Not all signings hit their full ceiling right away, as fans and decision-makers know all too well. Often they’re limited to breadcrumbs of potential in their first year, acclimating and learning the ropes of what MLS has in store.
That truism got us thinking about which newcomers from the 2021 season are now making the most progress during the 2022 campaign. Phrased another way, which players who weren’t in the league a year ago have entered a new tier of dependency and quality? Much of this exercise is akin to the David Gass Theorem often discussed on Extratime.
Now, we’ve applied a somewhat-liberal definition of “newcomer”, with overseas signings, homegrown talent and SuperDraft picks all falling under the criteria. That framework then excludes those who had MLS experience before returning to the league (i.e. Luciano Acosta in Cincinnati) and those who were intra-MLS additions (i.e. Kamal Miller in Montréal). It also means we’re conscientious of which newcomers already proved ever-steady in 2021 and remain at that level in 2022 (i.e. Gregore in Miami, Luiz Araujo in Atlanta and Jonathan Bond in LA).
A few honorable mentions as well: Those like Colorado Rapids left back Lucas Esteves, San Jose Earthquakes center back Nathan and Columbus Crew right back Steven Moreira were all kicked around.
Without further ado, let’s get underway.
2021 arrival: Brody's career has been a true case of grinding his way up the ranks, starting with Real Salt Lake's youth academy and a standout collegiate career at Louisville. Upon making the jump to the professional ranks, Brody played over 100 USL Championship matches with Real Monarchs before getting his shot with the first team, where he first broke through in 2021, starting 12 of his 16 league appearances and dishing out two assists.
2022 upgrade: The 27-year-old parlayed that strong debut season into a key role with RSL, becoming a regular in head coach Pablo Mastroeni's starting XI. He's started 12 of his 13 first-team appearances this campaign, playing 1,105 minutes and scoring one goal – a gorgeous 89th-minute game-winner in RSL's 2-1 win over Austin FC on March 15. Fresh off signing a contract extension through 2024 with a club option for 2025, Brody looks set to remain a first-team regular at RSL for the foreseeable future.
2021 arrival: Carrasquilla arrived at the Dynamo last August on loan from FC Cartagena in Spain's LaLiga 2 with some impressive pedigree, having broken through as a regular with the Panamanian national team, where he made his international debut at the age of 19. He made 10 league appearances (seven starts) last season, scoring his first MLS goal and showing flashes of potential.
2022 upgrade: Given a chance by first-year Houston head coach Paulo Nagamura to help anchor the club's midfield, Carrasquilla has capitalized on the opportunity, starting nine of his 12 appearances and contributing 1g/1a from a do-everything role. That led to the Dynamo exercising their purchase option on the 23-year-old, keeping him with the club through at least 2024 with a club option for 2025.
2021 arrival: Billed as a big-talent signing to bolster Austin's attack midway through last season, Driussi's MLS debut was strong, as the Argentine DP scored five goals and dished out five assists in 17 games (16 starts) after coming from Russian club Zenit Saint Petersburg. As it turned out, that was just a prelude to much bigger things to come.
2022 upgrade: As Austin have enjoyed a fast start to their 2022 season that has them challenging atop the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield races, Driussi's leap into an MVP-caliber performer is one of the biggest reasons why. He's been nothing short of electric through the club's first 13 games, already racking up eight goals and four assists, with many of those goal contributions of the highlight-reel variety. At just 26 years old, Driussi looks every bit like the centerpiece ATX were hoping he'd be when they signed him, with the only question now being how gaudy his stat line will look come Decision Day on Oct. 9.
2021 arrival: Having arrived at LAFC last June as a high-upside prospect who was somewhat raw, Fall impressed enough to earn a consistent look with the Black & Gold. Impressively, he contributed four goals in 19 appearances (16 starts) from his center back spot as part of a strong debut campaign. The Senegal native showed signs of being a true aerial threat on both ends.
2022 upgrade: Fall has taken the full-on leap from tantalizing prospect to arguably the best young defender in MLS, a front-running candidate for this year's 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list. While LAFC's flashy attacking movements are still what they're most known for, their defensive solidity has been a big reason for their success under first-year manager Steve Cherundolo. Fall's also once again been a threat on the attacking end, adding another goal and an assist to his ledger.
2021 arrival: Another member of Philadelphia's much-heralded youth development system, Harriel got his first taste of MLS action last season, making five appearances (two starts) while picking up his first MLS assist. He was behind Cameroonian international Olivier Mbaizo, though, providing a hurdle to minutes at right back.
2022 upgrade: The 21-year-old homegrown has broken through as a regular for manager Jim Curtin's squad in 2022, starting 11 of his 12 appearances and taking over Mbaizo's role. The right back has been impressive on the defensive end while consistently denying more experienced MLS competition, showing flashes of the two-way skillset that's made him such an enticing prospect.
2021 arrival: Big things were expected from Gazdag when he joined Philadelphia after establishing himself as a star in the Hungarian top-flight with Honved, and his first season in MLS was largely a successful one. He scored his first four MLS goals and had five assists across 23 appearances (17 starts). In some ways, the Hungarian international was billed as helping replace USMNT attacker Brenden Aaronson, who's reportedly set to join Leeds United from Red Bull Salzburg for nearly $30 million.
2022 upgrade: Those initial positive signs have paved the way for a breakout showing for Gazdag in 2022, as he's become an attacking focal point for a Philly side with Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup aspirations. Gazdag has already exceeded last season's total of nine goal contributions, scoring seven goals and adding three assists through Week 13 to put himself firmly in the MVP conversation.
2021 arrival: Koné was signed amid relative obscurity in 2021, joining last August with a résumé that made him seem like a long-term prospect. He didn't make any appearances for CF Montréal last season, his first as a professional.
2022 upgrade: CF Montréal have unleashed the 19-year-old midfielder as they've enjoyed a strong start to their 2022 campaign. Head coach Wilfried Nancy has already played Koné in 10 games (eight starts), with his first MLS goal coming in a 3-3 draw against Atlanta United on March 19. He's also added two assists while showcasing electric gifts that could earn him possible inclusion for Canada on head coach John Herdman's World Cup-bound squad.
2021 arrival: After joining NYCFC from Vasco da Gama last May, the Brazilian youth international featured in about 500 minutes during the Cityzens' MLS Cup-winning campaign of 2021, scoring three goals – not quite mind-blowing production levels. His transfer fee could reach $12 million, creating high expectations for the Young Designated Player.
2022 upgrade: Given an expanded role in 2022 under manager Ronny Deila, Magno is showing why he was such a highly-touted acquisition for NYCFC, scoring two goals and showing his chops as a facilitator with five assists across 12 appearances (11 starts). Mainly playing on the wing, there's some speculation Magno could fill the No. 9 role should Taty Castellanos get sold during the summer.
2021 arrival: Martinez joined FC Dallas from La Liga’s SD Eibar after several seasons on loan to Granada CF. He started 16 of the 19 matches he appeared in during his solid inaugural campaign, but FC Dallas leaked goals to the tune of 56, tied for worst in the Western Conference.
2022 upgrade: The Spanish center back has raised his level in 2022, thriving in a new system under head coach Nico Estevez and partnering with a healthy Matt Hedges. Martinez has locked down his spot as an every-match starter and now FC Dallas' 12 goals conceded is best in the West.
2021 arrival: Austin FC took Pereira with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft, and he subsequently saw part-time duty in midfield during their 2021 expansion season. The team struggled results-wise, but the Venezuela native had one assist across 25 appearances (18 starts).
2022 upgrade: That role has expanded to first-choice starter in year two under manager Josh Wolff, and Pereira has thrived with the opportunity. The 21-year-old Virginia Tech product has been a two-way rock in his deeper-lying midfield role, scoring his first MLS goal while adding a trio of assists as he continues to progress into one of the league's more promising young talents and validate his high draft status.
2021 arrival: The Uruguay youth international arrived in New York City midway through the season on loan from Montevideo City, part of a South American youth movement that now includes Magno, Thiago Andrade, Nico Acevedo and Gabriel Pereira. He was brought along slowly in a crowded attacking third and finished the regular season with three goals and one assist in 21 appearances, including 11 starts. Rodríguez had one goal in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, starting their MLS Cup-winning match vs. Portland on the wing.
2022 upgrade: After showing flashes of his potential last year, Rodriguez is now an integral part of NYCFC's starting XI. He's started 11 of the 12 matches he's appeared in and has two goals and six assists, one off the league lead shared by Austin FC's Diego Fagúndez and Carles Gil of the New England Revolution. He's become so valuable as the Cityzens' main playmaker now that Maxi Moralez has played as a No. 6 recently.
2021 arrival: This one might be a bit of a stretch given Vargas made just one appearance for Seattle in 2021 on a short-term emergency deal, but it was a memorable run-out. Making his MLS debut at just 15 years old, Vargas played 77 minutes in Seattle's memorable 1-0 away victory at Austin FC that saw them become the first team in MLS history to start five players aged 19 and under. Vargas spent most of the year at now-MLS NEXT Pro side Tacoma Defiance.
2022 upgrade: The 16-year-old has taken a pronounced leap during his second season upon signing a homegrown deal, playing a regular role both in MLS and during the Sounders' victorious Concacaf Champions League run. The US-Mexico dual-national midfielder, after Joao Paulo's season-ending ACL injury, projects as one of the main players who will fill the Brazilian's void.