The wait is finally over. The World Cup is here and Major League Soccer will be represented by 11 different nations at the tournament. Keep this as a guide to keep an eye on some of the biggest MLS players in Qatar.
Gareth Bale (Wales, LAFC)
If you haven’t been paying attention, yes Gareth Bale plays in MLS. He even scored a very important goal in extra time to help LAFC win the first MLS Cup in franchise history. But despite all the buzz his arrival in Los Angeles created, he didn’t really deliver. He was off the field more often than not due to injury and perhaps a bit of load management. Yet, that moment in MLS Cup was a reminder of exactly what a player of his caliber can do in a short window. We can’t really be certain what to expect from him at the World Cup, but if anything he should be fresh and rested for Wales. Funny enough, their first game is against the U.S. so a lot of attention will be on that matchup, which will largely shape what happens in Group B.
Héctor Herrera (Mexico, Houston Dynamo)
Mexico already has enough question marks, and HH joins the mix as another one of those. He landed in Houston in the summer to join the Dynamo but had basically no impact on a team that was already heading toward a losing season. Watching him with Mexico offers some optimism because his talent and familiarity in that system can definitely shine in moments. On the other hand, can he keep up as a consistent piece for a team ever-so-desperate to silence critics? I’m not sure he’s the best and most consistent option for Tata Martino.
Thiago Almada (Argentina, Atlanta United)
The 21-year-old midfielder wasn’t on the final World Cup roster but got called up as an injury replacement on Thursday. How much playing time he’ll actually get will be interesting to see because he’s an absolute baller. The 2022 MLS Newcomer of the Year settled in and quickly became one of the few bright spots for Atlanta. Even Lionel Messi thinks highly of him. Almada made his Argentina debut in late September and Messi had this to say: “He’s very fast and he has a lot of 1-v-1 ability. He’s very clever and he’s not afraid of anything. He goes at you.” Seems like someone that could play a decent role coming off the bench for a team playing as a favorite to win the tournament. And who better to give positive feedback than that guy?
Karol Świderski (Poland, Charlotte FC)
Much of Poland’s success will be reliant on Robert Lewandowski. But it can’t be just him, and that’s where the stage is set for someone like Swiderski to have an impact. He scored 10 goals this year in Charlotte’s inaugural season and should be in good form for Qatar. Adding to that is his reliability as he played in 30 of Charlotte’s 34 matches this season. He has proved to fit well in this Polish side and they might need to count on him, especially with former Revs striker Adam Buksa missing out on the tournament due to a foot injury. The first group stage games are important for everyone, but Poland-Mexico holds massive weight because it’ll likely decide who else advances from Group B alongside Argentina.
Facundo Torres (Uruguay, Orlando City)
I like Uruguay in this tournament, a lot. Experience is key in World Cups, and they have plenty of it. But the balance Diego Alonso has throughout this roster is legit. Having a player like Torres be an option off the bench gives you an automatic game-changer. He’s coming in hungry after Orlando kind of struggled through the MLS season yet snuck into the playoffs. If it wasn’t for him, they might have been in Wooden Spoon contention. Also, don’t forget it was his late pair of goals five minutes apart from each other that led Orlando City to win the U.S Open Cup a few months ago. Just a quality player that is largely on the radar for this country and could boost a run that I expect to at least reach the quarterfinals.
Walker Zimmerman (USA, Nashville SC)
Like it or not, the USMNT roster features many MLS players, and a lot of them will actually play big roles. Zimmerman for sure has a tough task as a staple on the back line for Gregg Berhalter. He has emerged as one of the best defenders in the league over the past few seasons, which has translated in both skill and confidence when he dons the red, white and blue. A lot is made about the attack for the U.S., but Zimmerman has to make sure his peers are in sync defensively to keep hopes alive and avoid any disasters in the group stage. Being without a player like Miles Robinson (Achilles) and likely paired along with Aaron Long doesn’t have many feeling overly confident about this defensive unit.
Nouhou Tolo (Cameroon, Seattle Sounders)
Speaking of some of the best defenders in MLS, Nouhou is exactly that. Just an absolute beast of a player with his physicality and nonstop motor. He emerged as a borderline legend for Cameroon fans after flat out erasing Mo Salah from existence in the Africa Cup of Nations semis. He’s no stranger to big stages as he also helped lead the Sounders to becoming the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League. The MLS season was a letdown for them, but that’s largely an anomaly for a franchise that has just dominated the league year after year. Group G certainly wasn’t a friendly landing spot for Cameroon and I don’t expect much from them, but he’s worth keeping an eye on solely for entertainment purposes, specifically against a ferocious Brazilian attack.
José Cifuentes (Ecuador, LAFC)
Cifu’s time in MLS is most likely over. Since arriving in L.A., he has emerged as one of the best midfielders in the league. Head coach Steve Cherundolo constantly praised the Ecuadorian throughout the season, and he paid him back by being one of the most important pieces of a historic run that saw the Black and Gold win the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. He was put on the radar in the 2019 South American U-20 Championship where he flourished as Ecuador took home the title. He’s in line for a big move and this tournament should only help those suitors line up offers. Ecuador was convincing through World Cup qualifying under Gustavo Alfaro and is a team that might surprise some people.
Ismaël Koné (Canada, CF Montreal)
Koné’s rise has been incredible. The 20-year-old is already garnering massive attention, with a move overseas perhaps being in the very near future. He plays well beyond his age, using his calm demeanor but also ability to make plays to stand out among his peers. In the few games he has played with Canada, he has shown that quality and just fits the role very well. Montreal was one of the better teams in MLS this season and he played a significant part, specifically in the second half of the season and playoffs. A lot of eyes are on this kid and I expect head coach John Herdman to give him plenty of chances to showcase himself on the biggest stage of them all.
Jesus Ferreira (USA, FC Dallas)
Will anybody step up to be the definite No. 9 for the USMNT? It for sure won’t be Ricardo Pepi in this tournament as Berhalter surprisingly left him off the roster. Maybe his successor in Dallas will be able to do so. The 2022 MLS Young Player of the Year put in a memorable season with 18 goals, tying the club’s single-season goal record. Can that translate to some on the national stage? I think, which is a dangerous approach when dealing with Berhalter lineups, that he will likely start the opening game against Wales. But Ferreira is probably on a short leash, as are most of the strikers. They didn’t solidify anything throughout qualifying and now they have to basically wing it at the position. He has the quality to make a leap here, but the uncertainty up top is working against him and the U.S. at this point.
Honorable mentions: Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland, Chicago Fire), Alistair Johnston (Canada, CF Montreal, Xavier Arreaga (Ecuador, Seattle Sounders)