MLS is more of a depth league than many care to acknowledge. It’s easy enough to see the glitzy carriages delivering teams to MLS Cup titles adorned with names like Donovan, Valeri, Lodeiro. But underneath every David Beckham is the purring engine of a Marcelo Sarvas propelling the entire thing forward.
That sort of depth is especially critical this time of year. Once we hit the summer stretch, muscles begin to pull taut and injuries stack upon themselves. Just ask the LA Galaxy how they’ve managed to plow through their recent uptick despite a spate of injuries. Depth. It matters, and now that we’ve hit June it’s beginning to matter more every day.
That depth underneath the established star sheen tells in a variety of ways, and at times it comes into its own as a force unto itself. In these five cases, each player built on what was already a sturdy MLS foundation and broke through to a new strata over the course of the 2017 season’s first three months. From promise to fulfillment in no time at all.
Erick Torres, Houston Dynamo
Torres has rediscovered his 2014 goal-scoring form / USA Today Sports
What he’s done: Helped resuscitate Houston’s attack with 10 goals in 14 games
How he’s done it: With a chance. And a lot of help from his friends.
Strikers are streaky creatures, of course, given over to the whims of managerial choice and the layout of his preferred XI. So when Erick Torres was given aerodynamic lift by his new head coach via consistent starting minutes, Torres’ confidence inflated like a hot air balloon. Sometimes all it takes is confidence, and since we already knew Torres could do it in MLS, we needed proof he still had the ability to do it in Houston. It would seem coach Wilmer Cabrera helped prove he can.
It’s been three years since Torres hit for 15 goals for Chivas USA, and there are a lot of lightly-played strings of matches between now and then. Torres had almost 800 minutes split between the 2015 and 2016 seasons for the Houston Dynamo, which is admittedly not much. But he also failed to score once in that lengthy stretch of time, something he’s rectified over and over again in 2017. The biggest reason? Cabrera’s too fast, too furious build-up system favors attackers and practically pummels balls into the box for chance after chance. Torres is simply getting chances where he didn’t before, and it would seem the dragon has officially reawakened.
Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders
Roldan's strong play has earned him a spot on the preliminary US Gold Cup roster / USA Today Sports
What he’s done: Anchored the Sounders midfield as its tireless bulldog.
How he’s done it: By continuing to prove it doesn’t always take flash to make a mark.
One of the biggest contributors to Cristian Roldan’s success early in his Sounders career was that he was paired next to Osvaldo Alonso, arguably the league’s best No. 6. It was obvious Roldan leeched a ton from Alonso over his first two years, learning to better shield the ball, work possession off an attacker and take the simple pass in lieu of the possession-breaking one. And all that was to the good, but it also allowed too many to shy away from the rapid maturation going on in Roldan’s own game unbeholden to anyone else.
That’s accelerated to a startling degree in 2017. Roldan made the preliminary US Gold Cup roster primarily because he’s a deeply efficient engine who has doubled up his key passes figure from last year, improved his passing accuracy and risen above his 2016 averages for tackles and interceptions. In essence, he’s doing everything better than he ever has, and his hallmark is still is seeming inability to make mistakes. He’s easily one of the 10 most efficient central midfielders in MLS right now. It took too long, but thankfully the USMNT saw the light.
Brandon Vincent, Chicago Fire
Vincent, right, has flourished since the Fire signed Bastian Schweinsteiger / USA Today Sports
What he’s done: Morphed into a legitimate overlapping left back for the Chicago Fire.
How he’s done it: By trusting himself in the attacking half and vastly improving his efficiency.
During the Chicago Fire’s last win, a 2-1 triumph on May 25 to knock off FC Dallas, Brandon Vincent was a ubiquitous threat in FCD’s half. Of his 35 passes that day, 14 came in the attacking half of the field, and all but three of those had been completed. One in particular was worth noting, an absolute arrow of a cross in the third minute that adroitly found the foot of Nemanja Nikolic and then found the net. It’s helpful to note that Vincent received possession deep in FCD’s third in the first place off a looping outlet ball from Bastian Schweinsteiger.
That’s an important note, because Vincent’s game has flowered considerably since the German World Cup-winner joined the Fire. It’s opened distribution avenues to the wings that weren’t there in such volume before, and Vincent’s suddenly flying down the left flank with more verve than ever. His defensive gravitas is still in place, but he’s more comfortable pressing the advantage and pulling dangerous balls into the box. There’s a reason he’s already hit his 2016 assist number with the benefit of 900 fewer minutes. Expect it to keep climbing for one of the league’s most efficient left backs.
Kelyn Rowe, New England Revolution
Rowe has pleased Revs fans with his ability to fill seemingly any role on the field / USA Today Sports
What he’s done: Almost literally everything.
How he’s done it: By proving he might just be the most malleable player in the league.
Kelyn Rowe isn’t exactly an unknown quantity by now, and there are certainly arguments to be made that he’d have to clear a pretty high bar to make 2017 his best ever season. But there can be little doubt Rowe’s ever had a year quite like this one, and while he’ll never get the sea-to-sea adulation of his goalscoring cousins, he’s doing as much as anyone in the league right now in terms of helping his team pick up points. If Rowe isn’t the most underappreciated player in the league, he’s probably in the top five or 10.
Over the course of the last week alone, Rowe’s operated as a left back, a right back and a central creative attacking midfielder. The New England Revolution picked up four points in those two games, including a smashing 3-0 win over Toronto FC in which Rowe managed to snap off an incredible four key passes. It’s that sort of mutability in how Rowe influences a game that’s elevated his status this year. The Revs have long been able to rely on him, mostly out of the midfield, but never with this sort of stunning completeness. Rowe’s always been special, but this year he’s been something else entirely.
Ike Opara, Sporting KC
Opara, right, has stayed healthy in 2017 and already logged more than 1,100 minutes / USA Today Sports
What he’s done: Come into his own as one of the league’s best central defenders.
How he’s done it: Finally, blessedly, by avoiding injuries.
Ike Opara’s story looked to be a cautionary one by the end of 2015. A broken ankle and a ruptured Achilles tendon prematurely ended back-to-back 2014 and 2015 campaigns, and after briefly considering retirement, Opara returned with a modest but overall successful campaign in 2016. He played more than 1,500 minutes last season, and while the promise that once led to USMNT mentions was plainly evident, it was also clear he was still naturally regaining his sea legs for part of the year. So it goes after back-to-back debilitating injuries.
This year’s been something of a return to pre-injury form for Opara, who’s already put in 1,170 minutes and is making a case as an early MLS Defender of the Year finalist. With Opara as the centerpiece, Sporting Kansas City currently boasts the most stringent defense in the league and the best overall record in the Western Conference. Opara used the offseason to slim down and get into better playing shape, and it’s clearly helped both his form and fitness. Indeed, he might look even better than he ever has at 28. Whether or not that USMNT call ever comes, Opara can rest assured there are few defenders in MLS doing it at a higher level than he is right now.