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50 Players to Watch in MLS in 2016

Joe TanseyFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2016

50 Players to Watch in MLS in 2016

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    Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

    The 21st season of action in Major League Soccer is expected to be as wild and unpredictable as years past with almost all of the 20 teams set to contend for the postseason. 

    Each of the clubs in MLS enters 2016 with plenty of promise thanks to certain players who are poised to have breakout campaigns over the next nine months. 

    With that in mind, we selected 50 players across the league to watch in 2016. Some of the players are rookies looking to make a statement, while others are working their way back from injury and hoping for a big 2016. 

    There are also a few superstars of the league on this list who are somehow going to try and top their spectacular 2015 campaigns. In additions to the first three types of players mentioned, a fourth group of athletes attempting to recover from disastrous 2015 seasons are included in this list. 

    Continue reading to see who are our 50 players to watch in MLS in 2016. 

Brandon Vincent, LB, Chicago Fire

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    Brandon Vincent burst on to the American soccer scene at the beginning of 2016 through his call-up to the United States men's national team's January camp. 

    The Stanford University teammate of USMNT and Seattle Sounders phenom Jordan Morris made his international debut on February 5 against Canada. A few weeks before earning his first cap for the Yanks, Vincent was drafted with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft by the Chicago Fire. 

    Vincent will have big shoes to fill on the left flank of the Chicago defense due to the departure of Trinidad and Tobago international Joevin Jones, who was shipped off to the Sounders on draft day. 

    Look for new Chicago boss Veljko Paunovic, who guided Serbia's U20 team to the 2015 U20 World Cup title, to mold Vincent into an impressive professional full-back during his first year with the club. 

    Vincent will also be an asset moving forward for the Fire. He earned six goals and two assists in his final season at Stanford. 

Sean Johnson, GK, Chicago Fire

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    Sean Johnson's seventh MLS season could be his most important to date given the dire straits of the USMNT goalkeeping situation. 

    Johnson, who was once locked in a battle with Bill Hamid for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart, has regressed recently, and his national team stock has dropped because of the dip in form. 

    If the 26-year-old impresses in between the pipes for the revamped Fire, he could find himself on Jurgen Klinsmann's radar at the right time. 

    One category in which Johnson, and the entire Chicago squad, must improve is wins. After earning 41 wins in his first four seasons, Johnson recorded 11 in the last two seasons. 

Gilberto, FW, Chicago Fire

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    Many opposing defenses facing the Chicago Fire this season may look to shut down Kennedy Igboananike and David Accam because of their production as first-year players in 2015, but the player who has the potential to cause the most damage is Gilberto. 

    The 26-year-old Brazilian was forced out at Toronto FC after the big-name signings of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore last offseason. Gilberto returned to the league on July 27, 2015 after Chicago missed out on Didier Drogba. 

    Although he doesn't have the name recognition Drogba has, Gilberto is capable of making as big an impact on the match. Despite scoring just seven goals in 2014 with Toronto, Gilberto was one of the most active players in the final third during that campaign.

    Now that he has a full offseason with Chicago under his belt, and two valuable partners in attack, Gilberto could easily find the back of the net more than 10 times.

Zac MacMath, GK, Colorado Rapids

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    The next nine months present Zac MacMath with the opportunity to break back into the conversation of best young prospects in the league. But he may not have the chance to do so if the Colorado Rapids continue pursuing Tim Howard.

    As of right now, the former Philadelphia Union man, who was squeezed out of the club in 2015 due to the goalkeeper logjam in Philadelphia, finally has a chance to prove his worth as a starter with Clint Irwin now in Toronto. 

    The 24-year-old, who started for years in Philadelphia, has the potential to keep the Rapids in plenty of contests in 2016 as long as he receives consistent playing time. 

    For his sake, we hope MacMath performs well at the front end of 2016 to earn the trust of the front office that might be better off spending money on different areas of the roster. 

Shkelzen Gashi, FW, Colorado Rapids

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    The best move of the offseason may have been made by the Rapids, which is a shocking statement to say the least.

    Colorado let plenty of quality players like Drew Moor and Marcelo Sarvas leave during the winter, but it earned plaudits for signing Shkelzen Gashi from FC Basel. 

    Gashi was the leading scorer in the Swiss Super League in each of the last two seasons with Basel and Grasshopper. The hunger in front of net brought to the pitch by the Albania international is exactly what the Rapids need in their attempt to climb out of the Western Conference basement. 

    "Shkelzen was our top attacking target this offseason," technical director and vice president of soccer operations Paul Bravo said in a club release.

    "He has proven to be a prolific goalscorer in his club’s domestic and European success. In addition he has been instrumental in his national team’s qualification campaign for Euro 2016. We are delighted to sign him on a permanent transfer and look forward to seeing him in burgundy."

    If he finds a rhythm with his teammates early on in the campaign, Gashi could end up near the top of the Golden Boot standings. 

Kei Kamara, FW, Columbus Crew

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    Not only is the pressure on Kei Kamara to repeat his stellar 2015, the expectations are higher for the Columbus Crew after a successful 2015 that ended with a loss in MLS Cup to the Portland Timbers. 

    The 31-year-old Sierra Leone international probably won't score 22 goals in 2016, but he must continue to be a constant threat up top for the Crew. With that in mind, 15 goals is a reasonable goal for Kamara to reach. 

    The reason we set the target number of tallies at 15 is the added help Kamara will have at the forward position. The Crew brought in 26-year-old Norwegian Ola Kamara and MLS veteran Conor Casey during the offseason to reinforce the depth chart. 

    With Kamara leading the line, and the core of young players hungry to get back to the final under manager Gregg Berhalter, expect the Crew to be near the top of the Eastern Conference once again. 

Harrison Afful, RB, Columbus Crew

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    Harrison Afful is one of the few full-backs in MLS who can make a difference every time he touches the ball. 

    The Ghana international made an immediate impact for the Crew after linking up with the club on July 30. The 29-year-old made waves throughout the club's run to MLS Cup as he was a constant presence moving forward on the right flank and a reliable defender against some of the league's best players. 

    Afful is expected to be one of, if not the, best full-backs across MLS in 2016. He will get two chances to prove that early in the season as the Crew play Portland and FC Dallas in two of their first four matches. 

Wil Trapp, CDM, Columbus Crew

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    We could have selected either of the young defensive midfielders on the Columbus roster for this piece, but we opted for Wil Trapp. 

    The 23-year-old has the potential to have a massive season at both club and international levels with the Olympics potentially on the horizon for the United States. 

    Trapp, who received a taste of the international stage during the USMNT's January camp, has a chance to bolster his stock with the senior team with a strong 2016. 

    If he thrives for the Crew, and potentially in Brazil during the Olympics, Trapp could jump up the USMNT depth chart at defensive midfield with the aging Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman on the way out.

Andrew Dykstra, GK, D.C. United

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    Replacing D.C. United's best player and the No. 3 goalkeeper on the USMNT depth chart will not be an easy task, but Andrew Dykstra will have to rise to the occasion in order to get D.C. off to a fast start. 

    The 30-year-old netminder has played more than 10 games once in his career. He featured for the Chicago Fire 17 times in 2010. 

    Dykstra has only played in 13 games over the last two seasons, but he does enter 2016 with some familiarity with the D.C. back four thanks to his time in training throughout the preseason. 

    Dykstra may not save as many games with terrific denials like Hamid has in the past, but he should be able to provide a steady hand in net while the United States international recovers from a leg injury.

Luciano Acosta, FW, D.C. United

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    There will finally be some flair in the D.C. United attack this season thanks to the addition of Luciano Acosta. 

    The 21-year-old, who was signed on loan from Boca Juniors in February, is expected to bring a surge of goals to the lineup next to veteran Fabian Espindola. 

    "Luciano is a dynamic creative midfielder who has solid experience the past two seasons in the top Argentine league, and we look forward to quickly integrating him into our group," D.C. United general manager and vice president of soccer operations Dave Kasper said in a club release

    With four forwards over the age of 30 on the D.C. roster, expect manager Ben Olsen to use Acosta in the starting lineup more as he tries to maximize the potential of his older players off the bench.

Steve Birnbaum, CB, D.C. United

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    Steve Birnbaum could have easily flown under the radar to start 2016, but after his performances for the USMNT in the first two friendlies of the year, all eyes will be on the third-year center-back. 

    Birnbaum, who has played in 22 games in each of his first two seasons in MLS, scored a late winner for the Yanks against Iceland before playing well against Canada. 

    With an improved Birnbaum in the middle of the back four, the Black and Red will look to better their mark of 45 goals conceded from 2015. That total was the third-best in the Eastern Conference. 

    If Birnbaum helps D.C. achieve the best defensive record in the East over the next nine months, he could end up being a fixture on the USMNT roster. 

Matt Hedges, CB, FC Dallas

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    While we're on the topic of young American center-backs, let's talk about one who should already be on the roster but somehow isn't. 

    FC Dallas' Matt Hedges turned in the best season of his career to date in 2015 as Oscar Pareja's side captured first place in the Western Conference and let in just 39 goals. 

    Despite being named to the MLS Best XI and earning a finalist nod for Defender of the Year, Hedges didn't get an invite to the annual USMNT January camp. 

    The only way Hedges can force himself on to a USMNT roster is by extending his solid form into 2016. With a solid core around him in Texas, we expect the 25-year-old to do so.

Carlos Gruezo, AM, FC Dallas

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    As if you needed another reason to watch FC Dallas in 2016, we're here to bring you one in the form of Carlos Gruezo. 

    The 20-year-old dynamic midfielder joined FC Dallas from Stuttgart in January and is expected to be an immediate contributor to the youthful squad that already boasts Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz. 

    "His versatility will give us the opportunity to play a variety of formations, but most important for me is to see a player who, despite his age, has been at the highest level of international competition and has played at different positions," FC Dallas boss Oscar Pareja said, per MLSSoccer.com.

    The Ecuador international is the type of player every MLS club should be targeting. He is a young prospect with plenty of upside, and he is from South America, a part of the world from where MLS has had plenty of success signing players.

    Gruezo may not record high numbers in goals and assists because of the talented players around him, but expect him to be a difference maker right away in the FC Dallas attack.

Maxi Urruti, FW, FC Dallas

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    There's no doubt FC Dallas has a roster loaded with playmakers, but the one weak spot on the depth chart is forward. 

    Now that Blas Perez has left the club and joined the Vancouver Whitecaps, the pressure is on a few players like Maxi Urruti to finish off the dynamic moves set up by Gruezo, Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz. 

    By joining the defending Western Conference regular-season champions, Urruti receives a new breath of life after being squeezed out of the starting 11 in Portland last season. 

    Urruti, who scored on 10 occasions in 2014 for the Timbers, is capable of being the top scorer on a team, but he needs consistent playing time to become that player again.

Cristian Maidana, AM, Houston Dynamo

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    One of the first moves of the offseason saw Cristian Maidana move to the Houston Dynamo from the Philadelphia Union. 

    Maidana tied for the league lead in assists in 2015 with Sebastian Giovinco, but he was not going to be a good fit in Philadelphia's new style of play under sporting director Earnie Stewart. 

    The 29-year-old creative midfielder, who had 26 assists in two seasons with the Union, has a chance to record his third consecutive 10-assist campaign with Giles Barnes and Will Bruin playing in front of him in Houston. 

    If Maidana continues to influence his team's play in the final third, Houston has a chance of competing for one of the six playoff positions in the Western Conference. 

Erick 'Cubo' Torres, FW, Houston Dynamo

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    When he signed with the Houston Dynamo at the start of 2015, Erick "Cubo" Torres was lauded as one of the top acquisitions of the offseason.

    However, the Mexico international only appeared in 11 matches, three of which were as a starter after joining the club from Chivas de Guadalajara. 

    Everyone across the league knows what the forward is capable of from his time at Chivas USA, but he didn't live up to his potential in 2015. 

    Now with an Olympic roster spot up for grabs, Torres must get off to a fast start in 2016 to retain his spot on Mexico's crowded forward depth chart. If not, he could lose his position to other rising stars playing in Liga MX.

Emmanuel Boateng, FW, LA Galaxy

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    The LA Galaxy made plenty of offseason acquisitions that turned heads, but the one that flew under the radar could reap the most rewards. 

    Emmanuel Boateng already took over the starting spot on the left wing from Sebastian Lletget in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final with Santos Laguna, and he is poised to make a large impact on the field throughout his debut season in MLS. 

    The 22-year-old Ghanian, who was brought in from Helsingborgs in Sweden, will add an extra punch to the Galaxy attack that is headlined by Robbie Keane, Giovani Dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes. 

    In addition to providing the other forwards in the lineup with quality service, Boateng should also push the development of Lletget as the two fight for playing time.

Ashley Cole, LB, LA Galaxy

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    It's natural to select Ashley Cole as a player to watch because of his name, but we're more interested in him due to his lack of first-team action in the last 12 months. 

    Cole comes to the LA Galaxy after spending the majority of his time at Roma on the bench. The extended break could help the legs of the 35-year-old or it could throw him completely out of his rhythm. 

    The former Arsenal and Chelsea player will go through an adjustment process in MLS, just like Steven Gerrard did in 2015. We won't be able to judge Cole's impact on the Galaxy until a few months into the regular season, but by the time summer begins, we should have a good gauge on how Cole will perform in MLS. 

A.J. DeLaGarza, RB, LA Galaxy

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    The Galaxy have always taken advantage of A.J. DeLaGarza's versatility, but they will do so even more in 2016 with the players they have on the roster. 

    DeLaGarza will line up at center-back next to Jelle Van Damme on occasion as well as left-back or right-back depending on the fitness of Cole and Robbie Rogers. 

    There is even the possibility of DeLaGarza shifting up the wing for a game or two if LA manager Bruce Arena wants to field a more defensive starting 11. 

    Regardless of what position he plays in 2016, the Guam international will hand the Galaxy quality minutes at a few different spots on the pitch, which is something not every club can brag about during the arduous MLS regular season. 

Harry Shipp, AM, Montreal Impact

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    Harry Shipp was already going to be one of the top players to watch in MLS this season before he was traded to the Montreal Impact by his hometown club Chicago. 

    The 24-year-old winger enters his first season with the Impact with a massive chip on his shoulder to prove the Fire wrong for shipping him off to Quebec. 

    The third-year midfielder, who played a role in 24 regular-season goals in his first two seasons, should experience an uptick in assists with Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti alongside him. He could also increase his career goal total by a good amount if he takes advantage of the lack of forward depth and cuts in from the wing to score occasionally.

Eric Alexander, AM, Montreal Impact

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    Eric Alexander was poised to have a big first season in Montreal before he suffered an injury in June that stopped his 2015 campaign in its tracks. 

    Now that the 29-year-old midfielder is healthy, he should be able to provide the Impact with an experienced hand across the pitch from Shipp in attack. 

    If Alexander gets a full season under his belt, we will finally be able to judge the trade Montreal made with the New York Red Bulls last offseason that sent Felipe in the opposite direction. Felipe was one of the top midfielders in the league in 2015 under former boss Jesse Marsch. If the Impact receives solid production from Alexander in 2016, it will go down as an even swap. 

Scott Caldwell, CDM, New England Revolution

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    With Jermaine Jones officially out of the picture in New England, it is time for Scott Caldwell to become the leader in midfield.

    During Jones' time at the club, Caldwell held down the space in front of the back four while the United States international meandered around the pitch in search of the ball. 

    Instead of worrying about covering for his defensive midfield partner for long stretches of a match, Caldwell can now focus on dictating the pace of the game through possession and distributing key passes into the final third. 

    Caldwell will also be able to form a new productive partnership in midfield with former Vancouver man Gershon Koffie, who was acquired as cover at the position in February. 

Kelyn Rowe, AM, New England Revolution

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    The Revolution have plenty of young talent in attack with Juan Agudelo, Teal Bunbury and Diego Fagundez, but the player who could be set for the biggest breakout season in New England is Kelyn Rowe.

    The 24-year-old has been a consistent performer in the final third in his four seasons with the Revs, but he hasn't put up mind-blowing numbers. 

    That could all change for Rowe after tying his career high in goals in 2015. Rowe will benefit from the creativity in attack provided by Lee Nguyen and the trio mentioned above, and he won't be the player opposing defenses set their game plan around. 

    With the eyes off him to start the season, Rowe has an opportunity to thrive in attack and push New England toward a successful 2016.

Kwadwo Poku, CM, New York City FC

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    It's only a matter of time before Kwadwo Poku becomes a household name across North America.

    That may have already happened if Jason Kreis handed Poku more starts during New York City FC's inaugural season.

    Now that Patrick Vieira is in charge of the club, Poku should receive more regular appearances in midfield. When he did play for substantial periods of time in 2015, the 24-year-old wreaked havoc against some of the best defenses in MLS. 

    If that form carries into 2016, Poku will turn from NYCFC cult hero into one of the league's true impact players. 

Mix Diskerud, CM, New York City FC

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    We spent the entire 2015 season trying to figure the good Mix Diskerud did on the pitch for NYCFC. After looking back at his first year in MLS, it has to go down as a massive disappointment for the USMNT midfielder.

    Diskerud was overshadowed by Frank Lampard and the emergence of Poku off the bench. In the games he started, Diskerud failed to carve out a specific role for himself in the NYCFC lineup. 

    Due to his lack of success, Diskerud dropped down the USMNT midfield depth chart, and if he doesn't turn things around in 2016, he is in danger of falling out of the national team picture for good. 

    If Diskerud finds a role in Vieira's system and succeeds, he has a chance of making the USMNT squad for the Copa America Centenario. 

Ronald Matarrita, LB, New York City FC

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    If NYCFC wants to contend for a playoff position in 2016, its defense must improve tenfold from its expansion campaign. 

    The good news for fans of the club is NYCFC addressed its defensive deficiencies in the transfer market during the offseason. One of the players who will don sky blue for the first time in 2016 is left-back Ronald Matarrita. 

    The 21-year-old Costa Rican, who has already made his debut for the Ticos, is taking a big step up from Alajuelense, but based off the recent success of his fellow Costa Ricans in MLS, he will have no problem adjusting to the intricacies of the league. 

    "In Matarrita, we are getting a young, motivated and versatile player at the perfect stage of his career," NYCFC technical director Claudio Reyna said in a club release. "He has already broken through as an international and can help strengthen our squad immediately and at only 21, we know he will develop into an even more important player in the future."

Gideon Baah, CB, New York Red Bulls

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    Across the river from NYCFC in Harrison, New Jersey, the New York Red Bulls are looking to win their third Supporters' Shield in four seasons with a new center-back in the fold. 

    Ghanian center-back Gideon Baah will be tasked with replacing USMNT U20 international Matt Miazga, who signed with Chelsea during the January transfer window. 

    Miazga was a vital part of the Red Bulls defense in 2015, and his presence will certainly be missed, but Baah could help ease the grieving process if he performs well from the start for Jesse Marsch's side. 

    Baah's adjustment process to the league could be made easier by the experience of 30-year-old Ronald Zubar next to him at center-back before Damien Perrinelle returns from injury. We expect some growing pains early in the regular season, but Baah should be fine by the time the meaningful matches roll around. 

Chris Duvall, RB, New York Red Bulls

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    Before he suffered a season-ending injury in 2015, Chris Duvall was in the process of putting together his best season in MLS to date for the Red Bulls. 

    With the 24-year-old American back healthy, the Red Bulls could boast the best pair of full-backs in the league at some point this season. Left-back Kemar Lawrence had a breakout 2015 season and is expected to raise his level of play further in 2016. 

    Duvall is also a part of a growing young core at the club. Instead of spending a ton of money on big-name players in the offseason, the Red Bulls invested heavily in their youth prospects. 

    If Duvall remains healthy in 2016, and for years to come, he will become a vital part of the core the Red Bulls build around. 

Anatole Abang, FW, New York Red Bulls

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    Since the Red Bulls decided to invest heavily in youth this offseason, expect to see some of the established young players earn more playing time in 2016. 

    The perfect example of that is Anatole Abang, who at just 19 is set to be a solid contributor off the bench as either a replacement for Bradley Wright-Phillips or a second forward to play off the Englishman.

    In limited action last season, the Cameroonian netted four goals in the regular season and one in the postseason. If his production increases along with his playing time, he could earn more starts next to, or in relief, of the team's top scorer as his development continues. 

Rafael Ramos, RB, Orlando City

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    Few players experienced more growing pains than Rafael Ramos did in 2015. The Orlando City right-back displayed plenty of potential, but he was a bit too aggressive with his challenges.

    There is no doubt the 21-year-old has the talent to thrive on the defensive flank in MLS, but he must cut down on his reckless tackles that led to five yellow cards and two red cards in 2015. 

    If he controls himself defensively and chooses his moments wisely moving forward, Ramos can take a big step forward in his development in Orlando City's second season in MLS.

Cyle Larin, FW, Orlando City

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    Cyle Larin lived up to the title of No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft and then some in his rookie season as he bagged 17 goals for expansion side Orlando City.

    The Canada international enters 2016 as a known commodity opposing defenses will look to mark out of games more than playmaker Kaka due to the lack of depth behind him at forward. 

    In order to avoid a sophomore slump, Larin needs to add more qualities to his game, including distribution of the ball from the forward position. If the 20-year-old, who recorded zero assists in 2015, finds a way to be more than just a scorer, the Lions will be set for the postseason.

Cristian Higuita, CM, Orlando City

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    Orlando City may have too many central midfielders to select from entering 2016, and that was before the club signed Antonio Nocerino from AC Milan. 

    Cristian Higuita is one of two players who will challenge Nocerino for a role in the middle of the park behind Kaka in the defensive midfield role of Adrian Heath's setup. 

    The 22-year-old Colombian, who has been called up to the Colombia U23 squad, has the potential to break out on an international stage if Colombia qualify for the Olympics by way of a playoff win over the United States. 

    If Higuita beats out Darwin Ceren for a starting spot in Orlando and thrives for Colombia, he could easily leave MLS for greener pastures after the 2016 season.

Tranquillo Barnetta, CM, Philadelphia Union

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    In order for the new era of the Philadelphia Union to start off as a success, Tranquillo Barnetta must have a major influence on the club's attack. 

    Barnetta was allowed to ease into the attack after he joined the club in July, but now that Maidana is in Houston, he must be one of the club's top providers in the final third. 

    The Swiss international has plenty of players around him who are capable of creating, but as the player in the middle of the 4-2-3-1 formation, he will garner the majority of the attention from opposing defenses and carry the most responsibility. 

    Barnetta does not have to record 15 assists like Maidana did in 2015, but a total close to 10 would be preferable in the lineup he will play in.

C.J. Sapong, FW, Philadelphia Union

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    New Philadelphia sporting director Earnie Stewart made it a priority to improve his club's depth in the offseason, but he only did that to an extent at forward. 

    C.J. Sapong will start up top for the Union in 2016, but he doesn't have much experience behind him on the depth chart since rookie Fabian Herbers is his backup. 

    Sapong will face more pressure from opposing defenses, just like Barnetta, but the players are there in the Philadelphia attack to open up the back four and provide Sapong with opportunities in front of the net. 

    If all goes well for the 27-year-old, he will reach double digits in the goal column for the first time in his career. 

Lucas Melano, FW, Portland Timbers

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    No player was as frustrating to watch in 2015 than Portland forward Lucas Melano. 

    To be fair to the 22-year-old, he was still getting used to the league after joining the Timbers from Lanus in July. Now that he has a full offseason under his belt, Melano is expected to see the uptick in production many midseason signings experience during their first full MLS season. 

    In order for the Timbers to repeat as MLS Cup champions, Melano must convert on more of his chances in front of goal to take the pressure off Fanendo Adi. 

    If he doesn't prove that he is a true scorer, Melano could lose his place in the pecking order to Jack McInerney or Dairon Asprilla.

Alvas Powell, RB, Portland Timbers

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    Alvas Powell was regarded as one of, if not the, top full-backs in MLS during the 2015 season. 

    The Jamaican defender will have to fight harder for that title in 2016 as players like Harrison Afful and Kemar Lawrence continue to make a mark on their respective teams in the Eastern Conference. 

    With three of the four starting defenders from the title-winning squad in 2015 returning for this season, Powell should be able to stake his claim to that title early in the regular season as the Timbers look to get off to a fast start in the treacherous Western Conference. 

Yura Movsisyan, FW, Real Salt Lake

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    After a tumultuous 2015 campaign that saw Real Salt Lake experience a rare losing season, the club earned plenty of goodwill among the fan base when they brought back Yura Movsisyan to lead the attack.

    During his first stint with the Claret and Cobalt, Movsisyan scored 15 goals before departing for Randers in Denmark. He then moved on to Krasnodar and Spartak Moscow before returning to RSL on loan from Spartak. 

    Movsisyan brings a bullying presence to the position that RSL lacked in 2015 due to injuries and the specific skill sets of the smaller creative strikers on the roster. 

    If he combines well with Javier Morales, Joao Plata and Juan Manuel "Burrito" Martinez, RSL could possess the best attacking quartet in the league and return to the postseason.

Aaron Maund, CB, Real Salt Lake

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    In order to be a contender in the Western Conference, Real Salt Lake must cut down on their 48 goals allowed from 2015. 

    Center-back Aaron Maund will be one of the defenders tasked with improving the play of the back line in front of goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Although Rimando is as reliable as they come in between the pipes, he still needs help from his defense in order to limit the number of spectacular saves he has to make. 

    The 25-year-old will not be asked to be the muscle in defense since he will be playing next to the massive human being who is Jamison Olave, but he does have to perfect the intricacies of defending to be able to hold his own against the dynamic attacks in the Western Conference.

David Bingham, GK, San Jose Earthquakes

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    Few casual observers of MLS were aware of David Bingham's big 2015 due to the lack of attention the San Jose Earthquakes received on a weekly basis. 

    But one man who was watching closely was Jurgen Klinsmann, who called Bingham into the January camp to replace Bill Hamid. Not only did Bingham earn valuable experience in training, he also picked up his first international appearance. 

    In his first full year as a starter, Bingham recorded 105 saves, 13 wins and 12 shutouts in 34 matches for the Earhquakes. If he comes close to matching that production in 2016, the improving Earthquakes will be a surprise contender for one of the top seeds in the Western Conference play-off race.

Fatai Alashe, CDM, San Jose Earthquakes

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    If Larin didn't have a fantastic season in Orlando, you could have made a great argument for Fatai Alashe to win the Rookie of the Year. 

    The runner-up to Larin in the Rookie of the Year voting turned himself into a reliable rock in front of the back four as his rookie season progressed. 

    Alashe and his teammates thrived more when Anibal Godoy arrived after the CONCACAF Gold Cup. If the pair build up more chemistry, San Jose will possess one of the top defensive midfield duos in MLS. 

    If Alashe's success on the pitch continues, he could make a run at the USMNT roster spots that will open up at the position during this cycle of World Cup qualifying.

Jordan Morris, FW, Seattle Sounders

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    Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

    The star phenom of the USMNT is finally in MLS, and he will play a larger role than first expected in his rookie season with the Seattle Sounders. 

    When Jordan Morris inked the largest homegrown player deal in league history, many assumed he was going to ease his way into the Sounders lineup while Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins held down the two starting spots at forward. 

    But now that Martins has departed for China, the Stanford University product will receive more opportunities with the first team right away.

    Although it is hard to set realistic expectations for Morris given all the hype surrounding him, his rookie season will be deemed a success if scores somewhere between seven and 10 goals in his expanded role.

Joevin Jones, LB, Seattle Sounders

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    Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

    Since we haven't preached enough about how valuable effective full-backs are in MLS, we're going to do that as we break down Joevin Jones' impact on the Sounders. 

    The 24-year-old was one of the few bright spots during the Chicago Fire's miserable 2015 campaign, but he didn't stay around in Chicago due to the arrival of Vincent. 

    Instead of being a part of a rebuilding project in Chicago, Jones is expected to start the first match of the season for an MLS Cup contender. 

    With Jones and Tyrone Mears bombing forward in attack, Seattle should be able to overwhelm opposing defenses at certain points of the match. On the defensive side of the pitch, Jones should be able to shut down some of the Western Conference's best wingers and force opponents to play more narrow in attack.

Saad Abdul-Salaam, RB, Sporting Kansas City

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    Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

    The last time we saw Saad Abdul-Salaam, he was watching his penalty kick hit both posts at Providence Park in Sporting Kansas City's playoff defeat to the Timbers.

    Before his memorable miss, Abdul-Salaam impressed in his first season with Sporting Kansas City as he filled in a major gap in the team's lineup at right-back. 

    In his second season with Peter Vermes' side, the 24-year-old will have to fight for a starting spot now that Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic are healthy. 

    Even if he doesn't start in the first match of the season, Abdul-Salaam should see plenty of playing time with a good amount of midweek games mixed into the schedule.

Soni Mustivar, CDM, Sporting Kansas City

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    Gary Rohman/MLS/USA TODAY Sports

    The most valuable player on the Sporting Kansas City roster may be defensive midfielder Soni Mustivar. 

    The 26-year-old led the league in interceptions per game in 2015 and led the club to 15 wins across all competitions in the games he started. 

    Mustivar should play with a more relaxed attitude in 2016 since the depth of the back four has been bolstered and there are more playmakers ahead of him in midfield. 

    All Mustivar has to focus on in 2016 is breaking up counters and becoming a nightmare for opposing attacks when they attempt to build up play in the middle of the field.

Graham Zusi, AM, Sporting Kansas City

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    Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    Graham Zusi comes into 2016 with plenty to prove after he suffered from a drop off in production in 2015. 

    The member of the USMNT's 2014 FIFA World Cup squad contributed two goals and five assists in 25 matches last season. The totals were the lowest he recorded as a starter at the club. 

    The 29-year-old hasn't received an international call-up since the CONCACAF Cup, and he is danger of losing a spot on the depth chart with Fabian Johnson and Alejandro Bedoya in stellar form in Europe. 

    In order for Zusi to make a run at the World Cup qualifying and Copa America Centenario rosters, he must rediscover his form from a few years ago.

Sebastian Giovinco, FW, Toronto FC

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    The one player everyone will be watching in 2016 is Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco.

    The 2015 MLS MVP will look to lead a new-look Toronto side further into the postseason as the expectations grow with him and other stars in the squad. 

    It is hard to predict Giovinco will match his 22 goals and 16 assists from a season ago, but his 2016 totals could rival those numbers if he is forced to become the sole provider of goals if Jozy Altidore hits a rough patch of form. 

    Giovinco should score at least 15 goals and hand out around 10 assists. Anything above that will be considered otherworldly, which could attract European suitors after Euro 2016. Giovinco doesn't seem like a player who would jump at a move back to Europe, but if the right offer comes along, he may not stay in MLS much longer. 

Drew Moor, CB, Toronto FC

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    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

    The biggest deficiency Toronto FC faced during the last few seasons has been the play of the back four. 

    The Reds finally made some moves during the offseason to sure up the defense with a run toward MLS Cup in mind. 

    Drew Moor was one of the experienced veterans brought in to bring some stability to a team that has no problem scoring at will. 

    The former Colorado and FC Dallas man will be asked to help remedy a defense that let in 58 goals in 2015. The goal for the Reds should be between 35 and 40. If that happens, Toronto will finish near the top of the Eastern Conference and make a serious run at a championship.

Jonathan Osorio, CM, Toronto FC

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    At just 23, Jonathan Osorio is 16 games away from recording his 100th appearance for Toronto FC. 

    The play of the Canada international was one of the main factors that led to Michael Bradley's movement further up the pitch in 2015. The same should happen in 2016 as Bradley looks to link up with Altidore and Giovinco as much as possible.

    With Osorio sitting in the holding role in midfield, Bradley doesn't have to worry about tracking back in earnest on the counter. The worries should subside more this season thanks to the addition of Will Johnson. 

    Although the experienced players may receive more attention, Osorio will be the player who keeps the Toronto midfield engine running for most of the year. 

Matias Laba, CDM, Vancouver Whitecaps

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

    A strong argument can be made that Matias Laba is the most underrated player in MLS. 

    The 24-year-old defensive midfielder has been one of the most consistent players in the league since joining the Whitecaps, but he doesn't receive the recognition he deserves because of where he plays. 

    The new campaign will throw a new challenge at Laba as his defensive partner Gershon Koffie was traded to New England in February. 

    Laba will have to adjust a bit to Russell Teibert next to him on a consistent basis, but that shouldn't be a major issue since the two have played together at some points over the last two seasons. If the transition is a seamless one, Vancouver won't skip a beat as it searches for the top spot in the Western Conference.

Octavio Rivero, FW, Vancouver Whitecaps

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

    Octavio Rivero burst on to the scene in 2015 with five goals in his first six matches for the Whitecaps. However, his production dropped off considerably as he only netted five tallies after April 8. 

    Rivero can't afford any dry spells in 2016 with Blas Perez and Masato Kudo challenging him for playing time. Perez is seen as more of a contributor off the bench, but the 34-year-old still has the talent to push Rivero for a starting gig in certain matches. 

    The 24-year-old Uruguayan must take more advantage of the attacking options he works with in the final third. With Kekuta Manneh, Darren Mattocks, Cristian Techera and Pedro Morales providing him with key passes, Rivero shouldn't have trouble creating chances in the final third. Now all he has to do is finish more of them. 

     

    Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

    All statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com

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