Whether it’s an unheralded newcomer turning into an impact player or an emerging pro finding his groove, every MLS season features at least one or two players who rise from relative obscurity to make a serious mark on the league.
We had one excellent example in 2016, with FC Dallas center back Walker Zimmerman emerging as one of the league’s top young defenders in his fourth year as a pro. The 23-year-old started 30 regular season games for FCD in 2016, eclipsing the total number of starts he made in his first three years combined. He made the most of his playing time, too, helping Dallas to the US Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield, finishing fourth in Defender of the Year voting and earning a call-up to the US national team’s January camp.
Who will be the Zimmerman of 2016? Four candidates – second-year pros, who can be expected to make solid strides after their rookie year, were excluded – are below:
Sebastian Lletget – LA Galaxy
Sebastian Lletget isn’t exactly an unknown (he was called to the USMNT’s January camp, after all). But the LA Galaxy midfielder is a player who could conceivably elevate his game to an All-Star level in 2017. He was excellent when playing central midfield down the stretch in 2016, and with Steven Gerrard retired, shouldn’t have any issues grabbing minutes in the middle of the Galaxy’s midfield. If he keeps trending up and keeps playing in the center, he could develop into a legitimate MLS star and a regular US international.
Erik Palmer-Brown – Sporting Kansas City
The youngest defender to ever start an MLS match, Erik Palmer-Brown spent 2016 on a year-long loan at FC Porto B, the reserve side of the Portuguese giants. Still only 19, the Homegrown signing had a successful stint in Portugal, helping Porto B to their first league title at the tail end of the 2015-16 season and working his way back into the lineup after an injury derailed the start of his 2016-17 campaign.
There were reportedly some talks about Porto permanently acquiring Palmer-Brown, but the young center back is now back with SKC, where he’s expected to compete for minutes next to Sporting captain Matt Besler in 2017. If he can work his way into the lineup between likely call-ups to the US U-20 national team, MLS fans could get an early look at a potential future big-time defender.
Cristian Roldan – Seattle Sounders
He gets overshadowed by his good buddy Jordan Morris, but Cristian Roldan was a key part of the Seattle Sounders’ success in 2016. He blossomed after Brian Schmetzer took over as head coach in July, becoming a full-time starter for the second half of the year next to defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso in Seattle’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Much like Lletget, Roldan is already a solid MLS player. If he can continue his growth during his third season as a pro, he might take the step from solid to stellar, perhaps earning a USMNT look or two in the process.
Sean Davis – New York Red Bulls
Now entering his third year as a pro, Sean Davis has been steady in a reserve role for the Red Bulls in his first two years in the league, appearing in 14 matches in his rookie year before recording two goals and three assists in 21 games – 11 of which were starts – in 2016. With longtime Red Bulls d-mid stalwart Dax McCarty moving to Chicago this winter, the path is clear for Davis to step up to a major role in RBNY's central midfield in 2017. He’s got the talent, and he’s starting to get the experience – keep an eye on the Duke product.