Voices: Greg Seltzer

11 early surprise standout players for the 2021 MLS season

The early days of the 2021 Major League Soccer season have seen an unusual amount of spotlight displays from players who seemingly came out of nowhere.

Of course, nobody actually appears out of thin air to put in admirable MLS performances. We have all sorts on this list (a designated player finally living up to the tag, ladder-climbing academy products, career reserves/USL soldiers getting a long-awaited big league shot, etc.), but they all have one thing in common: a nose that stayed on the grindstone until they could truly turn heads at this level.

We had a very entertaining shock standout show this past weekend, when longtime MLS backup netminder Logan Ketterer put on a Team of the Week-worthy in the Portland Timbers' defeat of the San Jose Earthquakes. It was only one game, so he didn't quite make the cut here, but you get the idea. Surprise aces are fun, so we're going to talk about that.

We've picked out 11 players making (or in some cases, re-making) their names with early season top-shelf efforts we didn't see coming. Per usual, we'll whet your appetite for the main course by serving up some honorable mentions: Carlos Fierro, Andres Jasson, Jon Kempin, Mustafa Kizza and Phelipe Megiolaro.

It's a real pity the 19-year-old Seattle Sounders midfielder picked up a nag of a quadriceps injury, because his first two games of 2021 were highly impressive. With Nicolas Lodeiro on the mend early, Atencio helped the Sounders open strong with a rout of Minnesota United and a rally draw at LAFC. He has rung up 41 total defensive stops across the two matches, and then ably pointed his team in the right direction once they reclaimed the ball.

If you're not a Real Salt Lake fan or a fan of the last three teams they played, you might not even know this guy's name. Like a few of the guys on this list, it took several years for Brody to work his way to MLS. If his first few outings are any indication, the wait was worth it. The 26-year-old right back set up Damir Kreilach's opener in their win over Sporting Kansas City just five minutes after coming on for his debut, and he has been a solid two-way field-tilter ever since.

The New York Red Bulls' offseason strike catch has yet to find the net himself, but he is certainly helping teammates ring the bell. Already a lay-off master at 23, Fabio leads the league with four assists. He's also teed up a shot that led to a rebound goal (no official assist for that one), which means the lanky, pacy Brazilian has played a direct part in five of the club's seven goals this season.

There probably weren't many MLS watchers who knew much (if anything) about the young Vancouver Whitecaps left back before the season, but they should be aware of him now. Gutierrez has been key to a decent Whitecaps start at both ends of the field. On a team that lives and dies on restarts, he's proving to be one of the league's most dangerous dead ball servers (only Carles Gil and Jamiro Monteiro have created more shots from free kicks/corner kicks thus far). Defensively, the 24-year-old has been disruptive enough to lead all Vancouver defenders in several categories, including interceptions, blocked passes, successful pressures and final third tackles.

I have no doubt plenty of folks in Austin FC panicked when veteran left back Ben Sweat suffered an ACL tear in their Week 2 win at the Colorado Rapids. Have no fear, Austinites, because the 21-year-old Slovenian is here. In addition to his solid work at the back, Kolmanic has instantly become a hit for his play-driving and cross delivery skills. Though he's only started three of their five games, the youngster already tops the team in key passes, progressive distance carrying the ball and dribbles into the final third.

The Portland midfielder had a bit of impact in 705 minutes two seasons back, but was more anonymous in an almost equal amount of 2020 pitch time. It's never easy to break into the Timbers midfield, but this season Loria has responded to added responsibilities by stepping his game up for an injury-weakened Timbers side fighting off a rough start. The recently-capped Costa Rica international has become more present defensively, while also bringing more support to the attack.

This probably seems like a choice out of left field. That can happen when the guy is a San Jose left-sider making a difference in a quiet, administrative manner. Marie fills the right spaces to do a laundry list of thankless tasks on the ball and is developing into a stand-up defender. While there's a lot that goes into explaining +/- type stats, there is something to be said about the fact the Quakes have scored seven of their 10 goals and leaked just three of eight allowed while the Frenchman was on the field. Because of all this, the 25-year-old is on pace to lap the total of MLS minutes he played in his first two seasons combined. Of course, it might help him get noticed if he can also lash home a ridiculous banger every now and then.

We've seen flashes of excellence from the attacker ever since he joined New York City FC before the 2018 season. Medina's first season at Yankee Stadium was encouraging (six goals, seven helpers), but he often disappointed/lost his starting place during the two years that followed. Suddenly, the 24-year-old is looking less like a passenger in a winning side and more like a star leading the way. He's driving the team and then turning up in the right spots to capitalize from pressure. Through five games, he's bagged four goals, teed up 20 shots for teammates and stands near the top of several ball carrying stats (progressive carries, progressive distance covered, players dribbled past, etc.).

Four years ago, the winger played a whole half of MLS soccer for Sporting KC. Wrapped around that was six seasons and 126 games in the USL. The Houston Dynamo grabbed Pasher this offseason in a signing that flew way under the radar, and he has created chances left and right in three starts this season. He coolly set up Maxi Urruti's winner against San Jose and made no mistake on the equalizer versus LAFC a couple weeks later. Now Tab Ramos just needs to get the 26-year-old back from the injury ward.

The forward didn't have much impact at several stops since a solid rookie campaign at FC Utrecht six years ago, but he's finally arrived in MLS looking like the difference-maker on a surprise package Real Salt Lake team. Rubin set up both goals in their season opening win at Minnesota United, and then made the difference with an entertaining double in a victory over Sporting KC the following week. Of course, the week after that, some video game antics registered his early candidacy for Goal of the Year honors.

Prior to this season, the Austin FC backstop had made nine league starts since initially joining the MLS goalkeeper pool back in 2013. That's a long time being a back-up, but his perseverance has finally paid off. The 30-year-old is tied for the league lead in saves, and several of them were heavy lifting. To date, Stuver has been among the expansion side's top performers nearly every week.