We hit the halfway mark in Freddie Shires’ list of his Top 50 MLS stars for the upcoming season. It includes a mix of well-known names from the English leagues, MLS veterans and a number of rising stars that could really make this season their own.
30. José Gonçalves, New England Revolution
In his first year in the league, Gonçalves helped guide a young Revs side to their first postseason appearance since 2009 with his steady presence on the backline, winning MLS Defender of the Year in the process. While the team duly made his loan deal from Swiss club FC Sion permanent in November, the Portuguese centre-back has been extremely vocal during preseason about the state of his contract and European ambitions, casting doubt over his long-term future in New England. For now though at least, it seems as though the club captain will be staying put while the front office attempts to work out a new deal, much to the relief of fans who harbour high hopes for 2014.
29. Blas Pérez, FC Dallas
One of the top strikers in CONCACAF for the past decade, when he wasn’t away on international duty in 2013, Pérez proved his worth to Dallas by leading the team with 11 regular season goals. The side’s failure to make the playoffs last year saw a change in head coach, as club legend Oscar Pareja replaced the outgoing Schellas Hyndman, and, with fellow attacking threats David Ferreira and Kenny Cooper also departing in the offseason upheaval, the Panamanian will be heavily relied upon to produce the goods again in 2014.
28. Júlio César, Toronto FC
By the end of this summer, Toronto could very well boast the starting goalkeeper for the World Cup-winners. With Rob Green entrenched as Harry Redknapp’s first-choice at QPR and César needing playing time to secure a place in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil squad, the former Inter Milan shot-stopper heads to MLS on a year-long loan to play under former teammate Ryan Nelsen. One of the handful of ambitious moves made by the Canadian club this offseason, the 34-year-old can no longer claim to be one of the best keepers in the game, as was once the case, but his signing is still no doubt a major coup, both for TFC and the league.
27. Dax McCarty, New York Red Bulls
A tenacious and technical midfielder who can contribute on both sides of the ball, McCarty has become one of the most consistent players in the league since being traded from D.C. United to the Red Bulls midway through the 2011 season in return for Dwayne De Rosario. Integral towards the club claiming the 2013 Supporters’ Shield (the first major trophy in their history), his form was rewarded with a place on the U.S. January training camp roster by Jürgen Klinsmann, yet the fact the 26-year-old still has only five international caps to his name shows just how underrated he has been.
26. Diego Fagúndez, New England Revolution
The Revs’ first ever homegrown player, signing in November 2010, 19-year-old Fagúndez is one of the rising stars of the league, with the potential to become a superstar, not only in MLS, but on a global stage. Playing with all the flair and confidence that belies his young age, the Uruguayan-born forward finished his breakout 2013 season with a team-high 13 goals and seven assists to serve as the focal point of the Revs’ attack, as the youthful side surprised many by making the playoffs. Making up for his small stature (5’8”, 150 lbs.) with outstanding pace and skill, whether Fagúndez ever turns out for the U.S. over the country of his birth is tied up in the lengthy citizenship process but, on the club level at least, fans are simply excited to see what the player many expect to become “the next Landon Donovan” can produce in 2014.
25. Obafemi Martins, Seattle Sounders
Despite offseason rumours linking the Nigerian Designated Player with a return to Europe, Martins is back for his second season with the Sounders and hoping to improve upon an injury-hit 2013. He still managed to score eight goals in the 20 games he played but the club will be expecting more bang for the buck in 2014, with the former Inter Milan striker’s new partnership upfront with Kenny Cooper earning raves in preseason.
24. Osvaldo Alonso, Seattle Sounders
Defecting to the U.S. in 2007 during the CONCACAF Gold Cup, with just a backpack and $700 to hand, six-and-a-half years later Alonso is signed to a Designated Player contract and, alongside Kyle Beckerman, stands out as one of best holding midfielders in MLS. Profoundly crucial to the Sounders’ lineup, the 28-year-old Cuban finished 2013 as the league’s most accurate passer, with an 88.5% completion percentage, and, now as a U.S. citizen, serious enquiries have been made about the possibility of playing for the States in the future. That however would only be possible with the consent of the Cuban F.A. – a scenario which looks unlikely at the moment. For now it seems the “Honey Badger”, as he is nicknamed by fans, will simply have to make do with pleasing the raucous Seattle supporters at CenturyLink Field.
23. Matt Besler, Sporting Kansas City
The 2012 MLS Defender of the Year, Besler’s understated consistency has helped mould Sporting’s backline into the best in the league and seen the 27-year-old centre-back become a first-choice for the U.S. national team. Spurning several offers from Europe in 2012 to sign a new deal with his hometown club, Besler may not be the most physically imposing player around but he’s rarely caught out by opposing forwards and is by far one of the best passing centre-backs in MLS.
22. Eddie Johnson, D. C. United
Johnson has reinvigorated his carer since returning to MLS in 2012, after four disappointing years in Europe, showing flashes of the player who first burst onto the scene in the early 2000s and even breaking back into the national team. After salary cap issues prevented the Sounders from giving the former Fulham striker the improved contract he had pleaded for towards the end of the season, the club had no choice but to trade their top-scorer in December to D.C. United, where he’ll get his wish of a salary bump as the focal point of head coach Ben Olsen’s drastically rebuilt lineup.
21. Brad Davis, Houston Dynamo
A 12-year MLS veteran, 2011 MVP-finalist and six-time All-Star, Davis has been a key factor towards the Dynamo’s perennial postseason runs, as the team’s all-time leader in games, starts and assists. Equally effective playing on the wing or in a more central role, the club captain is also capable of bending in a breath-taking free kick once in a while and has even remerged on the U. S. national team scene during 2014 World Cup qualifying, after first making his debut back in 2005.