The passing of each Major League Soccer calendar year always brings plenty of looks in the rearview mirror and glances into the future.
This time, we're here to do the latter, and particularly to identify our top candidates to become the breakout players of 2020.
What exactly defines the term "breakout player" is admittedly nebulous. Some discussed below have already made small leaps, while others have barely scratched the surface of their potential. What they all have in common is the talent to jump to a whole new level of performance.
We did apply a few criteria in making this list. For instance, New York Red Bulls forward Brian White can definitely be considered a player with the chance to reach new heights in 2020. However, as he already exploded from 217 rookie-season minutes to scoring nine goals last term, we opted to look past him and others from a similar background for fresher choices. One you've broken out to a certain point, the term starts to lose its meaning.
To boot, no one should consider this a straight potential ranking. Taking that big leap forward typically requires both skills and seizing a large boost in playing time. I'm as high as anyone on the promise of Derrick Jones as a mobile destroyer who can also attack, but Nashville SC have a pair of pricey veterans around to eat up defensive/holding midfield minutes. He's good enough to make my top 10, but might not get as much of a chance to show it.
There's more burgeoning talent than ever housed on MLS rosters, which makes for a smorgasbord of honorable mentions: Cole Bassett, George Bello, Jose Bizama, Tristan Blackmon, Jay Chapman, Liam Fraser, Derrick Jones, Danny Leyva, Grant Lillard, Christian Makoun, Andre Reynolds II, Thomas Roberts, Sergio Santos, Brandon Servania, Diedie Traore, Sam Vines and Renzo Zambrano.
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We saw a sneak preview of what the LA Galaxy 17-year-old could do when he put up three assists in 518 minutes last season. With the goal haul certainty of deploying Zlatan Ibrahimovic no longer available, Alvarez will likely be asked to play a bigger role in the final third. He has the vision and final touch to do exactly that.
The Galaxy offered more than a sample from this precocious teenager last season, as Araujo started in 10 of his 18 appearances. The right back showed he could perform up and down the flank with a solid tactical nous that belied his years. His potential even reportedly had Manchester United scouts snooping around.
With Chad Marshall and Roman Torres departing Seattle inside a year, the defending champs will need a big boost in the heart of defense. A considerable portion of that should come from Arreaga, who came on strong at the tail end of last season following a period of adjustment. The Ecuadorian is smooth and smart, both on and off the ball.
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It couldn't have been easy for the 17-year-old to make a leap while a veteran-driven Sporting KC fell apart last season, but Busio managed to do it. It seems a fair bet that he’ll make an even bigger jump with increased minutes in 2020. He's a rare playmaking talent, creative on the ball without being sloppy in possession.
Darwin Quintero is off to Houston, and that means Minnesota United have an opening in the attacking midfield department. Enter Chacon, who got just an 85-minute cup of coffee last season. Already a mainstay with Uruguay youth teams, the 19-year-old loves to wheel and deal in the final third, and can force the high-pressure turnovers that birth lightning counters.
This Argentine youngster hasn't shown as much as Portland fans might have expected during his first 18 months with the club, with just a goal and three helpers in 420 minutes. Despite making some strides late in the 2019 season, Conechny was left exposed in the expansion draft. Neither new club bit, and now the shifty 21-year-old should finally get more of a breakout chance with Brian Fernandez departed.
GOAL: Luis Diaz scores with a spectacular curling strike to the far post
Like the Timbers, Columbus also have a young winger hoping to make significant strides in 2020. The freshly-capped Costa Rica international, who accounted for two goals and four assists in just 797 minutes after arriving midseason, looked promising during the Crew's final six games. With good reason, the locals are hopeful Diaz will pick up where he left off.
The oldest player on this list might actually be the one with the most weight on his shoulders heading into the 2020 campaign. The 29-year-old Meara, who has started just five matches since working 18 as a rookie back in 2012, is set to take over the Red Bulls' goal for departed hero Luis Robles. The local boy has the tools to finally shine again as the No. 1 in Harrison.
And now we've arrived at the no-brainer pick. The Young Designated Player will be counted on to contribute his fair share to the already-scary LAFC attack whether Diego Rossi (who some observers insist has less talent than Rodriguez) takes flight to Europe or not. The Uruguay wing terror only managed a single assist in nine appearances last season, but showed US men's national team fans what he could do with a killer strike in their September friendly.
Rodriguez loves to raid from left wing, which means he might spend plenty of time partnered up with another South American breakout candidate. Palacios received just 92 minutes of playing time at left back for LAFC last season, as Jordan Harvey turned back the clock for a strong campaign and Mohamed El-Munir often came off the bench. The highly-rated Ecuadorian may take proper aim at the starting job in 2020.