5 Youngsters Who Will Make Their Mark in MLS in 2016
It's never too early to start thinking about a new season, especially with the quick turnaround between seasons in Major League Soccer.
The 2015 campaign saw young players like Cyle Larin, Matt Polster, Kellyn Acosta and Matt Miazga burst onto the scene as potential rocks for their respective franchises for years to come.
There are plenty of stars like the quartet mentioned above that are set to break out in 2016. We have selected five players currently 23 and under that are expected to leave a mark on the league as a whole over the next 12 months.
We approached this list with one caveat, current college underclassmen Jordan Morris and Joshua Yaro were not considered because their respective futures are still hanging in the balance.
With that being said, we decided to look at five players currently on MLS rosters who should be set for a stellar season when the calendar flips to 2016.
Jesse Gonzalez, GK, FC Dallas
FC Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez made waves near the end of the 2015 season as he took over as the starter during the club's postseason run.
Although he only featured in 11 matches starting on August 22, we saw enough out of the 20-year-old to declare he is going to become a star in the league sooner rather than later.
Oscar Pareja and the FC Dallas front office must feel the same way as they shipped veteran netminder Dan Kennedy to the LA Galaxy for a second- and third-round pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. In MLS terms, FC Dallas basically got nothing in return for a proven player at the position.
Gonzalez won't be the only young player that will shine in Pareja's starting 11 in 2016, but he may have one of the highest profiles if he performs well in net.
If his hot form from the back end of 2015 extends into 2016, Gonzalez could be set for a breakout performance at the Olympics for Mexico's under-23 squad as well.
Cristian Roldan, CM, Seattle Sounders
All the focus on the Seattle Sounders and youth players right now surrounds the Jordan Morris saga, but another young star already on the roster could play a more vital role in 2016.
The Sounders were gifted a present during the 2015 MLS SuperDraft when Cristian Roldan fell to them at the No. 16 overall pick. With veterans like Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda in the starting lineup, Roldan was allowed to ease his way into the first team during his rookie season.
However, the midfield stars in the Sounders lineup are not getting any younger. Alonso, Brad Evans, Erik Friberg and Andreas Ivanschitz are all over 29, which means Seattle boss Sigi Schmid has to develop young talent to eventually fill their roles.
Roldan seems like an easy answer to Schmid's conundrum if he excels early in the 2016 season. We could get a look at the 20-year-old in midfield as early as February, when Seattle faces Club America in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
If he doesn't see time then, expect Schmid to bring Roldan into the rotation early in the league calendar in order to not overwork the experienced players.
Rafael Ramos, RB, Orlando City
To say Rafael Ramos went through some growing pains in 2015 is a bit of an understatement. The Portuguese full back was solid most of the time for Orlando City, but he became too much of a disciplinary liability toward the end of the year.
With more maturity under his belt in 2016, we are expecting the 21-year-old to be an integral part of the back four manager Adrian Heath trots out to the pitch.
Ramos displayed spurts of his talent throughout the Lions' inaugural season in MLS, but they were overshadowed by his controversial moments that happened too often for Orlando's liking.
If he channels his anger and keeps his cool in 2016, Ramos has the potential to turn into one of the best young full backs in the league. The Portuguese youngster was rarely subbed out in 2015, and he provided the Lions with a nice overlapping threat on the right wing on plenty of occasions.
If Ramos puts it all together in his second year in MLS, he could end the season with a good amount of assists with Cyle Larin and Kaka lurking in the box waiting to connect with his crosses.
Jonathan Osorio, CM, Toronto FC
It seems a bit unfair to include Jonathan Osorio on this list given his career so far at Toronto FC, but he hasn't really broken out on a league-wide stage.
Osorio was a prominent member of the Toronto starting 11, but his performances were overshadowed by the superstars playing for the Reds.
The 23-year-old certainly benefited from the presence of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore in 2015, but he could be the true star of the Reds in 2016 if they want to hoist the MLS Cup next December.
Not only will Osorio be a vital part of his club team's midfield, he should also shine for Canada in the quest for a spot in the hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
While most MLS fans are aware of Osorio, 2016 should be the season where even the casual fan remembers his name despite the big stars in the Toronto squad.
Tommy Thompson, CM, San Jose Earthquakes
When Tommy Thompson shone during the end of the 2014 regular season for the San Jose Earthquakes, many around the league were sure 2015 would be his breakout season, but that was not the case.
Thompson struggled to find playing time in Dominic Kinnear's system as the new San Jose boss tried to find an identity by using different formations and tweaks to the starting 11.
Now that Kinnear has had a year to mold his squad and solidify the areas behind the final third, he should hand Thompson more playing time in 2016.
Just like some of the other young players on this list, the 20-year-old Indiana University product could benefit mightily from the presence of a veteran in Chris Wondolowski. However, Thompson will face stiff competition for playing time.
The best place to put Thompson may be up top since the middle of the pitch is expected to be crowded with a plethora of central midfielders.
If Thompson can crack the starting 11 in preseason against some of the other key young stars in the San Jose squad, we will get a chance to see his playmaking skills week in and week out.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.