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Omar heads impressive rookie class
by Ridge Mahoney, November 11th, 2009 6:45AM



[MLS] In March, when Galaxy coach Bruce Arena got word that former U.S. international Gregg Berhalter wished to leave European soccer for MLS, he made sure the rugged central defender knew what he'd be in for. Arena had already made up his mind that rookie Omar Gonzalez, chosen by Los Angeles with its first pick in the 2009 SuperDraft, would be starting in the middle. He paired Berhalter with the 6-foot-5 University of Maryland product, who gets my vote for MLS Rookie of the Year against some very stiff competition.

Gonzalez started all 30 games, committed just 29 fouls, and backstopped a revamped defense that cut its goals allowed total in half, from 62 to 31, from a dismal 2008 season during which the Galaxy missed the playoffs for the third straight season. Big and strong and fast, the most arresting aspect of Gonzalez's play was the calmness and poise he brought to the most frantic situations. He and Berhalter and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts - all newcomers to MLS -- formed a solid defensive core that stabilized what had been a chaotic, disjointed team.

Nearly as influential was another central defender, the Revs' Darrius Barnes, who played every minute (2,700) for an injury-ravaged team that scraped into the playoffs. New England right back Kevin Alston showed incredible potential while playing 26 games, and Gonzalez's teammate, outside back A.J. DeLaGarza, performed solidly before a late-season injury cut into his playing time.

D.C. United unveiled two rookies, forward Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace, who provided many bright moments in a disappointing season. Toronto FC goalie Stefan Frei committed the rookie mistakes that are inevitable to young keepers, but his courageous command of the penalty area and superb reflexes repelled many more shots than his errors let slip past him.

TFC midfielder Sam Cronin played enough good games to deservedly earn a call-up to the U.S. team for the Concacaf Gold Cup. Wizard Matt Besler logged a lot of minutes at outside back and in central defense.

The No. 1 pick, midfielder Steve Zakuani of Seattle, swapped superb games with a few indifferent ones as teams adjusted to his considerable pace. He narrowly won the rookie scoring race with four goals and four assists, just nipping Pontius (4, 3) and Wallace (3, 3).

Among those rookies who emerged late in the season are yet another TFC player, forward O'Brian White, Chivas USA midfielder Michael Lahoud, and FC Dallas defender George John.

MLS finalists: Stefan Frei (Toronto FC), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles), Chris Pontius (D.C. United).


Ridge Mahoney's Pick: Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles).

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