By Ridge Mahoney
In the last two weeks, MLS has announced an ambitious expansion of its Designated Player option as well as more opportunities, to go along with better salaries, for young players whom teams have brought through their development programs.
In the past year, it has also signed a slew of young foreign players, many on loan, for investment as well as competitive purposes. There are three young Brazilians with the Galaxy, and while they haven’t been major contributors, they’ve not embarrassed themselves while LA has rolled up three straight shutout wins.
More DPs will get the league a lot of publicity, yet teams that load up on them and their relatively large salary cap hits will be just as dependent, if not more so, on young players who can get a good job done at a good price. The season is only three weeks old and already several players new to the league and the American pro game are showing their prowess.
For the Union’s historic first MLS game in Seattle March 25, Coach Peter Nowak rolled out all three of the teenagers he picked in the first round of the SuperDraft: No. 1 pick Danny Mwanga got a start, Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney played the second half. Philly fell behind early, lost defender Tony Stahl to a red card late in the first half, and eventually lost, 2-0.
For the home opener Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, Nowak only used McInerney, but he did keep 18-year-old Colombian Roger Torres in the lineup. Torres served up the cross that produced a header for Sebastian Le Toux and the first goal in team history. More veterans in the starting lineup – Fred, Stefani Miglioranzi, debutant Cristian Arrieta – and a strong game from Alejandro Moreno enabled Philly to take advantage of a shoddy and disjointed D.C. United and hit three goals by Le Toux, yet despite his youth Torres looked calm and capable in a frenzied, competitive environment.
Revs rookie Zack Schilawski strugged in his MLS debut against Los Angeles two weeks ago, but kept working to find space and link up with forward partner Kheli Dube. After a 1-0 defeat, Schilawski said, “It was frustrating at times. I think that once we settled in, moved the ball around, and had a little more possession, it was good.”
He started against D.C. April 3 and came off midway through the second half. His replacement, Kenny Mansally, scored twice within three minutes in a 2-0 win.
With another week of training and encouragement from Coach Steve Nicol, Schilawski – who scored 14 goals for Wake Forest as a senior and hit 40 in his four collegiate seasons -- destroyed Toronto FC with a hat trick in just his second pro game. Setting up one of his goals was 21-year-old Gambian Sainey Nyassi, whom Nicol had signed along with Mansally three years ago after the coach saw them play in the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
“You’re hoping to get some young guys who have some talent but haven’t shown it all yet, and hopefully we can give them that opportunity,” says Nicol of finding players from Africa as well as the college ranks. “The fact they are young means you can have them for a period of time. And for Central Americans and South Americans, there are only so many players available, so you have to broaden your horizons and look elsewhere.”
A pair of 22-year-olds with very different backgrounds scored two incredible goals last weekend. Guatemalan Marco Pappa hit a pulverizing shot from outside the penalty area into the top corner for Chicago’s goal in its 2-1 loss to San Jose, La Jolla Nomads and UC Santa Barbara product Eric Avila earned FC Dallas a 2-2 tie with Columbus by drilling a low shot off the inside of the post in stoppage time.
MLS is certainly a younger league than it was in its first few seasons, and more youth often means more mistakes and less polished play. Yet with the right young players alongside veterans in a viable situation, the effects can be impressive.