Now or never: 7 MLS players entering make-or-break 2017 seasons
There are dozens of young players in make-or-break situations every year in Major League Soccer, fighting to compete in training, make the 18, get playing time, rise into the starting XI, and make real contributions. They're looking for a real career, and not everyone is going to find one.
There are a lot of established players in similar straits. Some are role guys, looking to take on greater responsibility and make a larger impact. Some are key supporting figures who have the potential to be stars. And some are consistent contributors whose games, for one reason or another, have declined.
Here's a look at seven of these veterans worth watching in 2017, players with skill and vision and something special that caught our eye once upon a time but haven't evolved into what they could be -- or just need a real boost to return to their best form.
NICK DeLEON, D.C. United
There seemed something special about Nick DeLeon when he arrived in MLS in 2012. He patrolled the right flank with such verve that great things surely had to be on the horizon. Five years in, the 26-year-old D.C. midfielder hasn't quite lived up to that promise while developing into a really solid and versatile player able to fill a whole lot of needs.
That's valuable, no question, but we really liked -- and rather miss -- that winger who loved to take on defenders, scored sensational goals, and could set up teammates, too. He had so much flair. He has evolved into more of a defensive player and moved into central midfield this year, which isn’t his best spot. It’s one that he struggled to make his own, before Sean Franklin's injury provided time at right back. That was a nice fit, but Franklin is back, so DeLeon could be something of jack-of-all-trades going forward, stepping in where needed on the day. He has the talent to be so much more, and now's the time to make that clear.
ERIK HURTADO, Vancouver Whitecaps
The striker took a step forward in 2016 by finding his way back into a contributing role after the 'Caps whisked him off to Norway on loan after a trying first five months the year before. He has a terrific work ethic and does the kind of things that don't show up on scoresheets, but putting balls into the net continues to be a chore.
Hurtado, 26, has only seven goals in 78 career MLS matches, and he tallied four times last season -- two in MLS, two in CONCACAF Champions League -- but didn't get his first league goal until Sept. 10, ending a 33-game drought. It's just not good enough, and he knows it; the fans know it, too. The Whitecaps are patient, signing him to a two-year contract extension plus two option years earlier this month, but patience has a way of running out.
WILL BRUIN, Seattle Sounders
The big striker has been a consistent scorer in South Texas -- 50 goals in six seasons, in double figures three times -- but he didn't fit the single-forward schemes Owen Coyle and Wade Barrett utilized after re-upping for $310,000 per year. He lost his feel for the net and fell out of the starting XI. He was on the field to start just one of the last dozen games, tallied just once after netting three goals in back-to-back games in March, and heads into 2016 with a 15-game drought, equaling his career-worst.
Two days before Christmas, he was traded to Seattle. With the Sounders, Bruin will try kick-start his career. Seattle just won MLS Cup, so he's instantly upgrading settings from the last-place Dynamo.
DILLON POWERS, Colorado Rapids
MLS' 2013 Rookie of the Year has been a Rapids staple, mostly through lean years, but there's been a hint of something more all along. He's creative and has shown he can be a solid two-way midfielder, but at 25, it's on him to take a big step forward and become “the man” in the middle.
His stock slid a tad this year, with circumstances playing a role in that. Pablo Mastroeni's plan was to drop him into a holding role in the 4-2-3-1 alignment, but Micheal Azira arrived from Seattle, won the job next to captain Sam Cronin, and put together a marvelous campaign as chief destroyer.
Powers saw time on that line but mostly toiled in the No. 10 spot -- his usual place, although he's not a pure No. 10 -- when he wasn't on the bench, as he was, mostly, when Jermaine Jones was available. When he held the reigns, Colorado didn't do much offensively, and his numbers (one goal and four assists after 13 and 21, respectively, his first three years) were most disappointing.
Jones' departure provides the opportunity to take command, depending on who arrives, but is he up to that? We'll see.
CARLOS RIVAS, Orlando City SC
There's no denying the Colombian winger's talent. He has star potential, and you need only look back to Sept. 7, when he scored a goal, set up two more, and won the penalty for the fourth as the Lions romped in Montreal.
That's what Orlando City was expecting after Rivas scored a dozen goals to lead Deportivo Cali to the Colombian title two years ago, a feat that won him a $1.5 million transfer and Young Designated Player status. Unfortunately, he pulls off such magic only on occasion: Throw out that game, and he's got three goals and six assists -- and a reputation for shooting way off target -- in 47 MLS outings. He doesn't really fit Jason Kreis' preferred schemes and saw little time after the coaching change until the Montreal game, in which he stepped in with Cyle Larin away on international duty.
Kreis gave Rivas a chance after that as Orlando fell from the playoff hunt, but expect a short leash in 2017. Rivas needs to tap into some of that potential now, or there's going to be no tomorrow in Florida.
HARRY SHIPP, Seattle Sounders
He was a hometown hero in Chicago, the first Homegrown player to see first-team action, and one of the very few good things the Fire faithful could count on as their team stumbled toward the Eastern Conference cellar. Somehow, he was considered surplus and sent in February to Montreal for allocation cash; perhaps we should have expected his game to fall off a bit.
In a letter to Fire fans after the deal was complete, Shipp admitted he “broke down and started crying” when he received the “totally shocking and overwhelming” news that he was leaving a club he'd followed since childhood. Things didn't go as desired with the Impact: He was in a subservient role and struggled to make a difference, finally losing his starting job in August. The Impact was at its best when he was on the bench. Mauro Biello was looking for a dynamic flank player to add to a strong mix led by Ignacio Piatti. Now Shipp will try to provide that to Nicolas Lodeiro in Seattle.
JOSE VILLARREAL, LA Galaxy
The 23-year-old homegrown attacker, best suited as a second forward or attacking midfielder, exhibited a lot of promise after joining the Galaxy in 2012, but he hasn’t gone much further, nor really had the opportunity to do so. He didn't stick at Cruz Azul following a 2014 loan, and he watched his first-team minutes dry up as LA added Giovani Dos Santos and Steven Gerrard at midseason last year, then brought back Mike Magee and signed Emmanuel Boateng this year.
A series of injuries, mostly minor, haven't helped. Villarreal was essentially a Galaxy II player this year -- he made 27 USL appearances for Los Dos to just four, including a U.S. Open Cup game, for the big team -- so new coach Curt Onalfo knows what he can do and where he's best suited. Villarreal has to make the most of his chances now or he won't see many more.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.