The top 10 surprise performers of the MLS first half of 2019

Now that the US women's national team have been re-crowned as World Cup Champions and the US men have fallen a agonizingly short against El Tri, our focus returns to Major League Soccer and its own big stories.

Every year, some of the most enjoyable discussions involve all the surprises that seemingly come out of nowhere to grab a chunk of the league spotlight. And generally, those teams reaping big dividends from unexpected players are enjoying seasons that mark improvements from the year before.

Below are 10 such revelations from the MLS season to date. And before we begin, some honorable mentions: Doneil Henry, Kacper Przybylko, Memo Rodriguez, Ruan, Eddie Segura, Andre Shinyashiki, Brian White.

Eduard Atuesta/Latif Blessing/Mark-Anthony Kaye

Blessing and Kaye have been stars for LAFC so far | USA Today Sports Images

It's the return of the cheat pick, now with more cheating! But really, how could anyone dream of separating the LAFC engine room? These three oft-underappreciated cogs have ruled central park for the best team in the league. First, they stop your advances toward their end, and then they pick the perfect pass to unleash Carlos Vela & Co. on your defense.

Atuesta, the most overtly revelatory of the three, drives the team's record-hunting attack from deep without making many mistakes. Blessing has shocked by morphing from a solid winger into an even more solid central midfielder. Kaye has not simply picked up where he left off during an injury shortened 2018 breakout season — he's actually been even better this year. Bob Bradley's midfield trio have been so good (running the show, plus contributing seven goals and 17 assists) and so durable that Lee Nguyen can hardly get on the field.

Edwin Cerrillo

Paxton Pomykal could have easily been the FC Dallas midfielder tabbed here, but instead I'll go with the 18-year-old gate-keeper that has his back. Only one or two players on this list seemed less likely to capture a starting role before the season started, but Cerrillo has done that by standing in the away of oncoming attacks and then moving the ball along safely (92% passing accuracy!). When he starts, FCD pocket 1.7 points per game, When he doesn't, that number is 1.2.

Cristian Espinoza

Espinoza has been a terror on the wing | USA Today Sports Images

Not many heads raised when San Jose plucked the Argentine winger from Villarreal on a loan deal back in January. And perhaps no one on this resurgent team is going more unnoticed for his considerable role in their growing success. He's not a hot topic, but Espinoza's brand of consistent flank nuisance has been a big factor in turning the Quakes around. He runs opponents ragged, gets goal dangerous (though only two scored thus far) and leads the club with eight helpers.

Carles Gil

For about the first two full months of the season, the Spaniard was basically New England's attack. Now that other Revs are chipping in every week, Gil has played even better. His offseason signing was fairly well-received, but nobody was expecting the 26-year-old to power the offense the way he has. He leads the club in goals, assists, passing accuracy, key passes, dribbles and free kicks won. Oh yeah, and since Bruce Arena handed him the armband, the Revolution have quietly gone on a 4-0-3 roll to creep to within a point of the last playoff position.

Ryan Hollingshead

This list isn't all about youngsters finding new levels and offseason catches exceeding expectations. In his sixth MLS season, Hollingshead has become the league's handyman extraordinaire. To say the 28-year-old does a little of bit of everything for Dallas is an understatement; he's started games at three different backline slots and as many on the midfield line. And despite being shuttled all around the formation by coach Luchi Gonzalez, the guy is on course to set new career highs in goals, shots, passing rate, chances created, successful dribbles, aerial duels won, clearances and fouls won.

Romain Metanire

This might be the most obvious pick of the bunch, the true definition of a revelation. Metanire was a reliable soldier over in France for several years, mostly at the Ligue 2 level. Nobody would have gasped if he was decent, but the 29-year-old has immediately been the best right back in the league. The easy All-Star choice handles business in his end, moves powerfully down the flank and crosses like a fiend.

Jamiro Monteiro

Monteiro has been a star for the Union | USA Today Sports Images

This may sound like a familiar refrain, but few thought all that much about a guy the Union picked up on loan in the wake of opening day. Simply put, Monteiro has been the midfield Swiss army knife for one of the better possess-and-pass clubs in MLS. When he's not facilitating the attack in all manner of ways (not to mention pitching in with four goals and seven assists), the 25-year-old has found time to get among the league leaders in tackles. Frankly, if one had to pick somebody from the clear East leaders to put in the MVP (also-ran behind Carlos Vela) race, it should be this guy.

Miles Robinson

The young Atlanta United defender finally got his shot and he's run with it. Robinson was the champs' best player during a busy and rough first month of the campaign, and he's been key to their strong rebound by helping one of the stingiest defenses in MLS post a joint-league best eight shutouts The tidy 22-year-old makes plays in the air, on the run, whatever you like.

James Sands

James Sands has been an important cog for NYCFC this year | USA Today Sports Images

The NYCFC teen was impressive when getting his feet wet late last season, and he's come back making much more impact in 2019. Splitting time between defensive midfield and central defense, Sands makes himself very useful at the back and then sends the ball to the right teammate's feet without muss or fuss. For a club typically playing tight games with slim margins for error, that's huge from a player of any age. The Bronx bombers have only lost once in his 13 starts.

Kai Wagner

Our second Philadelphia Union man came in this winter to shore up a longtime team trouble role much better than observers anticipated. The two-way left back has filled the prescription for Jim Curtin's ball control game plan. What's more, Wagner has given the Eastern Conference leaders' on-field demeanor a healthy dose of hot sauce that was often previously lacking. The fiery 22-year-old is a well-rounded lot for opponents to handle.


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