Every time MLS teams enter competition, there's always a group of players who reach new levels of performance and grab headlines.
The MLS is Back Tournament should be no exception, and in this special World Cup-style setting a breakout player could be the difference between going home early and raising the trophy. Most of our candidates got the 2020 season off to a lively start before the COVID-19 hiatus, so that provided some hints. Then again, what else could someone go on when four months will have passed by the time tournament play kicks off on July 8?
This Philadelphia Union midfielder enjoyed a solid rookie season in 2019 because he has the bite to win possession and the vision to move the team forward. The team still wanted more final-third impact from Aaronson, and he looked quite eager to deliver it before league play halted.
Here's another one from the "breakout interruptus" file. Barco has driven play well since joining Atlanta United, but to call his first two seasons of offensive production supplemental would be slightly generous. Back in March, he performed on a whole new level, grabbing two goals and a helper to pace a pair of MLS wins. Without Josef Martinez around, the Five Stripes are going to need Barco to make a deep run.
This pick should come as no surprise. Heck, it practically borders on cliché. Busio has engineered a gradual-build breakout for nearly two years now. Heading into the tournament, Sporting Kansas City boss Peter Vermes has to find cover for injured playmaker Felipe Gutierrez. It may now be time for the 18-year-old's rep to explode.
It didn't take long for the 2020 SuperDraft’s No. 6 pick to look like a keeper. The Revolution center back chalked up 25 total defensive actions across the first two MLS games of the season. Included in that sum is 14 clearances, which placed Kessler in the league's early top five. Given New England's attacking power, similar performances could make Kessler a key to their tournament hopes.
The Costa Rica left winger repeatedly worked his way into dangerous spots over Nashville SC's first two games, chalking up six successful dribbles (eight if you count the two final-third free kicks he won) and seven shot attempts. We already know that Leal has the skills to put foes on their heels, and now he'll have extra time to foster chemistry with his new teammates.
Most observers don't expect much from the Fire during the tournament, and not just because they waved goodbye to some big names in Nico Gaitan, Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the offseason. That puts a heavy burden on Medran to be the new connector to the attack. The 26-year-old never busted out in La Liga, but his first two MLS outings indicated it might be his time.
Orlando City have lacked many different things while racking up five straight seasons without a playoff invite. Far too often, one of those things has been a semblance of midfield control. The good news for local fans is Perea has arrived on loan to provide just that. The 19-year-old looked every bit the part of a two-way force in his first two MLS contests, lending the structure the Lions needed to open the year.
Inter Miami's top overall SuperDraft pick showed on opening day that he could provide hold-up play. In week two, Robinson showed that he was ready to be a final-third threat before leaving with a knock. Only two clubs have seen the ex-Clemson star play, so the book on him is thin. If he can now add lethal finishing to that scouting report, the Herons will have a shot at surprising folks.
Sergio Santos started to look like a genuine threat when the playoffs rolled around last year, and he started this season looking even better. His wheels can cause trouble for opposing backlines, but it's an enhanced understanding of how to attack MLS defenses that leave the Union forward primed for a production spike.
There's a significant caveat with this one: Sims' loan from Southampton is due to expire before the start of the tournament and it remains to be seen if, as in some other cases around the league, it will be extended. But considering the New York Red Bulls' modus operandi, it can actually be argued that the English winger is a key variable to their tournament hopes. We know the backline is athletic, and that the midfield has pressing bite. We also know that Kaku and Daniel Royer can create offense on the fly, and if Sims can join in to produce from the right flank, the balance could make them a major headache to defend.