MLS has either already lost or stands to lose a bunch of its marketable talent, but here's the next crop of stars set to take the spotlight in the league in 2019.

By Avi Creditor
February 28, 2019

MLS has either already lost or stands to lose a bunch of its marketable talent, but a new season means a horde of newcomers vying to introduce themselves with a splash to a new audience, taking over the piece of the spotlight that's been vacated.

In many ways, Newcomer of the Year is as hotly contested an honor as league MVP. New, big-name signings are always out to make a good first impression, and a look at the last 10 Newcomer of the Year honorees shows how impactful incoming transfers can be from the start. Fredy Montero, Alvaro Saborio, Mauro Rosales, Federico Higuain, Diego Valeri, Pedro Morales, Sebastian Giovinco, Nicolas Lodeiro, Miguel Almiron and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all were superstar sensations in their first go-around in MLS, and clubs will be looking to uncover the next such gem in 2019. With the way things are shifting across the league, as star signings get younger, they'll hope that many of these players maintain or increase their sell-on value, too.

These are the top 20 offseason signings, as defined by incoming transfers–not players moving within the league. MLS's primary transfer window is open until May 7, so this is by no means a finished list of new arrivals at the start of the season (Nico Gaitan's reported move to the Chicago Fire would vault well into the top 10, for instance), but it's an indicator of the new names (and in some cases, players returning to MLS after time elsewhere and who aren't technically "newcomers" but are still new signings) to watch entering a new season:

20. Laurent Ciman, D, Toronto FC

If two CCL games vs. a nondescript Panamanian club are any evidence, then featuring Ciman here at all is a mistake, but his return to MLS with Toronto should, in theory, help stabilize a unit that underperformed mightily a season ago. In 2017, TFC conceded 37 goals. In 2018, that number skyrocketed to 64, so, naturally, defensive reinforcements were required. The 33-year-old Belgian international center back left LAFC for Dijon in France in the middle of last season, but the three-time MLS All-Star returned via the allocation order, with TFC trading up in order to secure his rights. If he can't correct his CCL woes, then it has bust-of-the-season potential–and TFC will be in big trouble.

19. Florentin Pogba, D, Atlanta United

The fact that a Pogba is in MLS is a win, period. Florentin, one of Paul's older twin brothers, is more likely to be a depth piece for Atlanta's defense than anything else, but with Michael Parkhurst (35) getting older and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez being at the center of transfer rumors regarding a return to his native Argentina, Pogba could wind up being valuable insurance in the first year of the Frank de Boer era. 

18. Terrence Boyd, F, Toronto FC

Boyd is no Sebastian Giovinco, but if he can find the scoring form that made him a U.S. national team call-up, he'll prove to be a valuable asset for a club looking to rediscover its ways. The freshly re-signed Jozy Altidore is primed for a big season, but he's also proven to be prone to injury and is coming off an ankle surgery that cut his 2018 season short. Boyd, too, has had injury problems throughout his career, but the 28-year-old forward can find a nice role for himself on a team that, on paper, remains one of MLS's top sides.

17. Mathias Jorgensen, F, New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls have moved away from spending big on international signings for the most part, instead building from within and cultivating talent at the academy and USL levels. But the 18-year-old Jorgensen was reportedly acquired from Denmark's Odense BK for $2.5 million, and while it's unclear how impactful he'll be from the start of the season, the club's youngest first-team player could wind up paying dividends if he can take the scoring pressure off 34-year-old Bradley Wright-Phillips somewhere down the line.

16. Lucas Rodriguez, MF, D.C. United

The 21-year-old Argentine loanee is another weapon for Ben Olsen's midfield, effectively replacing Yamil Asad and joining a position of strength for D.C. Luciano Acosta nearly left D.C. for PSG as the January transfer deadline hit in Europe, and if he bolts in the summer, Rodriguez could wind up in a more featured role than anticipated.

15. Allan Cruz, MF, FC Cincinnati

Just because one is branded as the "Costa Rican N'Golo Kante" does not mean he will live up to the billing, but Cruz, the 23-year-old Costa Rica international midfielder, can still play a vital role for the expansion side. Tenacious defensive midfielders are quite valuable in the modern game and have proven to be especially key with regard to success in MLS. FCC has loaded up in the position, with Swiss star Leo Bertone and U.S.-eligible Caleb Stanko among the alternatives, but Cruz is the big fish in the Nippert Stadium pond entering the season.

14. Diego Polenta, D, LA Galaxy

Despite all the money spent on the unit in 2018, the Galaxy's defense was atrocious last season and cost the club repeatedly en route to missing the playoffs. Enter Polenta, a 27-year-old Uruguayan who can bring an element of intensity, physicality and dominance that was missing from a group that sorely needs it.

13. Przemyslaw Frankowski, MF, Chicago Fire

The Fire were light on attacking options last season, with only four players scoring more than two goals. One of them, Alan Gordon (four goals), retired, while another, Bastian Schweinsteiger, is not exactly known for his scoring prowess. The club traded for C.J. Sapong to help returning double-digit scorers Nemanja Nikolic (15) and Aleksandar Katai (12), but it also acquired Frankowski, a 23-year-old Polish international winger. If he can help open up the attack, he'll have no problem becoming a fan favorite in a city with a huge Polish population. And if Gaitan does indeed join, a midfield featuring the Argentine, Frankowski, Djordje Mihailovic and Dax McCarty (with Schweinsteiger a candidate to move into central defense), doesn't look bad at all.

12. Jan Gregus, MF, Minnesota United

Minnesota United's defending has been shambolic for its two seasons in MLS, with the club conceding 141 goals in that time. Enter Gregus, the 28-year-old Slovakian international who, alongside Osvaldo Alonso, will be charged with locking down the center of the park, protecting the back line and strengthening the spine for the Loons. He's on a DP deal, which speaks volumes of how valuable Minnesota thinks he can be.

11. Bryan Acosta, MF, FC Dallas

Another central midfielder given a DP deal, the 25-year-old Honduran and former Olympic team captain should be at the center of what FCD does in its first season under Luchi Gonzalez. Reports put the transfer at over $3 million, a sizeable outlay for FC Dallas and an indication of how strongly the former Tenerife midfielder is rated.

10. Zdenek Ondrasek, F, FC Dallas

"The Cobra" enters MLS with a fierce nickname and even fiercer tattoo game, and FCD will hope the goals come along with them. The 30-year-old Czech forward is coming off a run of 12 goals in 20 games in all competitions with Polish club Wisla Krakow and steps into the void left behind by Maxi Urruti, who is off to Montreal. Despite being in the mix for first place in the Western Conference, FCD didn't have a single player score more than eight goals last season. In Ondrasek, it hopes it has the remedy to that problem.

9. Leonardo Jara, D, D.C. United

A 27-year-old right back who featured in both legs of the most recent Copa Libertadores final for Boca Juniors, the on-loan Jara should help upgrade United's back line and ensure that U.S. winger Paul Arriola can keep his place in the midfield instead of starting in the back out of necessity as he did down the stretch last season and into the playoffs.

8. Carles Gil, MF, New England Revolution

It's not often the Revolution spend big on an incoming signing, so that they reportedly dropped $2 million to acquire Gil should be an indication of their expectations for the 26-year-old Spanish playmaker. He'll add a new dimension to the midfield, which could open things up for Cristian Penilla, Diego Fagundez, Juan Agudelo and the rest of the attack under Brad Friedel.

7. Hwang In-beom, MF, Vancouver Whitecaps

Hwang, a 22-year-old versatile central midfielder, is one of Asia's top rising talents and should fortify the center of the field in any of the roles new manager Marc Dos Santos says he's capable of filling. Never overlook the element of satisfying an area's demographics, either, and with Vancouver boasting a hefty South Korean population, Hwang could find himself in the same fan-favorite territory as Young-Pyo Lee–who helped recruit Hwang to Vancouver when clubs in Europe were also trying to lure him.

6. Fredy Montero, F, Vancouver Whitecaps

Montero averaged 12 goals and eight assists in his five previous seasons in MLS with Seattle and Vancouver, and he's back for a third stint after stops in China and Portugal. A similar return would work wonders for the entirely remade Whitecaps, and the 31-year-old Colombian forward's intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of MLS gives him a leg up on some of the other incoming attractions.

5. Nani, MF, Orlando City

This is such a fascinating move, if only because of its feast-or-famine nature and the randomness with which it appeared to come together. Nani is 32 with plenty of miles on his legs. That didn't prevent one of his former Manchester United teammates, Wayne Rooney, from having immediate success in MLS, and the Portugal veteran is coming off a partial season in which he scored eight goals in 27 games across all competitions for Sporting CP in his native country. Orlando could use the productivity after a league-worst -31 goal differential a season ago.

4. Alejandro Pozuelo, MF, Toronto FC

TFC needs the 27-year-old Pozuelo, who will reportedly cost over $10 million (it should be noted that despite reports of a done deal, he is not officially signed yet, but club president Bill Manning said Thursday he hopes to have an announcement "soon"), to make up for some of the production that was lost when Giovinco and Victor Vazquez were sold, putting plenty of immediate pressure on the Spanish attacking midfielder who has starred for first-place Genk in the Belgian top flight. This season, he's had seven goals and 18 assists in all competitions, which is a solid return, and the hope will surely be that linking up with TFC's other attacking talents–which reportedly won't happen until late March when the Belgian regular season ends–will result in an even bigger windfall.

3. Marco Fabian, MF, Philadelphia Union

The Union landed the 29-year-old Mexican international and promptly handed him the keys as the No. 10. With 2018 MLS assist leader Borek Dockal not returning after a year on loan, Fabian will have to shoulder the load of replacing that production while showing he has no ill effects from the back injury that kept him out for the bulk of the 2017-18 season. That he arrived on a free transfer from Eintracht Frankfurt lessens the risk a bit, but the Union are counting on plenty of DOOP moments from Fabian this season.

2. Alexandru Mitrita, MF, NYCFC

At a reported $8.5 million transfer fee, this was, at the time, the most expensive signing in league history for a club outside of Atlanta. The 24-year-old Romanian superstar has already shown his penchant for the sensational moment during the preseason and, combined with Maxi Moralez, Jesus Medina and Jonathan Lewis, could wind up making for one of the league's most exciting attacking units–provided NYCFC finds its best form under Domenec Torrent.

1. Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez, MF, Atlanta United

For a second straight season, Atlanta has set the league's record for an incoming transfer, breaking its own mark of $15 million to sign Ezequiel Barco by dropping a reported $17 to sign Martinez from River Plate. Unlike Barco, Martinez will have to perform at a peak level in order for Atlanta to achieve its lofty goals. Barco, still a teenager, was a peripheral figure on Atlanta's road to MLS Cup, but the 25-year-old Martinez will be stepping in for Miguel Almiron, who was arguably Atlanta's most indispensable player despite Josef Martinez's goal-scoring exploits. After playing a featured role for River Plate en route to winning Copa Libertadores and in the midst of his prime, the stage won't be daunting at all, but the pressure to perform will be high.

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