But with so many players to watch in the 29-team league, who has a realistic shot at making the jump to the first division? Here are five who could be coming to an MLS pitch near you.
Alessandro Riggi (FC Montreal)
Riggi grew up in the Impact academy, tested his skills in Europe then returned to Montreal at 21. Now 22, he’s relishing his time back home with FC Montreal, where he scored nine goals and two assists from his winger position in 2015, including these two in a 4-0 demolition of Louisville. The time away may have delayed his ascent in the organization, but Impact head coach Mauro Biello certainly knows Riggi now.
Kharlton Belmar (Timbers 2)
Drafted in 2015 by the Timbers, who already boasted a crowded stable of goalscorers, Belmar signed with T2 and was a revelation, leading the team with 12 goals and adding three assists. The former VCU man is deadly accurate in the box, and took the 2015 USL Rookie of the Year honor for his efforts. If the Timbers don't find room for him soon, someone else could come in for the 23-year-old.
Dane Kelly (Swope Park Rangers)
Dane Kelly is the most fearsome striker you’ve never heard of. At just 25, the Jamaican is the all-time leading goalscorer in the USL’s current five-year history, and has moved from Charleston, South Carolina, to Kansas City, where he’ll finally have a chance to test himself daily against some of the best in MLS as a member of the Rangers. Sporting are clearly excited to see Kelly in action for themselves.
Brandon Miller (Orange County Blues)
Anchor and organizer of the Rochester Rhinos backline – the most dominant defense in any league in America – last year, USL Goalkeeper of the Year Brandon Miller averaged an incredible 0.54 GAA and .807 save percentage, both league bests. Now with the Orange County Blues, half of MIller’s games will come against MLS-operated affiliates (including Belmar and Kelly). Another year like 2015 could land the 26-year-old a shot at the next level.
Brady Ballew (Tulsa Roughnecks FC)
Seattle-area native Brady Ballew burst on the scene as a rookie in 2015, scoring six goals and adding four assists to help expansion Tulsa Roughnecks FC to within minutes of a playoff berth. Boasting speed and defensive chops in midfield, the dynamic fan favorite re-signed with Tulsa for 2016 and beyond, but Sounders fans may find themselves wondering how this local boy got away.