EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
As preseason ramps up ahead of the 2020 Major League Soccer season, it’s a crucial time for new signings looking to make the grade — no matter who they are.
Homegrown talent who have recently signed don’t need to necessarily hit the ground running. For some, it marks the first time in a pro preseason after the ink is dry on their contract. And MLS teams continue to tab players from their academies, with 30 coming to terms since the latter portion of 2019.
Some, like goalkeepers Emmanuel Ochoa (San Jose Earthquakes), Gabe Slonina (Chicago Fire) or Fred Emmings (Minnesota United) are long term projects. Signed with a view of developing them into contributors, or as potential transfers abroad if all goes well.
Others have every opportunity to seize the chance preseason presents them, leveraging a successful first two months of the year into a prominent role in 2020. But that’s no small feat, as the jump from either Development Academy, USL League One or Championship to MLS can be difficult for teenagers to handle. Expectations for most of the new signings should be modest.
Here are six players to keep on your radar as the 2020 season picks up pace.
John Tolkin, New York Red Bulls
The youth movement is slated to continue in 2020 for the Red Bulls, with Kemar Lawrence transferred to Anderlecht at the end of January. That opens up a spot at left back, which is where Tolkin has played for both US youth teams and the Red Bulls Academy.
Newly drafted rookie Patrick Seagrist, not yet signed to the team, is likely to be ahead of Tolkin on the depth chart. But if Tolkin can show he is ready for minutes by hitting the ground running in the USL Championship with New York Red Bulls II, reaching 1,000 MLS minutes this season can’t be out of reach.
Mauricio Pineda, Chicago Fire
Pineda is something of a rare breed these days, having signed a Homegrown deal after four seasons at North Carolina. There were times at the ACC program where he looked a cut above college soccer, so it will be key for Pineda to continue to raise his game in preseason.
He’s been working with the Chicago Fire first team as a defensive midfielder early on, and if he can cope with the speed of the game around him, could carve out a regular starting role under new head coach Raphael Wicky.
Aidan Morris, Columbus Crew SC
The trade of Wil Trapp to Inter Miami was significant for reasons that go beyond the departure of a former Homegrown player and local favorite. It also cracks open the chance for Morris to see more minutes in MLS. Of course, how Morris fits into Crew SC and can slot in alongside Darlington Nagbe will dictate how much he’s able to play this year.
If he can come in and hold up physically in a defensive-oriented central midfield role, he could be in the mix for the Rookie of the Year conversation. Sensational as a freshman during the 2019 college season at Indiana, if he can adjust and make the most of his chances, Morris has the quality to have a great year.
Eddie Munjoma, FC Dallas
Another rarity at FC Dallas, Munjoma played four seasons of college soccer at Southern Methodist, part of the program’s surge over the past two years. An attack-minded right back who could play on the left in a pinch, his chances in the 2020 campaign are going to be dictated by a factor out of his control.
The first is a potential summer transfer for Reggie Cannon, who sits ahead of Munjoma on the depth chart. If the rising US men’s national team contributor ends up moving abroad, Munjoma would likely have to beat out fellow Homegrown Bryan Reynolds for minutes. Even if that scenario doesn’t come to pass, Munjoma has the abilities to work himself into the mix and play decent minutes this season.
A strong preseason could encourage FC Dallas to think long and hard about moving Cannon in the right scenario.
Jayden Nelson, Toronto FC
Both Nelson and newly-signed Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty are worth a mention on this list, even after Toronto FC signed Pablo Piatti as a DP winger. The pair can score and create from wide areas, and Nelson is perhaps closer to making an MLS impact given his age (he turns 18 in September, while Marshall-Rutty turns 16 later in the year).
Nelson played at the Under-17 World Cup in 2019 and was in the mix with Toronto FC II last year. He has the ability to make an impact in the final third when he’s on; the question is whether or not he puts it together consistently enough as the season progresses to earn more looks in MLS. That makes his preseason all the more important. A positive start, and showing he can cause trouble against bigger, strong and faster defenders on a regular basis could lead to a big role as the season progresses.
Moses Nyeman, D.C. United
When considering D.C.’s depth at central midfield, Nyeman’s age (he turns 17 later this year) and Loudoun United offering a path for immediate games, it’s going out on a limb to suggest he will be a breakout. But there’s a plausible scenario where it comes together for Nyeman. It would take some injuries for D.C., a strong preseason and start to the USL Championship from the youngster, and perhaps for a new signing or two being more impactful out wide.
If the likes of Yamil Asad and Edison Flores show they are best out wide, and D.C. continues to deploy a 4-1-4-1 formation, Nyeman could force his way into some minutes. He’ll need to show he can hold up physically, and be an effective distributor to his high-flying teammates in wide areas. He’s already proven during stints last year in the USL Championship the willingness to mix it up. Heading into preseason it’s about staying fit and showing he can cause problems at a high level.