[MLS AWARDS FINAL FIVE] It's getting tougher and tougher for MLS rookies coming out of college to get regular time in their first pro seasons.
MLS has opened the doors to more foreign players and enticed teams to develop their own young talent through expanded rosters, academy programs and revival of the Reserve Division. It can be especially difficult for college attackers, since many teams prefer to fill those slots with more proven and experienced players.
Still, about a dozen rookies have established themselves in the first team, and while No. 1 pick Omar Salgado has played little for Vancouver, many of those taken in the first two rounds have done enough to earn consideration as the best of the best in 2011.
Several top defensive candidates have been competent in their rookie seasons, though none match the confident, dominant presence in the mold of 2009 winner Omar Gonzalez. A more reasonable comparison could be his predecessor, Galaxy teammate Sean Franklin, who won the award despite playing for a team that conceded 62 goals.
If that’s the standard, along with heralded candidates Perry Kitchen of D.C. United and A.J. Soares of New England must be listed Michael Farfan of Philadelphia. On the offensive side, the leading picks are CJ Sapong (Kansas City), Darlington Nagbe (Portland) and Will Bruin (Houston).
Kitchen, one of the many outstanding players to come out of the University of Akron, has played 30 games and 2,636 minutes at centerback, outside back and defensive mid. He averaged a foul a game and was cautioned only three times, which are remarkable numbers for any young defender and particularly for one who left college after his freshman year.
Like Kitchen, Soares has scored one goal in his rookie season (28 games) and this week it was learned he’s been hobbled by a sore left ankle suffered during preseason training. He underwent surgery Oct. 6 to correct the problem and though the Revs’ defense performed poorly this season, the Cal product has shown great potential.
Farfan (North Carolina) played only 21 games but generated some offense (two goals, three assists) while proving his reliability defensively. He helped fill a need for the Union, which lacked stability on the corners until he and twin brother Gabriel got regular playing time. (Like Michael, Gabriel is a former U.S. U-17 who started out at Cal State Fullerton but then moved to Mexico where he spent time in the Club America system.)
Also worth of mention is the Crew’s Rich Balchan (Indiana). As Coach Robert Warzycha moved pieces around to find the right combinations, Balchan played in the back and midfield for his 19 appearances and might have played more had he not been sidelined for more than a month with an adductor strain.
Nagbe, the No. 2 overall pick and also an Akron product, scored one of the most spectacular goals of the season before falling into a funk. He managed two goals and three assists in 28 games (21 starts).
Bruin (Indiana) scored five goals in 24 games (21 starts), which ties him for the team lead with Geoff Cameron and Brian Ching. Three of those goals came on a hat trick early in the season as Bruin played a minor role during a surge during the final two months that propelled Houston into the playoffs.
Sapong (James Madison) also scored five goals, and registered five assists while battling for playing time with veterans like Kei Kamara as well as second-year stud Teal Bunbury. Sapong only started 23 times yet with a game to go had played in every one (33). In a close vote vs. the defensive contenders, he gets the nod.
MLS ROOKIE OF THE YEAR FINAL FIVE:
1. CJ Sapong (Kansas City)
2. Perry Kitchen (D.C. United)
3. A.J. Soares (New England)
4. Michael Farfan (Philadelphia)
5. Rich Balchan (Columbus)