[MLS ROOKIE CLASS: Ten to Watch] Mississippi is off the beaten path in terms of soccer, but it has sent a number of players to MLS. The latest: Louisville sophomore Marlon Hairston, who signed as a homegrown contract and is considered one of the top midfield prospects in the 2014 SuperDraft.
The player who put Mississippi soccer on the map was the aptly named Justin Mapp, who signed with MLS out of the second U.S. under-17 national team residency class in Bradenton, Fla., in 2002 and will be entering his 13th MLS season in 2014.
MLS Rookie Class: Ten to Watch
1. Jordan Allen (Univ. of Virginia-signed with Real Salt Lake)
Read his story. Follow @jayalllen.
2. Steve Birnbaum (Univ. of California)
Read his story. Follow @StevenBirnbaum
3. Marlon Hairston (Univ. of Louisville)
Mapp's connection to Mississippi led to Chicago playing preseason games there during his eight seasons with the Fire. And it was instrumental in the Fire later starting an affiliate program with the Mississippi Fire Juniors, which led to the signing of former U.S. U-17 Kellen Gulley as a "homegrown" player after he spent the 2011-12 season with the Fire's academy team in Chicago.
Like Mapp and Gulley, Hairston spent time in Bradenton, in his case as a four-year resident at IMG Academy's soccer program. He grew up near a soccer field in Jackson, took up soccer at age of 3 and played at Central Jackson Soccer, but he says he jumped at the chance to get away from what he termed the "distractions" of Jackson when he got a call out of the blue with the offer of a scholarship to IMG valued at $70,000 a year. He was named the 2011-12 IMG Academy Offensive Player of the Year before enrolling at Louisville in 2012.
Hairston, who was called up to the U.S. under-20 national team that competed in the 2013 Toulon Tournament, might not step in and start immediately like fellow Louisville products, Austin Berry (2012 MLS Rookie of Year with Chicago) and Andrew Farrell(2013 No. 1 SuperDraft pick with New England), did the last two season, but their success will make a lot of MLS teams look at him seriously.
The lanky Hairston has been compared to MLS veteran Shalrie Joseph in both his looks (the same dreadlocks) and the easy manner in which he patrols the middle of the park.