Whether it’s an intriguing rookie from the MLS SuperDraft, a promising pro looking to take a step forward in his second or third year, or a highly-touted academy signing, every MLS season a handful of young players emerge from relative obscurity to have a big, somewhat unforeseen impact.
As ever, there are plenty of youngsters who look poised to step to the forefront this year. Here are 10 players – who will all be eligible for the 24 Under 24 rankings in September – who have the talent to make big strides in 2017.
1. Alphonso Davies (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Perhaps the most promising young player in the entire league, 16-year-old Alphonso Davies began turning heads shortly after signing for Vancouver’s first-team from Whitecaps FC 2 last July. Davies made 16 appearances for the ‘Caps across all competitions last season, scoring a hugely important goal at the death against Sporting Kansas City in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) to help Vancouver move to the quarterfinals. The Canadian youth international, who reportedly caught the eye of Manchester United last season, played the full 90 in Vancouver’s draw at New York in Leg 1 of the CCL quarters last week. He should play a big role on the wing all year.
2. Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC)
Acquired last July from German club SC Freiburg, Zack Steffen looks like he’s in pole position to replace Steve Clark as Crew SC’s starting goalkeeper in 2017. The 21-year-old US youth international played all but one half of the club’s preseason run to the Carolina Challenge Cup title, shutting out Seattle and making an excellent save on Miguel Almiron’s blast in a win against Atlanta. With Crew SC conceding the fourth-most goals in MLS over the last two seasons, Steffen should have plenty of chances to prove himself – and perhaps increase his stock – in 2017.
3. Alberth Elis (Houston Dynamo)
Houston may have pulled off a small coup by landing Alberth Elis on loan from Mexican giants Monterrey this winter. One of the hotter young prospects in all of CONCACAF, the 21-year-old forward already has plenty of first division experience, recording 25 goals in 62 appearances during three years with Honduran club Olimpia before moving to Monterrey in August. He also helped Honduras to a fourth-place finish at the 2016 Olympics and has scored three goals in 14 career appearances for his country’s senior national team.
This preseason he recorded a pair of assists while running with the Dynamo starters at the Desert Diamond Cup. That's production that Houston – who have an option to permanently acquire Elis at the end of his year-long loan – hope he’ll replicate in MLS.
4. Ian Harkes (D.C. United)
Nearly universally considered as the top player in college soccer last year, Ian Harkes flirted a bit with Europe before eventually agreeing to a Homegrown deal with D.C. United. It looks like the Black-and-Red have a good one. The son of former US national team and D.C. midfielder John Harkes, the Wake Forest product saw a decent amount of time with United’s first team in the preseason. If he can become a regular starter, the box-to-box midfielder should be a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year.
5. Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes)
Signed as just the second Homegrown player in San Jose history in December, Nick Lima has the chops to make an immediate impact as a rookie. The Cal product earned plenty of playing time during the preseason, and figures to play a somewhat significant role at right back for San Jose’s stingy defense.
6. Alex Muyl (New York Red Bulls)
New York Red Bulls fans need no introduction to Alex Muyl, who recorded two goals and six assists in 27 appearances (18 starts) over his rookie 2016 campaign. The only reason the talented wide midfielder isn’t higher on this list? He might find playing time a bit harder to come by this year. The Red Bulls are switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a two-forward formation in 2017, and with 2016 summertime addition Daniel Royer having a full preseason behind him, Muyl’s minutes could come at a premium.
7. Erik Palmer-Brown (Sporting Kansas City)
The first of three players currently with the US Under-20s to make this list, Erik Palmer-Brown is returning to Sporting Kansas City this year after spending 2016 on loan to Portuguese giants FC Porto. The 19-year-old center back had a solid run in Portugal, helping Porto’s reserves to the second division title last spring and earning some valuable call-ups to the first-team during the second half of his loan.
After cash-strapped Porto couldn’t meet the asking price to sign him permanently, Palmer-Brown is back with SKC, where he’ll compete for time at center back with Matt Besler, Ike Opara and Kevin Ellis. Of course, that’s when he’s not with the U-20s, making an impact like he did in CONCACAF U-20 World Cup qualifying against Mexico in the Yanks' historic 1-0 win.
8. Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers)
Like Palmer-Brown, Jeremy Ebobisse will likely miss a significant chunk of the first part of the season while with the US Under-20s for their likely participation at the U-20 World Cup. The No. 4 overall selection in the 2017 SuperDraft could play a somewhat large role when he returns to Portland, however. The talented 20-year-old forward is a natural fit behind star Timbers striker Fanendo Adi, and Ebobisse would be a top candidate to take over his minutes should he need a replacement.
9. Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake)
A product of Real Salt Lake’s Arizona academy, Brooks Lennon returned to RSL this winter on a year-long loan from English Premier League club Liverpool. The 19-year-old attacker, who has joined Palmer-Brown and Ebobisse with the US U-20s, performed admirably in England, impressing with their U-21s in the 2015-16 season before earning promotion to their U-23s, where he had two goals in 12 appearances this season before coming to RSL. He’ll be in contention for first-team minutes on the wing for Salt Lake.
10. Jesus Ferriera, FC Dallas
The son of former FC Dallas midfielder and 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira, 16-year-old Jesus Ferreira signed with the FCD first-team this winter after a wildly successful career with the club’s MLS-best academy. He’s not expected to contribute a ton to the first-team in 2017, but a solid preseason in Argentina turned some heads. If he continues progressing, don’t be surprised if Oscar Pareja gives the Homegrown forward some run.
Rising stars on other teams:
Atlanta United FC: MF Julian Gressel
Colorado Rapids: FW Dominique Badji
Chicago Fire: DF Brandon Vincent
LA Galaxy: MF Raul Mendiola
Montreal Impact: MF Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla
New England Revolution: MF Zachary Herivaux
Orlando City SC: DF Tommy Redding
Minnesota United FC: FW Abu Danladi
New York City FC: MF Jonathan Lewis
Philadelphia Union: MF Derrick Jones
Seattle Sounders: DF Nouhou Tolo
Toronto FC: MF Jay Chapman