Arturo Alvarez was a bright spot for the Chicago Fire during a dreary 2016 season, so it's notable that the 31-year-old midfielder has played just 224 minutes in 2017.
That's not a knock on Alvarez, who started the first four games but hasn't played in the past two. It's an indication of how the Fire (3-1-2, 11 points) has improved on the wings.
"It's a long season, so the most important thing is for me to stay positive, to know that I'm playing well and just seize the opportunity when it comes again," said Alvarez, admitting it has been difficult to watch from the sidelines.
"Obviously we have good depth. Arturo is doing well in the training," Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. "His attitude is good and we just have so many guys that are also performing well and are ready to play."
While the focus has been on the Fire's new center midfielders -- Juninho, Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger -- and the logjam they have created in the middle of the field, the Fire has just as much depth on the outside.
Alvarez finds himself (for now) on the outside looking in because Luis Solignac has improved. He earned a spot on the MLS team of the week after playing his best game in a Fire uniform in a 3-0 victory against New England on Saturday.
The Fire starts a key three-game road trip at Toronto FC on Friday night (6:30 p.m., Cozi TV, CSN Plus 2).
"I think it's one of the reasons why the team is doing so good is because there's so much competition in every position, especially on the attacking," said Solignac, who assisted on the first Fire goal Saturday and was involved in the second, scored by MLS player of the week Nemanja Nikolic. "That's made us improve every day to be the one that's taking that spot."
The Fire won that game with speedster David Accam playing just 19 second-half minutes because of a hip injury.
"It's good to have good players in every position," said Accam, who assisted on the third goal. "It's good for me personally. It shows that you have to work extra hard to get into the first 11."
Youngsters Daniel Johnson and Drew Conner also have become options off the bench, though Conner was at right back Saturday.
"It's good for the young guys to see that the coaches put some trust in them," Alvarez said.
And that doesn't include John Goossens, who was injured in the season opener but hopes to return before the season ends.
They are all reasons the Fire has enjoyed its best start to a season in years.
"Personally for me it was the first game that I walked in that tunnel after the game and I felt, wow, we were a great team today," Paunovic said of the New England match. "That's the first time I've felt like that. But I think we still can do way better."