Believe it or not, we're already one third of the way through the MLS season. At this point, we have a good sense of which players matter most to each team.
Here are our picks for the most important players of all 22 MLS teams:
Atlanta United: Josef Martinez
If it wasn't clear just how important Martinez is to Atlanta's style of play when he was scoring by the bucket-load, then it became obvious after he was injured. Since he got injured in March, Atlanta have won just once in seven games. Before that, they won two of their first three games. It's not all down to Martinez's absence – it seems teams in MLS might be figuring out Atlanta's one-dimensional attack plan – but Martinez unquestionably makes Atlanta the best version of itself.
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Chicago Fire: Dax McCarty
Look at how much worse the New York Red Bulls have been since they lost McCarty in the offseason, and then look at how much better the Fire have been since they got him. He has been crucial in sorting out a messy Chicago midfield by being good at simple things: connecting the Fire's lines and breaking up oncoming attacks. He's one of the best defensive midfielders in the league and, while the Fire have boosted their attacking pieces in this offseason, they couldn't succeed without McCarty's contributions.
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Colorado Rapids: Axel Sjoberg
The Rapids desperately want to be a more attacking team, but the only reason they found success last year was their defense. This season, their defense has struggled and so, too, have the Rapids – and the absence of Sjoberg has been a big reason why. Sjoberg was one of the best defenders last season and he keeps the Rapids back line together. But he's been injured since March, and right on cue, the Rapids have been leaking goals at levels they didn't see when he's played this season and last season.
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Columbus Crew: Justin Meram
He's been on fire this season and has played a role in more than half of the Crew's goals, scoring seven and assisting four. He typically plays as an inverted winger, cutting in from the left side, and it's his ability to float into central areas that makes him so effective. He is arguably the most in-form winger in MLS right now and he puts in the hard work on both sides of the ball to be effective for an entire 90 minutes.
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D.C. United: Luciano Acosta
For a team that has lacked an attacking bite, Acosta has been a lone bright spot. His flashes of individual brilliance have, at times, made up for a disjointed-looking midfield. When things are going well, Acosta typically is at the heart of it as the attack runs through him. The Black and Red are struggling on both sides of the ball – finishing up top has been poor and the defense has been unsteady – but Acosta is one player they need to continue to make an impact.
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FC Dallas: Kellyn Acosta
He's probably the best American central midfielder in MLS right now, and maybe outside of MLS too. He's a central midfielder who is super mobile and has proven capable of creating goals in the absence of Mauro Diaz, FC Dallas' talismanic No. 10 who was injured at the end of last season. That's huge for Dallas because, coming into this season, the worry was that Dallas would fall apart without Diaz like they did during last year's playoffs. Acosta has a good work rate, he's effective on both sides of the ball, and he's growing into a set piece specialist. His form has been excellent and he is a big reason why Dallas is the only unbeaten team in MLS.
Mark J. Rebilas
Houston Dynamo: Alex
The Dynamo have been buoyed by an attacking line that features the in-form likes of Erick "Cubo" Torres, Romell Quinto and Alberth Elis, but Alex deserves a big chunk of the credit for allowing them to succeed. The central midfielder does the less glamorous two-way tasks that allow the Dynamo's attack to spring on the counter. He puts in a good defensive work rate while offering defense-splitting through-balls, and it's his good form this season that is just as much the reason the Dynamo are at the top of the table than anything else.
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LA Galaxy: Romain Alessandrini
For all of the players who are struggling with the Galaxy these days – and there are many – one has stood out as the hero, salvaging points along the way: Alessandrini. He has played a role in 10 of the Galaxy's 12 goals this season, scoring six and assisting four. This team wasn't built around Alessandrini – Giovani dos Santos was supposed to be the star – but it's clear that Alessandrini is the one providing hope for the Galaxy to climb out of the hole they've dug themselves right now.
Gary A. VasquezGary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota United: Christian Ramirez
For an expansion team that's initial roster clearly fell short of what was needed to succeed in MLS, a few players have emerged as particularly important, including early season additions like Sam Cronin and Marc Burch. But the Loons attack has been the reason no one in Minnesota lost any hope early on, and they can thank the finishing of Ramirez. He has a nose for goal and constantly gets himself into the right spots. If he can keep it up, he might be close to a U.S. national team call-up, and becoming the face of the Loons too.
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Montreal Impact: Ignacio Piatti
He's the best player on the Impact roster and when the Impact can get him the ball close to goal, good things happen. The trouble for Montreal this season is that they haven't been effective enough at getting Piatti the ball in good spots, and the Argentinian is often forced to try to make something out of nothing on his own. He's not getting nearly enough shots on goal and getting him more chances to score is probably the biggest key for Montreal right now. Their central midfield isn't working and they need to figure it out so their best player can do more.
New England Revolution: Lee Nguyen
This may be a little quieter of a start to the season than the Revs want out of Nguyen, but it's clear that when things are going right in the attack, Nguyen is at the center of it. For all the attacking talent the Revs have this season – and they have plenty – they need a linchpin who can make it work, and that man is Nguyen. The question for coach Jay Heaps has been how to get all his attacking talent working together and Nguyen's versatility looks like it's the key among a group of less flexible attackers.
USA TODAY SportsJerome Miron
New York City FC: Alex Ring
It's certainly tempting to pick David Villa, who was the MVP last year and is a killer at finishing his chances, and there's a very easy argument to make there. But Ring's influence in the central midfield makes everything work for the NYCFC and allows Villa to be so effective in front of goal. As a new arrival, Ring has come into NYC and offered a defensive work rate that allows the Pigeons to control the middle of the park and move quickly on the counter, where Villa is perhaps his deadliest.
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New York Red Bulls: Sacha Kljestan
The good news for the Red Bulls is that they have Kljestan, who has great vision and is excellent at distributing the ball. The bad news is that, since the exit of Dax McCarty, it's been a lot more difficult for Kljestan to get the ball in an advanced spot. At the heart of the Red Bulls woes lately is Kljestan being forced to drop deeper and deeper to try to get on the ball, while dropping away from the position where he can link up with Bradley Wright-Phillips. He's assisted five of the Red Bulls 11 goals through the run of play and the more he can get the ball in the attacking third, the better off the Red Bulls will be.
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY SportsAdam Hunger
Orlando City: Cyle Larin
It's easy to just look at the goal-scorers as the most important players on a roster, but when they are as efficient and as potent as Larin, it's impossible not to. Larin is a complete striker who can race into behind back lines or take defenders on face-up, score with either of his feet or his head, and score through the run of play or on set pieces. He's a finisher, and makes the attacking burden for the Lions much simpler: Get Larin the ball and let him do the rest.
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Philadelphia Union: CJ Sapong
Not much has been going right for the Union this season, but they've gotten a string of results and, unsurprisingly, Sapong has been playing well throughout them. It's tough to argue with his team-leading seven goals and one assist, but when he isn't getting on the score sheet, like last weekend, he's still contributing with his hold-up play and defensive work. The Union came into the season desperate for a striker to step up, and Sapong has.
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Portland Timbers: Diego Valeri
He may be the best playmaker in MLS right now and he's at the heart of the Timbers identity. He's excellent with the ball at his feet, has great vision in slipping the ball into dangerous areas, and he's a goal-scorer in his own right. When he's healthy he's almost always playing great, effective soccer and fans call him the "maestro" for a reason.
Real Salt Lake: Yura Movsisyan
Given that no one is playing their best soccer in Salt Lake at the moment, there aren't a lot of great options, but RSL are no doubt hanging their fate on the performances of their veterans, including Movsisyan. He's scoring at a rate of half a goal per 90 minutes, which isn't bad, and if they can get more out of him, their future is sure to look more hopeful.
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San Jose Earthquakes: Chris Wondolowski
Every team needs a consistent goal-scorer who can be counted on to finish his chances, and that's Wondo. It may be that his best asset is his instinct for scoring goals – not so much an ability to out-muscle or out-maneuver defenders – but he's very effective and on track to beat the MLS all-time goal-scoring record. The Quakes' problem right now is that they need to get the ball to Wondo, as evidenced by the fact that he sits 35th in the league in shots taken right now with more games played than many players ahead of him on that list.
John HeftiJohn Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
Seattle Sounders: Nicolas Lodeiro
It's hard to forget that the arrival of Lodiero played such a crucial role in the Sounders' stunning turnaround to become the MLS Cup champion last season – and through the first third of the season, Lodiero has been something of a bellwether for the Sounders. When he plays well, connecting attackers in the final third, creating space and defending from the front, the Sounders tend to have more success. Although a player like Clint Dempsey is also an incredibly influential player, it's hard to imagine the Sounders having success if Lodeiro isn't playing well.
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Sporting Kansas City: Tim Melia
SKC have the best defense in the league right now, and it's no doubt due to players like Ike Opara, who might be doing enough to warrant a U.S. national team look. But it's in no small part due to the last line of defense: goalkeeper Tim Melia. He has the lowest goals-against average of starters in the league, and although that on its own doesn't tell the full story, his league-high 78 percent save rate makes it a bit clearer. He's one of the only goalkeepers in MLS who hasn't made an embarrassing gaffe, and he's been playing very well.
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Toronto FC: Sebastian Giovinco
No surprises here. It helps that Giovinco is surrounded by great pieces, like Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, but Giovinco is a special player who creates magic all on his own. His set pieces are often brilliant and he is a game-changer in the run of play. Anytime he has the ball, something good can happen, and that's a player any team would love to have.
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Vancouver Whitecaps: Kendall Waston
The Whitecaps defense looks a lot better this season than it did last year. Some of that is offseason shuffling and players returning from injury, but the Whitecaps have been buoyed by their captain's performance this season. He's mostly cut down on costly mistakes and red cards, and he's grown into an important leader in keeping the back line organized.