There's no escaping the fact that Major League Soccer clubs and their faithful supporters were forced to say some misty-eyed goodbyes to a handful of marquee performers as 2018 came to a close. But hey, that's the life in any soccer league.
The silver lining is that there's no shortage of big stars still around to brighten the long season ahead, and we're here to rev excitement for opening day by pointing out the biggest stars in our soccer constellation.
It nearly wasn't the case, but the dynamic D.C. United duo are indeed back to inflict pain on the league's defenses in tandem. Last year, Acosta (who was nearly scooped up by Ligue 1 juggernaut Paris Saint-Germain at the French transfer deadline) and Rooney displayed quick chemistry to lead the capital crew's stirring charge to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
"Señor Wayne" debuted in mid-July to chalk up a dozen goals, seven assists and even some major thrills away from the opponents' area. In the 18 games they started together, Acosta terrorized foes with nine goals and 10 helpers. It's almost scary to imagine what they could accomplish in a full season together, but we'll gladly brave the thought to find out.
Well, of course, the LA Galaxy's lion king is on the list. Duh. The irrepressible striker said hello to MLS in 2018 with 22 goals and 10 assists, a Best XI nod and the Goal of the Year prize, most of it coming in a highlight-reel fashion. The big question is: What could he possibly do for an encore? It seems the 37-year-old has an idea.
"This season I will bring something for you," Zlatan declared at the Galaxy's recent 2019 jersey unveiling. "Because they say I'm old, I am looking to break every record in MLS this season."
Okay then. I guess now we know. Can't wait to see it, dude.
Ruidiaz and Lodeiro | USA Today Sports Images
You didn't really think I could stick to just one cheat pick for this list, did you? The productive relationship between Seattle Sounders running mates Lodeiro and Ruidiaz is even more symbiotic than that of the D.C. tandem that kicked off the list.
Like Rooney, Ruidiaz arrived last summer to change everything for his playmaking partner. The Peru forward disrupted defenses on the way to netting 13 times in as many games (including the postseason), and his level of nuisance cleared time and space for Lodeiro to enjoy quite arguably the most high-quality stretch of play in his career.
And now, they'll hit the ground running from opening day. That sound you hear is every backline around the league shuddering in unison.
After Miguel Almiron's outstanding first Newcastle start over the weekend, it's painfully easy for both Martinez and Atlanta United fans to remember that he is gone. One might wonder what will become of the record-breaking forward's supply chain, but there's really no need to fret.
While it's true that Almiron teed up nine Martinez strikes over the past two season, he wasn't actually the top goal benefactor for the Venezuelan. That would be Julian Gressel, who's still onboard and will be joined in the setup game by new string-puller Pity Martinez.
So... with that fat new long-term contract in pocket, shall we shoot for 32 this year, Josef?
Let's put all this talk of the Montreal Impact game-changer being under-heralded to bed right now, shall we? We'll just go ahead and start his MVP hype train before the first kick. Piatti has already let us know that this will probably be his last go-around with the impact, so there's no excuse to not enjoy every bit of it.
Not only will the veteran be trying to steer Montreal back to the playoffs after two postseasons on the sidelines, but Piatti also has the chance to join a very exclusive club. If the 34-year-old can score at least 16 goals this term, he'd become just the third player in MLS history (joining Robbie Keane and Bradley Wright-Phillips) to match or top that production number in four straight seasons.
Quintero | USA Today Sports Images
As the Minnesota United dazzler was shining through his debut MLS season, I couldn't help but often wonder how dangerous Quintero might be if his team had a proper midfield construction and some semblance of a trustworthy defense. Following a highly fruitful Loons offseason, it seems we're all about to find that out.
Yep, "The Goal Scientist" is back in the lab with an apt support staff. If Quintero managed to jam-pack 11 goals (many of them scintillating), 15 helpers and five Team of the Week mentions into just 27 games with a losing side, what could he produce with a full season and a complete squad around him? Grab your goggles, the experiment begins this weekend in Vancouver.
Two years ago, Schweinsteiger was a huge part of the midfield machine that propelled the Chicago Fire back to the postseason after a galling four-year absence. Last season, Schweinsteiger was often moved into defense out of necessity. He wasn't bad back there, but the shift effectively definitely dimmed both his star and the team's.
Get your shades out, because the Fire have a reinforced back line, which means Schweinsteiger back in his regular office doing what he does best, which almost surely means a far brighter 2019 for the club. Don't miss out; it may be your last chance to catch a master technician at work.
Though he is slated to depart Columbus Crew SC this summer, there's still plenty of time for MLS fans to marvel over the biggest name in nets around these parts. Steffen is the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and currently holds the No. 1 US national team job, which helps explain how he earned that upcoming Manchester City switch.
Until he makes the move to Manchester (or perhaps a temporary loan home), Steffen will keep focus on helping to ease Crew SC's transition from working under now-USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter to the Caleb Porter era by being extra stingy in their goal.
Wondo | USA Today Sports Images
To put it mildly, the San Jose Earthquakes skipper is on the verge of some major celebrating. Wondolowski will tie Landon Donovan's all-time MLS scoring standard with his next goal, and the ensuing record-breaker probably won't be far behind. As much fanfare as should be expected from that milestone, it's not the only the 36-year-old marksman will chase in 2019.
Wondo can also become the first MLS player to bag double-digits in goals in 10 straight seasons (which will probably be the much harder record to top). Naturally, he will hope to capture all these big headlines while helping the Earthquakes erase last season's Wooden Spoon memories on the way to a playoff return.
Until Real Salt Lake surprised them with a Knockout Round upset at the Banc, LAFC were leading quite the charmed introduction to MLS life. Bob Bradley's club set a new record for points by an expansion team and they did it in a stylish manner. Through it all, Vela was the man driving play and leading by example to aid the coach's creation of a winning culture.
The offseason brought heavy loan flirtation from La Liga giants FC Barcelona, but Vela is back to build on a Best XI campaign that saw him bank 14 goals and 13 assists as LAFC's main attacking threat. How important is he to the club? When he limped out of Saturday's preseason game with Vancouver with a knock, you could have heard the collective gasp all the way from his Cancun hometown.
Fortunately for Will Ferrell and friends, the setback does not seem serious. Take a deep breath, folks.