The new MLS season is upon us, with a fresh batch of exciting talent looking to make a name for themselves in one of the most rapidly improving global leagues.
In just their second season in the competition, Atlanta United won the MLS Cup in 2018, fuelled by the attacking prowess of Miguel Almiron, now Newcastle United’s record signing, as well as forward Josef Martinez.
Meanwhile, Zlatan Ibrahimovic came, saw and conquered, scoring 22 goals in just 27 games, despite LA Galaxy failing to make the playoffs.
But who is each MLS club’s most exciting player heading into the 2019 season?
Here at Squawka, we’ve taken a look.
Atlanta United – Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez
Miguel Almiron is gone, but Atlanta have a new South American playmaker to fawn over in the form of Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez.
The two-time Argentina international played a starring role as River Plate won last season’s Copa Libertadores, providing two assists and scoring three goals himself, including one in the second leg of the final against fierce rivals Boca Juniors.
For his exploits, Martinez took the South American Player of the Year award and arrives at Atlanta in an £11.3m deal, an MLS record for an incoming player. The 25-year-old has played two competitive games for Atlanta already, both legs of their CONCACAF Champions League tie against C.S. Herediano and in the first leg alone, completed 12 of his 14 attempted dribbles, as well as winning 16 of his 22 attacking duels – last season’s top scorer, Josef Martinez, should profit greatly.
Chicago Fire – Djordje Mihailovic
Chicago Fire flopped last season, finishing second-bottom in the Eastern Conference, but have made massive strides to combat that with the signing of 16-time Argentina international, Nicolas Gaitan.
The former Benfica man spent 2018 with Chinese club, Dalian Yifang, after a failed spell with Atletico Madrid but at 31 years old, still has plenty to offer in MLS.
Chicago are looking to move Bastian Schweinsteiger back into midfield and with him and Djordje Mihailovic supplying for Gaitan, we really could see their attacking prowess come to the fore in 2019 just as it did in 2017, finishing third in the regular season and scoring 61 goals in 34 games along the way.
FC Cincinnati – Emmanuel Ledesma
Given that this is their first season in MLS, it’s tough to predict just how FC Cincinnati are going to do in 2019.
Their team is full of unproven, inconsistent talents at this level such as Roland Lamah and Kekuta Manneh, but the one they will be leaning on the most will likely be Argentine forward Emmanuel Ledesma.
Many will remember Ledesma for his largely unsuccessful stint in English football with the likes of Middlesbrough, Walsall and Brighton but the 30-year-old has since found success stateside, scoring 16 goals and providing 16 assists in 31 USL games for Cincinnati as the Orange and Blue stormed the regular season.
Columbus Crew SC – Gyasi Zardes
Given that Columbus Crew have just won a battle to even remain in their own city, their fans will probably just be happy to see them lining up in MLS on their own doorstep this season.
Be that as it may, they finished fifth in the Eastern Conference last season and managed to get all the way to the conference semi-finals before being knocked out by Supporters Shield winners, New York Red Bulls.
That run was in no small part down to the 19 goals of USA international forward, Gyasi Zardes, and the Crew will once again look to his pace and goalscoring instinct to mount another challenge this season.
DC United – Luciano Acosta
We know what you’re all thinking: “It’s got to be Wayne Rooney!”. That would be too obvious, though, wouldn’t it?
Rooney scored 12 goals in 20 MLS games to help DC United move from the basement to the playoffs of the Eastern Conference in 2018, but the partnership he struck up with Luciano Acosta was something else – so much so that it was nicknamed ‘Luchoroo’.
The former England international dovetailed wonderfully with the Argentine playmaker, who recorded 10 goals and 15 assists in 33 MLS games himself, taking him incredibly close to a move to PSG in the recent January transfer window.
Montreal Impact – Ignacio Piatti
Montreal Impact had a fairly nondescript season in 2018 and, if that is to improve, they will rely heavily on the form of Ignacio Piatti.
He might be 34, but the Argentine forward remains one of the most effective players in MLS, with 72 goals and 36 assists to his name in 148 games for the Canadians. Last season alone, he scored 16 goals and provided 11 assists across all competitions.
New England Revolution – Carles Gil
Yep, that’s the former Aston Villa playmaker, Carles Gil, rocking up in MLS with New England Revolution.
Despite his undoubted talent with the ball at his feet, it’s fair to say Gil’s career hasn’t quite panned out as he’d have liked, but moving to MLS presents him with a great chance to get back on track as the Revolution look to improve on their eight-placed Eastern Conference finish last season.
Their main hope for Gil is that he provides more bullets for the forwards, with last season’s top scorers, Teal Bunbury and Cristian Penilla, scoring just 11 goals each.
New York City FC – Keaton Parks
David Villa is the obvious loss this season for New York City FC, but a bigger loss could be in midfield with Man City loanee, Yangel Herrera, heading on loan to Spanish side, Huesca, for the rest of the European season. One of the players brought in to replace Herrera is 21-year-old USA international, Keaton Parks.
Parks has spent the last couple of years with Benfica’s B team, scoring six goals and providing six assists in 42 games, and in his friendly debut for NYCFC, against AIK, he made seven interceptions in just 29 minutes. That should be more than enough to replace the combative edge Herrera brought in midfield during 2018.
New York Red Bulls – Kaku
The loss of Tyler Adams to RB Leipzig will undoubtedly hurt last season’s Supporters Shield winners, but New York Red Bulls still boast one of the strongest squads in MLS.
One of the men to provide chances for all-time top scorer, Bradley Wright-Phillips will be Alejandro Romero, better known as Kaku.
The Paraguayan scored seven goals and provided 12 assists in all competitions last season and averaged 4.22 through passes during 2018. Manager, Chris Armas, has one of the most defined styles of play in MLS and Kaku fits into that perfectly. Big things are expected of him and his teammates in 2019.
Orlando City – Nani
Putting it bluntly, Orlando City were terrible last year.
The Lions finished bottom of the Eastern Conference and only San Jose finished below them in the whole of MLS. That said, the signing of former Manchester United winger, Nani, will go a long way toward lifting the gloom and give fans something to cling on to in 2019.
Even at 32-years-old, Nani has the ability to define matches with his dribbling and crossing ability, not to mention his eye for goal.
Philadelphia Union – Marco Fabian
Philadelphia Union lost their 2018 MVP, Borek Dockal, as his loan from Henan Jianye ended and the midfielder moved to Sparta Prague. But they have replaced him with 42-time Mexico international, Marco Fabian.
The Mexicans are the juggernauts of North American football and a 232-game stint with Deportive Guadalajara yielded 57 goals and 36 assists before moving to Eintracht Frankfurt for a season-and-a-half.
Fabian will more-than replace the creative exploits of Dockal and could make the Union a decent outside bet at a playoff run in 2019.
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Toronto FC – Jozy Altidore
Despite winning the 2017 MLS Cup and reaching last season’s CONCACAF Champions League final, Toronto FC had an abysmal 2018 season, finishing with just 36 points.
To add to that, they have just lost, arguably, the greatest ever MLS player in Sebastian Giovinco, who has moved to Al-Hilal.
The Canadians still have a very strong squad on paper, though, with the likes of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. The latter scored seven goals in just 13 MLS games last season due to bad luck with injuries. If the USA international remains fit, Toronto will vastly improve in 2019.
Colorado Rapids – Diego Rubio
Tim Howard had the indignity of conceding 63 goals last season due to a hopeless defence playing in front of him, while an equally inept attack scored just 36 goals in 34 games, the lowest in MLS, leading to Colorado Rapids finishing 11th in the Western Conference.
In Diego Rubio, however, they have a proven forward at this level, with the Chilean scoring 10 goals and providing six assists in 23 MLS games for Sporting Kansas City last season. If Rubio can link with the playmaking talents of fellow new signing, Nicolás Mezquida, the Rapids should have no problem vastly improving on a dismal 2018.
FC Dallas – Bryan Acosta
FC Dallas are always competitive at worst in MLS and that should remain the same in 2019 with the addition of Honduran playmaker, Bryan Acosta.
Dallas paid £2.52m to secure his services, a hefty sum in MLS terms, and the hope is the former Tenerife man can add some guile and pizzazz to their build-up play after his short spell in Spanish football.
Houston Dynamo – Mauro Manotas
Colombia international Mauro Manotas scored 19 MLS goals last season and a further six in four games as Houston Dynamo won the 2018 U.S Open Cup.
He will once again be their main goal threat as they look to improve on a ninth-placed finish in the Western Conference last season and already has two goals this campaign, netting twice in their 2-1 second leg win over Guastatoya in the CONCACAF Champions League.
LA Galaxy – Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Could we really start anywhere else with LA Galaxy?
Despite not making the playoffs, Ibrahimovic scored a hugely impressive 22 goals in 27 MLS games in 2018 and showed that age really is just a number.
The 37-year-old will be key if the Galaxy are to make a better fist of 2019, although many fans would like to see their side to revert to a more rounded game, rather than focusing purely on getting Ibrahimovic into scoring positions.
Los Angeles FC – Carlos Vela
Despite 2018 being their first season in MLS, LAFC finished third in the Western Conference, earning an impressive playoff spot and their fans generated one of the most hostile atmospheres in the division.
Their star in that run was undoubtedly Carlos Vela, scoring 15 goals and providing 11 assists along the way, and the former Arsenal man will be key once again if they are to push further into the playoffs in 2019.
Exciting 20-year-old, Diego Rossi, also notched 17 goals in all competitions during in 2018 and the feeling is these two could form one of the most deadly partnerships in MLS this season.
Minnesota United – Darwin Quintero
Minnesota United finished a very modest 10th in the Western Conference last season but the signing of Darwin Quintero from Mexican side, Club America, is a statement that they mean business this term.
Quintero, 31, scored a combined 108 goals and provided 99 assists during his time in Mexican football and the Colombian winger will add genuine creativity, trickery and goalscoring threat to the joint-second-worst attack in the 2018 Western Conference.
Portland Timbers – Diego Valeri
Portland Timbers look to have missed out in their pursuit of Eduardo Vargas, but in Diego Valeri they still have one of the most dangerous attacking midfielders in MLS.
The 32-year-old was key in the Timbers’ run to the 2018 MLS Cup final, scoring 14 goals and assisting a further 15 in 38 MLS games.
That is some return and should he notch up those numbers again, Portland will be a force to be reckoned with once more in 2019.
Real Salt Lake – Corey Baird
Reigning MLS Rookie of the Year, Corey Baird, scored eight goals and provided five assists in 2018. At first glance, that looks pretty average. However, when you consider that was his first ever season playing professional football, it becomes far more impressive.
Now a fully fledged USA international, Baird’s rookie days are firmly behind him and a big 2019 from the 23-year-old forward could see Real Salt Lake improve on their Western Conference semi-final appearance of last season.
San Jose Earthquakes – Cristian Espinoza
With just 21 points from 34 games last season, San Jose Earthquakes were by far the worst team in MLS in 2018.
One of the players signed to combat that is 23-year-old Argentine winger, Cristian Espinoza. The Villarreal loanee has 13 goals and 13 assists to his name during spells in South American football and will need to translate that to his time in MLS if the Earthquakes are going to stand any chance of even getting close to the rest of the league in 2019.
Expectations are low, but that may be dangerous in a league known for its parity.
Seattle Sounders – Raul Ruidiaz
Seattle Sounders were one of the best teams in MLS last season and only narrowly missed out on playoff progression in a hard-to-take defeat to rivals, Portland Timbers, in the Western Conference semi-finals.
The mid-season signing of Peruvian striker, Raul Ruidiaz, added an extra dimension to the Sounders’ attack, with the 28-year-old netting 13 goals in just 16 games. Seattle will undoubtedly be one of the main contenders for honours again this season, with Ruidiaz likely to add even more goals and weight to his reputation.
Sporting Kansas City – Johnny Russell
Sporting KC topped the Western Conference in 2018 and reached the conference finals, losing to eventual MLS Cup runners-up, Portland Timbers.
One of the shining lights on that run was Scotland international, Johnny Russell, who was directly involved in 19 MLS goals and averaged 7.95 dribbles per game at a success rate of 65.3%. The 28-year-old has already completed another 11 dribbles in two games against Toluca in the CONCACAF Champions League this season and will be a silver bullet for one of the strongest sides heading into the 2019 season.
Vancouver Whitecaps – Hwang In-beom
The signing of MLS veteran Fredy Montero from Sporting Lisbon fills an important hole up front for Vancouver Whitecaps, but the incoming Hwang In-beom has certainly turned a few heads.
The 22-year-old had a 76.2% dribble success rate for club and country last season and brings skill and creativity into the No.10 role for the Canadian side.
The 12-time South Korea international scored 16 goals and provided 13 assists in 105 games in his homeland.