These rookies raise the bar in MLS
It has been an excellent year for rookies in Major League Soccer. Expansion has meant increased opportunities for young players. With smaller rosters, most teams demand more from their college products then they've done in the past. How did so many rookies get so much playing time in MLS this year?
Expansion might have something to do with it, as per a dilution in the quality of play, and since most first-year players -- even those chosen in the first round -- don't command high salaries, teams are always looking for bargains who might also be talented enough to contribute sooner rather than later.
Still, there's an unprecedented glut of rookies this year, highlighted by four teams that regularly start a pair of them: Los Angeles defenders
The Galaxy conceded a league-high 62 goals last year; buttressed by Gonzalez and DeLaGarza, along with veterans
With a month to play in the season, Pontius was tied with
"It depends on who comes out early, like Gonzalez, but other guys, like Sam Cronin and
"It's definitely a very strong rookie class and there's a lot of guys in that class who are pretty good, every-day, consistent workers. We picked Zakuani No. 1 because he had that ability to be special, to make special plays in a game.
"I think DeLaGarza, because of the minutes he's gotten, has been a little bit of a surprise, and he was a lower pick [No. 19 overall]. But for the other guys. I think expectations were pretty appropriate."
DeLaGarza took over at right back when
"Omar's good in the air, he's a strong boy," says Berhalter, who mans the middle with Gonzalez. "A.J. has been resilient on the right side, and he's gotten forward."
Talk of rookies hitting the "wall," an imaginary barrier during a pro season that's at least twice as long as a college campaign, is misleading. There are several walls: playing through injuries, the fatigue of a long season, adjusting to the demands and pressures of the pro game and, for those players who were subbed in and out during their college careers, just getting through an entire game.
"For the younger guys, part of becoming a professional is playing for 90-plus minutes," says Berhalter, who played his college ball at North Carolina and came to MLS last winter after spending more than a decade (1994 to 2008) in Europe. "It's always a case where one split-second can be the difference in a game. For the most part, they've been great doing that."
D.C. United veteran midfielder
"We didn't know much about Chris until he came, but it didn't take more than a couple days to see that he was a player," says Olsen. "What has struck me about both of them is how mature they are, and the composure and savvy-ness that they have at their age. I certainly didn't have that composure when I was that age. That was nice to see."
Still, the walls have their effect. New England forward
"You see it every year," says Olsen. "Right around the beginning of summer, you see a blank look in their face, and you just know. I know because I went through it and I remember. I remember coming home after practice and not going outside, just sitting in a dark room because I was always so tired. Now, at the end of summer, is the time when they seem to get their legs back and everybody else does after the grind of summer."
Had White been healthy when the season started, rather than rehabbing an ACL injury he suffered while playing for the University of Connecticut nearly a year ago, Toronto might have started a trio of rookies the entire season. Consistent scoring from the strikers has been a problem for TFC, with
With three of the first 13 picks, TFC could have traded one of them for a proven commodity -- as San Jose did last year when it swapped the No. 1 pick for veteran defender
He has done just that. In just his fourth MLS game, and second start, since completing his rehab, White -- who moved to Toronto suburb Scarborough from his native Jamaica as a teen -- scored his second goal of the season in a 3-2 victory against Colorado. Still, not many rookie offensive players jump right into regular action.
Goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders routinely earn starting roles in their pro-debut seasons, yet for attackers and goalscorers -- aside from a player like '03 Rookie of the Year
"In some cases, they're getting themselves into a pretty good level of play, and in other cases they're not going to a higher level of play but they're getting a lot better compensated for it," says Schimd. "Whether Grella is getting enough playing time or he might develop faster with more time in MLS, I don't know."
TFC also picked Grella (as the No. 34 pick in the third round) last January; instead, he went on trial with Leeds United of English Division One and signed a short-term deal. During the summer, he negotiated a three-year contract and, in the first portion of the '09-10 season, played two matches in the Carling Cup.
Those forwards who do sign with MLS often don't play up top, as the expansion of international slots to eight per team has encouraged MLS coaches and general managers, like most of their counterparts around the world, to find and test as many foreign forwards as possible.
Of the 10 rookie field players who've played the most minutes (as of mid-September) in league play, six were defenders and three were midfielders. Zakuani played forward at the University of Akron and is listed as such in our All-Rookie Team, though he usually plays as a left midfielder or left winger for Seattle. Pontius played up top for UC Santa Barbara and has moved into midfield, either on the right side or in the middle, for United, though D.C. also has
Many of the top MLS rookies in recent years have moved to Europe. Examples like goalkeeper
Dempsey, Sealy and Rolfe all played a lot of midfield during their MLS careers;
Across the board, coaches and former players cite attitude, in addition to talent, as absolutely critical. Before he left his post as a Fire assistant coach, former U.S. international midfielder
"The key for him is he comes in every day, and he works hard," said Armas last year.
However, the prominence of those dozen or so rookies who have garnered significant playing time is a sharp contrast to a second tier of players who rarely see the field. Chivas USA rookie
When MLS eliminated its reserve league last year and cut down its roster size from 28 to 24, it cut down the chance for rookies to keep a spot. Teams can also trade international slots, so on some MLS rosters, former college players are in the minority, and drafting a rookie who might need two or three years to develop is a luxury. Tougher competition for spots has mitigated the added opportunities produced by expansion.
"If someone comes into our league, if I don't think he can help me as a rookie, he's probably not going to help me down the line, either," says Schmid. "Unless it's a situation where he plays a position where you've got somebody, but maybe when that guy retires or leaves, you move him in there, but still, if he would have played for you as a rookie he would have helped you."
In other words, if a rookie doesn't perform like a DeLaGarza or Alston if the need arises, he might not be worth keeping.
"If he can't," says Schmid, "it's not over, but it's very difficult."