Analysis

Six players who will shape the 2016 MLS season

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

MLS turns 21 this season. Graham Ruthven takes a look at six players who should be the life of the party.

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The 2016 Major League Soccer season is here. The drafts have been drafted, the trades have been traded and North American soccer’s top flight is ready to once again kick into gear.

Which team will lift MLS Cup in December? Here are six players who could decide the upcoming campaign...

Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)

The Atomic Ant is a fairly apt nickname for an Italian dynamo who excelled in carrying an entire franchise almost all on his own last season. Sebastian Giovinco enjoyed arguably the most glittering individual season of any MLS player in history last year, scoring 22 goals and assisting 16 times in just 34 appearances for Toronto FC.

But for all his brilliance - essentially winning games on his own - Giovinco found himself in a side that failed to support his quality, even if the Reds did make it to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Now he needs a team that can match his own capacity, although that might be something of a tall order.

But so much of what Giovinco does depends on who is playing ahead of him, and with Jozy Altidore injured for much of the last campaign, the Italian was somewhat lacking in a sense. It might not be until TFC finds that striker (or Altidore finds full fitness, which he has shown glimpses of to start 2016) that they truly get the best out of Giovinco. And yes, a better Giovinco should be frightening for the rest of MLS.

Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls)

There was a change of ethos in Harrison last year. The New York Red Bulls are no longer about the billboard players and shirt sales. Instead, they now leave that kind of thing to their new rivals in the Bronx. No player embodies that shift in approach better than Dax McCarty.

Dax McCarty (Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports)

McCarty: Glue (Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports)

At 28 years old, the Red Bulls captain finds himself at the peak of his career and has become the lynchpin of Jesse Marsch’s side. McCarty has only just been signed to a new four-year deal, illustrating his importance to a club finally starting to release its potential with two Supporters’ Shield titles in three years. A gritty and tenacious homegrown talent, boasting innate technical ability, McCarty is the Red Bulls’ leader in title and spirit.

For Marsch’s side this year, the focus must be on making a real impression on the playoffs. Two Shields in three years are illustrative of regular-season consistency, but players like McCarty will be of the utmost importance in the postseason - when games are fought rather than played.

Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact)

Last summer, MLS took on one of the biggest clubs in Europe in a transfer tug-of-war, and won. There was a point this offseason when it seemed inevitable that Didier Drogba would leave the Montreal Impact for a coaching role at Chelsea, and yet the 37-year-old remains at Stade Saputo. Given what he did in his first six months there, he could now dominate an entire season.

The Impact needed someone like Drogba, with the Ivorian leading a front line that lacked a front man for much of last season. He arrived in Montreal at the right time too, capitalizing on the momentum that came with Mauro Biello’s appointment in the wake of Frank Klopas’ firing. The Montreal Impact turned something of a corner in the latter part of 2015, and much of that was down to Drogba.

There will be even more of an onus on Drogba this season, though, with the Impact streamlining their attacking options over the off-season. Justin Mapp and Dilly Duka are gone, and so the Ivorian must find a new supply line, as well as prove that he can sustain his 2015 levels over an entire campaign.

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Benny Feilhaber (Sporting KC)

Somewhere in the home locker room at Children's Mercy Park, there must be a dartboard with Giovinco’s face pinned on it. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that had the Italian not played in MLS last season Benny Feilhaber would have been a strong contender for the MVP award.

That doesn’t mean that Feilhaber's contribution and quality should be understated, though. 10 goals and 15 assists was a lofty return for a central midfielder of his mould, with coach Peter Vermes uncovering just how effective he can be in the final third of the pitch, pushing him closer to goal where he can do most damage. The ‘Feilhaber role’ is quickly becoming a tactical term in MLS.

Sporting Kansas City has grown into one of the most identifiable teams in MLS - well-organized, physical - but Feilhaber is a break from that. Vermes has strengthened his midfield over the offseason by bringing in Brad Davis and Mapp. But Feilhaber remains their all-important wild card.

Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

The front office at the Stub Hub Center has been busy over the offseason, with Mike Magee, Jelle van Damme, Nigel De Jong and Ashley Cole all making high-profile moves to the LA Galaxy. But it is a distinctly native talent that could have the biggest impact at the Carson club in 2016.

Gyasi Zardes (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Zardes: Bright (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Gyasi Zardes has long been considered one of the brightest prospects in the North American game, now holding down a consistent starting spot in Bruce Arena’s preferred lineup and getting consistent looks from Jurgen Klinsmann. Zardes' 2015 numbers (six goals and four assists) might not have matched his 2014 figures (16 goals and two assists) but there is a growing sense that the metaphorical baton will soon be handed over to the California native as the brightest star in the Galaxy.

This season could be one of transition for Arena’s side, with two big offseason departures in the form of defender Omar Gonzalez and midfielder Juninho. This could be the season that the Galaxy come to rely on Zardes.

Kei Kamara (Columbus Crew)

It was of little surprise that Kei Kamara was a success with the Columbus Crew last season given his background in MLS, but few could have predicted the extent of the success he would enjoy. Combine Kamara's 22 regular-season goals with his four plyaoff tallies and he was MLS' most potent attacker, carrying Gregg Berhalter’s to MLS Cup before tasting a bitter defeat in Columbus at the hands of the Portland Timbers.

Kamara is another player who must, at least on some level, curse Giovinco’s individual brilliance last season, as he would have been a frontrunner for MLS’ MVP award. At his best, Kamara, a Sierra Leone international, can dominate a match in a way no other player in North American soccer can. Berhalter built a team around Kamara last season, and in turn he sustained a championship challenge for the Crew. He might do so again this year.

The striker can be sure that MLS defenders have spent their offseason devising ways to stop him. Kamara’s temper can sometimes get the better of him, with injuries also an issue at times. If he can keep both at bay, there’s no reason to believe 2016 won’t be as successful as 2015.

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