Five MLS newcomers to watch in 2012
In recent years, as the level of play continues to improve, MLS has transformed from a strange outpost to a busy thoroughfare on the transfer market. This has made it considerably easier to bring in not only megasignings like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Rafa Marquez, but the next tier of talent, too. Most notably, this has manifested itself in a remarkable influx of 14 Colombians ranging from the obscure to the well-established who have signed with MLS teams this offseason.
But as the league awaits former Germany captain Michael Ballack's expected entry in mid-summer -- to be joined by Vancouver Whitecaps-bound Scottish Middlesbrough midfielder Barry Robson in July -- no true press-stopping signings have been made. Yet the following five players, while lacking superstar status, should be bring plenty of excitement in action.
1. Kris Boyd, forward, Portland Timbers
After being heavily courted by the Houston Dynamo, Boyd decided to sign as a designated player with another team that employs an uber-British style, the Portland Timbers. Boyd is as enigmatic as he is prolific. In just nine full seasons with Kilmarnock and Glasgow Rangers, he became the all-time top goalscorer of the Scottish Premier League, scoring 164 goals in 296 appearances. But amazingly, he wasn't even always a starter in that time. He was regularly used as a super sub because he was prone to disappearing for long stretches of games. A disagreement over playing time also caused him to butt heads with Scotland manager George Burley, which is why Boyd only has 18 appearances (seven goals) for his country. After failed stints with Middlesbrough, which loaned him to fellow Championship side Nottingham Forest, and Eskisehirspor, Boyd is still only 28. And his talents -- playing off the defenders' shoulder and toiling almost exclusively in the penalty box -- should ideally fit a hard-working MLS team like the Timbers.
2. Markus Holgersson, defender, New York Red Bulls
There were many issues that kept the Red Bulls from becoming the juggernaut they should have been last year. But easily outdistancing all the others was defense. The Red Bulls' usual center-back pairing last year has been disbanded; Tim Ream moved to Bolton and Rafa Marquez to the midfield. Former Chicago Fire defender Wilman Conde, who played in Mexico in 2011, signed with New York. But the linchpin to the new-look defense will be Holgersson. Although he has never played outside of Sweden, having lately been a regular for league-champions Helsingborg, he recently became a Swedish international, making his debut in a friendly against Qatar in January. At 26, Holgersson's career is still on the upswing and he could help settle the Red Bulls defense for years to come. Indeed, his physical 6-foot-3 frame is exactly the sort of physique his fellow Swede, head coach Hans Backe, realized the team was missing in the back this past season.
3. Lee Young-Pyo, defender, Vancouver Whitecaps
To enormous excitement in Vancouver's Asian community, the 'Caps acquired left back Lee in early December. Lee was one of the primary beneficiaries of South Korea's dream run to the World Cup semifinals in his own country in 2002 -- along with Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung -- parlaying the tournament into a lengthy European career with PSV, Tottenham and Borussia Dortmund. After two years in Saudi Arabia, the 34-year-old Lee joins one of MLS's leakiest defenses. Together with the experienced Jay DeMerit and Alain Rochat, Lee gives the 'Caps the makings of a solid back line on which to build for its sophomore season in the league.
4. Blas Perez, forward, FC Dallas
Although it is natural to be leery of any player who is on his 15th professional club by age 30, the signing of Panamanian forward Blas Perez -- who has 22 goals in 38 games for Los Canaleros -- is a major coup for Dallas. Not least because it was in dire need of a quality striker to play in front of David Ferreira, Brek Shea and Fabian Castillo. Perez compliments that hugely talented and mobile threesome, offering a big, strong body that can both bull and finesse his way to goal. And having played for huge clubs all over the hemisphere like Nacional, Deportivo Cali and Tigres, scoring regularly at each stop, the assimilation to MLS should be a straightforward one.
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5. Hamdi Salihi, forward, D.C. United
The biggest wild card among MLS newcomers is Salihi. But United has a long history of unearthing strikers -- Jaime Moreno, Raul Diaz Arce, Luciano Emilio -- who score goals by the bunches for them, and Salihi could be a worthy addition to their ranks. An Albanian international (nine goals in 37 games), Salihi has an impressive track record in the Albanian and Austrian leagues, having strung together eight consecutive seasons in which he has scored between 12 and 29 league goals. And if those leagues don't carry the weight others in Europe might, Salihi, who is nicknamed The Bomber, was nevertheless attracting significant transfer buzz from the Premier League and Celtic, moving United to swoop in and sign him as a designated player.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.
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