It doesn't really matter what field you’re in or what area of human life is under examination at a given time. The goal should always be to make gradual forward strides, to be better than we were the year before.
There’s been no shortage of Major League Soccer players who took that notion to heart, but tossed out the word gradual, to improve their play by leaps and bounds in 2021. With the regular season winding down, we wanted to make sure these players (most of whom won't be in serious running for major league awards) a very due tip of the cap for the progress they've made this campaign.
The point here is to salute guys who made great progress in their development curve to reach a whole new level. You won't find any seasoned veterans rallying from a down period of performance or any younger guys riding the form roller coaster back up to a level similar to previous heights. Sorry, Sporting Kansas City fans, but that means no Andreu Fontas and no Daniel Salloi.
Because of these parameters, there are only two players on the list over the age of 26. And one of those is a netminder (let's face it, 30 for a 'keeper is like 25-26 for a field player). Even with these selection limits, there were a wealth of good names to pick from. Naturally, we have a crowded and impressive honorable mentions field: Cristian Casseres Jr., Jose Cifuentes, Randall Leal, Christian Makoun, Keaton Parks, Kyle Smith and William Yarbrough.
After a solid rookie season, the Galaxy youngster didn't make a big leap in 2020. Araujo certainly did this time around, though, raising his imprint on games on both sides of the ball. Finally allowed to make right back his permanent spot, the 20-year-old has lifted his defensive presence while also making the shortlist of wide defenders to complete more than two passes/crosses into the opposing area per game this term.
Coming into the season, the New England winger was a burgeoning threat filled with promise. Several months later, Buchanan is among the scariest flank menaces in MLS, a budding Canada star and set to join Belgian power Club Brugge this winter. Whenever the Supporters’ Shield winners need an area breach, they call on the 22-year-old. And though he's no longer splitting time at right back, Buchanan has kept his defensive impact high – the only real difference is now he swipes possession further up the field.
One doesn't generally expect giant leaps from a 27-year-old, but that's precisely what the Whitecaps have received from Dajome this season. Yes, he doubled his strike rate, in part by becoming one of the most reliable spot-kick converters in MLS. That's just a small part of how the winger has led the resurgence in Vancouver. Dajome's work in activating the counter, both before and after they take the ball away in good breakout positions, has set the tone for this maturing side.
Why not make it a Revs flank ace brace? It seems like a fair amount of people haven't really noticed, but Jones has quickly developed into one of the best and most well-rounded left backs in MLS. The Michigan native gets up and down with ease, and his clever reading of game flow has him making important plays at both ends for the MLS Cup favorite. Not too bad for a righty who not so long ago was a winger.
This is not the first time in 2021 we've discussed how the Philly Union right back has transformed from a backup with potential to a valued starter. Mbaizo has sufficiently filled Ray Gaddis' boots at the defensive end, while also growing into one of the league's top threats moving forward from the back. In fact, the Cameroon international leads all full-time MLS wide backs (i.e. Julian Gressel doesn't qualify) in total passes completed into the opponent's area.
Don't get me wrong, the Canada defender did some good work in his two seasons with Orlando City. It's just that the constant shuffling in and out of the lineup, and between backline stations, made it difficult to maintain top form. That's not an issue in Montréal, who've allowed Miller to marshal the defense from center back. He's responded by shutting down attacks and then safely steering his side forward on the dribble. The Stade Saputo bunch have responded by reducing their goals-against average by over a half-a-goal and pocketing a quarter-point more than last season.
It took the Nashville SC playmaker nearly all of 2020 to find his feet in MLS, but down the stretch we did get a teaser for the MVP-caliber form to come this season. Mukhtar has 14 goals and nine assists, and that doesn't even cover his importance to the Music City boys. The 26-year-old is the ringleader and primary mistake-punisher for an attack that has produced right at 50 percent more goals per game than in its debut season. With Mukhtar, Nashville are a genuine title contender. Without him, they might well be struggling for a playoff berth.
Obviously, the FC Dallas hotshot was one of the first names jotted down for this list. Pepi certainly hinted at his talent for finding the right spot and applying the right finish last season, but did anyone foresee the kind of megaton blow-up he'd enjoy in 2021? In a matter of months, he's gone from green teen prodigy to an MLS All-Star/US men’s national team starboy that's being chased by a long list of Euro-giants.
The younger Roldan brother has gone from being a role player in Seattle to captaining El Salvador in World Cup qualifiers. That international emergence is impressive enough, but his growth in Rave Green Country is head-turning as well. The right wingback has capitalized on the Sounders’ formation change, proving dangerous in the final third and tough to wiggle past near his own box. Need more evidence? Look no further than his inclusion at the 2021 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target.
Though his Goalkeeper of the Year hopes have taken a hit down the backstretch, it's still fair to think Stuver's heroic efforts this season have two-handedly kept Austin FC off the bottom of the table. It's simply amazing he was able to hold off conceding more than twice in a game until the end of August. Yeah, he's 30, but he'd only made nine MLS starts before 2021. After it, he should be the first Player of the Season in club history.