Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Major Leap Soccer: Top 5 breakout stars of 2022

Daniel Gazdag

Stars are born, but not in a blinding flash of light and energy. It takes time, opportunity and sometimes serendipity for the soccer cosmos to brew up the right conditions for true stardom.

In MLS, these five players made the leap in 2022 from good/great players to true league-wide stardom (and in some cases, much more than that).

As always, I’m sure I overlooked someone deserving of star status. Feel free to hit me on Twitter with any and all MLS musings.

PRESEASON STARDOM CHECK: Youth international pedigree, but yet to win a professional starting job, though late flashes in 2021 hinted at a breakout 2022.

The numbers say it all...

  • Vazquez in five MLS seasons from 2017-21: 9 goals, 7 assists in 2,503 minutes (82 GP, 21 GS)
  • Vazquez in 2022: 16 goals, 4 assists in 2,344 minutes (28 GP, 27 GS)

I’ve been doing this long enough to know you skimmed those lines – GAH, TOO MANY NUMBERS – assuming it was information you already know or have seen before. Go back. Read them again. Truly compare MLS years one through five to year six.

Imagine what it would be like for a teenager, then early 20-something, to spend half a decade grinding for a couple of starts a year and the occasional goal … before turning into a 2022 MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi contender in a single season. Imagine what it would be like to keep the faith in yourself and your career behind prime Josef Martinez in Atlanta and during two years on a back-to-back Wooden Spoon “winners.”

Vazquez doesn’t have to imagine. The 23-year-old lived it, and now he’s blossoming under new (and competent!) management in Cincinnati with an extended contract to cement his status within the club (and provide leverage in negotiations should another come in with an offer).

He is truly a star in MLS terms – and just starting to scratch his potential – and a foundational piece of a club on the rise.

PRESEASON STARDOM CHECK: No. 9 in 2021’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list, Ferreira had settled into a starting role with FC Dallas as the attacking midfielder/second striker (8g, 9a) behind Ricardo Pepi! Forget presumed World Cup starter, he’d played fewer than 250 minutes for the USMNT.

Ferreira’s talent was never in question, but his ideal position has often been a hotly debated topic. That question was resolved in the offseason.

While Pepi stole most of the headlines in 2021, Ferreira rediscovered the form that had gone missing in 2020. When Pepi was sold to Augsburg, Ferreira moved into the No. 9 role in Frisco. When Pepi’s club form waned, Ferreira took his opportunity to stake a claim to the top role with the USMNT. With Gregg Berhalter looking for in-form strikers, the 21-year-old embarked on a career season with 16 goals and five assists (thus far).

As his 2022 nears its spectacular conclusion, Ferreira is a Landon Donovan MLS MVP award candidate, the homegrown centerpiece of a club with MLS Cup hopes and poised to play a crucial, potentially starting role for an ambitious young US team at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Timing is everything, and Ferreira’s 2022 timing is perfect. He’s a star, but the sky is the limit if the final few months of the year go well.

PRESEASON STARDOM CHECK: Gazdag was a centerpiece No. 10 and Hungarian international in his prime, yes, but he was still a bit unknown in MLS. Raise your hand now and provide receipts if you had him as a preseason MVP or Golden Boot candidate!

This inclusion is meant as zero disrespect to Gazdag. He was a star in his own right when Philly signed him, just not on these shores.

Over the course of a dominant Union season, the 26-year-old has gone from “Yeah, he could be a difference-maker in MLS, but no guarantees” to “20 combined goals + assists for the next three years while the Union win three trophies? Makes sense tbh.”

With four games left, Gazdag has 18 goals (five PKs) and eight assists. Those are star numbers, period. When you’re putting up numbers like that and your team is competing for trophies, you are officially a star.

PRESEASON STARDOM CHECK: Flirting with stardom, but not quite there. One good season does not a star make – Vazquez’s 2022 excluded – and Mihailovic still had plenty to prove with club and country.

You could argue that Mihailovic’s star turn came last year. I’d buy that argument – four goals, 16 assists – but I’d argue that was more of a breakout campaign and add that 2022 has cemented his star status by adding a missing wrinkle to take him to the next level: goal scoring.

If not for an untimely injury, spoiling the 23-year-old’s MVP momentum and an opportunity to break into the USMNT, Djordje might just be the biggest MLS story of 2022. As it stands, he’s healthy again, on his way to AZ Alkmaar for a record fee at the end of the season, and could very well lead CF Montréal to MLS Cup.

The best part about it for soccer fans in the United States is that his star was made here. A homegrown No. 10, nothing better. Soon, he’ll have to make the label stick in the Eredivisie (and beyond). There’s no reason to think the 23-year-old can’t grow his stardom on bigger and bigger stages.

He’ll be 27 when the next World Cup rolls around. Just saying.

PRESEASON STARDOM CHECK: Cifu was one of the best young players in the league, but one of the best midfielders in the entire league? He wasn’t there ahead of 2022, but...

Now? Yes, absolutely.

Would anyone be surprised to see him get big minutes at the World Cup with Ecuador and move to a big-five league in January (or next summer) for a fat transfer fee? Not me.

In my mind, he’s supplanted Carlos Vela as LAFC’s most important player. He is a huge net add in every aspect of the game, which is why American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added metric has him second in the entire league behind just Hany Mukhtar.