmaker (yes, there is now such a thing). When a selection crisis was handcuffing Bob Bradley, Blessing morphed into a respectable right back.
With Carlos Vela still on the mend, and Brian Rodriguez and Diego Rossi busy with Uruguay matters, guess what probably comes next. Yep, I'm projecting that one of two things will happen over the next few weeks: Either we'll see Blessing return to the flank or Bradley will shift to a new formation (3-5-2?) and put him in the "not your typical No. 10" role. Or I could be wrong... it could be both. However it turns out, Blessing will be one of the most integral players in LAFC colors.
GOAL: Maikel Chang, Real Salt Lake - 76th minute
Sometimes it's not necessarily about filling in at the position vacated by the international. Sometimes it's more about replacing the attributes and actions provided by the departing starter.
This case is the latter situation, as Real Salt Lake don't have a ready-made No. 10 to stand in for Albert Rusnak. What they do have is Chang, who can emulate the Slovakia ace's chance creation level from a flank position.
Full disclosure: I always felt that Chapman was underutilized in Toronto. He's not flashy, but gets jobs done up the gut. The Canada midfielder can eat up space on the dribble, organize forays into the final third and fill lanes with late area runs by providing an end product.
I also now feel that he’s being overlooked by Inter Miami, but his time to shine may have finally arrived. While Rodolfo Pizarro is away with Mexico, the goal-shy newcomers could certainly use the chance creation boost Chapman offers.
It's true that Jonathan dos Santos has only played 482 minutes on the season, and that the Galaxy have lost all four of his starts. It's also true that, until a few weeks ago, the veteran midfielder had struggled for fitness all year.
Now that he's healthy, Dos Santos is off on Mexico duty and the Carson crew will aim to revive their postseason hopes. That means Corona should have the chance to resurrect his own oft-disappointing campaign. While his surname doesn't care as much panache, the American carries a strikingly similar tool belt in central park.
Minnesota United's Jacori Hayes goal vs. RSL | Enhanced Highlight
Let's be clear right off the top: Hayes won’t be an exact copy of Jan Gregus while the DP’s away with Slovakia during Minnesota United's forthcoming fixture crunch. The Loons will need to go gritty for a spell to keep pace with the West's top teams.
The impending return of Ozzie Alonso will definitely help, but most of the attacking-half duties will fall to Hayes. The 25-year-old has different methods than Gregus, but he showed during his FC Dallas days that he’s capable of pointing rushes in the right direction.
Erik Hurtado & Khiry Shelton
This shouldn't be considered a classic cheat pick because replacing Alan Pulido atop the Sporting Kansas City attack is a platoon job. That's how Peter Vermes handled it last month (when both Hurtado and Shelton found the net in relief), so I'll assume that's how it will play out this go-around.
Each forward has different strengths – Hurtado is the darting poacher, while Shelton’s the system facilitator – so who plays which game will be a strategic call. It also means Vermes can keep opponents guessing until Pulido returns.
Just when Alexandru Mitrita heats up to cover the loss of Heber, he has to head out for Romania duty. Medina has offered some encouraging signs this year, but NYCFC will need him to be more assertive to cover for the temporary loss of Mitrita's gusto.
The youngster is not a carbon-copy player, but can unsettle a defense with the ball at his feet. If the mood suits him and Medina can steer the club's stretch drive, it could extend the Paraguay midfielder’s time in the Bronx.
SAVE: Brian Rowe makes a fantastic save on Brandt Bronico
Maintaining a winning season can be a bit like baking, which requires a delicate balance of ingredients. Winning sides don't want anything to mess with the recipe.
For as much has gone right this year, Orlando City SC wouldn't be quite where they are without some big and timely saves from Pedro Gallese. Now that he’s off on Peru duty, the call for those big and timely saves goes out Rowe. He's a veteran who was decent for the Lions in 2019, so they should be in safe hands.
Between an injury to Sean Davis (knee) and international stints for Cristian Casseres and Kaku, the Red Bulls are set to go without their entire first-choice midfield. Honestly, I could easily include Marc Rzatkowski and Florian Valot here if not for the fact that we pretty much know what we're getting from them.
That's not how it is with Yearwood, who suddenly finds himself on the spot to demonstrate why the Big Apple bunch made him a Young Designated Player signing. That may seem harsh on a 20-year-old who’s still settling into American life, but there's a playoff race afoot and RBNY needs him.
Mystery Chicago Fire Man
Now that the Fire are finally warming up, they’re going to lose Gaston Gimenez (Paraguay) for several games. He has probably been the team's MVP thus far, and Chicago need someone to step up in defensive midfield. The problem is, I can’t for the life of me figure out who will take that vital stand-in assignment over the next few games.
I might suggest Jonathan Bornstein, but he'll likely be busy covering for the international departure of left back Miguel Angel Navarro (Venezuela). Micheal Azira is on staff, but Raphael Wicky has only seen fit to use him for 24 minutes this season, which could be because the veteran midfielder can't match Gimenez’s passing. Could ball-playing defender Francisco Calvo slide forward? Or perhaps Johan Kappelhof? Either would surely be better than asking Alvaro Medran to drop back. Of course, the transfer window remains open. At this time, I think all suggestions are welcome.