They will be among the personalities that we'll be talking plenty about during the upcoming Major League Soccer season.
Beginning with the reigning MLS MVP, here are 11 players who are poised to figure prominently in the quest for MLS Cup 2017 which begins on March 3:
David Villa (New York City FC)
From Asturias to the Bronx, New York City’s Spanish master shows little sign of slowing down as he enters his 17th season as a professional. His whopping 23 goals last year – many of them head-turning golazos – earned him Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors and ran his MLS total to 41 strikes in just 63 games over two seasons.
NYCFC’s first trip to the MLS Cup Playoffs ended sooner than he and his teammates wanted, so they carry high hopes and big dreams into the 2017 campaign.
Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids)
Anyone wondering whether “The Secretary of Defense” was a worthy investment for the Colorado Rapids quickly had their doubts assuaged by the DP goalkeeper’s fiery role in the Mile High Club’s run to the Western Conference Championship. But Colorado fell short of MLS Cup 2016 by a margin nearly as narrow as the one that denied them the Supporters’ Shield on the final day of the season.
Howard is hungry to push both the Rapids and the US national team over the top. But first he’ll have to complete his recovery from the serious adductor injury suffered against Mexico in Columbus last November.
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC)
Once upon a time a teenage prodigy with the New York Red Bulls, Altidore now bears the attacks of both Toronto FC and the US national team on his broad shoulders as they hunt for big achievements in 2017. The powerful frontrunner netted five goals and four assists in TFC’s run to MLS Cup 2016 – atop the 10 goals and five helpers he bagged during the regular season – and he and his Reds will aim to go one step further this year. Meanwhile the USMNT need his best as they try to survive the Hexagonal and make it to Russia 2018.
Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
No Homegrown player has ever entered the league under the microscope that greeted Morris when he joined his hometown club last year after leading Stanford to the 2015 NCAA national championship. By that time he was already a US international – the senior team’s first college call-up in decades – and the fleet-footed striker carried sky-high expectations as he dived into MLS life. “J-Mo” proved a quick study, earning Rookie of the Year honors as he banged in 12 goals to fuel Seattle’s MLS Cup-winning heroics.
Giovani Dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
The Galaxy’s undisputed attacking star used his MLS heroics to earn a return to the Mexican national team. Now he’s eyeing a cup run (or two) in LA and a central place in El Tri’s World Cup qualifying efforts. Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard have stepped out of the SoCal spotlight and handed the mic to Gio; can he run the show at StubHub Center?
Kaka (Orlando City)
This is Year 3 in Orlando for the charismatic Brazilian maestro. There’s been no shortage of magical moments on the ball, yet the MLS Cup Playoffs have twice eluded him and his ambitious Lions. The clock is ticking loudly as OCSC open their dazzling new downtown stadium, and no one hears it more clearly than Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite.
Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)
Don’t be fooled by his diminutive frame and unassuming manner: No one churns out more jaw-dropping, highlight-reel moments in MLS than the Atomic Ant. The live-wire Italian has terrorized opposing defenders since his arrival two years ago, to the tune of 39 goals and 31 assists, plus four and four in the postseason. However, he enters 2017 carrying the painful memory of his injury-dashed outing in last year’s championship final at BMO Field. Can he exorcise it this time around?
Miguel Almiron (Atlanta United)
Perhaps the most influential among the expansion newcomers’ many impressive acquisitions. The Paraguayan playmaker was tracked by big fish like Arsenal as he built his name at Cerro Porteño (Paraguay) and Lanus (Argentina), but the No. 10 elected to become ATLUTD’s 10th signing. A Young Designated Player who reportedly cost an $8.5 million transfer fee, Almiron faces high expectations and a steep learning curve in Year 1, but has already shown flashes of quality during preseason.
Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle Sounders)
A midseason arrival in Seattle from Boca Juniors last summer, the Uruguayan helped spark a 180-degree turnaround in his new club’s fortunes, pacing the Sounders’ startling run from the Western Conference basement to their first MLS Cup championship. Both devilishly clever and relentlessly hard-working, Lodeiro is a complete midfielder who can orchestrate possession, play the killer pass or apply the final touch in front of goal.
Cyle Larin (Orlando City)
As Kaka pulls the strings in Orlando, the striker who’ll be counted on to score most of the chances he creates is a young Canadian at a very different point in his own career. Larin has been one of the league’s most complete No. 9s since the Lions made him the No. 1 SuperDraft pick in 2015 and the club was rewarded with the most goals ever (17) by an MLS rookie. With big-name European suitors reportedly circling, he could be poised to climb to a new level for both club and country.
Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers)
Few US players get fans’ pulses racing – and tongues wagging – like the Timbers star. Silky-smooth and deceptively explosive on the ball, Nagbe possesses rare gifts that were instrumental in Portland’s 2015 MLS Cup triumph, and the USMNT welcomed him into the squad when he completed his US citizenship that fall.
Last year was a tougher slog for him at both club and international level, however. Bruce Arena’s return to the US helm has brought him a new opportunity in 2017, while the Timbers’ Caleb Porter is determined to maximize Nagbe’s traits as PTFC seek a return to the postseason.