One of the fun things about the start of a regular season is trying to forecast who's poised for a breakout year: contention for a leaguewide award, perhaps, or a new or expanded role with a national side. At the very least, a star turn for their club team.
Here's our early list of 2017 contenders for making such a leap.
Marlon Hairston, Colorado Rapids
With his pace on the wing (and his versatility in playing other attacking roles as well), Hairston has been improving his stock every year. If he can continue to build his numbers in 2017 – after scoring three goals and recording six assists in 2016 – Hairston should start getting some attention for the US national team.
Luciano Acosta, DC United
Acosta proved himself one of the league's most dynamic creators in 2016, with 11 assists on top of his three goals in an attacking midfield role for United. D.C. responded by buying "Lucho" outright from Boca Juniors for the highest transfer fee in club history. With a year under his belt to figure out how to open up defenses around the league, the diminutive Designated Player is on the brink of even bigger things in 2017.
Walker Zimmerman, FC Dallas
The question isn't really whether Zimmerman can have a breakout season, but whether he can take his career up a notch on the international stage in 2017. Last year he anchored FCD's domestic double-winning defense, scored four goals and emerged as arguably the league's most promising young center back. He made his debut for the United States in January, impressing US coach Bruce Arena with solid play in a friendly vs. Jamaica, and could be a key cog in defense this summer at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Sebastian Lletget, LA Galaxy
Lletget is another player who could see Gold Cup time this summer after his January camp call-up. Arena knows the 24-year-old midfielder as well as anyone in the player pool, having coached him with the Galaxy. "Da Boy" has already stacked up eight goals and 10 assists in under two seasons at StubHub Center, including seven tallies in only 17 games in 2015.
Cody Cropper, New England Revolution
Some American goalkeepers start their pro careers in MLS, move abroad and then come back in their 30s. The 24-year-old Cropper, who holds dual English/US nationality, has taken a different approach. He started his senior career at Southampton in the Premier League, made nine appearances for Milton Keynes Dons, and then joined New England last year. The US goalkeeper pool is crowded, but a good season in Foxboro could help Cropper's case to climb the ranks.
Johan Venegas, Minnesota United
It's pretty safe to say the 27-year-old's position with his national team is secure. He excelled for Costa Rica at the 2016 Copa America Centenario and scored against the USMNT in last November's 4-0 thrashing in the Hegaxonal stage of World Cup qualifying. Now, his trade from Montreal to Minnesota should free Venegas up to become a major player in MLS as well.
Justen Glad, Real Salt Lake
The 19-year-old Glad still has some filling out to do, but he's making a case as one of the league's most promising young central defenders – a position that players can spend years growing into. Glad's versatility along the back line also plays in his favor, as does his scoring potential as a set-piece threat (two goals in 2016).
Jack Harrison, New York City FC
You may be thinking, didn't Harrison already have a breakout year in 2016, going first in the MLS SuperDraft and recording four goals and seven assists for a star-studded NYCFC side that made the playoffs in just their second season? In many ways he did – but the young Englishman should see even bigger things this season, especially after a year of building onfield rapport with striker David Villa.
Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders
An underrated cog in Seattle's first MLS Cup championship during a sophomore season in which he notched four goals and three assists in 33 regular-season matches, Roldan played every minute of the Sounders' postseason run. In 2017 he'll try to earn an audition as a box-to-box dynamo in Arena's US national team. Gold Cup, anyone?
Sean Davis, New York Red Bulls
Dax McCarty's shock trade to Chicago opens the door for the 24-year-old Davis to take a bigger role in the Red Bull's central midfield in his third professional season. Davis chipped in two goals and three assists in 21 matches (11 starts) in 2016, and his poise, range and solid first touch should help him make that case.