MLS Top 10 Breakout Players
Entering the 2010 season, Agudelo was one of those "at least a couple of years away" prospects 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. national team in friendlies against South Africa and Chile, Agudelo has seen the bar 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.
There's a reason that FCD found Dax McCarty to be expendable, and that reason is Alexander. A crafty, hard-working 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.
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 of the bench last season. Fernandez, a member of the 2010 Uruguayan 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.
Plagued by injuries and cast in the wrong role in New York, the former U.S. youth midfielder 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 spot-on 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.
When Pat Onstad retired to become a goalkeeper coach with D.C. United (temporarily, anyway), 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.
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 and never look back. An imposing physical specimen between the pipes, the 20-year-old United Academy product should take great leaps in building off his rookie season, in which he was thrust into action surprisingly early by the United coaching staff. Hamid, a back line anchor with a great vocal presence, has the tools and drive to develop into an all-star-caliber keeper.
Like Alexander is the heir-apparent to McCarty, Loyd is the heir-apparent to the departed Heath Pearce. A versatile player who fits Schellas Hyndman's mold as a hard-working 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 and become more disciplined in his marking, he has the potential to be an All-Star in MLS for years to come.
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.
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, Tchani is expected to take the next step in validating his high draft position in 2010.
Just 20, it seems as if Williams, a former U.S. youth international, has been around for ages. Like current U.S. right back 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.