25 Day Countdown - 2020 - Day 19 - Wiebe column

MLS 2020: For these 10 MLSers, this season is huge | Andrew Wiebe

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.


The 25th season of Major League Soccer. Copa America. Euros. The Olympics. World Cup qualifying. 2020 is a big year for everyone, but for some the stakes are huge.

Maybe it’s a prized prospect expected to make the big jump, or an established star under pressure to deliver now, for club and country. Could be one of many record winter signings with the weight of expectations heaped squarely on their shoulders. Perhaps it’s a coach anxious to quiet the critics, or one obsessed with a trophy window that can’t be missed. General managers? Applies to them. What about an entire club? Yeah, we’ll go ahead and include that, too.

The countdown to Feb. 29 is on, which means you’re going to start seeing a lot of lists #content. This list is 10 MLSers, liberally defined, for whom 2020 is a huge year. Huge is defined by the stakes at play, both individually and collectively. This Friday … no rankings. Don’t want MLS social to get any ideas ;)

Cristian Pavon

C’mon, we all know it’s a huge year for Chicharito. I don’t need to tell you that.

But I’d argue Chicharito’s huge year is particularly reliant on a huge year from Pavon, who decided his fortunes were better off with Guillermo Barros Schelotto in LA than with Boca Juniors. This season the 24-year-old will be expected to justify his hefty price tag in the battle for LA and Race to Seis.

Pavon’s got the talent to do it, and perhaps get back in the Argentina picture at that. It’s been more than a year since the 24-year-old was called up for his country after playing in the World Cup in 2018. If Pavon wants to get on Lionel Scaloni’s radar, he’s got to show he can be a consistent gamebreaker in MLS. This is a huge time in his career.

Alberth Elis/Mauro Manotas

Might as well lump them together. Rumors, rumors, rumors. They’ve been following Elis and Manotas for two years, and rightfully so. Both want to make the jump to Europe. That’s understandable. The Dynamo ought to want them to make the jump, too. The timing just hasn’t been right, or the market hasn’t met Houston’s valuation.

Either way, Tab Ramos will have the pair for the next six months at least. I’m rooting for these two to tear up the first half of the season and elicit the kinds of offers that get the deal done. And if those offers come, I hope we say goodbye to Elis and Manotas, for now anyway. Selling leagues sell players, especially those they buy and develop young. This summer is huge.

Frank de Boer

Pity Martinez. Ezequiel Barco. Emerson Hyndman. Miles Robinson. George Bello. The stakes are high for Atlanta United, and so the stakes are high for the players. Any would be an appropriate choice here.

Instead, I’m picking the guy who picks the players. They’ve turned the squad over, largely to retool it in the Dutchman’s worldview of the game. There are some question marks, but the sheer talent level and overall investment in the roster means the expectations remain exactly where they’ve been for a couple of years now: cups, and as many as possible.

Last year, it was Campeones Cup and the U.S. Open Cup. That’s plenty for most, but Five Stripes faithful want more. Can De Boer deliver it with a team drastically different from the one that won MLS Cup a little more than a year ago? It’s a huge question mark.

Paxton Pomykal

Sometimes it’s hard to remember 2019 was Paxton Pomykal’s first year as a regular starter in MLS. The now 20-year-old had played a grand total of 265 professional minutes before his former academy coach, Luchi Gonzalez, stuck him the in starting lineup and let him learn between the lines.

Pomykal learned quickly, often dominating stretches of games on both sides of the ball, but he also learned consistency isn’t so easy to come by and a professional season combined with international obligations is a grind unlike any other. His body didn’t make it to the end of the year, culminating in offseason surgery and a precautionary early exit from USMNT camp.

In 2020, it’s more of the same. So how will Pomykal cope with the workload? And how will Gonzalez manage his buildup back into the team and his minutes from there, knowing Olympic qualifying and, should the US make it, the Tokyo Games will eat into his spring and summer. Who knows, maybe the senior team starts calling consistently, too. It’s not a make-or-break by any means, but it could be hugely transformational.

Jozy Altidore

I speak only for myself, but one among many US national team supporters. We’re finally starting to see the sun creep above the horizon after a long night of suffering. Jozy, we need you, the best you. This talent pool has many things, but center forward who can do what you can do is not one of them. Your country needs you in World Cup qualifying. Qatar 2022 or we all go bust.

I’m not going to get greedy here: 2,200 minutes for Toronto FC, a fair number of goals scored and created with Alejandro Pozuelo, a couple knocks but no serious injuries, ideally a trophy or two and, of course, an in-form Altidore flanked by Christian Pulisic in the US attack come September. 2020 is your year, Jozy. Be huge.

Bob Bradley

Bradley has nothing to prove, not to us anyway, but he does have both the enviable and unenviable job of trying to improve on near perfection: an LAFC team that had the most points, most goals and highest goalscorer in the history of the league. New year, new challenges, I’m sure he’d say.

LAFC are capable of winning every competition they enter in 2020. Concacaf Champions League. The U.S. Open Cup. Supporters’ Shield. MLS Cup. The quadruple is in play, if extremely unlikely. Bradley didn’t come back to MLS to build average teams. He came back to make history. That opportunity stands before him and his players. Will they take it? Again? Perhaps this time a step further? It’s a huge task.

Alan Pulido

The reigning Liga MX top scorer arrives at a club that’s been pining for a top-level No. 9 for years and missed the playoffs in 2019 for the first time since 2010. They finally got their man. To give you an idea of the investment, both in scale and precedent, Sporting spent more on Pulido’s transfer than all the other transfers in the history of the club combined.

There’s real pressure on the 28-year-old to make that investment look prudent. If Pulido succeeds – and the backline doesn’t implode – Kansas City fortunes will almost surely follow, right back up the table to where they’re accustomed.

No matter what happens, the number of goals next to Pulido’s name will be a barometer all year. Did Peter Vermes and his staff get the scouting right? Was the price tag worth it? Was the Mexican international’s big Apertura with Chivas the new norm or a bit of fluke? Has the move helped push Kansas City back among the Western Conference elite? All huge questions, all TBD.

Brenden Aaronson

It’s not often an American or Canadian teenager gets the keys to any professional team, let alone an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs team. And yet it seems Aaronson is destined to get another 25-30 games as the Union’s No. 10 in 2020*, depending on how much time he misses for US U-23 duties.

*Shout out to Ilsinho, patiently waiting on the bench to wreck people.

It’s a huge year for Aaronson because he’s got to start doing much more of what the best attacking midfielders in the world do regularly: get his name on the score sheet. Three goals and two assists in nearly 2,000 minutes, including playoffs, isn’t going to cut it if he wants to stay higher up the field. It’s a huge season in the final third for the Philly Homegrown.

Paul McDonough

I absolutely understand why Inter Miami aren’t in a rush to fill out their roster. Hell, the CBA under which they’re building their team from scratch just got signed last week.

But, given they’re in Miami and given what the so many at the club have said in the past about signing stars, it’s a bit of a risk not to have all three Designated Player spots filled and sparkling with world-class goodness on or near opening day.

“We will have three Designated Players in our first year," McDonough, Miami’s sporting director and one of the architects of Atlanta United’s success, told MLSsoccer.com’s Tom Bogert way back in May of last year.

Maybe I’m parsing that quote too much, but first year does not necessarily mean first day. Still, Inter are one DP short even if the Rodolfo Pizarro deal gets done with Monterrey. What if things don’t go well on the field for Miami sans the full DP compliment? What if it’s a struggle and there’s no established star to turn to? What if summer lands a fish so big you forget about all this? Year 1 has huge implications for the club in the short- and long-term.

Chicago Fire FC

The Fire are headed downtown, with a new owner, a new technical staff, a new visual identity and a new stadium to call home. Joe Mansueto is nothing if not ambitious. This club wouldn’t be playing at Soldier Field if he wasn’t.

So can Chicago take advantage of a rare reset button? This year will start to answer that question, and so far the answers have been a bit slow coming. In that soccer market, the Fire are a sleeping giant. Can they connect with their city again, on and off the field? It’s hugely important that they do.

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