Columnist: Jonathan Sigal

Year 2 bump: 10 MLS stars who can level up in 2024


An MLS truism: International signings often experience a much-improved second season in the league.

After learning to navigate challenges at their new club – travel, time-zone changes, weather, play style, etc. – they’re more prepared to make an outsized impact. The MLS nerds among us will recognize this as the David Gass Theorem (shoutout Extratime). 

Below, we’ve spotlighted 10 players this could apply to during the 2024 season. They’re all higher profile, often holding a Designated Player or U22 Initiative roster tag.

Note: We’ve omitted Tomás Chancalay (New England Revolution), Teemu Pukki (Minnesota United FC) and Mateusz Klich (D.C. United) given their 2023 successes. Ashley Westwood (Charlotte FC), Andrés Gómez (Real Salt Lake) and Maya Yoshida (LA Galaxy) are some honorable mentions.

Acquired: June 13, 2023 from Al-Shabab FC (Saudi Pro League)

With Brandon Vazquez getting transferred to CF Monterrey in Liga MX this winter, there’s increased responsibility on Boupendza’s shoulders as Cincy defend their Supporters’ Shield title. A former Golden Boot winner in the Turkish Süper Lig, the Gabon international posted 6g/1a in 14 MLS matches last year.

Acquired: Dec. 5, 2022 from Midtjylland (Danish Superliga)

Portland’s club-record signing (reported $10 million) took a bit to find his footing tactically last season, ultimately finishing with 9g/5a in 27 matches. The Brazilian midfielder certainly wasn’t poor, but there’s another level or two to reach – especially as the Timbers potentially fill their open DP spots.

Acquired: Aug. 1, 2023 from Vélez Sarsfield (Argentine Primera División)

Fernández looks like a baller:

The 20-year-old Argentine scored two goals in nine appearances after joining NYCFC last summer, bringing dynamism and creativity out wide. He joins Mounsef Bakrar and Agustín Ojeda as promising youngsters in the final third.

Acquired: Aug. 3, 2023 as a free agent

Illarramendi’s résumé is unquestioned, joining FC Dallas last summer as a free agent after playing in nearly 350 combined games across LaLiga sides Real Madrid and Real Sociedad. While the FCD discourse is bound to center around forwards Petar Musa and Jesús Ferreira, don’t lose sight of the 34-year-old’s tempo-setting and passing range in midfield.

Acquired: Aug. 2, 2023 from Hatayspor (Turkish Süper Lig)

Lobjanidze arrived as a DP winger last summer, providing 3g/5a in 12 matches – joining Giorgos Giakoumakis, Xande Silva and Thiago Almada in Atlanta United’s high-flying attack. A Georgian international, he can eliminate defenders off the dribble and create chances in various ways.

Acquired: Jan. 7, 2023 from Godoy Cruz (Argentine Primera División)

Ojeda, the second-most expensive signing in Orlando’s history, proved productive during their club-record 2023 season with 6g/10a in 34 league matches. But the Argentine attacker made just 16 starts, and now is challenged to carve out a more consistent role alongside Facundo Torres, Iván Angulo and Nicolás Lodeiro.

Acquired: Aug. 4, 2023 from UD Almeria (LaLiga)

Olivera has a bright future, getting consistent call-ups by Uruguay for World Cup qualifiers. Now, that needs to translate to more consistent goals + assists for LAFC – where Dénis Bouanga is the main threat. The 21-year-old winger had 2g/0a in 16 all-competitions matches last year as the Black & Gold returned to MLS Cup.

Acquired: Aug. 2, 2023 from Fenerbahçe (Turkish Süper Lig)

Rossi was plenty familiar with MLS upon joining Columbus last summer as their Lucas Zelarayán replacement (i.e. he played for LAFC from 2018-21). The Uruguayan international, as a result, didn’t require a typical adjustment period – producing 5g/6a in 16 matches as the Crew lifted MLS Cup. Playing alongside Cucho Hernández, Rossi is primed to keep ascending.

Acquired: July 25, 2023 from Nottingham Forest (English Premier League)

Surridge, a midsummer signing, was phenomenal during Nashville SC’s run to the 2023 Leagues Cup final:

Plays like that towering header vs. Club América didn’t quite carry over to the regular season, though. If the English No. 9 can combine more with Hany Mukhtar, then 5g/2a in 15 all-competitions matches was just the tip of the iceberg.

Acquired: Feb. 3, 2023 from Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (Belgian Pro League)

Vanzeir, who is coming off a long-term injury (lumbar spine), could strike up a lucrative partnership with midfield newcomer and fellow DP Emil Forsberg. The Belgian forward tallied just 2g/1a in 19 league matches last season, not quite meeting his “potential club-record signing” label.