Top 10 candidates to become rising stars in MLS in 2019

One of the most exciting parts of a new MLS season is finding out which players will reach new heights on their way to stardom.

Which guys look primed to enjoy breakout campaigns, you ask? As always, we're here to help. These top rising star candidates are listed in alphabetical order.

Efrain Alvarez 

The first guy on our list is the youngest, but when Zlatan says you're ready, age is just a number. The 16-year-old attacker has yet to make his LA Galaxy debut, but that should change before long: New boss Guillermo Barros Schelotto and new GM Dennis te Kloese have made it clear that the club is placing a new emphasis on bringing academy players through to the first team.

Alvarez, who bagged 12 goals in 18 USL matches for Galaxy II last year, saw some action during the preseason. He can score from anywhere and with a variety of shots, typically conjured by his magical left boot. 

Ezequiel Barco

Okay, so his first MLS season didn't go according to plan from an individual standpoint. Barco generally struggled to live up to his gaudy (by MLS standards) transfer fee, occasionally due to his own bouts of immaturity. Perhaps that's to be expected when you're a teenager feeling the pressure of adapting to a new club, league and country of residence. 

Still just 19, Barco is back to show he's got the game Atlanta paid big bucks for. His potential for impact was apparent in Thursday's big aggregate rally win that advanced Atlanta United to the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals. Wreaking havoc all over the final third, the kid notched two assists and also had a hand in their opener when his tempting cross was misplayed straight to Josef Martinez. His time to shine is nigh. 

Allan Cruz

The FC Cincinnati midfielder is not the type of player who is likely to jump out at you from a recap story or highlight package; one has to watch the entire game to appreciate what he brings to the table. Even on a team with several capable gatekeepers, Cruz stands out. 

Simply put, the Costa Rica international is a surgical destroyer. Cruz has all the tackles and steps you'd want in his bag, but his game is as much about sensing just the right time to close down space, dispossess and move the ball along safely. By the end of the season, I'm guessing he'll be among the favorites at Nippert Stadium.

Jeremy Ebobisse

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Ebobisse celebrating in 2018. | USA Today Images

Various reports have had Portland chasing a big money striker for a while now, but as the league gets set for its first 2019 kick, it looks like Ebobisse is, for now, the man up top for Giovanni Savarese. 

It's not for nothing. The recent US national team debutant has a solid hold-up game and has shown he can produce at this level in limited pitch time (three goals and five assists in 766 regular season minutes). Can he do it from the top of the depth chart? We shall see, but his showing at the preseason Mobile Mini Sun Cup seems a good omen. 

Andre Horta

This one may take a little longer than others, as the LAFC midfielder has been battling an injury as the new season starts – and his first MLS campaign was a continuous struggle. That said, Horta is eager to make good on his DP deal and boasts as much pure talent as anyone in Bob Bradley's midfielder group.

The 22-year-old still needs plenty of work on the defensive side of the ball, but he has every tool in his belt when it comes to moving forward to attack. For now, he'll likely need to concentrate on beating out either Mark-Anthony Kaye (who returns from injury after shining last season) or defensive specialist Eduard Atuesta to get into the lineup, no small task.

Sam Johnson

If there's one thing that Real Salt Lake has desired in recent years, it's a dyed-in-the-wool center forward they can count on for goals. The Royals haven't had one since Alvaro Saborio struck 15 times across all competitions six years ago, but they think that brand of longing is over now with the arrival of Johnson.

The 25-year-old late bloomer, who arrives from Norwegian side Valerenga on a DP contract, is not just the breakaway speed threat he's been advertised as. Despite his average height of 5-foot-10, Johnson is also quite lethal in the air.

The main problem RSL may have with their new striker will be covering for him this summer should Liberia make this summer's African Cup of Nations field (the Lone Stars hold a one-point edge on group-stage closing day hosts DR Congo). 

Jonathan Lewis

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Lewis celebrates after coming off the bench and contributing for NYCFC. | USA Today Images

Honestly, it's hard to tell where the New York City FC youngster stands, if only because it's hard to tell how coach Dome Torrent plans to line up his attack. That said, after Lewis notched impressive assists off the bench in his first two USMNT caps last month, there will be tons of questions flying at the boss if the elusive winger isn't seeing the field.

Lewis is a wily dribbler with a killer change of pace, a decent cross/shot package and a flair for the dramatic. The 21-year-old starts the year with three goals and four assists from just 561 minutes of MLS playing time, but the local fans will be expecting much more from him in all three categories this season.

Djordje Mihailovic

One might worry that Chicago's reputedly imminent capture of veteran Argentinean playmaker Nico Gaitan will block the progress of Mihailovic, who like Ebobisse and Lewis is a freshly-capped US international. After all, the 20-year-old returned from serious injury to close last season strong and then scored on his international debut last month. He's clearly on the career upswing.

Don't fret so much, folks. Not only has Gaitan most often been used as a winger during his career, but he and the other Fire midfield stars, Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger, are over 30. There's bound to be plenty of line-up shuffling, and thus plenty of time for Mihailovic to continue his promising trajectory. 

Santiago Mosquera

Like Barco and Horta, Mosquera is on a Designated Player contract. And like those younger players, the 24-year-old often underwhelmed in his first MLS go-around. That is, until he scored five times in FC Dallas' last 10 games of 2018.

Mosquera continued that rampant form during the recently completed preseason, scoring five times and teeing up several of Dominique Badji's team-high six strikes. All indications are that the true two-way winger is set to bust out in a big way this season. 

Paxton Pomykal

After coming into the first team for several cups of coffee over the last three seasons, 2019 looks like it will finally be the year the FC Dallas attacker breaks through. Pomykal was among the stars as the US Under-20 national team sailed to another Concacaf championship last fall, and it looks like his MLS time is about to come.

The Homegrown Player can operate on either flank, but the early money says his best bet for pitch time this season will be as the midfield playmaker in new FC Dallas boss Lucho Gonzalez's 4-3-3 set. Pomykal already seems to have pushed Young DP Pablo Aranguiz over to the wing stable, meaning he's in a battle with the more defensive-minded Jacori Hayes for the opening-day start.