It’s a time-honored cliché in sports: When preparing to get a player back from an extended injury layoff, coaches love to remark how the return feels like the team has a new signing.
Obviously, that's not quite accurate. After all, many of the guys mentioned below enter 2021 as prime candidates for the Comeback Player of the Year award and none will be eligible for the Newcomer of the Year prize. It's really like welcoming a trusted old friend back into the fold ... but we get what they're trying to say. These returnees missed most of last season, so it almost feels like an incoming freebie. Fair enough, cliché-ists.
To fully get into the "like a new signing" mindset, we've focused on guys who played so little last season or didn't feature at all. I have no doubt that Portland will be ecstatic to get Sebastian Blanco back from injury, but he was around more than enough last year to key their MLS is Back Tournament triumph. None of the guys who made the top five played more than 180 MLS minutes in 2020.
Luis Caicedo originally signed with New England in 2018 | USA Today Sports
New England surprised a lot of people with their Eastern Conference Final run, though no one could be blamed for thinking that the Revs would really be a title threat if they had a rangy ball hawk to defend the backline.
We should get the chance to find out if that's true, because all indications are that Caicedo will be ready when camp opens. The Colombian was fifth in the league in ball carrier pressures in 2018 and sixth in tackles the following season. With their quicker picker-upper back in the team, Bruce Arena's boys will have a much firmer basis for their already strong counter game.
If ever there was a runaway preseason Comeback Player of the Year favorite, this is it. Even if Martinez "only" returns at about two-thirds of his normal capacity, you're talking about 20 goals Atlanta United didn't have in 2020. And that's even before you get to the consuming gravity he brings to the final third.
Ezequiel Barco will again have space to be a menace. Marcelino Moreno will have added time in Zone 14 and a genuine through ball target. Brooks Lennon, meet your service target. You get the idea. Bringing the club's emotional lightning rod back into the side isn't just about goals, but, yeah, there will be a lot of those, too.
Ike Opara played logged just 180 minutes in 2020 | USA Today Sports
Martinez is a bigger-than-life figure to be able to bring back in attack. Opara, the 2019 MLS Defender of the Year, is that type of figure at the back. Of course, the Minnesota United center back is about to turn 32 and it's unclear exactly what kept him out for all but two games last season, so there's a few questions about his ability to regain top form after the layoff.
Nevertheless, Loons boss Adrian Heath has spoken optimistically about Opara's return. The team rode a roller coaster at the back without him in 2020, and closed the year being stingy until Seattle pulled a rabbit out of the hat in the Western Conference Final. Getting prime Ike back in the XI would help their contender aspirations.
Paxton Pomykal was an MLS All-Star in 2019 | USA Today Sports
A healthy batch of young MLS talent has moved overseas this winter, and a year ago Pomykal was widely considered a better bet to earn a European transfer than most of them. Then his 2020 season was interrupted by injury after only 150 minutes of pitch time.
While FC Dallas have made some key signings this offseason, the most important change to last season's XI may be getting Pomykal back. He's a Swiss Army knife midfielder that organizes the team into the final third. This businesslike element was missing from their 2020 season, and it often showed.
Columbus still won MLS Cup without Vito Wormgoor | USA Today Sports
The "oohs" and "aahs" have been flying in Columbus during the offseason thanks to landing free agents Kevin Molino and Bradley Wright-Phillips (who solves the champs' biggest potential weakness by providing strike cover for Gyasi Zardes). I totally get it, those are impressive moves by the reigning MLS Cup champs.
These glitzy pick-ups have obscured the fact that the Crew will also "add" Wormgoor, who missed all but the first 106 minutes of last season. Not only will the center back make what was already a stingy defensive unit even stronger, but the Dutchman is an ace at pinging long balls to the wing. By my count, that makes it scary times three bulking up the holders.