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2012 MLS Preview: 5 New Stars to Watch

Though this past off-season may not be remembered for big name "celebrity" player signings, a number of proven players have joined the league, and are likely to make big contributions to their new clubs in 2012. Though dozens of quality players signed MLS contracts since last December, several stand out as especially significant additions.

Below is a guide to the top five newcomers I believe will make the biggest impact in 2012.

5. Blas Perez, FC Dallas (from Indios)

For years, Perez has been the shining star of Panama’s national team, earning plenty of plaudits in CONCACAF competition and causing many (this author included) to ask why he hasn’t been targeted by MLS. Well this winter FC Dallas finally managed to sign the imposing strike and in doing so they have put together a menacing attack, with Perez ready to serve in the traditional number 9 role.

With 2010 MVP David Ferreira returning from a long injury layoff, budding star Brek Shea returning to the left wing, and promising youngster Fabian Castillo in the mix, the Hoops should pose plenty of problems for opposing defenses. Perez will provide the team with a true target striker, something that was clearly missing last season, and should be a great benefit to Dallas’ wing players.

The bottom line:FC Dallas already boasts two early MVP candidates (Shea + Ferreira) and if Perez can carry over his international form (22 goals in 39 games for Panama) then they may have three candidates by season’s end.

4. Edson Buddle, LA Galaxy (from FC Ingolstadt)

The best team in the league got even better this winter when they were re-acquainted with Edson Buddle, who returned to the club after a debatably unsuccessful one-year stint in Germany. In his three and a half seasons with the Galaxy, Buddle managed to score 15 or more goals twice, including a 17-goal campaign in 2010, which helped earn him a spot on the American World Cup roster.

Buddle returns to a team that will now pair him with Robbie Keane, and the two will form what may be the most lethal striking partnership in MLS history. When Keane is forced to miss a portion of the season for Euro 2012, Buddle will play an important role in maintaining the Galaxy’s attacking threat.

The bottom line:With Buddle in the mix and nearly every major contributor returning (minus Omar Gonzalez), the Galaxy have their sights set firmly on MLS and CONCACAF glory in 2012.

3. Wilman Conde, New York Red Bulls (from Atlas)

The Colombian defender joins the Red Bulls for his second stint in MLS. In his four seasons with the Chicago Fire, Conde was a standout performer, earning MLS All-Star status twice before leaving for Mexican club Atlas in 2010. He replaces the outgoing Tim Ream, who despite showing obvious potential, was far too error-prone for the Red Bulls last season.

Though Conde may lack some of Ream’s distribution qualities from a defensive position, the 29-year-old is a proven commodity in this league and may be a better fit on the back-line at Red Bull Arena. The Red Bulls were the league’s most disappointing team in 2011 and many of their problems began with unsteady defending. If Conde’s past performance in MLS is any indication, they have added a very steady cog in the middle
of their defense for 2012 as long as he can stay healthy.

The bottom-line:While the departed Ream may have a brighter future, Conde can help the Red Bulls win now, which is the club’s ultimate priority.

2. Jaime Castrillon, Colorado Rapids (from Once Caldas)

For much of their history the Rapids have been derided for playing a rigid, physical, defensive game that values results over any semblance of attractive play. With the signing of Castrillon, an accomplished veteran of the Colombia national team and a creative force in the Colombian First Division for the last decade, the Rapids may finally be showing signs that they want to break out of their negative shell.

Though defensive minded midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Lawrentowicz will remain the back-bone of this team, Castrillon gives them a dynamic playmaker with the ability to both score and create goals in bunches. The 28 year-old has scored 58 goals in more than 300 career games with Colombian sides Independiente Medellin and Once Caldas. He is also a regular figure in international competition, with 29 appearances for Los Cafeteros.

The bottom line:He may not be among the league leaders in goals scored, but if he can make the Rapids watchable then there will be few players who are more valuable in the league.

1. Hamdi Salihi, D.C. United (from Rapid Vienna)

Despite narrowly missing the playoffs last season, D.C. United made big strides toward becoming an MLS Cup contender once again. With reigning league MVP Dwayne DeRosario returning and a foundation of young players throughout the team’s lineup, United’s most glaring remaining weakness was on the front-line. The purchase of Salihi from Austrian side Rapid Vienna should give the team a major boost in that department. Of note from a salary cap perspective, D.C. United signed the 28-year-old to a Designated Player (DP) contract. 

Salihi is a proven goal-scorer, and at 6-foot-1, he has the ability to influence games as both an effective target-man and by holding the ball at the top of United’s formation. The Albanian international has an excellent scoring record for both club and country, scoring 53 goals in 90 career appearances for Rapid Vienna, and nine goals for Albaniain international play. His presence will also benefit United’s creative attacking players, providing De Rosario with extra space in a withdrawn forward role, while also freeing up wingers Andy Najar and Chris Pontius on either flank. As an added bonus, Salihi will be reunited with his former Rapid teammate Branko Boskovic, who is United’s other DP, and will be returning after missing most of last season due to injury.

The bottom line:Salihi is already having an impressive pre-season and is likely to be a key piece to what may be one of the league’s most potent attacking teams.

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Honorable Mentions:
Jose Moreno, New England Revolution (from Once Caldas)
Kris Boyd, Portland Timbers (from Eskişehirspor)

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