25 Soccer Players to Watch in 2014/15

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The Premier League is underway, the Bundesliga and La Liga will soon get going and Serie A isn’t far behind. So we surveyed Paste Soccer contributors to find the 25 players they’ll be watching this year.

This list isn’t about the 25 best players in Europe. There’s no Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi or Zlatan Ibrahimovic here, because their situations are unchanged, their talents undoubted. And this isn’t about the 25 best young players either, though some youngsters certainly made the list, especially those that will see playing time. This list is about 25 players who have something to prove and challenges to meet in 2014/5.

There will be players you’re excited about this year that did not make the list. Let us know about those players in the comments, and tell us why you’ll have your eye on them this season.

In no particular order, here are our 25 players to watch this season:

1. James Rodríguez, attacking midfielder, Real Madrid

The world fell in love “Hames” this summer, thanks to his boyish face, elegant dribbling, hyperactive movement (he ALWAYS wanted the ball), clever passing and effortless finishing. How did someone so unassuming and angelic looking carry put Colombia on his back and carry them to the World Cup quarterfinals? But playing for Real Madrid, where expectations are sky high and teammates worth many millions of dollars all want the ball too, please, will be a different proposition. After a near-perfect World Cup, it’s almost inevitable that Rodríguez will disappoint this season when he is revealed to be merely human, and not actually an angel in a #10 shirt. Or maybe it’s not. Here’s hoping the world still loves Rodriguez just as much by the summer of 2015.

2. Luis Suarez, forward, Barcelona

Is Suarez the man to return Barcelona to the pinnacle of club soccer? Will the Uruguayan combine with Leo Messi and Neymar to form an unstoppable trident? Or will they all get in each other’s way? More importantly, can Suarez avoid sinking his teeth into opposition players for a whole season? Seasoned Spanish defenders (in both senses of the word) will have their eye on him. Suarez is suspended until late October, but that only makes his return all the more exciting. His first game back could be October 26, when Barcelona welcome Real Madrid to the Camp Nou for El Clasico.

3. Alexis Sanchez, winger/forward, Arsenal

Alexis Sanchez, do you take this talented, well-coached team with a cadre of talented midfielders who will hoof sumptuous throughballs into your path, to be your Premier League and Champions League team of choice, until death or Barca realizes its mistake do you part? And Arsenal, do you take this speedy winger to provide the offensive punch needed to go toe-to-toe with Chelsea and Manchester City, until death or Arsene Wenger’s retirement do you part? This marriage benefits Mesut Özil the most, as he finally has Arsenal’s answer to Cristiano Ronaldo delivered to him for his sophomore season in the Prem. Arsenal’s FA Cup win in May silenced the “no trophies” talk from critics, but whetted the appetite of fans for more. The short-lived honeymoon for Sanchez ends with the Community Shield match on August 10. —PW

4. Paul Pogba, midfielder, Juventus

Statistically, Paul Pogba had a ho-hum World Cup with Les Bleus: he assisted Karim Benzema in France’s thrashing of Switzerland and scored a late goal against Nigeria. But for anyone who doesn’t get a chance to watch Serie A, Pogba was a revelation: his assist was beautiful, and his lone goal came at a crucial time. Pogba excelled in the midfield this summer, winning tough balls and then storming forward with determined, muscular runs and flowing passes. There’s a reason he was voted this World Cup’s Best Young Player. In 2014, Pogba will be crucial if Juventus hope to win their fourth consecutive Scudetto, and with a little guidance from veteran midfielder and possible seraph Andrea Pirlo, there’s no reason to think he won’t be on this list for years to come. —JL

5. Jozy Altidore, forward, Sunderland

Unlike many of the other players that you’ll see on this list, Jozy Altidore has been disappointing in the last calendar year. After going on a scoring tear for two years at AZ Alkmaar, Jozy was one of Sunderland’s marquee signings before the last English Premier League season – or at least he was supposed to be. The northern English side ended up paying $13 million for just one league goal. Jozy was expected to be one of the most important players for the US during this summer’s World Cup, but he came off with a hamstring injury and played fewer than 30 minutes in the entire tournament. Despite speculation that he would move on to a different club, it appears as if the 24-year-old striker will end up back with the Black Cats who narrowly avoided relegation last year. Can Jozy finally become an impact player in one of the biggest leagues in the world, or will we always remember him as a guy who was good, but not quite good enough? —ER

6. Raheem Sterling, winger/forward, Liverpool

England’s World Cup devolved into a damp squib with remarkable, if predictable, speed. Yet the performances of Liverpool’s slight but deceptively sinewy winger caught the eye. The 19-year-old displayed strong hints of the form that contributed so decisively to Liverpool’s over-achievement in last season’s Premier League, in particular his willingness to attack fullbacks, and his propensity for popping up in dangerous areas at unexpected times. With Luis Suarez now cutting his teeth on a fresh Catalan challenge, the pressure on Sterling to improve upon this form, and assist the ever-improving Daniel Sturridge, will be immense. Unlike the stagnating Jack Wilshere, Sterling seems to have the drive and mental strength to improve his game every season until he’s a world class player. —AC

7. Gerard Deulofeu, winger/forward, Sevilla (on loan from FC Barcelona)

Though Barcelona have spent big the past two summers on Neymar and Luis Suarez, the club’s greatest successes are usually homegrown. Long whispered to be Barca’s next golden child—long enough to avoid any Bojan snark—Deulofeu is capable of playing on both wings or as a centre forward, the young Catalan possesses boundless pace, a direct and aggressive mindset, and close control that has drawn regular parallels with Leo Messi. On loan last season with Everton, he saw limited time due to injury, but consistently proved himself to a dangerous instigator in attack which endeared himself to the blue half of Liverpool. Being loaned out again, this time to Sevilla, may be disappointing for Deulofeu, but it will be a chance to show Barcelona fans—and coaching staff—what they have to look forward to on his return. —JB

8. Julian Draxler, attacker, Schalke 04

With certain players received the ball, you can’t help but sit up and pay attention. Julian Draxler is one of those players. Something is always about to happen, because the only thing faster than his acceleration is his change of direction. In full flow, he looks like someone’s playing FIFA with the cheat codes on. Draxler is only 20, but despite his growing reputation has not been agitating for a move to a bigger team. He’s is in a position where he can expect to start regularly at Schalke, and after what even Draxler admits was a down year in 2013/4, in which he only scored twice, the player has pledged to be more of a leader and a goalscorer in 2014/5. I’m looking forward to watching.

9. Ashley Cole, left back, Roma

Left to moulder on the subs’ bench by “The Happy One”, England’s best-ever left back [editor’s note: Stuart Pearce called, he’d like to speak with you, outside] apparently spent much of last season trying to make himself look like Mr. T, before failing to secure a spot in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad. But the few times Jose Mourinho allowed Cole onto the pitch, he displayed his class, shutting down right-sided attacks with a characteristic blend of timing, canny positioning and controlled aggression. In one of the more intriguing transfers of the summer, Cole—still only 33 years old, remember—has been snapped up by hungry Roma coach Rudi García in order to bolster his team’s quest for an overdue Scudetto. As his move to a highly competitive European league confirms, Cole is far from finished, and this free transfer looks like very smart business indeed. —AC

10. David Luiz, center back, Paris Saint-Germain

The £50m lavished on David Luiz by the admittedly flush PSG always seemed like an exorbitant fee for one of world soccer’s less, shall we say, disciplined performers. But in the wake of Brazil’s 7-1 thrashing by Germany in the World Cup semi-final—and in particular Luiz’s headless-rooster-on-speed star turn—the cost seems positively laughable. Luiz looked psychologically (and spiritually) destroyed by the Mineirão calamity, and it will be fascinating to see if the man who is now the world’s most expensive defender can smarten up his act in a new league. His salvation may come in the form of an arm around the shoulder from PSG coach Laurent Blanc, an astute defensive tactician with a storied career of his own as an international defender for France. —AC

11. Bojan Krki?, forward, Stoke City

British pundit Andy Gray prompted much unintentional hilarity back in 2010 when he insisted, without apparent irony, that Ballon d’Or nominee Lionel Messi was overrated, and would “struggle on a wet, windy night at the Britannia Stadium,” where the then notoriously physical Stoke City play their home games. Well, we won’t be seeing Messi there any time soon. But thanks to one of this summer’s more confounding transfers, we will be seeing the man once tipped to follow in his footsteps: the much vaunted Bojan Krki?. At 23, Krki? has failed to catch fire in the way many soccer fans had hoped, and his move from Barcelona to one of the EPL’s less glamorous outfits confirms this fall from grace. Will Krci? apply himself and light up the league? Or will he languish in the wind and rain, echoing Gray’s mocking of Messi. —AC

12. Mario Mandzukic, striker, Atletico Madrid

This summer’s game of Striker Roulette bumped Mario Mandzukic from one of the best places in the world to be a striker, as Bayern Munich decided to indulge in its annual tradition of plucking a prized player from rivals Borussia Dortmund. But everyone’s favorite overachievers from last year, Atletico Madrid, found itself with a hole up top when Diego Costa bolted for Chelsea, and Mandzukic will have a great time filling it. Though repeating as La Liga champs and Champions League finalists is a tall order for the Madridistas, the rock-solid Croatian will thrive in the rest of his best years with Diego Simeone managing him and with a still-loaded midfield feeding him the ball. —PW

13. Cesc Fabregas, midfielder, Chelsea

For far too long, basically ever since he left Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas has been denied the opportunity to be the heartbeat of a team. For three long years at Barcelona, Cesc played fourth fiddle to Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Even when he played, Cesc was never the main man. But when Cesc joined Chelsea this summer, he instantly became the club’s central central midfielder. Eden Hazard, Andre Schurrle, Oscar and Willian will be ahead of him doing the dribbling and stepovers, John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Mati? will do the tackling and intercepting. And in the middle of it all, connecting front to back, will be Cesc Fabregas. Finally he has a midfield to command, and I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

14. Arjen Robben, winger, Bayern Munich

Perhaps no player in this World Cup did more to simultaneously raise and besmirch his profile than Arjen Robben. He scored brilliant goals, led his team on a courageous run that came just short of the finals, admitted to diving, and didn’t admit to the dive/fall that helped the Netherlands edge past Mexico. Back with Bayern Munich for another campaign of lofty, Champions League-level aspirations, Robben is still surrounded by German teammates, who are coming off a World Cup win, and Ballon D’Or finalist Franck Ribery, as well as one new key addition in Robert Lewandowski. But Robben’s still the X Factor for the Bavarian Bombers, able to create havoc in an opponent’s final third in his inimitable, sometimes maddening fashion. Each goal he scores seems to say “haters gonna hate,” and those haters will be given plenty of opportunities again this season. —PW

15. Daniel Sturridge, striker, Liverpool

A man constantly auditioning for Strictly Come Dancing, Sturridge settled in nicely at Liverpool, sharing the scoring burden with everyone’s new favorite reason to hate Barcelona, Luis Suarez. After being shunted out on the wing at Chelsea, Sturridge showed what he is capable of given a central striking berth last season, claiming 24 goals in 33 appearances, including a ridiculous lob of Tim Howard. Liverpool have brought in more midfield support this year, but with Suarez gone, the task of firing Liverpool to success rests squarely on his popping and locking shoulders. —MH

16. Mario Balotelli

What if the Liverpool attack doesn’t rest squarely on Daniel Sturridge’s shoulders? At time of writing, it’s looking very much like Balotelli will be joining Liverpool from Milan. Then the question becomes: Where and how does Super Mario fit into this Liverpool team? Though he brings a constant goal threat, Balotelli’s not as mobile as Suarez, and not always as lively. And it seemed that Brendan Rodger’s Liverpool attack was a finely tuned machine in which everyone knows which cog they are and where they fit. It’s impossible to predict how successful Balotelli would be at Anfield, but, if that’s where he’s going, it’s going to be an awful lot of fun finding out.

17. Thiago Alcântara, midfielder, Bayern Munich

Bad news: the knee injury that kept Alcântara out of Spain’s World Cup squad is back, and he won’t be fit again until at least October. Good news: his comeback will be worth waiting for. Alcântara was the one player Pep Guardiola was determined to take with him from Barcelona to Bayern Munich last summer, because Thiago Alcântara is everything Pep wants in a midfielder—perfect passing at any range, constant movement off the ball, and the sort of eye for a through ball that can’t be taught. You either have that weird M. C. Escher vision that allows you to send ball through gaps that aren’t there, or you don’t. And Alcântara has it.

18. Dušan Tadi?, attacking midfielder, Southampton

With one flick of his ankle, which broke open Liverpool’s defense and sent Nathaniel Clyne through on goal, Dušan Tadi? ended the talk of Southampton losing all their best players. Tadi? famously led the Eredivisie in chances created last season with 133, and it’s easy to see why. He’s got the vision and touch of a playmaker, combined with the speed and directness of a winger. The grieving process for Southampton fans just became a lot shorter.

19. Phil Jones, defender, Manchester United

This is the year for the big Manchester United defender. Jones is only 22 years old, but already has half a decade of Premier League experience on his resume, and looks ready to be the main man in Manchester United’s defense. With Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand gone from Old Trafford, Jones finally has the opportunity to end his nomadic days of filling in at right back and defensive midfield, and finally make that starting center back spot his own. Jones has the speed, strength, and sense of timing to remind everyone why Alex Ferguson paid £16.5m for him in 2009.

20. Martin Ødegaard, attacking midfielder, Strømsgodset IF

This kid is just 15 years old, and he’s playing in Norway’s top division, running circles around grown-ass men. Even better, he was just called up to the Norwegian national team. Any talk of moving to a bigger team in a bigger league is on hold until Ødegaard is at least 16, so, for now, just enjoy the highlights. And start hoping your team has connections in Norway.

21. Robert Lewandowski, striker, Bayern Munich

Did Bayern Munich really need an attacking upgrade? Does any team that wins its domestic league by March actually need one of the world’s scariest forwards? When you’re Bayern Munich, it’s not about what you need, it’s about what you want. And Bayern wanted Robert Lewandowski. No disrespect to Mario Mandzukic, the man was magnificent with his head, and Atletico are lucky to have him. But Robert Lewandowski has got the lot. He can play with his back to goal, run through on goal at pace, make space for himself with a sneaky shuffle of his feet, or just strike savage shots from distance. Add that to Bayern’s arsenal of passing and dribbling, and we should be looking at a man about to break several goalscoring records.

22. Koke, midfielder, Atletico Madrid

Wonder why Atletico Madrid strikers like Radamel Falcao and Diego Costa couldn’t stop scoring? It’s at least partly because of the supply line. The 22-year-old Koke is a midfielder with a right foot that can pick locks, and he’s always looking to set Atletico’s forwards free. The faces may change, but the provider-in-chief keeps the chances coming. This season, expect to see Koke provide assists in the double digits and establish himself as a starter in the Spanish national team as the next generation of midfielders gets its shot.

23. Domenico Berardi, forward, Juventus (on loan at Sassuolo)

They’re already calling the 20-year-old striker a predestinato in Italy, meaning he’s destined for greatness. Juventus bought him last year but immediately loaned the then-teenager back to little Sassuolo for the team’s first ever season in Serie A. Incredibly, Berardi scored 16 goals, including a hat-trick vs Fiorentina, which was just enough for Sassuolo to finish one spot above the dotted line of death. How did he do it? Berardi possesses that special burst of acceleration and strength that seems to keep him always just ahead of increasingly desperate-looking defenders until he inevitably shoots low into the side netting. Berardi is back on loan at Sassuolo again for 2014/5, where his challenge is to keep scoring and see if he can keep them up for another year. The enjoyment for neutrals will be in watching a young, talented forward carry that responsibility.

24. Julian Green, attacker, Bayern Munich

After 15 ludicrously composed goals in 23 games for Bayern II last season, and one famous goal for the USA at World Cup 2014, the 19-year-old German-American has finally been elevated to Bayern’s Munich’s first team. American fans can’t wait to see more of Green, but chances will be few and far between. Names like Franck Ribery, Mario Götze, Xherdan Shaqiri and more stand between Green and a starting spot, but Pep Guardiola has indicated that Green will be given Bundesliga minutes in 2014/15.

25. Romelu Lukaku, striker, Everton

The big Belgian is now officially an Everton player. Lukaku’s years of wandering the Premier League on loan, waiting to be made first-choice at Chelsea, are over. His career begins now. And after a surprisingly unsuccessful World Cup—he seemed to be crowded out by defenders in every game he played—Lukaku is officially an Everton player, at no small cost. His challenge isn’t just to prove he’s worth the £28 million Everton gambled on him (almost double the Toffees’ previous biggest spend), it’s to remind the world that here is a striker who has the complete skillset—pace, size, strength, touch, smarts—and that Jose Mourinho was wrong to let him go.

Contributors: Daryl Grove, Phil West, Ashley Clark, Joseph Leray, Matt Hartley, Jordan Brown, Evan Ream