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USL Top Five – 2018 MLS Season

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 03/02/18, 3:25PM EST


Five players to watch as the new Major League Soccer season opens Saturday

Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

Major League Soccer kicks off on Saturday, with the league’s 23 clubs – including expansion side Los Angeles FC – having made numerous moves to strengthen their rosters over the offseason. Among those to have earned the move into the top flight are some of the top players in the USL over the past two seasons, all of which will be aiming to earn playing time in the same manner as the likes of 2016 USL Defender of the Year Aaron Long have since making the move.

Here are five former USL standouts to keep an eye on this season as the battle to help their new clubs to success over the next 10 months.

Cory Burke, Philadelphia Union

Photo courtesy Brett Hansbauer / FC Cincinnati

Burke’s breakout season for Bethlehem Steel FC a season ago earned him a call-up from Jamaican for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, where his combination of speed and power fit in well with the rest of the Reggae Boyz lineup. Those displays translated to a strong end to the season for Bethlehem, which with Burke and others leading the way earned a place in the USL Cup Playoffs for the first time. The 26-year-old has carried that form forward this preseason with four goals for the Union, and while he’ll do well to unseat U.S. international C.J. Sapong from the starting lineup, Burke could be a difference-maker off the bench initially for Philadelphia this season and push for more as the season goes on.

Sebastien Ibeagha, New York City FC

Photo courtesy Steven Christy / OKC Energy FC

Ibeagha earned his return to the MLS ranks with a stellar season at the heart of San Antonio FC’s defense which saw him lead the league in clearances (190) and help the side record a league-high 15 shutouts and league-fewest 24 regular-season goals. Named the USL Defender of the Year for his efforts, Ibeagha’s performances put him on the radar of SAFC’s MLS partner, New York City FC, and an impressive preseason saw him earn a place as defensive depth for the top Eastern Conference side. While he’s not likely to be a starter when the season begins, Ibeagha’s ability to do the simple things well provide a solid base for him to grow in other areas and could make him someone to count on for NYCFC when it’s looking to protect a lead late.

Mark-Anthony Kaye, Los Angeles FC

Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

Kaye’s breakout season saw him reach new heights on both the domestic and international level in 2017, with the former Louisville City FC midfielder earning his first selections to the Canada Men’s National Team – including call-up for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup – while also providing a dynamic box-to-box presence for Head Coach James O’Connor’s side. Coming off claiming the USL Cup with Louisville, Kaye is now part of the high-profile launch of Los Angeles FC where he becomes teammates with the likes of Mexico’s Carlos Vela and Belgian international Laurent Ciman. After regular appearances in preseason for Head Coach Bob Bradley, there could be another big year ahead for the young Canadian.

Enzo Martinez, Colorado Rapids

Photo courtesy Brian L. Zimmerman / Richmond Kickers

Back-to-back nominations for the USL Most Valuable Player award were bound to draw attention for Martinez, and the attacking midfielder took full advantage after being invited into preseason camp with the Charlotte Independence’s MLS partner the Colorado Rapids. Martinez’s 16 goals a season ago fueled the Independence’s drive to a second consecutive USL Cup Playoffs berth and showed the expanded range of scoring touch the veteran brought to the field. Martinez has already made his first two appearances for new Rapids Head Anthony Hudson, starting in both legs of Colorado’s CONCACACF Champions League clash with Toronto FC, and the energy he brings in addition to his quality could be an attractive proposition moving forward for a side that appears to bring a high work-rate to the field this season.

Chris Wehan, San Jose Earthquakes

Photo courtesy David Calvert / Reno 1868 FC

Wehan was one of the best stories of the 2017 USL season. Having gone from being unselected in the MLS SuperDraft to earning a place on Reno 1868 FC’s inaugural roster, Wehan subsequently tied the league record with 12 regular-season assists and claimed the USL Rookie of the Year award as part of a high-flying attack that entertained throughout the year. Now having signed with Reno’s MLS partner, the San Jose Earthquakes, the bar is set higher for the former University of New Mexico standout, in part thanks to a major overhaul that has taken place at Avaya Stadium over the past 12 months. Wehan, and fellow Quakes signings Jimmy Ockford and Luis Felipe Fernandes, will have plenty of work to do to crack the starting lineup in San Jose, but should be expected to show off the quality that earned them their MLS moves when given the chance.

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