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7 Designated MLS Players Who Need to Step Up in 2021

| February 19, 2021 12:13 pm PDT
Seven MLS Designated Players That Need to Improve in 2021

Every season, MLS teams look to their Designated Players to provide that little sparkle of international magic.

Ever since David Beckham became the first DP in Major League Soccer back in 2007, MLS clubs have consistently dished out big bucks to bring some of the best overseas players to North America.

However, it’s fair to say that Designated Players don’t always make the desired impact.

In this post, I look at seven DPs that underperformed last season. Players like Javier Hernandez and Gonzalo Higuain failed to hit the heights expected of them in 2020, but can they improve this year?

Here are seven Designated Players who need to step up in 2021.

Javier Hernandez – LA Galaxy

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a more high-profile DP flop than Javier Hernandez.

“Chicarito” has won trophies with European powerhouses like Manchester United and Real Madrid, along with a CONCACAF Gold Cup triumph with Mexico. But throughout his debut MLS campaign, he was almost unrecognizable.

Scoring just two goals in 757 minutes of play in 2020, the 32-year-old clearly struggled to adapt to Major League Soccer. Granted, he was playing in an insipid LA Galaxy team. But even when he got opportunities, he invariably failed to take them.

You only have to look at Hernandez’s career record to see what he is capable of.

Club Appearances Goals Assists
Manchester United 157 59 20
Deportivo Guadalajara 78 29 11
Bayer Leverkusen 76 39 9
West Ham United 63 17 4
Real Madrid 33 9 9
Sevilla 15 3
LA Galaxy 12 2

On top of that, Hernandez has notched up 52 goals and 13 assists in 109 appearances for Mexico. He is obviously still an excellent player, although he is yet to prove his worth in a Galaxy jersey.

Replacing Zlatan Ibrahimovic was never going to be easy, but Galaxy supporters would have been hoping for a whole lot more from Hernandez. The misfiring forward is a Designated Player who must improve in 2021.

Ezequiel Barco – Atlanta United

Ezequiel Barco joined Atlanta United from Argentine giant Independiente back in 2018, signing for a hefty $15 million transfer fee. The winger instantly enjoyed MLS Cup glory with the Five Stripes before registering another solid campaign in 2019.

But in 2020, it felt like Barco’s progression was halted.

In fairness to Barco, his team-mates didn’t exactly help his cause. Atlanta endured a wretched season last year, finishing third from bottom in the Eastern Conference and fourth from bottom in the Supporters’ Shield standings.

However, having contributed just two goals and two assists in 19 appearances in all competitions last term, it’s fair to say that Barco underachieved as a DP, especially when you consider his numbers in previous seasons.

  • 2018: 5 goals, 3 assists
  • 2019: 4 goals, 6 assists
  • 2020: 2 goals, 2 assists

It is easy to forget that the Argentina U23 international is still just 21. He certainly has an exciting career ahead of him, but as a Designated Player, he will be expected to up his game in 2021.

Gonzalo Higuain – Inter Miami

If you think Hernandez’s record is impressive, wait until you hear about what Gonzalo Higuain has achieved during his career.

Following hugely successful spells with Real Madrid, Napoli, and Juventus, along with brief loan stints at AC Milan and Chelsea, Higuain’s silverware cabinet is brimming with trophies.

As well as clinching three La Liga titles and three Serie A titles, the 33-year-old has also won a host of domestic cups over the years, not to mention the Europa League triumph with Chelsea in 2018/19.

Many believed that Major League Soccer would be a walk in the park for Higuain. But so far, that hasn’t been the case.

After firing a penalty wide on his Inter Miami debut, the Argentine proceeded to pick a fight with just about every Philadelphia player in sight.

A few days later, he opened his MLS account by scoring a phenomenal free-kick against the Red Bulls, showing everyone a glimpse of what he is capable of. But to this day, that remains Higuain’s only MLS goal.

Higuain ended the season with just one goal in 804 minutes of play. Following a red card against Orlando City, a suspension meant that he only made nine appearances for the Herons last term.

Of course, the striker joined Inter Miami from Juventus midway through the season, meaning that he didn’t get much time to show what he could do. But as far as DP debuts go, Higuain’s is definitely among the worst.

Edison Flores – DC United

Having enjoyed two eye-catching Liga MX seasons with Club Atletico Morelia, big things were expected of Edison Flores last year.

Unfortunately, the Peruvian winger failed to live up to his $5 million price tag.

Flores bagged 12 goals and six assists in 45 Liga MX appearances for his previous club – and those numbers were enough for DC United to make him a Designated Player. But across 13 MLS outings last season, Flores failed to get on the scoresheet.

The 26-year-old chipped in with three assists in the final two games of 2020, adding to his first assist for the club all the way back in March. However, it’s fair to say that he failed to hit the ground running.

Club Appearances Goals Assists
Universitario de Desportes 99 15 27
Aalborg BK 52 4 6
Club Atletico Morelia 47 12 6
Villarreal B 43 7
DC United 13 4
Aalborg BK Reserves 2 1 2

Let’s not forget that Flores has clocked up 13 goals and four assists in 53 international appearances for Peru, too.

We all know that DC United was one of the worst teams last year. I mean, if it wasn’t for the dreadful FC Cincinnati, the Washington club would have finished rock bottom of the Eastern Conference, there is no denying that.

But despite his team’s woes, Flores was unable to exhibit his DP quality.

After missing a large portion of the previous campaign with some pretty nasty facial injuries, Flores – and DC United – will be hoping for a better run in 2021.

Victor Wanyama – CF Montreal

Don’t get me wrong – Victor Wanyama was arguably one of CF Montreal’s best players last season.

Following his move from EPL side Tottenham Hotspur, the Kenya international was an ever-present in Theirry Henry’s team, anchoring the midfield, as well as contributing a couple of goals and an assist.

But in 2021, I think Wanyama can be even better.

Let’s face it – being one of Montreal’s best players last year isn’t exactly anything to brag about. After all, the Quebec outfit finished ninth in the Eastern Conference and ended the campaign with the worst defensive record in the East.

  • CF Montreal: 43 goals conceded
  • DC United: 41 goals conceded
  • Chicago Fire: 39 goals conceded
  • FC Cincinnati: 36 goals conceded
  • Inter Miami: 35 goals conceded

If Wanyama can rediscover the kind of form that saw him regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League a few years ago, Montreal will almost certainly improve on last season’s efforts this year.

There are a number of Designated Players that need to step up in 2021 – and I think Wanyama falls into that category.

Ignacio Aliseda – Chicago Fire

When Chicago Fire signed Ignacio Aliseda as a DP prior to the start of the 2020 season, soccer fans in Illinois were understandably excited.

The young winger was still a teenager back then, and after making a name for himself in the Superliga Argentina with Defensa y Justicia, Aliseda was being lauded as the player to take the Fire to the next level.

As it turned out, Aliseda – and Chicago – endured a season to forget.

Despite making 20 appearances across his debut MLS campaign, Aliseda only managed to rack up three-goal involvements, with a goal and an assist coming in a single game against Cincinnati. Other than that, his only other assist came against Houston Dynamo.

Sure, the young winger will still only be 21 by the time the new season kicks off. But as a Designated Player, I would like to see him bring a lot more to the table this year.

Who knows – he might just take off and become one of the best overseas players in MLS history. But for that to happen, he will need to start supplying goals and assists on a regular basis in 2021.

Jurgen Locadia – FC Cincinnati

Cincinnati supporters must have been pretty excited when their club announced the signing of a Premier League striker. Jurgen Locadia joined the Ohio franchise on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion before the 2020 MLS season, becoming the Orange and Blue’s fourth-ever DP.

18 appearances later – the striker has just two MLS goals to his name.

With all due respect, Locadia has never been a prolific goalscorer. Best known for his strength and clever link-up play, the former Netherlands U21 international brings a lot more to the team than just goals.

Still, that doesn’t mean that he can get away with netting twice in 1,364 minutes of Major League Soccer last year.

After registering back-to-back last-place finishes in both the Eastern Conference and the Supporters’ Shield standings, Jaap Stam’s men need all the help, they can get. If Locadia picks up where he left off last season, Cincinnati won’t be able to progress – again!

There is always pressure on Designated Players to succeed in MLS, meaning that Locadia must improve in 2021.

Other DPs That Must Improve in 2021

Having both missed the majority of last season through injury, Carlos Vela (LAFC) and Josef Martinez (Atlanta United) will obviously be hoping for better luck in 2021. However, I’m sure the former Golden Boot winners will bounce back this year.

More will be expected of Franca Jara (FC Dallas) in the upcoming campaign after the Texans finished the 2020 season as the third-lowest scorers in the Western Conference, while Matias Pellegrini (Inter Miami) – who cost the Herons $9 million – will also be under pressure to impress.

Ex-Manchester United star Nani (Orlando City) didn’t have the worst season last year, but there will be pressure on him to maintain a high level of consistency in 2021.

Jeizon Ramirez (Real Salt Lake), Christian Espinoza (San Jose Earthquakes), and Lucas Cavallini (Vancouver Whitecaps) are also among the Designated Players that will also be expected to up their game this year.

Ahead of the 2021 MLS season’s April 17 start date, why not check out some of my other recent Major League Soccer posts.

Ben Morris

Ben is a sportswriter and tipster who specializes in soccer. Currently based in the UK, he has traveled all around the world watching – and betting on – his beloved sport.

Alongside his regular soccer content, Ben publishes blogs and picks for cricket, Formula 1, Aussie rules, darts, and various other sports.

Ben is a diehard fan of Nottingham Forest and England, so he hasn’t had much to cheer about in recent years!

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