Major League Soccer may have been light on high-profile international superstar signings over the past year, but don't let that fool you. The influx of talent in 2017 has had as strong an impact on MLS as any incoming class in recent memory.
Many of the newcomers already are making cases for the league's top honors, and while we still have another half-season to go, the Class of 2017 is primed to grab some major silverware at the end of the year.
Whether you talk about the Chicago Fire's Nemanja Nikolic and his goal-scoring prowess, Atlanta United's Miguel Almiron's combination of goals and assists, or Toronto FC's Victor Vazquez and the creativity he has brought to an already-stacked side, MLS teams have done an excellent job this year of signing instant impact players, whether via the designated player rout or by using targeted allocation money.
As impressive as the league's class of newcomers has been, we have also seen many established MLS performers maintain their high levels, while some have reached new heights. New York City FC star David Villa continues to be the class of the league, while TFC's designated player trio of Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore has helped make that squad the team to beat this year.
So who have been the best in MLS through the season's first half? Here are my selections for the midseason MLS awards, including some fictional honors that deserve to be created:
MVP: David Villa, NYCFC
The reigning MLS MVP is having another stellar season, and while there are definitely some worthy contenders in the conversation for this year's prize, Villa remains the standard-bearer.
The New York City FC striker is tied for third in MLS in goals with 10, and leads MLS strikers in assists with six, and chances created with 32. Villa has a better supporting cast around him this season, and he's making the most of it.
Who else is in the conversation for MVP? Chicago's Nemanja Nikolic, the LA Galaxy's Romain Alessandrini, Portland's Diego Valeri and Columbus winger Justin Meram have all had excellent half-seasons.
NEWCOMER: Nemanja Nikolic, Chicago Fire
The Fire signed Nikolic with the hope he would be the go-to striker the team has lacked for years. Nikolic has exceeded all expectations, having scored a league-best 14 goals to spearhead Chicago's excellent campaign. Nikolic has benefited from the Fire's upgraded midfield, which includes fellow newcomer Bastian Schweinsteiger, and has shown an ability to score against even the toughest opponents.
Romain Alessandrini is a close second in this category, and would be an excellent choice considering how key he has been to helping the LA Galaxy cope with injuries and a poor start to the season. TFC's Victor Vazquez, Atlanta United's Miguel Almiron and San Jose Earthquakes defender Florian Jungwirth all are on the radar for the award as well.
DEFENDER: Ike Opara, Sporting Kansas City
Sporting Kansas City has boasted the stingiest defense in the league this year, and Opara has been at the forefront of the improvement. Known more for his athletic ability throughout his career, Opara has shown improvements in his overall game, as evidenced by his standing among the league leaders in passes completed and passing percentage among defenders. Opara has delivered two goals while also continuing to be a dominant force in the air and speedy enforcer.
ROOKIE: Julian Gressel, Atlanta United
When Gressel was drafted by Atlanta United in January, few would have pegged him to become a regular starter on a squad stacked in midfield, but the Providence College product and German-born midfielder has become a key contributor for the expansion side.
Gressel is tied for 15th in MLS in assists with five, and has also notched three goals for Gerardo "Tata" Martino's squad, exceeding expectations and leading a small pack of rookies who have managed to earn regular minutes. San Jose's Nick Lima and the Philadelphia Union's Jack Elliott are the other two in the running for Rookie of the Year honors, though keep an eye out for Minnesota United's Abu Danladi and the Colorado Rapids' Kortne Ford.
GOALKEEPER: Tim Melia, Sporting Kansas City
Though he may not have as many highlight-reel saves as the other top contenders in this category, Melia has been extremely consistent and stepped up with big stops when needed by Sporting Kansas City. Melia boasts the highest save percentage among regular starting goalkeepers, and while it may seem like he doesn't face that many shots, he's actually fifth in MLS in saves.
Bill Hamid has been outstanding for much of the season's first half, but he has had a few rough games that leave him just behind Melia at this point. Orlando City's Joe Bendik rounds out the top three candidates for the spot, providing plenty of jaw-dropping saves this year. The New York Red Bulls' Luis Robles continues to be steady to the point of being easy to overlook, while Philadelphia's Andre Blake also is in the conversation.
COACH: Wilmer Cabrera, Houston Dynamo
No, the Houston Dynamo don't have the best record in MLS, or even one of the top five, but we can't stress enough just how impressive Cabrera's work has been in shaping a completely reconstructed roster into one of the league's most entertaining teams.
Cabrera overhauled the squad this past winter upon his arrival, and any time you make as many changes as the Dynamo made, there are always concerns about chemistry and needing time to adapt. That wasn't an issue for Houston, though, as the Dynamo started strong and have continued to impress. They need to improve on the road, but Cabrera has taken the league's second-worst team in 2016 and turned them into one of the better clubs in MLS.
TFC's Greg Vanney deserves a mention for the work he has done in 2017, though the strength of his team's roster makes him easy for some to overlook. Peter Vermes also deserves mention for Sporting KC's improvements, while Chicago's Veljko Paunovic has done a good job of getting the Fire's revamped roster clicking as a group.
MOST IMPROVED: Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders
MLS doesn't have this award, but it should, and if it did then Roldan would be a good choice for the honor. The Seattle Sounders standout has developed into one of the better midfielders in MLS, as evidenced by his recent inclusion in the U.S. Gold Cup squad. Roldan has evolved into a tireless box-to-box midfielder, one who can deliver the key tackle but also get forward and provide the final pass or goal.
FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta is right there with Roldan among the league's most improved, while the New England Revolution's Kelyn Rowe also is deserving of a mention. It's no surprise Roldan, Acosta and Rowe are all a part of the U.S. Gold Cup squad. Chicago defender Brandon Vincent deserves a mention as well.
NEWCOMER (Non-DP): Victor Vazquez, Toronto FC
It's one thing to spend millions on designated players who can step in and make an immediate impact. It is another to find a player to make a similar impact but at a fraction of the cost. Vazquez has been one of the best signings of the season, giving Toronto FC the exact type of creative midfielder it needed. Vazquez has registered three goals and nine assists for TFC, and is one of the key reasons the 2016 MLS Cup finalists now boast the best record in the league.
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Ilie Sanchez, NYCFC midfielder Alexander Ring and San Jose defender Florian Jungwirth are all deserving candidates for this honor. Minnesota United forward Christian Ramirez isn't a newcomer in Minnesota, but he is in MLS — and he's been one of the best as well.
YOUNG PLAYER: Kellyn Acosta, FC Dallas
We are seeing more and more young players being given the opportunity to play major minutes in MLS, and the result is a generation of talents who are becoming key starters at younger ages.
Kellyn Acosta is an example of that sort of player, and the 21-year-old is in the midst of a breakout season after developing as a regular in recent years. He gets the nod as the best MLS player born from 1995 on, edging out NYCFC winger Jack Harrison, Houston winger Alberth Elis, Columbus midfielder Artur and New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams.