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Beyond Brenner: Five exciting MLS transfers to watch in 2021

The arrival of Brenner has created a seismic shift in Major League Soccer. FTF explores five new MLS stars to watch.

America is no longer just for Europe’s ageing stars looking to play out the rest of their career on the country’s sunny shores. The days of Beckham, Henry, Gerrard, Ibrahimovic and Pirlo in the MLS could be coming to an end.

Major League Soccer has rebranded. A new era has heralded an exciting shift.

Spurred on by the export of Alphonso Davies into Europe’s elite, more and more youngsters are looking at North America as an opportunity to put themselves in the spotlight.

As well as Davies, the likes of Tyler Adams, Jack Harrison, Cyle Larin, Mark McKenzie, Brenden Aaronson, Daryl Dike, Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds all made their first tentative steps in professional football in the MLS and are now excelling in Europe’s best leagues.

No doubt Brenner was influenced by this new influx of interest in Major League Soccer. His sensational transfer to Cincinnati was yet more evidence of the league’s growing strength. The Brazilian has been one of Sao Paulo’s biggest revelations in 2020 after all. Prior to moving to the MLS, Brenner was courted by the likes of AC Milan, Ajax, Arsenal and PSG. Yet amidst much frenzy, the Brazilian opted to make the next leap into North America and not Europe.

It was a move which has cemented the MLS as a hotbed for young talent rather than the ‘retirement’ league it was formerly dubbed.

And one which has not been an anomaly.

FTF have picked out five similarly exciting arrivals to watch in the MLS in 2021.

Stanislav Ivanov

Born: 16 April 1999 (age 21 years), Gabrovo, Bulgaria

Height: 1.78 m

Current team: Chicago Fire FC (Forward)

Stanislav Ivanov’s start to life in the MLS has been delayed by a knee injury which will see him miss the bulk of beginning of the season. However, the Bulgarian’s mercurial talent deserves to be highlighted.

Ivanov is an attacker who will be exciting to watch for Chicago. A club who will have fund memories of Ivanov’s greatest footballing compatriot Hristo Stoichkov.

The Bulgarian legend’s two year spell with the Fire saw him play over 50 games and bag 17 goals.

Now it will be Ivanov’s time to shine who will be hoping to follow suit.

The 21 year old has always been regarded as an elite talent in his home country. As a youngster he even had a ten day trial with Liverpool playing alongside the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold.

In the end he ended up staying at home and making his debut for his boyhood club Levski Sofia at the age of 16.

But it’s taken him a while to properly settle since then. It was only in the 2019/20 campaign, four years after Ivanov’s debut, that he enjoyed what could be defined as a ‘breakthrough’ year. The Bulgarian scored nine goals and registered eleven assists in thirty five games for Sofia during the campaign and earnt himself a call-up to Bulgaria’s senior national team in the process.

Unsurprisingly, last summer he had plenty of suitors as a result including Sporting Lisbon. But his club rejected all the lucrative offers that arrived. This created a rift between Ivanov and Sofia and his form has dipped during the 2020/21 campaign.

In the end, the Bulgarian got his wish with a move to to Chicago in December.

A pacey and tricky winger who can also play in a centre forward role, Ivanov scored 14 goals and made 19 assists in 89 games for Levski Sofia.

Ivanov is not the type to take on a lot of defenders. He is more direct with his runs and is clever at finding pockets of space on the pitch which this makes him all the more devastating.

The Bulgarian is an adept dribbler, though not prolific by any means. He averaged 6 dribbles per 90 in 2020. However, when he is making runs, he is usually driving the play forward. Ivanov made 3 progressive runs per 90 (the third highest in the Bulgarian top tier).

While Ivanov is excellent at driving at defenders, he also likes to use his pace to run in behind them. Especially when faced with high defensive lines.

When he does this, his combination of pace and intelligence is hard to stop.

His ability to handle both tight spaces, and exploit open areas makes him a tricky customer and one who could thrive in the MLS renowned for its attacking football.

On top of that Ivanov’s shooting ability is one of his biggest strengths. His level of range is undeniably one of the most alluring assets about his game. He recorded only 7 xG in the Bulgarian top tier last season, but found the back of the net 9 times demonstrating the level of difficult shots he took on.

Ivanov can strike the ball from long range with pace and power, but he is also a ruthless finisher. When he gets a chance in the box, he is able put enough venom behind his efforts to make it impossible for the goalkeeper to stop.

The Bulgarian should be able to settle into Chicago boss Raphael Wicky’s 4-2-3-1 system with ease especially since it’s the same formation he played whilst at Sofia. In Bulgarian he proved he can play in the two winger roles or just behind the striker which gives Wicky options.

Once fit, Ivanov is a player who can set the MLS alight but there is no doubt it will be a long process to recover from an injury which is expected to rule him out for four months.

Alexandru Matan

Born: 29 August 1999 (age 21 years), Galați, Romania

Height: 1.65 m

Current team: Columbus Crew SC (Midfielder)

A diminutive and spirited midfielder, Columbus Crew have made a smart acquisition to prize Matan away from New York City’s grasp with the blues also interested in the Romanian midfielder.

Matan is a product of Viitorul Constanța, a club owned and managed by Romanian icon Gheorghe Hagi. In the past the Romanian outfit have nurtured some of the country’s brightest prospects. And the club’s president believes Matan could be the best of the lot.

Whether it was Ianis Hagi, Florinel Coman or Tănase, I will tell you that this Măţan will be above them in value. 

Paul Peniu via Fanatik

There is a lot to like about Matan. He is very versatile and can play across various midfield positions, both central and out on the wings.

At 1.65m he is definitely on the shorter side, but he is rarely knocked off the ball. Matan possess thick thighs and a strong lower physique which makes him able to compete against players much taller than him.

At 21, he has played 66 matches for Viitorul scoring 5 goals and registering 12 assists in the process.

This season he has especially come on leaps and bounds playing in an attacking midfield role where he has become the linchpin of Gheorghe Hagi’s side.

Matan has averaged the most smart passes per 90 for Viitorul with 1.87 per 90 this also ranks him in the top ten for the entire Romanian top tier. His 0.88 key passes per 90 is also the third best in the division highlighting his distribution and vision in decisive moments.

Averaging 7.43 dribbles per 90, the third best for a Romanian player in the league with the best accuracy of 55.91% and having the highest progressive runs per 90 with 3.57, Matan is certainly more than just a passer.

The 21 year old likes to instigate attacks and can drive at defences, making mazy runs. His low-centre of gravity allows him to change direction faster than his opponents.

The fact that he can be deployed in various positions will make him a huge asset for Columbus Crew. His tenacious playing style will make him a fan favourite.

Dantouma Toure

Born: 12 June 2004 (age 16 years), Conakry, Guinea

Height: 1.73 m

Current team: Colorado Rapids (#37 / Midfielder)

Nicknamed ‘Yaya’ and the ‘Scorenado’ Dantouma Toure’s move might have been the most under the radar ‘shock transfer’ of the MLS off-season.

Colorado Rapids lured the 16 year old from New York Red Bulls’ distinguished academy. With Toure regarded as one of Red Bulls’ best prospects alongside Caden Clark, a few eyebrows have been raised about the move.

New York’s loss will be Colorado’s gain. The rapids have developed a strong youth program and they have already demonstrated they are not shy in giving young players a run out in the first team.

Cole Bassett is a great example. One Dantouma Toure will be hoping to emulate.

A rapid, and tricky winger, Toure scored 3 goals and registered 3 assists in America’s second tier last season in 13 matches (just 8 starts) for New York Red Bull’s second team.

He averaged 7.92 dribblers per 90 with a 50% success rate and made 3.4 progressive runs per 90.

At 1.73 metres, Dantouma Toure is not the tallest or most physically imposing player. However, he is good at using his body to shield the ball and hold off his opponents.

When in full flow, he’s hard to stop too with his quick feet and lightning pace.

Having represented the USMNT at U17 level there are high hopes Dantouma could become the next big thing to emerge out of the MLS.

Colorado are not exactly spoilt for choice in the attacking department, meaning that if injuries and suspensions go Toure’s way he could easily make a mark in the club’s first team in 2021.

With the Rapids securing him as a homegrown player, they will nurture him as one of their own.

Isaac Atanga

Born: 14 June 2000 (age 20 years), Nkoranza, Ghana

Height: 1.73m

Current team: FC Cincinnati (Forward)

Jaap Stam and FC Cincinnati have embarked on an ambitious project. Marked by the statement signing of Brenner. But beyond the Brazilian, Cincinnati have been very active in the MLS off-season securing a few other exciting talents.

One of those is Isaac Atanga.

Spotted in Ghana in the Right to Dream academy, Atanga signed for Danish club FC Nordsjælland who are owned by the African football academy.

He has been in Denmark since his 18th birthday and has made a total of 58 appearances for the club’s first team scoring 12 goals and 5 assists.

Atanga has not been as eye-catching as Mohamed Kudus, Mikkel Damsgaard or Andreas Skov Olsen. Or even the likes of Kamaldeen Sulemana and Andreas Schjelderup in the current set-up. However the 20 year old is still an extremely promising talent.

Like many of the club’s attacking stars, Atanga’s key asset is his pace. Combining that with a powerful upper-body makes him a difficult opponent to stop. Especially in full flow.

Atanga’s ability to find space in the box is also an excellent trait. Last season he averaged a total of 5.26 touches in the box per 90. This was the third best in the Danish top tier. Perhaps his 7 goals and 3 assists and underperforming his xG by 2.29 does not paint his finishing in the best light, but in all fairness to Atanga, many of his misses happened due to goal-line clearances and excellent saves rather than shots off target.

In reality the Ghanaian can be fairly composed in front of goal and ranked at 7th in the Danish top tier for shots on target percentage with 39.56% in his position.

Where criticism can be directed is that at times he can drift from the game. He’s not the type of player to instigate attacks, but rather he’s the one who latches onto the end of them and finishes them off.

The prospect of him lining up with the likes of Brenner and Locadia in attack at Cincinnati is an enticing one. However with all three of them similar to Atanga in being ‘finishers’ rather than creators they will rely on the midfield behind them for chances . Nonetheless, if Stam can get the trio to gel and create enough chances for them, the club could have one of the best attacking partnerships in the MLS.

Many of Nordsjaelland’s graduates have gone onto greater things after leaving the Danish outfit, and Atanga will be hoping to follow suit.

He has the skillset and the mentality to do it. Having been nurtured at a club who values youth talent and also building character, Atanga has been prepared adequately for the next step.

Szabolcs Schön

Born: 27 September 2000 (age 20 years), Budapest, Hungary

Height: 1.73 m

Current teams:  FC Dallas (#7 / Forward)

Together with Dominik Szoboszlai, Schon has carried the hopes of a nation ever since a remarkable U17 European Championship performance back in 2017.

The Magyars beat a strong France side on their march to a quarter final finish, with Schon being a perpetual threat. throughout the tournament.

Nurtured in Ajax’s famed academy, the Hungarian winger was highly valued by the Dutch giants and a regular in the club’s U19 team.

However with the winger starving for first team action, and not seeing a clear pathway to do so at an Ajax side who had reached the Champions League semi-finals, Schon made the bold step to move back to Hungary in January 2019 at the age of 18.

Many had labelled him a failure. After all he came to an MTK side who were struggling to stay up in Hungary’s top tier and saw limited playing time in his first half-season with the club.

MTK were ultimately relegated to Hungary’s second tier. However, Schon refused to heed the criticism or give in to doubt.

He picked himself up and fought himself into the starting line-up.

With 4 goals and 6 assists in 17 games he helped MTK gain promotion back to the Hungarian top division playing a crucial role in the club’s last nine games contributing with 2 goals and 4 assists.

After gaining promotion, he has taken his game to a completely new level in Hungary’s top flight and has been the breakout star of NB1.

9 goals and 4 assists in 27 games is proof of exactly that. Since Balazs Dzsudzsak and Krisztian Nemeth in the 06/07 NB1 campaign only five Hungarian U21 players have matched Schon’s 12 goals and assists in Hungary’s top flight.

A pacey customer who loves to run in behind defences, Schon possess a lethal long range shot, which can be as devastating as Dominik Szoboszlai at times, though it is unleashed nowhere near as frequently.

He averages 6.62 dribbles per 90, has a 51% success rate and makes 2.86 progressive runs per 90 which is the 2nd best for a winger in the entire league.

He ranks in the top five for passes into the penalty area (2.29 per 90), smart passes (1.1 per 90) and progressive passes (4.57 per 90) in his position in the Hungarian league. For the latter he has the best accuracy with 75%.

Schon is an energetic player. He likes to cut inside from the left-wing position, but he doesn’t just offer runs offensively. Under Michael Boris’ system, he has been putting in his fair share of defensive duties, pressing and tracking back regularly.

Schon has averaged 8.48 successful defensive actions per 90, the best in his position in the league by over 2.0.

He makes 4.1 interceptions per 90, almost 2 more than any of the other players in his position and also wins 56% of his defensive duels which is an amicable rate for an attacking winger.

Where he is lacking slightly is physically. Schon is of a slender build, and at times he can be dominated by physically imposing opponents. Exemplified by performances in Hungary U21 side. This will be Schon’s biggest challenge in the MLS where he will need to build more muscle in order to be able to dominate the league.

That is the only minute criticism however.

Overall, FC Dallas are getting an exciting young talent. A player who has made smart transfer decisions in the past, and who has already proved he has the mental fortitude to be able to recover from set-backs.

At FC Dallas he will be part of a young squad with an average age of 24.4. The left winger role will certainly be up for the taking too with no established player in the position. For that reason the Hungarian will be one to watch when he ultimately joins up with Dallas in the summer.

All stats from Wyscout.

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