Two expansion clubs plus newly expanded rosters throughout the league created a rare double whammy in MLS personnel for 2011. The result is a particularly intriguing crop of newcomers scattered throughout the league. It's quite a talented crop, but a lot to digest, even for the hardcore MLS follower. So here's a cheat sheet for you, the top 10 MLS new faces to know about (listed in alphabetical order):
Kalif Alhassan, M, Portland. Heralded rookie Darlington Nagbe and prodigal son goal-getter Kenny Cooper stole all the preseason praise in the Rose City, but make no mistake: this 20-year-old Ghanaian and all his midfield spunk has meant a lot to the Timbers' promising start. He wasn't a starter to begin the year but reacted well to coach John Spencer's tough love tactics. Alhassan got serious about being a two-way player and now he's really got the chain saws buzzing around JELD-WEN Field.
Will Bruin, F, Houston. Let's not hand him the Rookie of the Year award just yet. Last week's hat trick, impressive as it was, came against a sinfully porous D.C. United defense. But Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear says Bruin is coming along well, working hard and doing the little things that make strikers successful. And even if D.C. United wasn't at its best as Bruin hit for three, as Kinnear said, "You still have to score 'em!"
Diego Chaves, F, Chicago. The Fire's midfield has been a bit of a mess, the goalkeeping has been wobbly and the defense has been too injury impaired to properly assess. But the striker position seems to be in good hands thanks to Chaves, the Uruguayan finds great spots near goal through timing, instinct and the determination to work into those better positions. He has a team-leading four goals.
Davide Chiumiento, M, Vancouver. The Swiss playmaker is second in league assists (five) and yet it's possible the Whitecaps haven't seen the best of him. That's because he has usually played wide in the midfield, with a tendency to drift inside. Lately Whitecaps coach Teitur Thordason has flirted with the notion of using Chiumiento in a freer role, behind a striker in a 4-4-1-1. Either way, he's a tricky little handful and a nice, creative find for the expansion club.
Charlie Davies, F, D.C. United: He's hardly a new name for U.S. Soccer fans, just new to MLS after the offseason move (on loan) from French Ligue 1 side Sochaux. His bright start came with an asterisk, as three of Davies' league-leading six goals came from the penalty spot. Then again, even three goals in the run of play would represent high achievement considering his devastating injuries and all the related, emotional baggage from a 2009 car crash. He's still got some game, clearly. More good things seem to be ahead.
Eric Hassli, F, Vancouver. The brawny Frenchman looks like a nice find, talented and determined near goal. So it's too bad he's already become a bit of a punch line around MLS for his inability to stay on the darn field! Hassli already has been shown two red cards. And five early yellow cards meant he recently sat out the mandatory one match for accumulation. So, Hassli could possibly be sitting on a greater goal tally (three so far) but he's missed all or part of five matches in the Whitecaps' eight-game league schedule. He's still worth watching; he just needs to quit being such a naughty boy.
Faryd Mondragon, GK, Philadelphia: There's a lot of credit to go around for Philadelphia's fast start and that miserly 0.33 goals against average. But Mondragon's steely leadership is surely at the top of the list. At 39, he may not be as springy of leg as in years past. But the former Colombian international depends on great hands and great positioning, and it's clearly working.
Jan Gunnar Solli, D, New York. The Norwegian international represents half of the Nordic newbie pairing that might just push the Red Bulls into championship territory. Finally. Solli has already established himself as one of the premier right backs of MLS, proficient in attack and steady as they come in defense. All this is even more impressive when you consider that he's been a right wing or center midfielder for most of his career.
Teemu Tainio, M, New York. Remember how Joel Lindpere came to Red Bull Arena last year, bringing a professionalism and higher level of awareness to the midfield? Tainio is this year's Lindpere. He is a slightly different player, a poised holding midfielder who can smoothly link the defense and the attack. His defending is consistently smart and tough when it needs to be. Center backs Rafa Marquez and Tim Ream get a lot of credit for New York's league-leading defense, but Tainio's adept screening helps a lot, too.
Carlos Valdes, D, Philadelphia. The back line at PPL Park bears little resemblance to the disheveled, foul-prone group that kept things so painfully unpredictable in the 2010 expansion season. Valdes' experience is a big reason. His presence makes everyone around him better, more comfortable; Fellow center back Danny Califf looks like a different player this year thanks to his steadier pairing.
Here are a few honorable mentions, along with a quick word about why they aren't in the list -- yet:
Seattle's Erik Friberg hasn't quite found his role, but his versatility has been a huge plus; Recently signed Houston attacker Sergio Koke has been in just one match, but did display some wonderful technical ability in that short sample; Seattle's Mauro Rosales came in hot but he's on the injury shelf for now; Chivas USA's Marcos Mondaini has concocted moments of brilliance, but some performances have fallen into the humdrum category; New England rookie A.J. Soares has started seven of eight games at center back for New England and looks to have a big upside.