Almada, Chicharito among MLS players to watch this season

The biggest winner in the Major League Soccer offseason transfer market ended up being the rumor mill.

Whether it was the apparent flirtation between Lionel Messi and Inter Miami, or the interest that Los Angeles FC had for Chelsea striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, neither came to fruition and the MLS offseason was devoid of a splashy incoming international move.

But there are still plenty of stars across the MLS to watch for during the 2023 season that begins Saturday:

JESUS FERREIRA, FC DALLAS

Ferreira finally reached his potential last season as he scored 18 goals for FC Dallas, tying for fourth-most in the league. He helped the team finish third in the Western Conference and reach the Western Conference semifinals before they were knocked out of the playoffs by Austin. His time with the MLS club meant he played only a limited role for the United States in the World Cup. He didn’t hit the field in Qatar until the round of 16 loss to the Netherlands. He begins building his case this season to become one of the primary strikers on future U.S. teams.

HANY MUKHTAR, NASHVILLE

The reigning league MVP was spectacular last season with 23 goals and 11 assists, helping Nashville finish fifth in the Western Conference and earn a playoff berth. Mukhtar’s 34 goals were the fifth-most in a single season in MLS history.

In his three seasons with Nashville, Mukhtar has 43 goals in 73 games and there’s no reason to think he’s about to slow down this season.

ANDRE BLAKE, PHILDELPHIA

The best goalkeeper in the league last year is the most recognizable star for a team that lacks big names but is a clear favorite in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia was moments away from winning its first MLS title in November before LAFC scored late in extra time and won on penalties. Philadelphia was in the final in large part because of Blake’s continued excellence in goal. Blake led MLS in shutouts with 15 and had a 79.4% save percentage last season, the third time he was honored as the league’s best goalie.

CUCHO HERNANDEZ, COLUMBUS

The latest young South American star to join MLS made quite the splash in his limited debut last season. Hernandez had nine goals and two assists in just 16 games for the Columbus Crew following his move from Watford.

A full season with the Crew should be a big boost as Columbus looks to get back to the postseason after missing the playoffs by two points last season.

JAVIER “CHICHARITO” HERNANDEZ, LA GALAXY

The ageless Mexican star stepped back into the past and led the LA Galaxy to a playoff berth last season. Chicharito had 18 goals and played in 32 matches, both highs since he moved to MLS. They were the most goals for Hernandez in any season since 2009-10, when he scored 21 in his final season with Chivas de Guadalajara.

JOSEF MARTINEZ, INTER MIAMI

While rumors swirled about Lionel Messi and bringing the World Cup champion to Inter Miami, the club had a backup plan in place. How successful that plan is depends on whether Martinez can rediscover the form that made him the league’s MVP in 2018 with Atlanta United.

Martinez hasn’t been the same since suffering a major knee injury at the start of the 2020 season. And while posting consecutive seasons of 31 and 27 goals is going to be tough to match, Miami is hoping he can be more than the nine-goal scorer he was last season with Atlanta.

THIAGO ALMADA, ATLANTA UNITED

The 21-year-old will step into a larger role this season for Atlanta United following the departure of Martinez to Miami. Almada appeared in 29 games and had six goals and seven assists last season. Atlanta will be hoping that Almada can quickly develop a relationship with new forward Giorgos Giakoumakis, who just arrived from Celtic.

SEAN JOHNSON, TORONTO

After six years as the anchor at the back for NYCFC, including an MLS Cup title, Johnson made the move to Toronto FC in the offseason. Johnson was second in MLS with 14 clean sheets last season.

His task in Toronto will be significant as the Reds were third-worst in MLS by giving up 66 goals last season.

JOAO PAULO, SEATTLE

The Seattle Sounders missed the MLS playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season, ending a 13-year run of playing in the postseason. Seattle’s season seemed to crumble after the Sounders won the CONCACAF Champions League, a night when they made MLS history but lost midfield sparkplug Joao Paulo to a torn ACL in his right knee.

Paulo is back, making a brief appearance for Seattle during its one match at the Club World Cup. His return should stabilize Seattle’s midfield and once again make the Sounders one of the favorites out West.

___

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports