New seasons bring new opportunities as teammates leave, coaches turn over and tactics change.
Those changes mean that there are openings in the lineup which players can grab and step up. We can never really know how good a player is until he gets a chance. Tyler Adams wouldn't have gotten his opportunity last year unless Dax McCarty left; Cristian Roldan got his chance when Gonzalo Pineda got hurt; Justin Meram stepped in when Gregg Berhalter got the job.
Here are five guys who should get an opportunity and may have the right ability to become prominent MLS names in 2018.
Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas)
The right back spot for FC Dallas belonged to Hernan Grana in 2017, but Grana’s loan expired. Coming into preseason, the thinking is that it is Reggie Cannon’s spot to lose. Cannon doesn’t have the composure on the ball that some of the other top outside backs in the league maintain, but he has an excellent engine. That's a good thing, considering Oscar Pareja teams generally don’t rely on beautiful soccer as much as energy and teamwork. Dallas’s approach could bring out the best in Cannon’s abilities and his style could add prominently to the group.
Marlon Hairston (Colorado Rapids)
Marlon Hairston already has 80 MLS games under his belt, so he’s not new to the conversation. But it looks like Hairston will get a position change in 2018 under new Rapids head coach Anthony Hudson. Hudson looks set to employ the 3-5-2 he used with New Zealand through World Cup qualifying, and Hairston seems likely to start at right wingback.
It’s a position that should be more suited to his skills. Hairston has always had the athleticism and energy, but he never showed enough precision around the box to excel in MLS. Specifically, he doesn’t have the control in the final moves toward goal, either passing, dribbling or shooting. He’s a fine attacker, but not quite good enough to get a team deep in the playoffs (a bar that continues to rise around the league). Fortunately, his skillset seems more suited to a deeper role anyway, as he’ll be asked to cover ground and play a simpler role in the attack. He’ll get into the final third, for sure, but he will almost always have more time and space on the ball after advancing from a deeper position. In short, wingback is a position that suits an athletic, energetic player well.
Nouhou (Seattle Sounders)
Nouhou isn’t a new name to MLS fans (I’m the first person to make that pun, right?). He got 10 starts at left back for the Sounders in 2017, but generally in a deputy role when Joevin Jones didn’t play or started at winger. He will have a shot to make the spot his own if he's able to hold off the newly-acquired Waylon Francis.
Nouhou falls into a weird and ultimately frustrating category when discussing players: There aren’t any traits you can point to and say he really excels at. He looks awkward both on and off the ball, and it’s generally tough to dissect his game but he’s just good. He just has a knack to break up plays and find the right place to be and make things happen. I couldn’t tell you why he’s good, but it’s tough to deny his presence. At times in 2017 he was also very good. Of everyone on the list, Nouhou has the best chance to catapult into the league’s elite.
Carlos Rivas (New York Red Bulls)
Carlos Rivas has been labeled by some Orlando City SC fans as a bust. The point to take away now that he's moved to a new club is not the "bust" part, but that he was deemed to have the talent to be a star in the first place. I’ll never claim every big-money signing is a smart one, but we also shouldn’t dismiss a player after a bad stint. And if you watched Rivas in his time in Orlando, you could definitely see moments when he showed why the Lions took the chance on him in the first place.
He’s explosive, plays very direct toward goal, maintains a low center of gravity when he dribbles and has a wicked left foot. He never seemed comfortable in the Orlando framework, but now he’s going to a system openly admitting to and proud of their direct style. The Red Bulls try to get to the goal as quickly and with as few passes as possible (in the modern sense, not the Sam Allardyce-sense), a system that could fit a fast player who always generally only looks toward the goal. Of course, we could have said the same things about Gonzalo Veron. But players often do better after spending some time in a league and then changing teams to get a fresh start, so I’ll bet on Rivas showing better with Red Bulls than Veron did.
Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
Jackson Yueill is a player I’m much more bullish on than most. He’s a specific kind of player who could thrive in the right system or be totally pushed to the curb by another. With the departure of Darwin Ceren to Houston, there’s less competition for a starting spot in center midfield for the Quakes. It could go to Florian Jungwirth or Tommy Thompson, but Yueill provides a quality those two do not.
He’s extremely comfortable in tight, 360 degree situations in the middle of the field. He can both sense pressure and also manipulate the ball to avoid the pressure, which is a rare quality among American players. The three veterans who really thrive at it are Darlington Nagbe, Michael Bradley and Sebastian Lletget. Not bad company for the 20-year-old. Yueill definitely doesn't have the complete game of the others yet, but if a coach values possession and rhythm in the middle of the field, as new Earthquakes coach Mikael Stahre has a reputation from Sweden, then Yueill could be just the guy.
That’s my five. A large part of being a successful is being in the right place at the right time, and those guys may never get a better chance than they have now.
- Dillon Powers: Powers is someone I’ve always thought had a ton of ability but has never been able to find the right system, and could fit perfectly with the way Jason Kreis likes to play.
- Jeremy Ebobisse: His work rate might speak to the new man in charge, Gio Savarese, more than Fanendo Adi’s style.
- Paxton Pomykal: Pomykal seems ripe to get minutes for FC Dallas when Mauro Diaz isn’t on the field, and something tells me Pareja learned lessons after last year’s collapse and will try to rotate more this year.