Graham Zusi and Marco Di VAio (Three for Thursday)
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Three for Thursday: Three storylines to follow in 2013

The end of the year (or soccer season, as it were) is always an excellent time to look back on the moments that shaped 2012. But as any of the editors will attest, the news cycle doesn’t stop, and it is always worth looking ahead to see what the defining storylines of 2013 will be. Here are three potential ones to follow:

Designated Player 2.0

Though the Designated Player rule has had a wide-ranging impact on MLS and the caliber of players the league brings in, the man who inspired it all is now on his way out the door.

And it is very possible the end of David Beckham’s time in MLS could be part of a shift in how the DP rule functions. Though we are certain to see more big-name players come to the league in the coming years, it is also worth considering the rule’s provision for a smaller cap hit to teams signing Deisgnated Players younger than age of 23.

There has been limited use of the rule already (Fabián Castillo in Dallas), but even the smaller cap hit may not be enough to encourage teams to take the gamble on a young player. That said, Castillo (right) has been an electric presence at times for Dallas, and the upcoming South American U-20 Championship (where Castillo had a breakout tournament in 2011) could be a showcase for other potential young DPs.

If more players can follow Castillo's example, it is likely that more MLS teams will begin to take the risk and use the softer cap hit to rethink their approach towards building a roster under the tight MLS rules.

Don’t think the league won’t welcome more Beckhams, Ángels, and Henrys – it certainly will – but the potential success of young designated Players could prompt a rethink to how the rule is used and further establish MLS as an incubator for young talent.

If Landon Donovan leaves, who fills the enormous void he leaves?

Speaking of Designated Players, another one that has had an equally big, if not bigger impact on American soccer also faces an uncertain future.

Landon Donovan is yet to settle upon his future – whether it be staying with the Galaxy, moving abroad or taking a break from the game altogether. If Donovan decides to leave the league, there will be a void to fill in terms of the next American superstar in the league, and even if he does stay,

There are a few players that could stake a claim as the next American face of the league. Graham Zusi has emerged as a star for Sorting Kansas City and a solid contributor to the national team, but will need a few more seasons playing at the same level to truly cement superstar status. Although Chris Wondolowski has lit up the league scoring charts over the past three years, his struggles and limited looks at the national team level have limited his exposure as an American star.

In short, there is no one quite like Donovan in the league – a widely recognizable American player who has consistently excelled in MLS and on the international scene for an extended period of time – and there might not be for some time.

Nonetheless, the topic of a potential successor to Donovan – on the national team and as the most recognizable player in the league – will be bandied around by fans and the media certainly in the next year and possibly for years to come. Luckily, though, we could see as many talented young Americans in the league as we’ve ever season.

The Homegrown effect

If you’re looking for a successor to Donovan, don’t be surprised if that player comes from the burgeoning ranks of Homegrown players entering the league.

The program has enjoyed limited success – a few players have become regular contributors and occasional starters (think Connor Lade, Juan Agudelo) and others have shown significant promise in limited (think Jack McBean, Jose Villarreal), but many more Homegrown players have fallen by the wayside or seen limited action.

Both the number and quality of the players coming in indicate that this could be the year MLS teams really start to reap the benefits of the Homegrown rule. As it stands, the Homegrown rule allows for players to get seasoned in the college game, allowing youngsters a good balance between developing in a professional environment and competing against many of the players they will come up against in the future in MLS.

Throw in proven college talents like Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy, right) or London Woodberry (an FC Dallas Homegrown target) and we could be seeing an unprecedented generation of Homegrown signings, a group of elite college players who have spent significant time in a professional training environment and could have a big impact on the league in the immediate to near future.

Throw in the fact that teams like the Galaxy will have CONCACAF Champions League commitments, and many others could be primed for a US Open Cup run, not to mention to league’s grueling schedule, and there could be more opportunities than ever for these players to make an impact. Whether they do or not could provide a strong indication of just how far along the Homegrown project is.

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