Whether it’s due to an unforeseen meteoric rise, an unjustified lack of coverage or just a case of a player getting his first real shot, every year, we see a collection of players come out of the woodwork to make a name for themselves in MLS.
This season was no different, with a slew of breakout players rising from relative obscurity to make their mark on the regular season.
Who made the biggest jumps? Here are our five biggest breakout players of 2016:
Walker Zimmerman, FC Dallas
For those paying attention, Walker Zimmerman’s rise wasn’t exactly a surprise. The fourth-year FC Dallas defender showed flashes in 2015, appearing in 20 regular-season matches for an FCD team that finished the year tied for the most points in the league. He really made his mark in the playoffs, scoring a late goal in the Western Conference Semifinals against Seattle to send the series to extra time before banging home the series-winning penalty kick in the shootout.
After starting Dallas’ 2015 playoff finale in the West final against Portland, Zimmerman cemented his spot in the XI this year, appearing in 30 regular-season games to help FCD to the Supporters’ Shield and playing a significant role in the club’s US Open Cup title. He was a rock beside MLS Defender of the YearMatt Hedges, impressing enough observers to place fifth in the Defender of the Year voting. The big, athletic 23-year-old looks like he’ll be a force for years to come, especially if Dallas are able to keep him and Hedges together.
Patrick Mullins, D.C. United
For a long while, it looked like 2016 might be a lost season for Patrick Mullins. He wasn’t playing much at NYCFC, and seemed destined to be nothing more than a bit player behind David Villa for head coach Patrick Vieira.
Then, in mid-July, Mullins was sent to D.C. United. Returning to the area where he played his college ball, the University of Maryland product got back to the form that made him a two-time Hermann Trophy winner, ripping off eight goals and two assists in just 14 regular season appearances – only 12 of which were starts – with United.
The old adage can be true: Sometimes, all a player needs is a chance with a coach who believes in them.
Axel Sjoberg, Colorado Rapids
With all due respect to another Rapid further down this list, Axel Sjoberg was the top breakout player on the league's top breakout team in 2016. The second-year Swede was the key member of Colorado’s league-best defense, starting all but three regular-season contests and leading the Rapids’ backline in minutes played as Colorado conceded just 32 goals and cruised to the second-best regular season record in MLS.
He also became one of three finalists for the Defender of the Year award that went to Hedges.
Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders FC
Seattle gave up a hefty amount of allocation money to move up in the 2015 SuperDraft to land Cristian Roldan, who has more than paid off the Sounders’ initial investment in him. Only 21, Roldan became an indispensable part of the Sounders’ lineup this season, starting 28 regular-season games and appearing in 33 as Seattle overcame a huge early-season hole to maintain their perfect record of postseason qualification.
Used all over the midfield last year and in the early part of the 2016 season, Roldan blossomed after becoming Ozzie Alonso’s full-time central midfield partner, starting Seattle’s final 19 regular-season matches and scoring all four of his goals and recording two of his three assists during that span.
Marlon Hairston, Colorado Rapids
Marlon Hairston had his best season as a pro in 2016, recording career-highs in starts (14), goals (three) and assists (six) for the surprising Rapids. The third-year winger did occasionally struggle with injury, but ended the year on a very hot run, registering an assist in each of his final three regular-season appearances.