Greg Lalas
Monday April 14th, 2008

When Major League Soccer debuted with a baker's dozen of teams 13 years ago, the notion of "developing young players" was paid lip service, but in reality, was considered a luxury.

Much like a 401(k) is to a freelance soccer writer -- it'd be nice, but rent's due and survival until next year trumps long-term projects.

Now, though, developing young players has become one of the cornerstones of the league's success. A solid, substantive cornerstone, at that.

It's no longer about Wheaties-box phenoms and million-dollar tweens. It's about nurturing young players, educating them, coaching them and giving them the tools to thrive. It's about learning the ropes in the reserve division -- which needs to be expanded -- and about even younger players joining the club and aspiring to someday join the first team.

In short, the league won't see another Freddy Adu anytime soon because it doesn't need one. It's stable enough at this point, with bricks-and-mortar in place, to consider the future. Teams can bring a player in knowing he won't see much of the main field for a few years.

This new attitude, which really took hold a few years ago, is just now beginning to bear fruit, as a few youngsters who have put some time in are starting to emerge. Here are some of the kids everyone should have on their radars:

Colin Clark (Colorado). The Rapids have won two straight MLS reserve division championships, so despite the downward slide of the first team over the past few seasons, coach Fernando Clavijo had a reason for some quiet optimism. So far this year, former reservists Nick LaBrocca, John DiRaimondo, Kosuke Kimura and Stephen Keel have all contributed, but Clark is the brightest star to come out of the system so far.

The 24-year-old looks a little wiry -- like the Welsh kicker in The Replacements -- but he's brash and can easily trick his way around defenders, particularly clod-footed peroxide-blond defenders from L.A. Call me crazy, but if he continues to refine his game alongside Christian Gómez, he could be the left winger of the future for the national team.

Amaechi Igwe (New England). While the Revs' two Gambian 19-year-olds, Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi, are garnering the oohs and aahs, another 19-year-old, Igwe, has quietly turned in a couple of impressive performances filling in for the injured Chris Albright.

The former U.S. under-20 international has wheels, confidence and, over the weekend against Colorado, went into a fearless -- some might say reckless -- tackle early on that showed he's got some bite, too.

Plus, last week against Kansas City, he nearly pulled off a 60-yard Theo Walcott-style fire-drill run from deep. He took the space several backpedaling defenders offered him and didn't miss his shot by much. Bonus: He's a rare, natural left-footed player.

Nathan Sturgis (Real Salt Lake). The Galaxy shipped the 20-year-old -- whose name conjures up images of aging blondes in leather pants on the back of motorcycles (if you get that, you're one of my people) -- to Utah along with Robbie Findlay, in exchange for Chris Klein. That's called mortgaging the future for the present.

Well, the future is now in the SLC, as Sturgis, who did well at last summer's U20 World Cup and then again at last month's U23 Olympic qualifying tournament, might be one of the most versatile young players since shaggy-haired Ben Olsen showed up in D.C.

He can line up anywhere in the back and pretty much anywhere in the midfield. It's no coincidence, I don't think, that RSL's first win corresponded with Sturgis' first start.

Boukary Soumare (Chicago Fire). One word: monster. A character out of a Men at Work song, the Malian-born Soumare is 6-foot-4 and full of potential. The 22-year-old didn't play much last year, but he's now getting a shot in the center of the defense.

So far, so good. The Fire are undefeated atop the Eastern Conference, with only one goal conceded -- an own-goal by Soumare himself. Hey, at least, he's getting into the action.

I watched Soumare play a random pickup game this past winter in New York, and he had that languid ease one only sees in top-tier athletes. Once he learns to read the game more deeply, he could be an Oguchian force of nature.

Of course, these guys won't develop in a vacuum. The league has undergone a transformation in the last year or so, returning to the big-name model of the early days. The Beckhams and Blancos attract the moths to their burning light.

But the future of this league depends on how these big-namers and other veterans -- the guys who developed before MLS concerned itself with player development -- help the young guys.

Are Jay Heaps and Albright taking an interest in showing Igwe the ropes? Is Terry Cooke teaching Clark little tricks of the winger's trade he picked up at Manchester United? Is Cuauhtémoc Blanco helping Soumare figure out how to defend visionary passes from the midfield?

And can any of them help me with my 401(k) plan?

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