The race for MLS Rookie of the Year comes down to three outstanding players, two of whom, not surprisingly, were among the top three selections in the SuperDraft last January. This year's best rookie, as per balloting conducted by the league, will be announced the week of MLS Cup 2007.
Top pick Maurice Edu (Toronto) and No. 3 choice Michael Harrington (Kansas City) moved right into starting jobs and both will garner plenty of votes in the official MLS balloting. Harrington played both left back and left midfield while missing just one game, and Edu brought power, touch and speed to the central midfield of a TFC team that often struggled to field 11 competent players.
The Soccer America All-Rookie Team is designed in a 4-4-2 formation with the players who not necessarily played the most, but performed best in their time on the field.
"He's been dangerous in every match we've played," said Coach Bruce Arena after an early-season game. "I am a big believer of flank play and he can stretch teams and he is aggressive."
Soon enough word flashed around the league that Arena had added yet another weapon to heralded internationals Juan Pablo Angel, Claudio Reyna, and Ronald Waterreus. Heading into the final game of the season, Richards had played in 27 games (26 starts), scored two goals, and registered six assists, and more importantly, forced opponents to deal with him.
"He has a great engine, up and down, and it seems like he never tires," says Red Bulls assistant coach John Harkes. "He's fit all the time. When you ask about what the value is to a team, he's been tremendous for us. Every team we play against has to adjust to him."
Harkes says he and the coaching staff were carefully watching for signs Richards had hit the dreaded "rookie wall" but rarely felt the need to sit him down for a rest.
"Playing striker and midfield is totally different," says Richards. "I used to play more up top, so by the time I turn I'm in front of goal, so my speed would keep me away from the defense so I could score more goals. Now I am playing wide right and am more of a supplier of the ball for the strikers. I am learning more each day of the midfield style."
At 6-feet and 170 well-muscled pounds, Edu emerged from Maryland ready to go, but a bothersome pelvic problem forced him out of the first two league games and he also had to sit out an early-season game because of a red card. He scored just 10 goals for the Terps playing mainly as a holding midfielder, yet by midseason had already scored three goals for TFC.
"When you get No. 1 draft picks, you want to play them and start them," says TFC coach Mo Johnston, "but it's hard to find someone like him. He's been wonderful for us."
Edu's midfield dominance in numerous MLS games earned him a national-team call-up for the USA friendly against Switzerland in mid-October. That's another steep step for a 21-year-old who has yet to master the pro environment but he's already shown he can upgrade his game as needed.
He scored a sweet goal, his fourth of the season, in a 2-1 victory against Red Bull New York by running onto a Marvell Wynne feed and firing low past Waterreus.
"He's a very good player," said Harkes. "Toronto went through a lot, a lot of difficulty this year, and Maurice Edu was still a steady player. He's done well for them."
Kansas City coach Curt Onalfo had a plan. He installed Harrington as the left-sided midfielder, where his raiding runs would require fewer recovery sprints and exploit his attacking prowess.
"Michael Harrington is guy that's versatile, he can really play anywhere along the back line, but he's better outside and he can also play as a left midfielder," said Onalfo. "Harrington in my mind is a midfielder, slash, defender, so it depends on how they line up."
Later in the season, Onalfo lined up Harrington at left back and let Jose Burciaga Jr. take a few romps in midfield. Harrington's offensive output flattened out in the second half of the season, yet with a game left he'd scored three goals and registered four assists.
But he started the first three games in place of Pat Noonan - who was recovering from an injury - and picked up two assists playing a skillful, daring role up front. He scored his first MLS goal in a 3-2 win over the Galaxy in May and netted twice a month later in a wild 3-3 tie with Columbus.
When Taylor Twellman left to join the USA team, Coach Steve Nicol often used Cristman and Noonan as a forward tandem. He hit a dry spell - maybe the "rookie wall?" - after scoring his fourth goal in early August, yet the Revs upgraded him to the regular 18-man roster in September.
But with a wave of injuries sidelined Chris Albright, Ante Jazic, Roberts and mid-season arrival Abel Xavier, Harden saw time as a right back as well as in the middle. For Harden, who played collegiately at Washington, generally solid displays were often marred by egregious errors.
He gave away penalty kicks in separate games against FC Dallas. He let Red Bull Jozy Altidore breeze by him and a teammate's foul resulted in another penalty. A mixup between him and Galaxy midfielder Pete Vagenas permitted Houston's Ricardo Clark to score the clinching goal in a 3-1 Galaxy defeat.
Yet he kept his place in the back line during the Galaxy's amazing late push for a playoff spot before a hip injury forced him out of the lineup.
Findley came out of Oregon State with a reputation for speed and finishing. In the dark early days of the Galaxy's season, despite starting only three of his nine appearances, he sparked the attack far more often than glamorous teammates such as Landon Donovan.
He scored two goals in those nine games, then was traded along with Sturgis to RSL for veteran midfield Chris Klein. Findley got his third goal on his 22nd birthday and it brought RSL a 1-0 win over defending champion Houston.
Heading into the final game of the season Findley led all rookies with seven goals and ranked near the top with 24 appearances, though he started only 14 of them.
Coach Mo Johnston drafted him with set plays in mind and though Boyens gets to a lot of balls at both ends of the field, he'd garnered just one goal and one assist while playing 22 games through mid-October. He also picked up two red cards (one a straight red) and though Johnson criticized the official who doled out two cautions to Boyens in July, he's only included perhaps a half-dozen players as those he'd like back for next season.
Taken at the very end of the SuperDraft second round as the 26th overall pick, Ashe waited on the developmental roster. In early July, Davis tore the medial meniscus in his right knee and in his absence both Holden and Ashe got more time on the field. Ashe ripped up Real Salt Lake in early September, setting up three Houston goals in a 4-3 victory.
"Luckily, I guess I was in the zone, but before I take any credit, all the credit goes to my teammates," Ashe said. "They back me up every week. The coaches have been behind me, and they keep me to stay positive. I'm happy that we got the win, and more important than my three assists, we got back in the win column."
He debuted for RSL against Colorado April 30 as he prepared to play for the USA in the FIFA U-20 World Cup. He handled a backpass to give the Rapids an indirect free kick inside the penalty area, from which they scored the second goal in a 2-0 win.
Veteran RSL goalie Nick Rimando's work in the nets earned him the team MVP award. Yet Seitz's fine play in the U-20 World Cup and employment in MLS puts him in the pipeline of good young American goalkeepers.
At 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, his physical tools are remarkable. Yet like many rookies he needs significant improvement and regular playing time.
(This article originally appeared in the November issue of Soccer America magazine.)