Article by Anders Aarhus
Because part of the preseason excitement is getting to see young guys who might not normally receive extended minutes, I’ll focus on one such player for each team. I’ll also detail a player for each team who could play their way into a prominent role with a strong showing in preseason or a player fighting to make the season roster. In addition, I’ll touch on the main storyline for each squad heading into 2013. For more on these teams, check out The MLS Reserves preview for both the Western and Eastern Conferences.
Why so much coverage for a preseason tournament you ask? Because like you I can’t wait for the season to officially start!
Storyline: What will make the Crew two points better?
Spurred by the midseason addition of Designated Player Fernando Higuain, Columbus missed the playoffs by a single point last season. Instead of keeping the roster together and adding one or two pieces, the Crew has undergone a more dramatic change letting players like Milovan Mirosevic, Nemanja Vukovic and Sebastian Miranda leave. The replacement pieces are intriguing, but they’ll have to make up for what was lost and then some for Columbus to return to the postseason.
Player who can earn a job/important role: Chad Barson
The Crew signed Barson and Will Trapp to homegrown deals this offseason, but it’s the former who has the best chance of seeing meaningful playing time this year. Columbus is thin at center back so the minutes are there, but when I asked Massive Report, the Crew’s SB Nation blog, about Barson’s chances of playing a meaningful role, they mentioned how the young defender shows in practice will be a big factor. Robert Warzycha is apparently very practice-oriented so showing he can handle the MLS competition in Orlando is crucial to Barson’s 2013 season.
Young player to watch: Matias Sanchez
At just 25, Sanchez has already played 140 games for two teams in Argentina’s top flight and was part of the Argentina side that won the U-20 World Cup. A holding midfielder, Sanchez isn’t going to wow you with exciting runs or highlight-reel goals, but he fills the void in midfield left my Mirosevic’s departure.
Storyline: Can Kevin Payne break the cycle?
After missing the playoffs again last season, Toronto went through yet another staff changeover. Payne, the architect of the DC United dynasties of the ‘90s, is the latest to try and get the franchise on the right track. So far, Payne has made smart moves, drafting two Canadian players (Kyle Bekker and Emory Welshman) while stockpiling allocation money and clearing cap space. But going from being the worst team in MLS last season to playoffs this season will be no easy task. While there are sure to be more moves made before March 2, Orlando will be a good chance to see how (and if) Payne’s vision is coming together on the field.
Player who can earn a job/important role: Ashton Bennett
The speedy forward from Costal Carolina was a projected SuperDraft pick, but slipped all the way to the second round of the supplemental draft. As noted by Waking the Red, Bennett faces an uphill battle for a roster spot as none of Toronto's supplemental picks last year ended up making the team. Bennett has amazing physical ability and boasts a ridiculous goal-scoring record (39 goals in just 47 games at Costal Carolina), but he’s raw and will be something of a project early in his career. A strong tournament in Orlando will go a long way to securing Bennett’s MLS future.
Young player to watch: Kyle Bekker
Many speculated Toronto drafted Bekker at No. 3 simply because of his Canadian heritage. Truth is, Bekker’s skills are the real deal and he’s already impressed at the international level for Canada. He should have an impact as a rookie this season and his versatility means new coach Ryan Nelson can deploy him anywhere in the midfield. Orlando will be Bekker’s first opportunity to play against MLS talent so watch to see how he performs.
Storyline: Can the Impact build on a solid debut season?
Montreal had a good first season in MLS, but missed the playoffs by 11 points. Much like Columbus, the Impact underwent offseason changes, firing head coach Jesse Marsch and bringing in Marco Schallibaum. With designated player Marco Di Vaio back, Schallibaum will have to show improvement in year two.
Player who can earn a job/important role: Andrew Wenger
Remember him? Wenger was the No. 1 pick in last year’s SuperDraft, but had somewhat of a disappointing rookie season, scoring just four goals despite appearing in 23 games. There are still questions about his best position and with Di Vaio a lock for the lone forward spot, Wenger’s role on the team is unclear. Watch to see where Schallibaum deploys the 23-year-old (either at center back or forward). A good preseason will help endear Wenger to his new coach.
Young player to watch: Felipe Martins
Martins was arguably the best kept secret in MLS last season when he became one of only three players under 23 to register at least 8 assists (he had 10). Felipe was instrumental in Montreal’s attack and should figure to play just as big a role this season. He and Di Vaio developed nice chemistry towards the end of 2012, watch to see if that continues during the preseason.
Sporting Kansas City
Storyline: Who replaces the key pieces?
No team was hit harder by the offseason talent drain than Sporting. Midfield engine Roger Espinoza signed with English Premier League side Wigan and leading scorer Kei Kamara followed with a loan move to Norwich City. MLS assist leader Graham Zusi returns, but head coach Peter Vermes will have to figure out how to replace the holes around him.
Player who can earn a job/important role: Oriol Rosell
With both Espinoza and veteran Juilo Cesar gone, there is a void at defensive midfield and it seems like the door is open for Rosell to step up and seize the spot as his own. The former Barcelona youth product showed flashes of his talent last year, but SKC will ask much more of him this season. Rosell needs to show consistency in Orlando to prove he is the answer.
Young player to watch: Mikey Lopez
Lopez was a Generation Adidas signing who fell into Sporting’s lap at No. 14. The former North Carolina Tar Heel may not be in contention for a starting spot, but with SKC set to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League this season, there will be plenty of chances for Lopez to earn minutes and make an impact.
Storyline: Is Philly’s young talent ready to take the next step?
The Union had one of the youngest rosters in MLS last season and it showed at times. With players like Michael Farfan, Antoine Hoppenot and Jack McInerney the talent is there, but it will up to manager John Hackworth to make sure his young core matures and progresses in 2013.
Player who can earn a job/important role: Roger Torres
Although something of a fan favorite in Philly, Torres struggled for minutes last season after appearing in 46 games over his first two years with the club. Still just 21, there’s plenty of time for Torres to become an important member of the Union and preseason reports have him determined and in better shape. He can state his case for minutes with a strong showing in this tournament.
Young player to watch: Michael Farfan
MLS fans know what this guy can do, but that doesn’t make him any less exciting. Farfan’s creativity in the midfield will be critical to Philly’s success this year. If he and McInerney can continue to develop, the rest of the Eastern Conference better watch out.
Storyline: One game short
2013 was a fantastic one for the Black and Red as United returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. After knocking off the New York Red Bulls in the first round, DC fell one game short of the MLS Cup with a loss to Houston in the Eastern Conference Final. This year will be about advancing one game further.
Player who can earn a job/important role: Ethan White
Two seasons ago, White started 21 games after signing a homegrown player contract. A combination of injuries and depth at fullback checked the 22-year-old’s playing time as he failed to appear in any MLS matches and made only six appearances on loan with Richmond Kickers last season. With the departures of Mike Chabala and Emiliano Dudar, White should see the field much more in 2013 and could play his way into a starting spot with a strong preseason.
Young player to watch: Rafael
The young Brazilian seems to figure in prominently to DC’s 2013 plans. Maicon Santos and Long Tan are both gone and United is actively shopping DP forward Hamdi Salihi. That trio accounted for 2,646 minutes and 14 goals so head coach Ben Olsen will be looking to Rafael to help fill some of that void. The 20-year-old has a good combination of size and speed and should be fun to watch this year.