The Biggest Breakout Stars in Major League Soccer This Year

  • Bradley Wright-Phillips

    New York Red Bulls, striker

    2014 has been an absolute goal-scoring eruption for Bradley Wright-Phillips, the English-born younger brother of former Manchester City man Shaun Wright-Phillips. After joining the Red Bulls late in the 2013 season—making seven appearances and scoring just one goal—the striker has emerged as the preeminent goal-scorer in MLS. In 29 games (26 starts) thus far, he has scored an astonishing 24 goals, and has three games remaining to tie (or beat) the all-time single-season scoring record of 27. His breathtaking strike in the All-Star Game against Bayern Munich was a perfect example of how everything has gone right in 2014 for this talented goal scorer.

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  • Erick Torres

    Chivas USA, striker

    Chivas USA may be about to close up shop for at least two years, and they may have the lowest attendance and second-fewest points of the 19 MLS teams, but none of that has anything to do with Erick Torres. The Mexican-born striker has been a force up top for the Goats this season, scoring 15 of the team’s 26 goals. Torres technically belongs to Liga MX superpower Chivas Guadalajara, and is a rising star on the international scene as well; he recently earned his first call-up for the senior Mexico national team for their friendlies against Bolivia and Chile, and was lavished with praise by coach Miguel Herrera following his full 90-minute debut against the Bolivians.

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  • Lee Nguyen

    New England Revolution, midfielder

    While Lee Nguyen has been an absolute workhorse in the New England Revolution midfield for all three of his professional seasons, in 2014 he has added goal-scoring punch to his repertoire and is a strong candidate for the MLS MVP. While he likely won’t win the award, that he’s even being discussed shows how far the attacking midfielder has come. Nguyen’s 14 goals (including a league-leading seven game-winners) have helped the resurgent Revolution position themselves for a potential No. 1 playoff seed, and are the most for a New England player since Taylor Twellman had 16 in 2007. He’s even gotten himself into the mix for national team consideration, and may have earned a call-up for the Ecuador friendly had his team not been in the playoff mix.

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  • Dom Dwyer

    Sporting Kansas City, striker

    It was over a month ago that Dwyer bagged his 19th goal of the year, setting a record for Sporting Kansas City and breaking Preki’s single-season record that had stood since 1996. Part of Dwyer’s mystique is his testy personality on the field, which has led him to register six yellow cards and commit 59 fouls, get into a Twitter battle with Nick Rimando, and take a selfie as a goal celebration. At just 24 years old and having scored 20 goals so far this year, Dwyer has asserted himself as a striker to watch going forward on the international level. He has applied for U.S. citizenship, and is on track to be eligible for the national team just in time for qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

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  • Gyasi Zardes

    Los Angeles Galaxy, forward/winger

    Gyasi Zardes’ rookie campaign was a quiet one. Playing behind more established stars with the Galaxy, he netted just four goals in 27 regular season appearances in 2013. Something has clicked in 2014, however, and the 23-year-old has scored 16 times in 29 games so far this season. While he has yet to make it to a U.S. National Team camp, that shouldn’t last long; once the Galaxy’s season ends, coach Jurgen Klinsmann will undoubtedly want to take a close look at a man who is the leading American scorer in MLS this year. Zardes has at least one strong advocate in his teammate—and U.S. national team legend—Landon Donovan.

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  • Steve Birnbaum
    Steve Birnbaum

    DC United, defender

    The contributions of defenders don’t always show up in the stats, but what rookie Steve Birnbaum has accomplished in the back this season for DC United cannot be ignored. The No. 2 overall pick in last year’s MLS SuperDraft, the centerback out of Cal sat on the bench for much of the first part of the season until starter Jeff Parke injured his foot in early June. He’s been dominant in the air ever since, winning 66 of his 91 aerial challenges since he became a starter, the fourth-best mark in the league. Birnbaum has been a major factor in DC United’s resurgence, transforming a disorganized defense that conceded 59 goals in 2013 (second-worst in MLS) into the second-best unit in MLS (34 allowed this season).

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  • Joao Plata

    Real Salt Lake, striker

    Just because you can’t see Joao Plata, doesn’t mean he isn’t there. The 5-2 Ecuadorian dynamo has been a force since assuming a regular role for Real Salt Lake this year, leading the team in scoring and recently prompting one of his teammates to tell the media that “he’s our best player.” At this stage, it would be hard to argue that point; despite being just 22 years old, Plata is in his fourth MLS season and has shown remarkable poise in getting his shots on target. Plata has hit the frame on 31 of his 50 shot attempts this season—a staggering 62 percent that none of his teammates are even close to matching—and will likely be featured in Ecuador’s October 10 friendly against the United States.

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  • Bradley Wright-Phillips
  • Erick Torres
  • Lee Nguyen
  • Dom Dwyer
  • Gyasi Zardes
  • Steve Birnbaum
  • Joao Plata

Like anything else in life, sports have a way of masking the transition of time until, suddenly, you look up and it’s been five years, eight years, maybe even 12 years, and everything is totally different. It’s difficult watching Tracy McGrady struggle in Chinese exhibition games when he should be still good enough to make an NBA roster. It’s hard seeing Tom Brady get criticized by everyone, from his fans to his coaches. The passage of time goes the same way for soccer fans.

Still, the 2014 MLS season has been an especially intriguing transitional year for the league. An icon (no, not that kind, only Landon Donovan) has already announced his retirement, and another (Thierry Henry) may well be on his way out of the league too. (Doesn’t that make you feel old?) While traditional goal scoring machines like Robbie Keane and Obafemi Martins have kept themselves at or near the top of the individual tables, a new guard is beginning to make itself known as well, riding the wave of momentum that what this summer’s World Cup.

Some of these players are really young and some are just pretty young, but despite their youth the new stable of stars is beginning to make its presence felt in MLS, a great thing for a league always thirsting for excitement and charismatic young studs. Some have helped vault cellar-dwellers into contention for playoffs spots, others have helped top-of-the-table sides stay right where they want to be, but in either case their impact has been felt across the league in 2014. With the regular season concluding this Sunday, make sure you’re ready for the playoffs to start. Here are The Biggest Breakout Stars in Major League Soccer This Year.

Follow Doug on Twitter at @dcsibor