As MLS expands so does its need for players. Five players in MLS this year typify categories of players on which the league must depend because of financial constraints and other factors. Each carries a heavy responsibility in his team's fortunes.
Busy on two fronts
Most international players coming to MLS have experience with their national team programs at some level. Not many have used the league as a springboard to their senior national teams, as is somewhat common with American players.
Venezuela is in the midst of its World Cup qualifying run, which pleases Crew forward Alejandro Moreno nearly as much as celebrating the 2008 MLS championship, the third he has won following triumphs with Los Angeles (2002) and Houston (2006).
He scored in Venezuela's last match, a 3-1 home win over Ecuador, to keep its hopes of qualification alive and his place in the pool of possible players secure.
Along with getting ready to defend his latest MLS title, Moreno anxiously awaited the resumption of World Cup qualifying in late March with his nation in eighth place, with just 10 points and eight matches to play. It needs to finish fourth to earn a guaranteed spot in the 2010 World Cup, or fifth to reach a playoff.
"We're in the mix and giving ourself a chance," said Moreno, who was born in Barquisimeto, grew up in Caracas, and came to United States in 1998 to attend UNC Greensboro. "In most years at this point we would have already been out of it, so we're in the mix and we're beating some of the teams we should beat."
The Crew's status as defending champion is clouded by the departure of head coach Sigi Schmid, who left amid some acrimony between him and management to take over the expansion project in Seattle. Former assistant coach Robert Warzycha has taken over and while Moreno says he owes a lot to Schmid, who took him in the third round (No. 27 overall) in the 2002 SuperDraft, he sees the change as an opportunity for the players to prove themselves in different circumstances.
"I personally appreciate Sigi very much, he's done a lot for my career," says Moreno, whose nine goals last year were a career high and upped his career total to 39. "He provided the opportunity for me to be the player I am today. In that regard, it was sad for me to see him go, but on the other hand we're very professional in what we do. I'm highly respectful of Bobby and I'm willing to put out the same kind of effort for him that I did for Sigi."
In July, Moreno turns 30, the age at which a most players either reaches his peak or begins the downward slide. Traded to the Crew by Houston in 2007, he weathered the changes wrought as Schmid transformed Columbus into a championship team after missing the playoffs his first two years.
Most of the Crew is back in 2009, so Moreno can again stretch opposing defenses while probing for scoring chances and making space for Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Robbie Rogers, Eddie Gaven and, occasionally Frankie Hejduk. His selfless work ethic has brought rewards he savors but won't dwell on.
"At this point in my career, I think I appreciate it more because I don't know if and when I'll be back for a World Cup qualifier or an MLS Cup final," he says. "When those things happen, I want to make the most of it. It's a very good opportunity for me as an individual and for us as a group to make the most of opportunities as they unfold."
The return home
Though he flirted with the idea of coming to MLS, perhaps on loan, a few years ago to play for Real Salt Lake, Washington native Kasey Keller really wanted to return to his home once his days in Europe were done.
At various times he lived in cities great and small – Madrid and London, Leicester and Moenchengladbach – during a 17-year career. Now when he goes home from a day of training or a personal appearance, home is just that. He grew up near Seattle in Lacey on the oft-referenced egg farm; now he lives on fashionable Mercer Island, and also has a residence in western Idaho that he uses for vacations and getaways.
"The timing couldn't have been better," says Keller, who turns 40 in June, and played 17 years overseas. "Not just for me, but for Seattle sports, with the [NBA] Sonics leaving and everything that's come together with the ownership group, hiring Sigi Schmid as coach, all of that."
From the get-go, Keller insisted he'd sacrifice a lot of money to stay with the organization after his playing career is done. Months before the start of preseason training, he began visiting the offices of Vulcan Sports and Entertainment and the Seahawks to meet and greet, and learn.
Team president Tod Leiweke is also president of the NFL Seahawks, which will share Qwest Field with the MLS team. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen formed Vulcan to run his sports interests, which also include the NBA Portland Trailblazers.
"You basically step into an established, professional organization that has an NBA team, an NFL team, and a wealth of experience and depth in the community," says Keller. "I think that's a big, big benefit to this club.
"You go and talk to Paul Allen and his group, and get somebody like Tod Leiweke, who has a soccer background. It's not like you're banging heads with some baseball and NFL guys, who don't have any interest in soccer whatsoever."
Of the U.S. internationals who joined MLS teams this year, Keller did so more by preference rather than necessity. With the Seattle startup pending, rather than scrounge for overseas employment after he and Borussia Moenchengladbach agreed to part ways, he contacted Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer to inform him the time had come.
Eddie Lewis (34) and Bobby Convey (25), though nine years apart in age, had slim chances to remain overseas. Tony Sanneh hasn't played competitively since appearing in nine games for Colorado and two for Minnesota (USL) two years ago.
Though he turns 40 this year, Keller is far fitter and healthier and former teammate Claudio Reyna, who broke down after a season and a half in New York. Keller may be stretching the axiom that goalkeepers get better than age, but Houston goalie Pat Onstad is already 41 and hardly doddering.
"There's a huge buzz about the team," he said about a week before the season opener against New York, for which ticket sales were cut off at 34,000. Most games will have a capacity of 27,700 with the upper section of Qwest Field closed off.
"Now it's our job to give them something to be excited about."
Cool man in the middle
Midfielder Luke Sassano didn't draw a lot of attention at the 2008 SuperDraft. Selected in the third round by New York, whose Colombian coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, had pledged to rebuild the team in midseason if the players on hand didn't measure up, Sassano knew his long-term prospects weren't all that promising.
He had known the feeling before, having experienced much the same thing when he went to play and study at Cal-Berkeley, a respectable Division I program but hardly among the nation's elite. "When I came in my freshman year, not a lot was expected of me," says Sassano, who grew up not far from the Berkeley campus in Orinda. "I wasn't highly recruited, coming from a small high school [Miramonte] and small club team [Lamorinda]."
Rather than a benign rookie season, however, Sassano ran the gauntlet of just about everything, except a coaching change, a pro can endure. He started at the start of the season, got benched, overcame several injuries, came back, and played a vital role as his Cinderella team reeled off an incredible run of results before losing to Columbus, 3-1, in MLS Cup.
"I definitely saw the ups and downs with injuries and not being in top form," said Sassano, who played 18 games in the regular season and started all four playoff matches. "It reminded me that the opportunities might be few and far between, so every day you'd better come in prepared."
Osorio, as promised, overhauled the Red Bulls in midseason after using Sassano, Seth Stammler, Sinisia Ubiparipovic and Carlos Mendes playing different roles as partners for Claudio Reyna, whose retirement further muddled the picture. Among four foreign arrivals was Juan Pietravallo, an Argentine holding midfielder who crowded the competition for that spot.
Pietravallo played 13 games down the stretch but still Osorio fretted and tinkered, not entirely satisfied though a strong finish nudged New York into the playoffs as the fifth-placed Eastern Conference team. For the playoffs, the coach went with Sassano and Ubiparipovic as starters. Pietravallo played just 20 minutes in two substitute appearances.
Sassano doesn't pretend to fathom all the workings of Osorio's mind. His 341 playoff minutes were more than one-third the 954 he played during the regular season. He's learned to just go with personnel decisions and strategic and formational changes, sometimes during a game.
"Not only is he a really good coach with really good drills, his drills are things I've never seen," says Sassano. "You'd think you'd see some repetitions in drills, but he understands the game really well and as the season went on we began to realize his philosophy: 'Every day is going to be a competitive day. There are no days off. The way you practice is the way you play.'
"I think that mentality led us to the final. Now in training you see the guys playing that way so we can get back there. We'll be one of the most competitive teams in the league because we're going to be competing that much harder in training with the rosters down to 24 this year. With the [Concacaf] Champions League, the U.S. Open Cup and the league, we're going to need everybody."
A new world
New England has forged a reputation of spotting young talent and developing it, but usually those players came to MLS by the college route.
Not so Revolution teammates Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally. After watching Gambia's team at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada, New England coaches Steve Nicol and Paul Mariner pursued and signed the pair. Another member of that team, Sainey's twin brother Sanny, wound up in Seattle after a trial in San Jose, and is on the 18-man roster for the 2009 season.
"I talk to him every day," says Sainey Nyassi, who played 27 games (18 starts) for the Revs last year and lit up several games with brazen runs up the right flank. "Talking to my brother is like a habit for me, after practice or sometimes in the morning before practice or late at night."
MLS coverage ranges from scant to nonexistent in many countries, but Nyassi says he watched league games all the time growing up in Bwiam, Gambia. "We watch it on ESPN [International] and the other one, ESPN Classic," he says. "You can watch the English Premier League, MLS, the Scottish league, the Italian league, and the Bundesliga.
"I thought the league would be my type of football, my type of game. To play in England, you need a lot of international caps. I figured MLS would be best because at that time I didn't play for the national team. That would have been tough for me. A lot of agents were talking to me when I was in Florida getting ready for Canada."
Miami (USL-1) put in an offer for Nyassi and Mansally during the stint in Florida, but Nyassi suggested they wait and see if anything materialized from MLS.
"And that's what happened," he says. An agent he met in Canada, Tom Barkley, helped negotiate the deal.
"I trusted him, and he's taken good care of me," says Nyassi of Barkley. "The weather is really, really cold, but I'm getting used to it. The lifestyle is a lot different than in Africa. The game here is a lot more tactical -- back home we do a lot of running with the ball. I'm used to all the systems now, whether we are playing 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 because Stevie explains everything to me about where the ball is and where I should be and what I need to do."
His trips back to Gambia are rare. If he's not summoned to play for the national team, he can be away for nearly a year, since the MLS season stretches from early February to late fall. "I go back at the end of the season, otherwise I would never see the family."
Along with advice from the Revs coaches, Nyassi is counseled by his teammates, especially Chris Albright, who plays right behind him at right back.
"He's confident on the ball," says Albright. "He's quicker than anybody in the league, he's got good feet, and he can run all day. For Sainey, it's just learning the game. He's a real good kid and is willing to listen."
Rookie with a big role
Not many college programs have sent more talented players to MLS than Maryland, yet even the Terrapins' defensive leader and a first-team All-American with the 2008 Division I champion wasn't prepared for what he'd encounter in the pros.
Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena threw the massive (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) Omar Gonzalez straight into the starting lineup and kept him there throughout the preseason as trialists came and went and prospects of a major signing flickered and fizzled.
"It's actually more than I ever imagined it," says Gonzalez, who played for the U.S. U-17 and U-20 teams. "Bruce and the staff are just amazing to work with. Everything is so professional. I've had my fair share of mistakes and coaches and teammates haven't been shy about pointing them out."
The inevitable mistakes notwithstanding, more than a few rookie defenders have not only survived but flourished in MLS. Carlos Bocanegra and Nick Garcia, the winner and runner-up, respectively, in balloting for the 2000 Rookie of the Year Award, also led their teams into MLS Cup. Garcia and the Wizards prevailed over Bocanegra and the Fire, 1-0.
Michael Parkhurst didn't lead New England to the final as a rookie in 2004, though he did earn the ROY Award. With him anchoring the middle, the Revs rolled to three straight MLS Cup appearances the next three seasons and though it lost them all, no one blamed the play of Parkhurst.
Gonzalez's Galaxy teammate, Sean Franklin, endured a much harsher introduction to MLS last year while winning the ROY nod. Moved into the middle from his preferred right back position, Franklin and a constantly changing group of defensive mates conceded by far the most goals in the league, 62.
Might not Gonzalez be fearful of the same fate befalling him, paired in the middle with the experienced but old-ish (37) Tony Sanneh?
"Sean has talked to me a little bit what he went through," says Gonzalez. "All of us are committed to being a much better defensive team than we were last year. It will take a team effort and that's what we work on every day, getting better as a team."
For its final preseason tuneup, Los Angeles played Chicago in Tempe, Ariz. Against Brian McBride and Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the potent Fire attack, the Galaxy managed to come home with a 1-1 tie. A preseason game against a quality opponent meant a lot to a rookie obviously talented and just starting to ascend a steep learning curve.
"I think going up against Brian McBride really helped me because he's so tricky in the box," says Gonzalez. "Being able to follow him for 90 minutes prepared me to stay with my man and not lose him so easily. It was a great learning experience for me and the rest of the team as well."
(This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)