Five players primed to step up in MLS during international break

It's a lighter weekend in MLS during an international break, but fear not: The games won't stop.

Over the weekend's five matches, some clubs are more heavily impacted than others by international duty. That void creates prime opportunities for players to rise to the occasion and stake a claim to playing time.

Here are five players who could step up.

Omir Fernandez

March 13, 2019

It's been one hell of a month for New York Red BullsHomegrown attacker Omir Fernandez

After leaving Wake Forest and signing his first professional contract this winter, Fernandez made his MLS debut and scored his first goal in Concacaf Champions League play against Santos Laguna. With Kaku on international duty with Paraguay and Florian Valot injured, Fernandez may well find himself back in the starting lineup against Orlando City SC on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in  US; DAZN in Canada).

Brandon Servania

Fernandez's former Wake Forest teammate Brandon Servania has a clear path to his MLS debut against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday (5:55 pm ET | Univision in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada). 

The FC Dallas midfield will likely skew even younger than normal this weekend, with Bryan Acosta and Carlos Gruezo on international duty. Paxton Pomykal is likely to start, but the other two slots are wide open. The 20-year-old Homegrown product Servania could take up one of them.

JJ Williams

It's not certain he'll start in place of Gyasi Zardes, as Patrick Mullins provides Columbus Crew SC head coach Caleb Porter a more senior option, but rookie striker JJ Williams should be in line for his MLS debut in some capacity. Over the first three weeks of the season, fellow 2019 SuperDraft strikers Andre Shinyashiki and Santiago Patino have made big impacts from the bench. Williams might be next.

Williams played his college ball at Kentucky and erupted in 2018 to the tune of 18 goals and 8 assists in 22 matches. It was enough to convince the Crew to draft him No. 18 overall. 

Kekuta Manneh

Much was made of FC Cincinnati's perceived attacking reliance on Fanendo Adi, and that proof will be tested this weekend as the striker is "almost certain" to miss Cincy's match against the New England Revolution on Sunday (4 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; DAZN in Canada).

With Darren Mattocks on international duty with Jamaica, Kekuta Manneh -- who typically plays as a second striker when featuring through the middle -- could be leading the lines alone. Manneh hasn't scored yet in three appearances (two starts) with Cincy, but he's looked lively. His pace is electric and he's a handful for defenders. 

Tate Schmitt

No Albert Rusnak, Corey Baird, Sam Johnson or Jefferson Savarino this weekend for Real Salt Lake. Joao Plata returned to light training Tuesday after weeks without practicing. RSL's deep and amorphous attack likely won't be as depleted all season as it will be against LAFC on Saturday (10:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; DAZN in Canada). 

It's as good a chance as any for Tate Schmitt to catch his first MLS minutes. 

The Homegrown signing isn't the pace threat that Johnson and Baird are, but more of a connector who can occupy defenders, create problems on and off the ball. He ranked fourth in University of Louisville history in career points with 69 and sixth in career goals with 26 during his time on campus.