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The general season-to-season roster turnover in MLS holds the door open for younger, growing players, especially those with accommodating contracts. Former SuperDraft picks, Homegrown players, and lower-cost foreign talents have seen their values rise as teams realize their usefulness frees allocation money for use elsewhere.
Coaxing such players into solid contributors is a feature of successful clubs. Atlanta United turned Julian Gressel into an ultra-useful starter and found depth roles for players like Mikey Ambrose and Miles Robinson. FC Dallas saw Reggie Cannon grow into one of the league’s best right backs as he turned 20. Teams like the Red Bulls and pre-collapse Toronto FC had so much depth thanks to young, cheap talent.
Coming into 2019, the league’s best clubs will separate themselves with depth and the possibility of one of those young, cheap talents turning into an above-average starter. We’ve already seen the newly-paid Gressel, Cannon, and Seattle’s Cristian Roldan prove the merits of encountering such profitable assets.
So with that mind, we look at some intriguing younger talents for the 2019 season, and whether they could grow into starting-caliber MLS assets. Some of these choices arguably already are starting-caliber, while others are looking to prove themselves this year.
Joao Moutinho | Orlando City SC
Perhaps a change of scenery will be the best thing for Moutinho, last year’s first overall SuperDraft pick. Getting dealt from LAFC to Orlando in December was not a vote of confidence in his ability to play right now for a contender; LA felt the veteran Mohamed El-Munir, whom they acquired in a straight swap for Moutinho, was the superior depth option.
Orlando felt differently. That makes sense, considering the Lions are in something of a rebuild after springing a massive season-long leak in defense last year, hemorrhaging 74 goals en route to that disastrous last-place finish. They have the time and the willingness to take a shot on a player with a chance to be a solution.
They jettisoned a crew of defenders and now hope to build around center back Lamine Sane. Sane has to be the rock on a backline in transition; Shane O’Neill, Carlos Ascues, and RJ Allen are an uncertain bunch, to put it mildly. They have to get more out of Sane, who did not impress in an injury-marred campaign.
Moutinho was touted as a refined ball-mover and positional tweener coming out of Akron. One pre-draft observer noted his high soccer IQ and described him as “very alert” on the field, with the best left foot in his class. He remains raw on the defensive end and has the long-term ability to fill spots in the midfield as needed. But the rawness prevailed in his rookie season.
His slight frame — just 157 pounds despite being 6-foot — was a disadvantage. Bigger, stronger attackers bullied him physically and shorter wingers ducked underneath him. He struggled facing attackers one-v-one; whatever inherent agility and athleticism he possesses is offset as other players’ leverage superior physicality.
Opposing attackers can approach him with the knowledge that Moutinho won’t muscle anyone off the ball. He has to develop the ability to do that. Bulk up, and you restrict attackers’ options and counteract your own defensive deficiencies. Moutinho has athleticism, but it won’t show up as a weapon defensively until he fills out.
His ceiling is as a distributing, supporting fullback hitting smart, aggressive passes and shaping attacks. He doesn’t overlap as much as give support to teammates up the field. Once he becomes an average defender and erases any liability, he can be a productive asset surrounded by other smart, quick-thinking passers.
Per American Soccer Analysis, the average vertical distance of his completed passes is 2.6 yards, an above-average figure compared to other MLS fullbacks. He’s an aggressive, line-splitting passer, though his efficiency could be improved — his passing score and per100 figures (measures of a player’s passes completed compared to expected) are dramatically lower than those of his fellow LAFC fullbacks.
He gets on the ball a lot, with an 11.2-percent touch percentage, a number in the upper percentile of MLS fullbacks in 2018. His development on the ball will be fascinating for an ambiguous Orlando team. It’s hard to predict how James O’Connor will set his team up stylistically.
A 3-5-2 formation looks possible, given O’Connor’s history and tendencies at times in his half-season as manager. Putting Moutinho at wing-back would allow him the freedom to push forward with the guarantee of defensive support, but it would be a big role for an inexperienced, defensively lacking left back. Tasking him with third center back duties would be a defensive risk.
O’Connor has to be willing to possess the ball at least somewhat. Moutinho isn’t built to sit deeper off the ball. Pressing — and thus putting him in space often — would be a risk as well, though he has shown to be relatively effective tracking back in such situations:
Joao Moutinho's need to bulk up physically has been well documented, but he's been able to defend in space fairly well pic.twitter.com/DjIQfTgfaz— Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21) January 6, 2019
There isn’t yet an easy answer. But Orlando have the luxury of experimentation. No one really knows what they’re going to do this season. Moutinho should have the opportunity, at least, to show what he can do in different situations.
Jonathan Lewis | NYCFC
After two years trying to find his way into the good graces of managers Patrick Vieira and Dome Torrent, Lewis will play with the USMNT this January after a surprise call-up from Gregg Berhalter. It’s a big chance for the Akron product, who has shown enticing potential in small MLS minutes.
Lewis is a sprightly winger, willing to run fast and get straight at goal. In a tiny 296-minute sample size, he produced 0.78 xG+xA per 96, a figure in the ranges of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Carlos Vela. He dribbles the ball with speed, but with enough control to dodge defenders and get the ball into advantageous positions.
Of course, 561 minutes in two years (mostly as a substitute) is remarkably low for a clearly productive player. If Torrent doesn’t give him something approaching starting minutes in 2019, he should become a commodity on the trade market, with scoring wingers always in demand.
But NYC would be missing an opportunity by not trusting him with significant playing time, or at least giving him a more legitimate chance. Lewis fits in an attacking rotation that went cold too often last year, especially with Torrent having to replace David Villa. Without a shape-shifting presence like Villa, Lewis can draw and take space, plus add a threat immediately when they get the ball — his skillset is perfect for when teams are out their shape.
Expect Jo-Inge Berget and Maxi Moralez (as a false nine) to compete for time up top, barring a new signing. It’s hard to see the trio of Jesus Medina, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, and Valentin Castillos keeping Lewis down on the depth chart again, but Torrent hasn’t trusted Lewis yet and may prefer other options. Lewis’s trade market could get interesting.
Pablo Aranguiz | FC Dallas
FC Dallas want Aranguiz, the 21-year-old Chilean, to be the long-term Mauro Diaz replacement. Diaz’s Magic Unicorn shoes (or hooves, if you prefer) haven’t quite been filled yet, at least judging by Oscar Pareja’s interpretation of things; Aranguiz played just 282 minutes after arriving in late July, and didn’t make the 18 for FCD’s knockout round loss to Portland.
In three starts and nine appearances, Aranguiz didn’t register a goal or assist. He sometimes drifted out of games, and his playing time gradually diminished.
This year — with Pareja off to Mexico and former FCD academy director Luchi Gonzalez becoming manager — could determine Aranguiz’s long-term place. He faces newfound competition with Gonzalez’s emphasis on integrating young, Homegrown talents like Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira.
Gathering takeaways from 282 minutes is difficult. But Aranguiz looks to have the bonafides of legitimate starting MLS No. 10, with a high off-ball work rate (like Nicolas Lodeiro) and on-ball aggressiveness and vision. He takes his space when he has it, and when he doesn’t, he has the vision to play quickly.
His ability to understand how his movement affects other players is his most impressive talent. When he dribbles forward, it’s always with the intention of drawing players towards him to then be able to find a productive pass:
This kind of stuff is why I own a ton of Pablo Aranguiz stock. Hopefully we get a lot more of this in 2019 pic.twitter.com/tg2dz5CdHA— Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21) January 5, 2019
And when defenders back off, he maneuvers through the gap and takes his scoring chance:
Another reason: He has the skill and balance to slither through every gap pic.twitter.com/P5bMZc4pWG— Harrison Hamm (@harrisonhamm21) January 6, 2019
Lionel Messi makes his magic doing this stuff. Diaz was the MLS version of Messi. Aranguiz has shown the skills and IQ to do similar Magic Unicorn things.
Harrison Hamm is a sportswriter who covers American soccer and MLS for FloFC. He also covers sports for FanSided and The Comeback, and has freelanced for the Washington Post.