The winds of change seem fairly strong as the United States of America gears up for another season of Major League Soccer (MLS). The 25th edition of the competition kicks off on February 29th and is set to exceed the standards set by the previous editions.
This year's league table has additions in both the Eastern and Western Conferences. David Beckham's Inter Miami is set to make its mark on America's soccer history in 2020 in the Eastern Conference, while Nashville will also hope for its first season to be a success in the Western Conference.
Over the past two decades, the MLS has been known across the world as a league that provides opportunities for legends from elite European clubs to thrive in their last few years as players. The primary objective of bringing in experienced and highly skilled players is to ensure that substantial transfer of knowledge took place between the veterans of the sport and the young blood in the country.
The strategy seems to be working fairly well, and a steady improvement in the quality of teams in both Conferences is ample evidence. A significant percentage of goals in the competition seemingly stems from the younger talent and players in their prime, and this bodes well for the health of the league and North American soccer in general.
The Eastern Conference, in particular, has always seen fierce competition among the several formidable teams in the league. New York City FC won the 2019 edition of the Eastern Conference and finished ahead of Atlanta United with a tally of 64 points. The top-scorer charts are set to be filled to the brim with promising talent this season, but three players stood out and made the league their own in 2019.
#3 Kacper Przybylko
In spite of finishing 9 points behind league leaders New York City FC in 2019, Philadelphia Union has plenty of positives to take from a very fruitful season. While most of their players put in considerably consistent performances, it is difficult to overlook former FC Kaiserslautern forward Kacper Przybylko's contributions.
The Polish striker signed for Philadelphia Union in 2018 but was loaned to USL Championship side Bethlehem Steel FC for the remainder of the season. The 26-year-old returned to his parent club for the 2019 MLS season and took the league by storm.
Przybylko scored an impressive 15 goals in 25 starts and showed an innate ability to convert half-chances into goal-scoring opportunities. The striker also proved that he can support teammates quite well, registering 4 assists in the competition.
Philadelphia Union plays their first fixture of the 2020 season against FC Dallas on the 1st of March. With Kacper Przybylko leading their line, the Philadelphia outfit should aim to outdo the exploits that landed them a third-place finish last year.
#2 Heber Araujo dos Santos
The MLS has always been one of the favourite hunting grounds of European legends running the final lap of their careers, and City Football Group's New York City FC is no exception. The likes of Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, and David Villa have lent their services to the club, with the latter exceeding expectations and scoring at will for the club.
New York City's Spanish legend gave the club an average of 20 goals every season before his departure to Japanese club Vissel Kobe towards the end of 2018. The team was always perceived to be dependent on David Villa to add the finishing touch to their fluid passing movements, and NYCFC needed an immediate and effective replacement.
Enter Heber Araujo dos Santos, a 28-year-old striker with Samba flair and a distinct eye for goal. As far as statistics are concerned, the Brazilian forward successfully filled the massive boots of his Spanish predecessor, scoring 15 goals in 22 games as New York City FC went on to dominate the Eastern Conference.
Heber was also at the heart of several defining moments of the club's 2019 season, most notably including a stunning second-half winner against rivals New York Red Bulls in the Hudson River Derby. The Brazilian ability to seize the initiative in crucial phases of the game makes him one of New York City FC's most important assets going into the 2020 season.
#1 Josef Martinez
There exists at least one player in every single league in the world with the ability to blow the opposition away with a barrage of goals. Atlanta United's Josef Martinez is the Major League Soccer's chief plunderer and seems to make things happen on the pitch purely by his presence.
The Venezuelan has been making waves for Atlanta United for over two seasons now, and when you have a striker who can tear apart both defences and record books at will, you certainly have fewer headaches than the rest. Josef Martinez was prolific in the 2019 edition of MLS and his lethal instincts in the final third ensured his status as top-scorer in the Eastern Conference with a stunning 27 goals in 29 games.
Dig a little deeper and you will find that Josef Martinez has been massacring oppositions in the MLS with spectacular regularity. He reached the pinnacle of his career in 2018, winning several prestigious awards including the MLS Cup Final MVP award and the Landon Donovan Most Valuable Player award.
The 26-year-old Venezuelan is no stranger to breaking the odd record, either. In 2018, Martinez scored a stunning 31 goals in a single season and shattered the record books. This statistic was surpassed by Carlos Vela in the 2019 season. The prize for the most hat-tricks in MLS history, however, still stands with Josef Martinez and his 6 stunning performances and is set to remain the status quo for years to come.
Atlanta United was unable to capitalize on their striker's brilliant form in the 2019 edition and finished second to New York City FC in the Eastern Conference. Josef Martinez has age on his side, however, and Atlanta United continues to remain in contention for the title as long as their stalwart fires on all cylinders.