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SBI MLS Season Preview: The Breakout Best XI


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):


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.


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.


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.


  1. Another guy not mentioned is Diego Fagundez. He kinda sorta had a “mini” breakout last esesson but was still very much kept under reigns by Heaps at New England. I really feel like the leash will be off and he’ll start making strides of a top level talent in this league. Remember, he just turned 18 this month and this will be his 3rd season. scary to think that.

  2. Tony Cascio. Insert token comment about Ives not covering the Pids. But, hey Ives, at least you will finally get out to Denver for a game, right? See you in March.

  3. An open question to Ives and all: what acquisition from abroad will have the biggest impact this year, Juninho in New York, Traore in Seattle, Silvestre in Portland, Andrew Driver in Houston, Reo-Coker in Vancouver for some examples? Perhaps Montreal’s new coach? Every team seems to have brought in at least one player from outside the US and Canada.

  4. Every Rev preview has some line in it about Sene’s return but I haven’t come across one official statement on his recovery. Has anyone come across anything but speculation on this AND does anyone know if this is the same knee that he injured previously in Germany?

  5. It may turn out that the rookie Dylan Tucker-Gangnes ends up beating out Andrew Jean-Baptiste to partner with Silvestre. In the preseason, DTG showed a better ability to play possession out of the back, while AJB continued to boot the ball more often than not.

    Either way, both still make too many mistakes. Everyone in Timberland is hoping Silvestre isn’t exposed as too slow/old, and that he can provide a steadying influence on the back line.

  6. Tony Cascio of the Rapids is one to keep an eye on. He started out like gangbusters in his rookie campaign, hit a wall mid way through, and then finished the season on a high note coming off the bench. From all indications he’s had a very strong preseason and looks posied to solidify the left side of a Oscar Peraja’s 4-3-3. Cascio is going to play a bigger role on a young Rapids squad that will have 11 players under 23 yrs. old.

  7. I’m biased, but I think Tony Cascio is going to turn some heads this year in Colorado. They’re going to need the help offensively this year, and Cascio is going to get lots of chances.

  8. Luis Silva for TFC. One of the few bright spots in pre-season, coming off a training stint in Germany and ready to build on a promising rookie campaign. He better have a breakout season, or TFC is doomed.

    • Not that formation really matters, but you can go ahead and put Okugo as a centerback if that’ll make your fantasy world feel more normal 😉

      • i’d suggest they line up as a 3-2-2-2-1…

        actually I would put Okugo at CB, but that’s because I think of every player and their potential place in the NATS pool.

  9. You may regret leaving Kekuta Manneh off this list. Rennie looks poised to hand him heavy minutes this season. Almost a lock to start this weekend against TFC. He is young, no doubt, and preseason means nothing, but man he looks pure quality.

    • No rookies on the list. The list is exclusively players who were already in MLS last year. And if you’ve followed my draft coverage, and/or listened to the SBI Podcast I’ve talked up Manneh more than anybody, and before anybody.

      • I’m disappointed about your Dilly Duka comments. I think he was more desperate to leave than the Crew trying to get rid off him. It would be nice to see a list of other candidates for this list. I understand you had to cut it down to 11 but it would be interesting to see what other players might be expected to have a breakout season.

  10. The future is bright for MLS. It was heartening to hear Garber talk about an increased emphasis on youth development. We’ve got a ton of talent in the US and among our CONCACAF neighbors. Hopefully we’ll continue to see more and more QUALITY young’ns come up thru our league.


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