Incoming rookie attackers hoping to make a dent in their first year in MLS need to look no further than last year's first overall selection of the MLS SuperDraft. Oregon State product Danny Mwanga proved that debutant forwards can indeed make a difference in the league, as he scored seven goals and assisted on four others for the then-expansion Philadelphia Union.
Mwanga wasn't alone, though. An argument can be made that out of the 15 picks used on forwards or midfielders in last year's first round, more than half made legitimate contributions to their team. Among last year's group of first-round offense-minded players were forward Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City), Michael Stephens (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Zack Schilawski (New England Revolution). In fact, Bunbury parlayed his success into a call-up for the U.S. national team.
This year's draft class also boasts a well-rounded corps of attacking players looking to win playing time and make an immediate impact. Four of the 10 members of this year's Generation adidas class are strikers, including the winner of the Hermann Trophy, given annually to college soccer's top player. (Generation adidas refers to players who have signed MLS contracts before the completion of their NCAA eligibility. Generation adidas players receive educational grants to further their college education and do not count against an MLS team's salary budget.)
Here are the top five collegiate players available at forward and midfield in Thursday's MLS SuperDraft in Baltimore:
The next in a line of top attackers to come out of Akron, Nagbe has the chance reach the same level as predecessors Steve Zakuani and Bunbury. Nagbe, named the winner of the Hermann Trophy on Friday, can thrive either in a withdrawn-striker role or up top in a partnership. With a strong presence on the ball, an ability to go at and get by defenders and a typically smooth finishing touch, the Liberia-born Nagbe is one of the more coveted prospects in the Class of 2011.
After leaving the Chivas de Guadalajara organization because of his preference to play internationally for the United States, the Mexican-American Salgado could wind up being the crown jewel of the 2010 class a couple of years down the road. At 17, he's the youngest player in the draft, but he offers boatloads of potential because of his size (listed anywhere between 6-foot-2 and 6-4), pedigree (Chivas, U.S. U-20s, Mexico youth program) and overall ball skills. Come draft time, the magic word tends to be "upside," and Salgado might have more than any prospect this year.
A bruiser who uses his physicality and body strength to his advantage, Bruin punctuated his collegiate career with an 18-goal campaign and a nod as one of the three Hermann Trophy finalists. Bruin is no one-trick pony, though. Just as well as he can beat up opposing defenders, he's capable of succeeding with the ball at his feet. A finished product ready for the rigors of MLS, Bruin will have his fair share of suitors on Thursday.
The NCAA's leading goal scorer in 2010, Hertzog overcame a lack of offensive support around him to tally 20 times for the Nittany Lions. As polished a finisher as any of the forwards up for grabs, Hertzog is perfectly capable of creating on his own and figures to flourish within the confines of a professional system.
Few players had the strike rate that Meram did over the final half of the season, as he finished the season on a nine-game scoring streak (12 goals in that time). He is fearless at taking defenders on, he can score with either foot and he would make a great half of any strike tandem. Michigan coach Steve Burns has compared Meram's playing style to that of Dwayne De Rosario. An under-recruited junior-college transfer and almost the place-kicker for the Michigan football team, Meram's story is one of the more intriguing in this year's draft class.
Others to keep an eye on: Jason Herrick, Sr., Maryland; Levi Houapeu, Sr., UMBC; C.J. Sapong, Sr., James Madison; Ryan Kinne, Sr., Monmouth
After a decent season as a redshirt sophomore in 2009, Nanchoff burst onto the scene with a stellar 2010 and parlayed it into a Generation adidas contract. One of the premiere left wingers at the collegiate level, Nanchoff is unlikely to blow by defenders with pace, but his deft passing ability and vision allowed him to be a catalyst for the nation's top offensive attack. Perhaps no midfielder did more to boost his stock from the start of the season to now than Nanchoff.
With plenty of teams on the lookout for playmaking central midfielders, Farfan should have a whole host of eyes on him at the combine. Able to play any midfield position, Farfan is best served in the center of the pitch, where he can get the most out of his passing skills and pick his spots to make forward runs. "He's very good in the buildup," North Carolina coach Elmar Bolowich said. "When a team plays and keeps the ball on the ground, he's always a guy you can find and link up with and continue the attack through him."
At 6-4, McCarthy offers a rare package of size and poise that makes him a handful to defend on set pieces and also makes him an asset as a ball-winning midfielder. Forced into a number of different roles at North Carolina because of team injuries, McCarthy could conceivably play at center back, attacking midfield or even as a target striker (evidenced by his game-tying goal in North Carolina's NCAA semifinal against Louisville), but he's best suited at defensive midfielder.
There's something to be said for productivity, and Ampaipitakwong certainly turned in a productive four years at Akron, where he was a program-changing recruit who repeatedly set up some of the best finishers in the country (Zakuani, Bunbury and Nagbe among them). What he lacks in size he makes up for with his motor and vision. For teams in need of a smooth-moving, creative-passing presence in central midfield, Ampaipitakwong is a solid option.
Speed on the wing is a welcome asset for any squad, and McInnes, a Scotland native, brings just that to the table. In addition to his pace, McInnes is technically sound serving the ball and is a threat as the pointman on set pieces. He'll help any attack that needs to improve on widening the field of play.
Others to keep an eye on: Matheus Braga, Sr., Penn State; Cole Grossman, Sr., Duke; Daniel Keat, Sr., Dartmouth
1. Darlington Nagbe, F, Akron
(Not included above are the following international prospects who were invited to the MLS Combine and are available for selection: forwards Victor Estupinan and Joao Plata and midfielders John Rooney, Marlon Ganchozo, Paolo Cardozo and Martin Rivas.)