Freddie’s MLS Top 50: Nos. 10-1

This is it, the final ten in Freddie Shires’ list of MLS players who could the real stars of the forthcoming 2014 season.

In it are a few names who have already sparked interest in the league during the offseason, not just in the UK, USA and Canada, but around the world.

10. Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers

The 2013 MLS Newcomer of the Year, Valeri took the league by storm after arriving in Portland from hometown club Lanús last January, netting ten times and delivering 13 assists in his first year in the Pacific Northwest. Originally signed on loan, the 27-year-old Argentine’s move was made permanent in August, after he proved such a pivotal piece of Caleb Porter’s side with his game-changing skills, and a sports hernia, which hampered his impact in the final month of the season, was arguably the only reason he was not given more MVP consideration. Now getting back to full fitness, after offseason surgery, the creative midfielder should be ready to go for the Timbers’ opener against the Philadelphia Union.

9. Tim Cahill, New York Red Bulls

After a slow start to his MLS career, following his move from Everton in July 2012, Cahill kicked into gear last season, scoring 11 goals and providing five assists to help the Red Bulls win the Supporters’ Shield. The Australian international has been extremely effective playing in a more attacking role alongside Thierry Henry and will be crucial to Mike Petke’s plans as the club try to earn their first-ever MLS Cup.

8. Graham Zusi, Sporting Kansas City

Sporting KC’s MVP for the second-year running in 2013, Zusi has established himself as the face of a renewed franchise, proving their most crucial player on the way to MLS Cup success last season. Hailed as one of the leaders of a new generation of U.S. national team players who have committed their future to the league, the 27-year-old has become a regular in Jürgen Klinsmann’s side over the past 18 months, with both his creativity and versatility in midfield making him a certainty to be a vital piece of their World Cup campaign this summer. His stoppage-time winner over Panama in last October’s qualifier, which ensured Mexico’s place in Brazil, has also earned him cult status south of the border and the nickname San Zusi – “Saint Zusi”.

7. Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy

Keane has been one of the Galaxy’s most consistent players over the past two years but it was in 2013 that he enjoyed his best season yet, taking on the club captaincy in Landon Donovan’s absence at the start of the campaign. The Irishman scored 16 goals and added 11 assists in 23 appearances, while being named a finalist for the league MVP award, and his influence was stressed by how the club struggled any time he was absent, due to either injury or international call-ups.

6. Federico Higuaín, Columbus Crew

While his younger brother Gonzalo Higuaín may be one of the best strikers in Europe, the lesser known Federico has come to the fore as a top tier playmaker in MLS, since signing with the Crew as a Designated Player in August 2012. With the club’s other main creative force, Eddie Gaven, surprisingly retiring at the end of last season, a lot more pressure will be placed on the 29-year-old Argentine’s shoulder to produce under first-year head coach Gregg Berhalter.

5. Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls

Even at 36 years old, Henry is still a quality player, whose class shines through amongst his MLS peers. Though the Red Bulls would have arguably hoped for better production since they signed the Frenchman in July 2010, those close to the team will tell you just how influential he has been, both on and off the field, to a side which has endured a fair amount of disorder over the years. Now entering the final year of his contract, it would be no surprise to see Henry extend his stay in the Big Apple beyond 2014, considering how highly the former Arsenal forward is still regarded.

4. Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders

Dempsey shocked the American soccer community when he returned to MLS with the Sounders in August 2013, seemingly acting as the catalyst for the further big-name moves the league would make over the offseason. Seattle have had to rethink their system somewhat in order to accommodate the 30-year-old midfielder but there were clear signs later on in the season that things were starting to gel. The U.S. national team captain would have arguably been better-served spending preseason with the club, rather than going out on loan to Fulham, but few doubt he is capable of an MVP-calibre season, given his level of play in the Premier League only 18 months ago.

3. Jermain Defoe, Toronto FC

Toronto pulled off a huge coup when they landed Defoe in the offseason, as a part of their major rebuilding project under president and CEO Tim Leiweke and new general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. With the England international still in the tail end of his prime, acquisitions like this have been few and far between for MLS in the past and are a big indicator of the league’s growing reputation across the globe. If the 31-year-old striker gets good service from TFC’s new-look midfield in his debut season in Canada then a Golden Boot award and trip to the playoffs should be on the cards.

2. Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy

Those who may have questioned whether Donovan’s powers were on the wane were proven well and truly wrong in 2013. After a self-imposed sabbatical to recharge his batteries, America’s most iconic player re-joined the Galaxy in late-March and immediately set about returning to his expected lofty form, leading the national team to Gold Cup success in July, while tying Jeff Cunningham’s MLS all-time regular season goals mark late in the season. Putting any doubts about his future with the club to bed by signing a new multi-year contract in September, 2014 looks set to be a testing year for Donovan, as he tries not only to help LA return to the league summit but also lead the U.S. in what could well be his final World Cup campaign.

1. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC

Looking back now, it seems ridiculous that anyone ever attributed Bradley’s place in the national team under his father to pure nepotism. Widely regarded by the more dedicated fans as the USA’s most important player, the 26-year-old had been unmistakeably progressing and proving himself in Europe, which is why his return to MLS in the midst of his prime came as such a huge surprise. While some have thus questioned the former Roma midfielder’s ambition and how playing in the domestic league could potentially stunt his growth, there’s no doubt that Bradley’s return after an eight-year absence is a useful measure of MLS’ recent progress and a historic move for TFC, as they chase their first postseason appearance in club history.

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