A new Major League Soccer season will soon be upon us, which means there's little time to waste trying to identify players who could soon reach a new level of excellence in 2021.
Yep, it's our annual breakout player watch list, which as always has no set criteria for eligibility. It's admittedly more of a "you know it when you see it" situation.
For instance: While the Colorado Rapids duo of Cole Bassett and Sam Vines surely still have bigger and better exploits ahead of them, I feel like each exploded onto the MLS scene enough to already have qualified as breakout players in 2020. As such, they weren't considered this time around. Fair or not, we're only looking for initial explosions here.
As you'd expect, we'll kick off this list with a host of honorable mentions to watch: Ifunanyachi Achara, Ignacio Aliseda, Brian Anunga, Tomas Conechny, Bryce Duke, Siad Haji, Kai Koreniuk, Jayden Nelson, Ricardo Pepi, Robbie Robinson, Dante Sealy and Griffin Yow.
Efrain Alvarez: LA's next top talent | Youth Spotlight pres. by Target
Alright, let's try this again. The LA Galaxy teen phenom made the list last winter, but was unable to get production (one goal, two assists) to match his level of industry (11th in MLS in shot-creating actions per 90). One look at that clip above will tell you all you need to know about Alvarez's ability to become an offensive force in this league. Frankly, it's just a matter of time.
How Michael Baldisimo runs the Vancouver Whitecaps | Top Tier
I debated whether the Vancouver traffic director should qualify here, as he did emerge to some extent last season. Still, he only has 703 MLS minutes under his belt, and I suspect he has plenty of room to grow in influence. Baldisimo is a skitterbug on the ball who can find the open man. He also has a surprisingly combative defensive presence for his size. The 20-year-old should be among the Whitecaps' most important players as they look to get back to the postseason in 2021.
Caden Clark scores another jaw-dropping goal for NY Red Bulls in only his second MLS match
If reports of a looming agreement to join RB Leipzig next winter are true, the New York Red Bulls teen ace has just one season to affirm breakout status. On a team that was oddly missing its usual verve and lethality in the transition game last season, Clark provided an instant boost, scoring three big goals in just 356 total minutes (regular season and playoffs combined). Those headline strikes actually somewhat obscured the fact that the 17-year-old has a fully-rounded game that can fit anywhere across the attacking midfield line.
San Jose Earthquakes' Cade Cowell goal vs. LA Galaxy | Enhanced Highlight
San Jose's 17-year-old wing prodigy is the second-youngest player on the list, but don't let that fool you. Despite his tender age, Cowell has the physical tools to compete with grown men, as shown by his fast impact in last season's spot duty. He’s already reportedly drawn the attention of FC Barcelona, and his breakout may just be a matter of earning consistent pitch time. With better finishing, he could've managed more than 1g/1a in 2020.
Anthony Fontana GOALS of the 2020-21 Regular Season
This Philadelphia Union playmaker is one of the most obvious picks here. Fontana bagged six goals in just 513 minutes last year, mostly while spelling the now-departed Brenden Aaronson. He boasts some of the same talents that the fresh Red Bull Salzburg catch has, but with a much more eager eye toward goal. The 21-year-old homegrown Player should be in line to fill Aaronson's vacated spot in the starting XI, and has the final-third efficiency to one day follow him overseas.
Colorado Rapids' Braian Galvan goal vs. RSL | Enhanced Highlight
The Colorado attacker may not even need to crack the starting lineup in 2021 to justify his place on this list. Galvan can play anywhere along the attacking midfield line, so I like his chances to see a lot more than the 243 minutes of action he got with the Rapids last season. The 20-year-old is a darting speedster who loves to lead the break. He is equally adept at setting up teammates and going for goal himself, and has a puncher's chance at worming his way into Argentina's Olympic frame.
Houston Dynamo's Ariel Lassiter 2nd goal vs. Minnesota | Enhanced Highlight
The 26-year-old finally showed signs of becoming an impact MLS attacker after joining Houston last summer. Unlike league legend and father Roy (who was a pure cobra head center forward), Lassiter is a darting wing presence with a knack for finding weak side space in the box. With "Goal Scientist" Darwin Quintero as his bookend and trigger-happy Memo Rodriguez lurking underneath, he should easily surpass 2020's three-goal haul this season.
Despite a solid 2020 season as part of Orlando City SC's backline rotation, Miller was left exposed in the Expansion Draft, where Austin FC grabbed the 23-year-old for the purpose of dealing him to CF Montréal. The Lions' depth and the new kids' build process worked out in Montréal’s favor, as they picked up a fleet-footed Canada international who can excel in several spots along the backline.
If D.C. United are in need of fresh blood, Nyeman might just be their leading source of transfusion in 2021. Despite his diminutive size, the 17-year-old is already an ace ball-winner at this level. He gives opponents no room to breathe and less time to think in central park. Even more, the kid has the wheels, skill and initiative to push fast breaks once he picks a pocket.
Like Cowell, the FC Dallas up-and-comer has the sturdy frame, ball skills and gumption to make a real name for himself this season. As an added bonus, he also offers an aerial presence that dwarfs most of the league's midfielders. With Brandon Servania out on loan, Paxton Pomykal working his way back from a major knee injury and a couple of the team's veterans coming off underwhelming campaigns, Tessmann should get every chance to start the year on the front foot.