There's no denying it, people love a good redemption story. That small fact of life means it's an especially fine year to be a fan of Major League Soccer, which is currently teeming with players recovering — or even bettering — old form.
The opening stretch of the 2021 season has seen numerous star quality names putting hard 2020 times firmly in the rear view mirror, and we're here to show them some love. This exercise was not directly meant to act as a Comeback Player of the Year preview, but it seems quite fair to say some of these guys are positioning well to earn some votes for that award at season's end.
After bagging 10 goals in his debut season with Orlando City two years ago, the Canada attacker kind of fell to the wayside when the club finally blossomed in 2020. Akindele saw his pitch time reduced by more than 1,000 minutes, managing but three goals (and two of those were late tack-ons in multiple goal wins). The team entered the current term needing some strike relief with Daryl Dike away on loan, and the 29-year-old has provided it by strictly punishing mistakes. He's already matched last season's goal haul (all three were important early openers) and has even added three assists (which is just one off his career high).
One season after his production all but disappeared, the speedy winger has re-revved his engine with new employers Colorado. On a team with an offense-by-committee, Barrios has quickly established himself as the main driving force in their attack. In addition to notching two goals and three helpers from the Rapids' first eight games, the 30-year-old is also faithfully delivering his team to the attack zones. Barrios has already chalked up 22 successful dribbles into the opposing box, which is twice as many as anyone else in the league.
Among a gaggle of easy picks for this list, we've arrived at the most obvious of them all. After a tough 2020 on and off the field, Chicharito picked himself up, took a deep breath and got to work. Now, the LA Galaxy man looks like his old self. Hernandez is back to finding the right spot at the right time, and putting about twice as many of his shots on target as he did last season. Because of all that, the Mexico star is back to scoring big and timely goals. And because of that, he's the early leader in both the Golden Boot and MVP race.
Chicharito hat trick! Galaxy star continues incredible start to 2021
After averaging 16 goals over his first three MLS seasons, the D.C. United forward slumped all the way down to four in 2020. He was getting off far fewer shots than normal, and the ones he did fire were far less accurate than the 31-year-old's established norm. The good news is the veteran is back to finding his shots (from 1.6 per game last year up to 2.8 this year) and is placing them better (from 33.3% on frame last year to 62.5% on frame this season). Unsurprisingly, these improvements have resulted in Kamara bagging four goals in his first 262 minutes of the campaign, a rate well above his previous career high.
Last season was rough for Atlanta United in so many ways, it can be easy to forget Robinson struggled mightily trying to live up to a Best XI season in 2019. The 24-year-old wasn't nearly as disruptive to opposing rushes as usual and had trouble working the team out of the back. The Five Stripes are still trying to remember how to win games, but nobody could fault their defense. The US international is leading the way back there again, halting trouble with little fuss and pushing the team forward better than ever.
The Real Salt Lake showman took a much longer road to here than anyone else on the list. Rubin has been rather quiet since a solid debut season in the Eredivisie earned his first US caps way back in 2014, bouncing from club to club (and, to be fair, from position to position). His offseason signing didn't draw big headlines, but his play for a surprising RSL side sure has. With four goals in his first seven games for the Royals, Rubin is fitting in and back to making some noise.
Real Salt Lake's Rubio Rubin goal vs. Dallas | Enhanced Highlight
The Sporting KC attacker's resurgence has to be among the best "Welcome back!" stories of the year thus far. Following a breakout 2018 season that saw him log 11 goals and seven helpers before adding another three tallies in the playoffs, Salloi fell into a two-year slump that saw him score once in 25 games. The 24-year-old has rediscovered his area tenacity to provide four goals and two assists as sidekick to Alan Pulido. And he's not just back to finishing plays, but is also helping to drive final third play more than ever.
After a steady decline in both influence and production, Houston's offseason catch has come back to life after turning 30. Urruti's two-year stint in Montréal did not go to plan, with a dip in form leading to a 2020 season that saw him earn fewer than 900 minutes of action on a team desperate for goals. Fast forward a season and the wily forward has struck five times in nine games (which represents the best scoring rate of his nine-year MLS career) to lead a Dynamo club trying to regain its swagger.