The MLS is Back Tournament is drawing to a close, and the proceedings have given us a fair helping of enjoyable surprises.
Many of those revelations came from players who had muted expectations before their teams departed for Orlando. The honor roll that follows isn't just about playing really well. It's about playing surprisingly well.
One might assume that Frankie Amaya and Joao Moutinho would be locks for this list, but they're both recent No. 1 SuperDraft picks who showed flashes of excellence in past seasons. They definitely leveled up, but their progression didn't score as high as others on the revelation scale.
To put it politely, the center back's first few campaigns in MLS did not go smoothly. Aja was sometimes part of the problem with bad Orlando City defenses for two seasons, and then went through another rough time with leaky Vancouver in 2018. Aja has now turned up in Minnesota, and his first real assignment was to fill in for Ike Opara, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year. Suddenly, the Uruguayan proved he was capable of piling up helpful stops at the back. He even helped to replace Opara's set-piece threat by nodding on for key assists against Knockout Round foes Columbus and San Jose.
It wasn't really a revelation to learn that the young Toronto FC striker could cover for Jozy Altidore. It was, however, a pleasant surprise to find out that Akinola could do it so well so soon. The Reds no longer need to find creative solutions when their veteran star is unavailable after Akinola stampeded over D.C. United and Montreal for five goals. Before being ruled out with an injury, the 20-year-old showed a gear for achieving separation, putting 10 of 13 shots on frame.
When you weigh all relevant factors, the Vancouver stand-in netminder was probably the revelation, going from near obscurity to making headlines in Orlando. Hasal was third on the depth chart when the year started, but suddenly found himself thrust onto the pitch when Maxime Crepeau was injured in the Whitecaps' second Group B match. The Canada youth international then backstopped Vancouver to the knockouts during a 2-0 win over Chicago before starring with eight stops (plus one in the penalty shootout) as they pushed Sporting Kansas City to the brink in the Round of 16.
The NYCFC youngster has struggled at times to live up to his Designated Player tag, but leaves Orlando with a far brighter outlook. Medina made clear that he's still capable of proving a gem, as shown by the above strike. Whether spelling Maxi Moralez in the middle (a thankless task if there ever was one) or causing trouble in his more comfy flank spot, the "don't call it a comeback" kid often kept an under-performing team afloat. He kicked off their Toronto FC surprise with a nice goal and added his third of the tournament from the spot to grab NYCFC a lead in their 3-1 quarterfinal loss against Portland.
When you talk about the Portland engine room, the two Diegos obviously get mentioned right away and constantly. The thing is, the difference between a solid Timbers team and their title contender aspirations often comes down to the guy stationed between Chara and Valeri. They need a busy midfielder to carry water from box to box and back, which is precisely what Williamson has done in Orlando for the finalists. When the 23-year-old battler is not winning physical duels, he's advancing the team to the final third by hook or by crook.