With the Gold Cup break in the books and Wednesday’s matches in hand, all 22 MLS teams have pushed past the 17-game mark, officially bringing us into the second half of the 2017 season.
We’ve had plenty of surprises, star turns and excellent seasons for new arrivals, with much, much more on the way down the stretch. As the league looks toward this weekend’s matches and gears up for the All-Star Game in a couple of weeks, we’ve put together a list of 10 of the top storylines that will play out in the rest of the 2017 season. Let’s start from the top:
1) The MLS Cup Playoff race
Will Atlanta United, or even Minnesota United, become the first MLS expansion teams to reach the MLS Cup Playoffs since the Seattle Sounders completed the feat in 2009? Can Orlando City SC finally get off their playoff schneid in Kaka’s final year under contract? And who could be the midseason addition that has the same impact as Nicolas Lodeiro did on the Sounders’ second-half surge to the 2016 MLS Cup title?
2) Chicago's potential worst-to-first transformation
After two years finishing bottom of the East, the influx of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic and Dax McCarty have dramatically changed the Chicago Fire’s outlook. But can they continue their run at the Eastern Conference crown and become the first team to go worst-to-first since D.C. United accomplished the feat in 2014? (The Colorado Rapids came within two points of going worst-to-first in the West last year).
3) How will VAR be received?
With the Video Assistant Referee initiative set to go live in all 22 MLS stadiums after the All-Star Game, it will only be a matter of time before we see our first reversed call. But beyond that, what will the overall reaction be from players, coaches and officials? Who will be the first team to benefit? Will it make a difference on the playoff race? And will referees develop any reputations -- good or bad -- with respect for their need for VAR assistance?
4) Toronto FC hunt the treble
FC Dallas made a run at the treble last season, and the Reds may get their chance this fall. They already wrapped up the Canadian Championship with a dramatic finals victory over Montreal. And with one more home game -- and a slightly better away record -- than Chicago, Toronto FC might have the slight edge in the run toward the Supporters' Shield. Anything can happen in the playoffs, and TFC will have the quality -- and the motivation -- to avenge last year's heartbreaking shootout loss in MLS Cup.
5) Seattle seek another stretch-run surge
The defending champs have been off-color and out of sorts, but could another second-half run be in store? Wednesday's history-making comeback win against D.C. was a good start. An extended tour with the US national team could help Jordan Morris break out of his slump. And just maybe, Clint Dempsey will have a second half that convinces the Sounders to exercise their team option on his contract at the end of the season.
6) Will Nemanja Nikolic break the record?
The Serbian-Hungarian has taken the MLS by storm this season with 16 goals, and is currently on pace to hit 28 if he stays healthy and effective for Chicago. That would be one more than the all-time record, owned jointly by Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips. Only Lassiter did it in his first MLS season though, the inaugural 1996 MLS campaign that had two fewer games on the schedule than the current slate.
7) Stories from Los Angeles
Can Giovani dos Santos and Romain Alessandrini figure out a way to put the Galaxy on their back and make a playoff push? And if they don’t, will expansion LAFC make some sort of big signing splash that steals the headlines six months before they play their inaugural MLS match?
8) Will Sporting KC become MLS’ all-time best defense?
Peter Vermes’ defense has become almost impenetrable, conceding only 14 times in Sporting KC's 20 matches. The league record is 20 goals allowed (in 30 games), set by Jason Kreis’ Real Salt Lake side in 2010. With 14 more matches to go, that lofty standard might be out of reach. Then again, with the form Tim Melia and Ike Opara are in, anything is possible.
9) Are the freewheeling Quakes for real?
They took their lumps in Wednesday's tough loss at New York, but the San Jose Earthquakes have looked a different, more dangerous side since Jesse Fioranelli removed longtime coach Dominic Kinnear and installed Chris Leitch. There’s a lot more time for opponents to figure out what the new-look ‘Quakes are all about. But so far, it’s reasonable to think maybe San Jose can reach the postseason for the first time since 2012.
10) DC United try to leave RFK on a high note
The Black-and-Red have at least eight games remaining at their East Capitol Street home where they’ve played four MLS Cup-winning seasons and created countless memorable moments. Might they have another second-half charge in them like last season? If Patrick Mullins and Lucho Acosta can get on the field -- and hot -- at the same time, they could avoid a sad departure.