What do Chris Wondolowski, Sebastien Le Toux, Tim Ream, Teal Bunbury and Andy Najar have in common? Not many would have pegged any of them as franchise cornerstones entering the 2010 Major League Soccer season.
Entering the 2011 campaign, Wondolowski is the reigning Major League Soccer Golden Boot winner; Le Toux is one of the hardest-working, more-feared attackers in the league; Ream is a U.S. national team center back on the rise; Bunbury is building off a great rookie year and subsequent success with the U.S. national team; and Najar is one of the league's brightest wingers just a year removed from high school.
So who are some candidates to break out this season? Here's 10 who can make a big impact in 2011:
Juan Agudelo, F, New York Red Bulls
Entering the 2010 season, Agudelo was one of those "at least a couple of years away" prospects with oozing with potential. A year later, he's U.S. Soccer's Next Big Thing. After displaying his technical skill in the postseason and with the U.S. in friendlies against South Africa and Chile, the bar for Agudelo has been raised at an exponential rate. While the hype machine probably needs to be turned down a notch or two, the fact remains that he'll be starting alongside Thierry Henry in what should be one of the league's more fierce attacks.
Eric Alexander, M, FC Dallas
There's a reason that FC Dallas deemed Dax McCarty to be expendable, and that reason is Alexander. A crafty, hardworking central midfielder entering his second season in the league, Alexander blossomed in the latter half of 2010 and earned a call-up to Bob Bradley's January training camp. Not necessarily the flashiest or most tenacious of players, Alexander can provide an effective box-to-box presence in front of Daniel Hernandez. Alexander, a relative unknown a year ago, faces the challenge of trying to fulfill raised expectations while competing in a loaded Western Conference.
Alvaro Fernandez, M, Seattle Sounders
Can someone with the distinction of being a designated player really be considered a breakout candidate? Sure, especially when that player spent most of his time coming off the bench last season. Fernandez, a member of the 2010 Uruguay World Cup team, saw spot duty after joining the Sounders last summer, but the technically sound midfielder is a projected starter on the right this season. His on-ball skills combined with the Sounders' firepower -- namely left winger Steve Zakuani and fellow DPs Fredy Montero and Blaise Nkufo -- could lead to some explosive results in a make-or-break year for Seattle.
Photo Gallery: Top 10 breakout players
Jeremy Hall, M, Portland Timbers
Plagued by injuries and cast in the wrong role in New York, the former Mryland star is primed for a breakout season in the Rose City. Portland has assembled a formidable attacking corps, with Kenny Cooper, Darlington Nagbe and pending signing Jorge Perlaza joining the holdovers from the team's USSF Division 2 side. Hall's ability to bring pace and width to that attack and deliver quality service from the flanks will be paramount to the Timbers' offensive success. Although he was miscast as a right back and lost in the shuffle while with the Red Bulls, Hall should have every chance to succeed as a midfielder in Portland.
Tally Hall, GK, Houston Dynamo
When Pat Onstad initally retired to become a goalkeeper coach with D.C. United (he's since unretired), coach Dominic Kinnear and the Dynamo technical staff could have gone out and tried to fill that void with an established veteran. Instead they've put their trust and faith in the 25-year-old Hall, originally a fourth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. While his game experience has been limited primarily to spot duty in non-MLS competitions, Hall has the size and skill-set to stand tall as Houston's No. 1 goalkeeper.
Bill Hamid, GK, D.C. United
A recovery from offseason shoulder surgery will delay Hamid's emergence as D.C.'s starting keeper, but once fit, Hamid should take the reins. An imposing physical specimen with a great vocal presence, the 20-year-old United Academy product should build off his rookie season, in which he was thrust into action surprisingly early by the United coaching staff. Hamid has the tools and drive to develop into an all-star caliber keeper.
Zach Loyd, D, FC Dallas
Just as Alexander is the heir-apparent to McCarty, Loyd is the heir-apparent to the departed Heath Pearce at FC Dallas. A versatile player who fits coach Schellas Hyndman's mold as a hardworking athlete, Loyd can provide cover all over the field, and he'll likely get minutes at every slot along the back line. His future appears to be at left back, where he played for the U.S. national team against Chile in January. If Loyd can harness his speed and never-ending motor to become more disciplined in his marking, he has the potential to be an all-star in MLS for years to come.
Ike Opara, D, San Jose Earthquakes
Injuries limited Opara to just 11 appearances in his rookie year. If not for a broken foot that sidelined him for the last three months of the regular season and the postseason, Opara could very well have been in the Rookie of the Year discussion with 2010 breakout players Ream, Najar and Danny Mwanga. A tenacious ball winner and an aerial threat on both sides of the pitch, Opara has the skills and intelligence to be a dominant center back and set-piece menace in MLS -- provided he stays healthy.
Tony Tchani, M, New York Red Bulls
With Rafael Marquez shifted to a center back role, the vacated central midfield spot in New York should be Tchani's to lose. A raw but potential-filled product as a rookie out of Virginia in 2010, Tchani has the chance to combine with Ream and Marquez to produce perhaps the smoothest distribution tandem from the back and through the center of the pitch in the entire league. With a year as a professional under his belt and a complement of quality players around him, expect Tchani to take the next step in validating his high draft position in 2010.
Sheanon Williams, D, Philadelphia Union
Just 20, it seems as if Williams, a former U.S. youth international, has been around for ages. Like current U.S. fullback Eric Lichaj, he left the University of North Carolina after one season with hopes of securing a professional contract overseas. The only difference is that Williams failed to do so and bounced around the lower divisions of U.S. soccer before landing in Philadelphia last summer. Upon his arrival, he helped stabilize a defense that had been shaky at best. With a full season ahead of him at right back, Williams has the chance to kick off what was supposed to be a standout career.
Avi Creditor is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.