What to expect from Ibrahimovic, Rooney and MLS' superstar DPs in 2019
The 2018 season might have been the best yet for Major League Soccer's designated players. Zlatan Ibrahimovic walked onto the field, scored a goal from darn near Malmo, and didn't stop until the final whistle on the final day. Wayne Rooney joined D.C. United midway through the year and helped turn Ben Olsen's boys around. Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi produced magic for LAFC. Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron led Atlanta's fun, high-powered attack straight to MLS Cup. Albert Rusnak was quietly a stud while Federico Higuain and Diego Valeri continued to perform. That's a high bar.
But 2019 might exceed that elevated threshold. Many of that old crew remains -- best of luck in Newcastle to $26 million man Almiron -- while a host of new faces should perform feats of genius and daring on fields around the league. Here's what to expect in the coming season.
Most Likely to Win Games: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Zlatan entered an MLS game and did Zlatan things almost immediately. He scored early and often, everything from long-distance blasts to spinning karate kicks, ending up with 22 goals in 27 appearances. What he didn't do, however, was the most Zlatan thing of all: win a championship. This year, that might change.
"The kind of goals Zlatan scored, if he can double down on that, I think we'll be surprised," said ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman. "There's a Zlatan this year that knows a lot about the league, that knows what it takes in certain moments. I think he wants to win. While the numbers may not match up to what he did last year or the kind of heroics, I think you may see Zlatan contribute to a winning team."
Playoff Zlatan might be the best Zlatan of all.
Most Likely to Regress: Wayne Rooney
Like Ibrahimovic, Rooney came to MLS followed by questions about his age and impact, then answered them almost immediately. Starting in mid-July, the English forward put a moribund D.C. United franchise on his shoulders and carried them to the playoffs (with the help of Lucho Acosta), tallying 12 goals and seven assists in 20 matches. He did it, however, in a home-heavy schedule that saw United play just five games on the road and none west of the Mississippi. That'll change in 2019.
"Rooney didn't have to endure the brutal travel and surface discrepancies that most new imports struggle with," says MLSsoccer.com analyst Bobby Warshaw. "I hope Rooney continues to excite, but I'd be surprised if a regular 34-game schedule didn't impact him."
Additionally, Rooney will have to show some leadership qualities to bring Acosta back into the fold after his disappointing non-transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.
Most Likely to Set the MLS Record for Nutmegs: Pity Martinez
Everyone seems to agree that the reigning South American Player of the Year is going to be something special in the ATL.
"This dude is good," Warshaw says. "He's beautiful to watch; he's got that graceful flow with the ball that only left-footed players seem to have."
And he's not afraid to try to impress with his skills.
Pity Martinez is someone with the ability and creativity to break through into the broader American sporting consciousness. While he should seamlessly fit into United's attack, as well, there's a chance that it'll be a bumpy transition. Almiron keyed the offense by transitioning quickly, effectively and smartly. Whether Pity Martinez can do this, or will adopt another strategy, is an open question. Regardless, he'll be fun to watch.
Most Likely to Score Half the Goals He Did in 2018 and Still Have a Great Year: Josef Martinez
No Almiron, no problem? Atlanta's attacking talisman doesn't have Almiron, but he still knows how to put the ball in the back of the net.
"The guy lives, eats, sleeps, drinks and dreams only of scoring goals," Twellman says. "Does he match the numbers of last year? I'm not totally sure he does. But does he score 15 goals? Absolutely."
Armed with a new contract, the speedy turf of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Pity Martinez's anticipated brilliance, Josef Martinez should find himself with plenty of opportunities. After all, while he scored a ton last season, it wasn't as though he got lucky.
"His 34 goals in 2018 looked entirely ... pedestrian for him," Warshaw says. "He didn't do anything you would say he couldn't do again. If anything, he may be even more motivated and want to prove it's his team now that Almiron has left for England."
Most Likely to Bomb (or, Perhaps, Win the MVP): Alexandru Mitrita
Pop quiz: Which player holds the record for the third-largest incoming MLS transfer? If you didn't say the 24-year-old Romanian, you wouldn't be alone. It's unlikely many fans had heard of the Universitatea Craiova star before New York City FC shelled out $9.1 million for him. Mitrita, however, could make an impact in the tight confines of Yankee Stadium quickly.
"He's incredibly talented -- quick, low center of gravity, excellent dribbler, lethal right foot -- but he's not particularly busy," Warshaw says. "If he's feeling it, he could be impossible to stop."
There's also a danger, of course, that he won't be feeling it, that Mitrita will struggle to adjust to the weird rigors and demands of MLS and will press to replace the irreplaceable David Villa. He's a boom-or-bust guy without a whole lot of in between.
"This is a player who knows that Manchester City Football Club just paid $9 million for his services," Twellman says. "I'm not totally writing it off, but I do find it interesting that you pay that much for a player who was bought for less than a million a year ago."
If he meshes with Domenec Torrent's system -- does the coach even have a system? -- there's a dark horse case to hoist the Landon Donovan MVP trophy. (Think Nemanja Nikolic.) If he doesn't, Donovan's indoor squad could always use another player.
Most Likely to Turn Around a Franchise: Marco Fabian
The following is a complete list of the Philadelphia Union's year-end MLS finishes: 14th, 8th, 15th, 14th, 12th, 18th, 13th, 16th and 11th. That's really quite poor. A complete list of the squad's pre-2019 DPs reads Freddy Adu(!), Kleberson, Cristian Maidana, Maurice Edu, Fernando Aristeguieta, Alejandro Bedoya and Borek Dockal. This is not what you would call an impactful group.
Fabian, Mexico's two-time World Cup veteran, could change that calculus. He joins a squad anchored by a solid back line including goalkeeper Andre Blake and young American duo Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty. While Fabian is coming off an injury and is signed only to a creative, one-year contract, this is a gamble worth taking for an MLS franchise that needs an injection of excitement.
"If he's healthy and engaged and not Giovani dos Santos, then this is a home run signing," Twellman says. "People will say it's a risk, but Philadelphia needs to take a risk. They haven't taken a risk in a long, long time."
As for the Rest of the 2019 DP Class ...
This is an important season for Toronto FC duo Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, now without the brilliant Sebastian Giovinco. After a brutal 2018 for club and country, the pair can help re-establish TFC as one of MLS' elite squads and work their way into Gregg Berhalter's national team picture ... or maybe not.
The Tim Howard Farewell Tour is coming to a stadium near you, while it might be the same for oft-injured Bastian Schweinsteiger, whether he likes it or not. The Galaxy's non-Zlatan DPs -- whoever they might be with the team unable to keep the Dos Santos brothers and Romain Alessandrini all on huge contracts -- need to produce if LA is going to win. Stalwarts such as Higuain, Valeri, Ignacio Piatti, Nicolas Lodeiro, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips are icons on their respective teams, but how much do they have left in the tank?
And then there's Nani, who after joining Orlando City this week, will be looking to make the Lions roar in their fifth season in MLS.