March 06, 2012

Whether it's a highly-touted youngster fulfilling his potential, a journeyman veteran emerging out of nowhere or a relatively unknown foreigner finding a foothold, seemingly every MLS season sees a player or two take his game to the next level. With the league's 17th campaign set to kickoff on Saturday, here's 10 somewhat-under-the-radar players who could have breakthrough years. The players are ranked in order of likelihood that they'll bust out in 2012:

1. Ike Opara, D, San Jose Earthquakes. The U.S. Olympic hopeful struggled with injuries during his first two seasons in the league, playing in just 19 total MLS games in 2010 and 2011. He's healthy now though, coming off a productive offseason in which he established himself as a starter -- and occasional captain -- for the U.S. U-23 team. Expect the talented center back to have a big year if he stays fit.

2. Markus Holgersson, D, New York Red Bulls. Holgerrson should do wonders for the Red Bulls' defense, which struggled at times -- especially on set pieces -- in 2011. The 26-year-old center back, who received his first cap for Sweden in January, was impressive in preseason and reportedly turned down several European sides before joining New York this winter. He'll start alongside Wilman Conde and Stephen Keel in 2012.

3. Darlington Nagbe, M/F, Portland Timbers. Timbers coach John Spencer hasn't been shy about talking Nagbe up this preseason, calling last year's No. 2 overall pick "by far technically the best player we've got" in The Oregonian and telling that he expects the 21-year-old to "have a breakout season and let everyone know who he is." Nagbe, who scored three goals and had two assists in 28 appearances in 2011, is currently competing with Jorge Perlaza and Bright Dike for the right to partner Designated Player Kris Boyd up top.

4. Tony Beltran, D, Real Salt Lake. Real Salt Lake is expecting big things from Beltran, who will be the fulltime starter at right back with Robbie Russell now in D.C. The 2008 No. 3 overall pick had a strong 2011, defending solidly and showing decent attacking chops in 22 league appearances. Don't be surprised if the 24-year-old plays his way onto U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann's January 2013 camp roster.

5. Joao Plata, M/F, Toronto FC. The tiny Ecuadorean -- Plata is just 5-foot-2 -- was one of the few bright spots in Toronto last year, tallying three goals and five assists in league play and scoring four times in the CONCACAF Champions League. Spending all of 2012 alongside DP forward Danny Koevermans up top -- the Dutch striker had eight goals in 10 games after signing with Toronto last summer -- should only improve Plata's strong rookie numbers.

6. Dilly Duka, M, Columbus Crew. The U.S. U-23 winger came on strong at the end of 2011, starting the Crew's last nine regular season games and scoring a goal in both of Columbus's final two matches. With Robbie Rogers now at Leeds United and talented Chilean international Milovan Mirosevic slotted in as the Crew's new No. 10, Duka should get all of the playing time and attacking help he needs to have a breakout season.

7. Kelyn Rowe, M, New England Revolution. Rowe was one of the breakout players of the preseason, turning heads with impressive performances throughout Revs camp. This year's third-overall pick was the darling of the recently completed Desert Diamond Cup, establishing himself as one of the early favorites for the Rookie of the Year award with some highlight-reel goals and solid buildup play at the Tucson tournament.

8. Perry Kitchen, M, D.C. United. Kitchen will make the switch to defensive midfielder in 2012 after spending most of his rookie year playing at right back. Holding mid will be a crucial position for United, which gave up the fourth-most goals in the league last year and won't get much defensive help from other midfielders Chris Pontius, Andy Najar and Branko Boskovic. How Kitchen plays in front of the back four will go a long way in determining whether or not D.C. will break its four-year playoff drought.

9. Fabian Castillo, M/F, FC Dallas. Only 19, Castillo has a chance to excel during his second year in MLS. The Colombian attacker was decent in his first year in the league, scoring two goals and adding three assists in 21 MLS games in 2011. The speedy Castillo will likely get most of his time on the right wing, a spot where he could thrive opposite the always dangerous Brek Shea.

10. Roger Torres, M, Philadelphia Union. The offseason departures of Sebastian Le Toux (traded to Vancouver) and Justin Mapp (selected by Montreal in the expansion draft) create some room in the lineup for Torres, who scored three goals and added two assists in part-time action last year. He'll need to be a driving force in the Union's attack for Philly to have any shot at duplicating their strong 2011 this year.

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