Some call it “most-improved,” others say “The Leap,” and still more default to “have you seen this player?!”
Defining breakout performers is an admittedly vague task, but one that remains a tried-and-true tradition around the world. It’s a you-know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing.
Think FC Cincinnati striker Brandon Vazquez, who, after five years in MLS, improved his season-best goals tally from four to 18 in 2022 (and became a bonafide US men’s national team prospect along the way).
Or, to steal an example from MLS’s opponent for the 2023 All-Star Game presented by Target: Arsenal’s William Saliba, who went from a perennially on-loan defender to arguably this Premier League season's best center back.
In that vein, here are 10 players who appear poised for breakout 2023 seasons through five matchdays. The list features Designated Players, U22 Initiative signings, homegrowns, Expansion Draft additions and more. The only requirement is that each player saw MLS action in 2022.
Alexandru Matan wins the “who is this guy?” award so far this season.
The Romanian attacker first joined the Crew as a U22 Initiative signing ahead of the 2021 season, and had, well, not a great year: 0g/0a in 28 appearances. Midway through 2022, the Crew loaned him back to Romania to get time with FC Rapid București, where he only made six appearances.
Now, in 2023, he’s returned to the Crew under new manager Wilfred Nancy and has checks notes 1g/4a in five games?!
Chalk it up to the Nancy-bounce, which a handful of CF Montréal players parlayed into big transfers last offseason. Matan is thriving in the French manager’s 3-4-3-esque system as a wide attacking playmaker, where he can collect the ball in half-spaces, drive at opponents on the dribble and use his exceptional vision to create in the final third.
Thiago Almada may be getting the headlines for Atlanta United, but Caleb Wiley has also been an X-factor for the Five Stripes. With 3g/2a on the year, Wiley’s success has meant success for his club. Atlanta have a +7 goal differential in matches where the 18-year-old homegrown gets on the scoresheet.
The fullback-turned-winger (most young prospects go the other way) provides a desperately-needed direct threat on the left side of the attack to complement the oft-roaming Luiz Araújo on the right. All three of the 18-year-old homegrown’s goals have come from selfless running and immaculate timing to arrive unmarked at the back post. More than just a willing runner though, Wiley has shown excellent quality in both the composure of his finishes and the accuracy of his service, particularly his beautifully lofted assist to new DP Giorgos Giakoumakis against the Portland Timbers.
Between Wiley’s unselfish play, impressive technique and positional versatility, Almada may not be the only player drawing big-dollar transfer inquiries in Atlanta this year.
It’s never been about ability for the New York Red Bulls center back from Colombia, only health. In three full MLS seasons before 2023 – one with Inter Miami CF, two with RBNY – Andrés Reyes never made more than 17 starts, with injuries playing a major factor in his diminished playing time.
But since Reyes returned midway through 2022 following a six-month foot-surgery recovery, it’s been relatively smooth sailing health-wise, and the potentially elite defender is gaining serious momentum.
According to TruMedia via StatsPerform, Reyes ranks first in the league in recoveries, fourth in interceptions, sixth in aerials, and 14th in clearances through five matchdays. He’s racked up those stats by consistently putting out fires for a Red Bulls team whose defense has kept them afloat through the first part of the season.
Between DP strikers who never quite took off (Adrien Hunou et al) and successful players forced to play out of position (Robin Lod), Minnesota United FC have tried just about everything to crack the code up top, but nothing’s quite stuck – perhaps a cruel irony for head coach Adrian Heath, a successful goalscorer back in his playing days with Everton, Burnley and others.
Mender García didn’t look likely to break the trend last season after joining the Loons in early August as a Designated Player, logging just one goal in nine appearances.
But 2023 has been full of pleasant surprises for MNUFC, who are now one of only four undefeated teams left in the league despite the continued absence of their superstar playmaker, Emanuel Reynoso. García’s been a crucial part of that success, twice scoring massive goals that showed off a true striker's instinct for timing and finishing in the box. Can the 24-year-old Colombian be a long-sought-after solution up top?
Knuck if you buck, antler emoji, The First Noel, etc… the 17-year-old homegrown midfielder, whose name lends itself to infinite nicknames, has earned every friendly moniker and more through five strong matchday performances.
Not only has Noel Buck bossed the dirty work needed as a center-mid shuttler in the New England Revolution’s narrow diamond midfield (posting solid passing, duels and tackling numbers), but he’s also scored a last-minute game-winner. Not bad for a guy who played the bulk of his minutes in MLS NEXT Pro last year.
At just 17 years old, slotting into a complicated midfield system is no small feat, but Buck’s made it look easy as the Revs have cruised to first place in the Eastern Conference.
Let’s get some love for the MLS Expansion Draft. At times viewed as more of an exercise in building trade capital than acquiring true game-changing talent, St. Louis CITY SC have flipped that narrative on its head. Three of the five players they selected have made significant contributions to the club’s historic 5W-0L-0D start to the season.
Of those three (John Nelson, Nicholas Gioacchini and Indiana Vassilev), Nelson narrowly edges out Gioacchini for a spot on this list, having started every CITY SC match and gone the full 90 in four of them. The fifth-year pro hasn’t put up the gaudy attacking stats associated with elite fullback play, but he has been a perfect fit for St. Louis’ aggressive defensive structure, ranking fifth in the league for total tackles.
After four seasons of only playing rotational minutes at FC Cincinnati and FC Dallas, Nelson has claimed the starting left-back spot as his own in St. Louis, and if CITY SC continue to rack up shutouts (two in their last two matches), the 24-year-old’s stock will only keep rising.
Few players make their senior national team debut before their senior professional debut, but Jalen Neal did just that when going the full 90 for the US against Serbia in a January camp ahead of the 2023 MLS season.
Another player who appeared for the Yanks before their club’s first team: Seattle Sounders FC forward Jordan Morris. He turned out to be pretty good.
Historical comps aside, Neal has proven his national team minutes were more than deserved through his early-season play with LA Galaxy, who have only allowed one goal in his three starts. The 19-year-old homegrown is composed beyond his years, both on and off the ball, and, like Reyes for RBNY, has helped counteract his team’s struggling offense in the season’s early days.
Chris Durkin is good. Like really, really good.
Golazo aside, the all-action midfielder, who can play centrally or out wide, has been one of D.C. United’s top offensive creators (second in chances created, first in expected assists). He’s also been one of their busiest defenders (third in tackles, third in duels). That’s the kind of midfield production you typically pay DP/max-TAM money for.
Whether or not D.C. United can climb the standings with Wayne Rooney's new-look group, the 23-year-old homegrown midfielder (who spent three years with Sint-Truiden in the Belgian Pro League) is poised to make the leap from solid to great this year. And still relatively young, all career aspirations should remain on the table.
Something of a surprise starter in Austin FC’s midfield to start the year, Owen Wolff has quickly shown why he belongs.
Another player on this list whose strong play extends past a stunning golazo, Wolff brings an overall attacking flair to the central midfield for Austin – a much-needed quality for a team that’s found goals hard to come by in 2023.
The 18-year-old homegrown is currently tied with Sebastián Driussi for second most regular-season goal contributions on the squad with two (1g/1a for both). Right back Jon Gallagher is leading the pack with four (3g/1a).
If Austin hope to reach the peaks of last year’s Western Conference runner-up season, they’ll need Wolff to continue providing offensive thrust from the middle of the park.
Houston Dynamo FC made four significant fullback additions this offseason. Two have started and won MLS Cup Finals (Brad Smith and Franco Escobar); one’s logged over 1,500 minutes in the Dutch Eredivisie (Djevencio van der Kust); and the other is Tate Schmitt – a fifth-year pro who had his contract option declined by Real Salt Lake following the 2022 season.
Schmitt made 14 starts in four seasons with RSL, often featuring for reserve side Real Monarchs instead of the first team. But through four matches with Houston, the 25-year-old fullback has four starts, so far playing every minute available. Due to both injury and coaching decisions, none of the other fullback additions have made more than one start.
Schmitt’s play has surpassed injury-replacement level, though. Beyond scoring Houston’s lone goal in a narrow Matchday 1 defeat to Supporters’ Shield contenders FC Cincinnati, the former RSL homegrown has been a key cog on his new team’s backline, which earned shutouts in their last two matches.
Roster overhaul and a new coach in Ben Olsen have meant opportunities abound in H-Town, and Schmitt has seized his moment.