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Americans at home: Eleven players to watch in MLS in 2019

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Guess how many are defenders...

Soccer: International Friendly Soccer-Costa Rica at USA Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 MLS season kicks off in a few short weeks and with opening day comes new and familiar faces that USMNT fans should be on the look out for throughout the season. Despite the wave of Americans taking their talent to Europe, the domestic league still makes up a core of the national team roster and Gregg Berhalter is probably more familiar with the players stateside than the ones abroad at this point in his tenure. With that in mind, here are five Americans in MLS that should make an impact on the national team in 2019.

Striker

Jeremy Ebobisse - The young forward showed that he could fit in with what Giovanni Savarese wanted from a striker in 2018: create space for Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco and let the creative goal scorers do their thing. It worked at least in the playoffs with Portland making it to MLS Cup. This season should show if Ebobisse really has what it takes to make an impact game in and game out or if Portland continues the striker carousel that it featured last year.

Midfield

Djordje Mihailovic - The Chicago Fire had a terrible 2018 following what had been a promising season in 2017. One reason for that was injuries, Mihailovic was a player who seemed like he’d be taking a step forward with the Fire last year but he joined a list of players who missed significant time for the team. After a standout performance for the USMNT in January camp, the 20 year-old showed why he’s been trusted with playing central attacking midfield for the Fire and could emerge as a candidate for Berhalter to call in to play in the no. 10 role in the Gold Cup.

Russell Canouse - Despite what people say about Michael Bradley, he’s clearly Gregg Berhalter’s first choice at defensive midfield for the national team. The discussion about replacing him has been ongoing for years at this point and nobody has stepped up to take his place... yet. Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams may be that player, but Canouse could also fill that role. He was a big, unsung reason why DC United charged into the playoffs last year and should continue to make an impact in what will be one of the more exciting teams in MLS in 2019. If he can show that he is as careful with the ball as Bradley and keeps up his performances from the end of last season, perhaps he’ll be the one starting at no. 6 sooner rather than later.

Corey Baird - The forward and 2018 AT&T MLS Rookie of the Year tallied eight goals and five assists last year. RSL was one of the most exciting attacking teams in 2018 and his emergence as a starter certainly contributed to that. At 23, Baird is entering his prime years and 2019 will give him a chance to show that he can keep up and add to his scoring output from last season.

Sebastian Lletget - The midfielder has had to overcome a lot in his career: being rejected by West Ham United, injuries, and playing for Bruce Arena. But Lletget might be poised to have a big year in MLS. With the LA Galaxy re-signing Zlatan and bringing in a manager who both knows the league and has had success already as a manager in Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the season is setting up pretty well for them. After a good January camp, Lletget could be set up for a solid season in 2019.

Defense

Reggie Cannon - The right back revelation will be playing for his former FC Dallas academy coach Luchi Gonzalez in 2019. We’ve seen plenty of players take a step back after a standout season. In his second year as a starter Cannon should be looking to continue making steady progress as he fights for time on the national team.

Walker Zimmerman - The center back supposedly gained the interest of Club Tijuana in LigaMX in the off season - or at least that was the story that led to LAFC signing him to a TAM contract to keep him in California. LA’s backline could have been described as precarious in 2018 and some of that is partly due to a roster that was in flux because of transfers, injuries, and the World Cup, but some of it was due to Zimmerman occasionally making a noticeable and big mistake. LA will no doubt pour on the goals in 2019, but for the team to be one of the best in the league the backline, led by Zimmerman and his new contract, will need to be relied upon in big moments.

Aaron Long - It’s pretty easy to say that you should watch the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, but this season is going to be a little different in New York. With Tyler Adams gone the engine that drove the Red Bulls’ press is going to be a little less industrious, the passing won’t be quite as crisp, and perhaps it won’t be as effective. That press was a big reason NYRB let in so few goals last year and without Adams it will be interesting to see if the backline can keep holding teams to .97 goals a game.

Greg Garza - As is custom since time immemorial, left back is a position of need for the USMNT. Garza had a rough 2018 due to injuries, but when he played for Atlanta United the team was at its best. This year he’s joining another expansion team with Cincinnati FC and if he can stay healthy could be in the picture for the Gold Cup. That somewhat depends on how the rest of what seems to be a roster of reclamation projects and castoffs performs, because I could see the defender moving up to play left wing before the season ends.

Paul Arriola - Yes, there are five defenders on this list... this is MLS where every American plays in defense. It’s exhausting, but at this point the winger moving to defender is a well trodden path for one time promising attacking Americans. DaMarcus Besley’s done it, Graham Zusi’s done it, and now it seems like Paul Arriola is too. It will be interesting if his defensive abilities continue to progress and if they do, Arriola could add ‘versatile’ ahead of ‘speedy’ and ‘dangerous’ to descriptors ahead of his name.

Goalkeeper

Bill Hamid - This is a kinda strange position for Americans in MLS. It seems like the biggest prerequisite that a keeper needs in the league is not taking up an international slot and every American goalkeeper fits that need. I’m going to tell you to watch Bill Hamid though. He came back to MLS and turned into an absolute wall, enough so that he felt compelled to say that he was better than the four keepers called into January camp. He might have a point about at least three of those players, but let’s see if he can back that up as the season starts.