By IVES GALARCEP
Every year in MLS a new crop of players enters the league, either via the draft or international player market, and does well to boost the level of talent in MLS.
Something else that happens every year is a crop of returning players emerges to make the jump from back-up to key starter, from rookie to improved second-year player, from late-season curiosity to full-season star.
Last year we saw breakout seasons from the likes of Will Bruin to Steven Lenhart, Andy Gruenebaum to Justin Morrow (and a half-dozen other San Jose Earthquakes). This year we could see several players make major jumps from 2012 to 2013, including several young players poised to take on more important roles with their teams.
Who are the players you should expect to enjoy breakout seasons in MLS this year? Here is the SBI 2013 Breakout Best XI (the team does not include any first-year MLS players):
2013 BREAKOUT BEST XI
BRAD KNIGHTON, Vancouver Whitecaps
Beat out Joe Cannon for the starting goalkeeper job late in the 2012 season and looks poised to be the Whitecaps starter in 2013. The former New England and Philadelphia neminder has shown signs of being a quality starter in years past and this could be the year he cements his place among the league’s regulars.
KOFI SARKODIE, Houston Dynamo
The young fullback enjoyed a late-season breakout in the 2012, helping the Dynamo reach the MLS Cup final, but 2013 could be his first season as a full-time starter. If he can tighten up his defending, and continue to be a threat getting forward, Sarkodie could help Houston break the MLS Cup losing streak.
CHRIS SCHULER, Real Salt Lake
When RSL traded Jamison Olave, the initial reaction outside of Utah was shock at the breaking up of the Nat Borchers-Olave centerback tandem. What RSL insiders already knew was that the team had another defender ready to step into that role. Schuler has been one of the best young central defender prospects in the league for some time, but now he’ll have a chance to start and he could develop into one of the league’s best defenders.
ANDREW JEAN-BAPTISTE, Portland Timbers
While other rookie centerbacks around the league had chances to play more last season, Jean-Baptiste didn’t break through until late in 2012, when he impressed in some appearances. So far this pre-season he has been in the running for a starting role for Portland and if he can win a starting job, Jean-Baptiste could be a pleasant surprise for Caleb Porter.
AMOBI OKUGO, Philadelphia Union
I know what you’re thinking. Wasn’t last year Okugo’s breakout year? You can definitely argue that, but he makes this list as he prepares for his first season as a key midfield option for the Union. He was outstanding in central defense in 2012, but Union head coach John Hackworth is ready to let him play in his more natural defensive midfield position. That move could help Okugo thrive at a position he knows very well.
ORIOL ROSELL, Sporting Kansas City
When Roger Espinoza departed for the English Premier League there were serious questions about who would replace his presence in central midfield. While Benny Feilhaber will certainly take on a big role, the Spaniard Rosell is also poised to step in to fill the void. The 20-year-old former FC Barcelona youth product has the qualities to step in and play major minutes and shine in the Sporting KC system.
JOSE VILLARREAL, Los Angeles Galaxy
Bruce Arena did a good job of bringing Villarreal along slowly in 2012, his rookie season, but you can expect the shackles to come off in 2013 as Arena makes full use of the teenage sensation. Villarreal can slide into a variety of roles with the Galaxy, either as a second forward or anywhere along the midfield. He should at the very least give the Galaxy a super sub, though his standout showing for the U.S. Under-20s recently bodes well for a big year for Villarreal.
LUIS GIL, Real Salt Lake
Gil enjoyed a strong 2012 season, impressing in increased minutes for RSL. This year, he is expected to take on a starting role with the departure of Will Johnson. There is plenty of competition for minutes in the RSL midfield, but Gil is a special talent who looks ready to step up from top prospect to top starter in 2013. His play with the U.S. Under-20s has only solidified is standing as one of the more exciting young prospects in MLS.
DILLY DUKA, Chicago Fire
The 2012 season was a nightmare for Duka, who fell out of favor in Columbus and ultimately became an outcast who the Crew were desperate to unload this winter. Now Duka is in Chicago, where the Fire are eager to slot him into their attack. Duka was one of the more impressive midfielders in the U.S. Under-23 National Team pool a year ago, and with a chip on his shoulder from the debacle in Columbus, Duka could thrive with the Fire.
MARIO MARTINEZ, Seattle Sounders
Though he was a late arrival in 2012, Martinez made a serious impact for the Sounders late last year with his playoff series-winning goal against Real Salt Lake. It was a goal that served notice that Seattle had added a special young talent. Now, with a full year to wreak havoc on MLS defenses, Martinez could be an All-Star in MLS. His standout performance for Honduras against the U.S. Men’s National Team in World Cup qualifying provided even more evidence of the quality he will bring to the Sounders in 2013.
JERRY BENGTSON, New England Revolution
Another young Honduran makes the squad here and Bengtson showed in last summer’s Olympics and more recently with the senior Honduran national team that he is one of the more valuable young prospects in MLS. With Saer Sene recovering from ACL surgery, Bengtson will be expected to carry the Revs scoring load early, but he could really thrive once Sene returns.