MLS stars to watch at the World Cup: Could Laurent Ciman lift the trophy?
As you might have heard, the U.S. men's national team will not be participating in this month's World Cup, having somehow failed to earn the single point required of it against last-place Trinidad & Tobago this past autumn.
And while that will undoubtedly diminish interest from casual American sports fans, close followers of Major League Soccer should not fret: There are plenty of intriguing storylines to track in the coming weeks.
Below are five MLS players to watch when the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia on June 14.
Carlos Vela | Forward | Mexico | LAFC
Vela has been on a tear since arriving in MLS earlier this year, tallying seven goals and five assists in 12 league matches and helping lead the expansion club toward the top of the Western Conference.
Vela's talent has never been in question. Having won the Golden Boot as Mexico won the title at the 2005 Under-17 World Cup, Vela signed with Arsenal when he was still in his midteens. And if he hasn't quite lived up to the early hype, the 29-year-old has carved out a nice career for himself, representing El Tri in La Liga for the better part of this decade.
No, the concern has always been his focus, and his overall form. Vela can be inconsistent, capable of long valleys as well as brief peaks. Based on how he's playing right now with LAFC, though, don't be surprised if he sets Group F alight.
Roman Torres | Defender | Panama | Seattle Sounders
Torres is a living folk hero for his club and national teams. Having netted the penalty that won Seattle's first MLS Cup in 2016, Torres scored the goal this past October that clinched Panama's first World Cup appearance.
Those feats would've been impressive enough for a forward, let alone a big, lumbering center back. To this day, he swears to his Sounders coaches and teammates that he played as a striker in his youth before a teenage growth spurt, but they've never been able to tell whether he's serious.
Laurent Ciman | Defender | Belgium | LAFC
LAFC's captain might not have the name recognition of teammates Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. Scrolling down the list of club teams represented on Belgium's roster, his stands out like a sore thumb: Barcelona, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain ... Los Angeles? Indeed, Ciman is unlikely to see much action, given the stars ahead of him on the depth chart.
But coach Roberto Martinez trusts him, and he provides reliable defensive depth, and injuries happen. Even if Ciman struggles to get on the field, he is by far the MLS player likeliest to actually hoist the trophy on July 15 in Moscow.
Omar Gaber | Defender/Midfielder | Egypt | LAFC
If you're looking for a sleeper to throw your rooting interest behind, Egypt is a good bet -- assuming superstar Mohamed Salah recovers from the shoulder injury he suffered in last weekend's Champions League final in time to play. Its group of Uruguay, Russia and Saudi Arabia is manageable, and Salah is a legitimate game-changer.
Gaber, who plays for former Egypt coach Bob Bradley at LAFC, has earned 22 caps, featured heavily in qualifying and was named to the preliminary squad.
Rodney Wallace | Midfielder | Costa Rica | New York City FC
Wallace is unlikely to have the biggest impact among MLS players at this World Cup, but his might be the most uplifting story.
Four years ago, he was forced to watch from his couch in Portland as Costa Rica became the underdog darling of the tournament via its surprising run to the quarterfinals. Wallace had injured his knee playing for the Timbers, and while he was happy for his national teammates, he was dismayed to have missed out on his country's deepest-ever World Cup run.
Some players would have been broken by the combined physical and psychological toll of that year, but Wallace stayed at it, bouncing from Portland to Portugal to Brazil to New York City, managing to keep himself on Costa Rica's roster and earning himself a spot on the plane to Russia.
"You've got to cherish these moments," Wallace told ESPN FC in a recent phone interview, "because you never know when something could happen."
He knows that better than anyone, and will thus embrace these upcoming weeks more than just about any other player in the tournament.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.