The time has come. While we wish we could live in the moment that was winning the 2022 MLS Cup, forever, we must at least pretend to get excited about the year turning over, as we prepare for the 2023 season ahead. First though, as is custom, we must hand out some flowers for the championship-winning performances of players throughout the 2022 campaign. First up for voting, the LAFC Breakout Player of the Year. It was definitely the season for some incredible production from somewhat surprising sources.
Let’s start with an honorable mention. Despite not finishing the season with LAFC, it would be egregious to not mention him at the very least. 19-year-old defender Mamadou Fall broke onto the scene and only kept improving. His knack for burying perfectly placed corner kicks, as well as his aggression as a brick wall at the back, opened many eyes this year. Unfortunately for those who loved seeing him in the black-and-gold, he balled a little too hard and opened the eyes of those abroad. He was sent on loan to Spain’s Villarreal CF. In just 12 matches, he has already netted two goals for his new club, and has once again become a fan favorite. Here’s hoping we get to see a bit more of the talented defender in LA, before he heads off to Europe for good.
Normally, when we hear the term ‘breakout player’ we think of players who perhaps saw more bench time than playing time previously, or youngsters who when given a chance, make the most of it. We rarely talk about players who came into a season as one of the better players, but that's exactly what we have in Jose Cifuentes. Despite being one of the better players on the roster post-2021 departures, he faced arguably the most pressure. It was up to him replace who many believed was one of, if not the best midfielder in the league, Eduard Atuesta. Cifuentes not only filled the hole, but he took over the puppeteer strings, taking full control of the middle of the pitch.
With seven goals, seven assists, and an 81% successful passing rate, Cifu had a year to remember. Not only did the team not miss a beat, it felt like it had gotten better. Sure, part of that was down to improvements made to the midfield as a whole, but mostly it was due to the stellar play of the Ecuadorian International. This marks the second straight season where Cifuentes finished with at least five goals and five assists. With him set to make even more noise at the World Cup this month, it will take a monumental effort to keep him in Los Angeles for the future, but it's an effort that should definitely be made.
Almost every single athlete will tell you they'd put it all on the line for a championship, yet very few actually do when given that opportunity. Not LAFC goalkeeper, Maxime Crepeau. The Canadian International sacrificed not just his body, but his spot in the upcoming World Cup, putting himself on the line to make a play that eventually helped push LAFC in winning the MLS Cup. This season was more than just that play for Max though, in many ways, it was the culmination of the season. It was a horrific visual, a moment that perfectly encapsulated just how crucial he has been to this club all year, not just in that moment. There's no arguing, goalkeeper was the biggest position of concern for LAFC after the 2021 season. They had just finished three years of subpar productivity at the position, not having a solid number one since the departure of Tyler Miller.
All of that changed with the arrival of Crepeau though. While he may not have a highlight reel filled with ‘stand on your head’ moments, he did something far more important for the club. He provided some much-needed stability. He finished the 2022 campaign with a career-high nine clean sheets, racked up a modest 76 saves and maintained a 68% save rate. And yes, he also had the moment many believe won the MLS Cup for his new side.
If there is one player on the LAFC roster that embodies this award, it's Kwadwo “Mahala” Opoku. To say he took the league by storm would be both an overstatement and understatement. To those who watched the league intently, Mahala quickly became must-watch. For the more casual fan, they may have missed the Mahala hype-train until the playoffs where he was able to shine on an even bigger stage.
The 21-year-old forward had an incredible campaign after a brief run of matches in 2021. After just six total appearances last year, Opoku featured in 34 matches this season, with 20 starts. He opened up his scoring account this season, and finished with seven goals along with three assists. The youngster is one of the few players who also featured under Head Coach Steve Cherundolo during his time with the Las Vegas Lights, so his performance in the MLS shouldn't be too surprising. It’s hard to imagine a year going as well as this one did for Mahala, but that's what makes him so exciting, you can tell he's just getting started.
LAFC 2022 Breakout Player of the Year
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