MLS: Rookie bar is raised

It's been an excellent year for rookies in MLS. Expansion has meant increased opportunities for young players. With smaller rosters, most teams demand more from their college products then they've done in the past.

How did so many rookies get so much playing time in MLS this year?

Expansion might have something to do with it, as per a dilution in the quality of play, and since most first-year players - even those chosen in the first round - don't command high salaries, teams are always looking for bargains who might also be talented enough to contribute sooner rather than later.

Still, there's an unprecedented glut of rookies this year, highlighted by four teams that regularly start a pair of them: Galaxy defenders Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza, New England back-liners Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston, Toronto's twosome of goalie Stefan Frei and midfielder Sam Cronin, and the D.C. duo of Rodney Wallace and Chris Pontius.

The Galaxy conceded a league-high 62 goals last year; buttressed by Gonzalez and DeLaGarza, along with veterans Gregg Berhalter and Todd Dunivant, the team is on pace to cut that figure in half this season. Barnes moved right into the middle of the Revs defense to start from day one; Alston took the right-back slot when veteran Chris Albright suffered a meniscus tear.

Manager Mo Johnston and coach Chris Cummins were sufficiently impressed by Frei's play that TFC waived veteran Greg Sutton in midseason, and Sam Cronin anchored midfield so well he earned a U.S. callup for the Concacaf Gold Cup.

With a month to play in the season, Pontius was tied with Steve Zakuani in scoring among rookies (four goals) and Wallace was among the rookie leaders in starts (22).

"It depends on who comes out early, like Gonzalez, but other guys, like Sam Cronin and O'Brian White, when you watched them in college, you could tell what they could do," says Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid, who took Zakuani with the No. 1 pick. "I remember seeing Rodney Wallace as a freshman and thinking, 'This guy can play.' None of them were a real surprise, at the end of the day.

"It's definitely a very strong rookie class and there's a lot of guys in that class who are pretty good, every-day, consistent workers. We picked Zakuani No. 1 because he had that ability to be special, to make special plays in a game.

"I think DeLaGarza, because of the minutes he's gotten, has been a little bit of a surprise, and he was a lower pick (No. 19 overall). But for the other guys I think expectations were pretty appropriate."

DeLaGarza took over at right back when Sean Franklin, the 2008 Rookie of the Year, suffered a hamstring injury. Coach Bruce Arena lined up his two former Terps side-by-side in a four-man back line; Gonzalez as the right central defender, and DeLaGarza outside him. Despite inexperience, the rookie right side has held up.

"Omar's good in the air, he's a strong boy," says Berhalter, who mans the middle with Gonzalez. "AJ has been resilient on the right side, and he's gotten forward."


Talk of rookies hitting the "wall," an imaginary barrier during a pro season that's at least twice as long as a college campaign, is misleading. There are several walls: playing through injuries, the fatigue of a long season, adjusting to the demands and pressures of the pro game, and for those players who were subbed in and out during their college careers, just getting through an entire game.

"For the younger guys, part of becoming a professional is playing for 90-plus minutes," says Berhalter, who played his college ball at North Carolina and came to MLS last winter after spending more than a decade (1994-2008) in Europe. "It's always a case where one split-second can be the difference in a game. For the most part, they've been great doing that."

United veteran midfielder Ben Olsen, a rookie in 1998, knew of Wallace, who played his college ball nearby at the University of Maryland, and didn't need a lot of time to be impressed by Pontius.

"We didn't know much about Chris until he came, but it didn't take more than a couple days to see that he was a player," says Olsen. "What has struck me about both of them is how mature they are, and the composure and savvy-ness that they have at their age. I certainly didn't have that composure when I was that age. That was nice to see."

Still, the walls have their effect. New England forward Kheli Dube scored four goals and added two assists in a six-game span during the first half of the 2008 season. He finished the season with those same four goals and a total of four assists, decent numbers considering he played in 21 of 30 games, started just 13, and was competing for time with Taylor Twellman, among others.

"You see it every year," says Olsen. "Right around the beginning of summer, you see a blank look in their face, and you just know. I know because I went through it and I remember. I remember coming home after practice and not going outside, just sitting in a dark room, because I was always so tired. Now at the end of summer is the time when they seem to get their legs back and everybody else does after the grind of summer."

Had White been healthy when the season started, rather than re-habbing an ACL injury he suffered while playing for the University of Connecticut nearly a year ago, Toronto might have started a trio of rookies the entire season. Consistent scoring from the strikers has been a problem for TFC, with Chad Barrett, Ali Gerba and Pablo Vitti shuffling in and out of the lineup, along with Danny Dichio, who retired in early September so the team could sign midfielder Julian De Guzman.


With three of the first 13 picks, TFC could have traded one of them for a proven commodity - as San Jose did last year when it swapped the No. 1 pick for veteran defender Nick Garcia - yet instead used them all on Cronin (fourth), White (sixth), and Frei (13th). After making the picks, Johnston insisted using a first-round pick on White wasn't a gamble, and expressed confidence that by working with strength and conditioning coach Paul Winsper, White would be able to contribute in the 2009 season.

He has done just that. In just his fourth MLS game, and second start, since completing his rehab, White - who moved to Toronto suburb Scarborough from his native Jamaica as a teen - scored his second goal of the season in a 3-2 victory against Colorado. Still, not many rookie offensive players jump right into regular action.

Goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders routinely earn starting roles in their pro-debut seasons, yet for attackers and goalscorers - aside from a player like 2003 Rookie of the Year Damani Ralph - the learning curve is steeper. In the past three years, high-scoring college forwards like Charlie Davies and Alejandro Bedoya (both Boston College), Marcus Tracy (Wake Forest) and Mike Grella (Duke) have passed up MLS to sign with foreign teams.

"In some cases, they're getting themselves into a pretty good level of play, and in other cases they're not going to a higher level of play but they're getting a lot better compensated for it," says Schimd. "Whether Grella is getting enough playing time or he might develop faster with more time in MLS, I don't know."

TFC also picked Grella (as the No. 34 pick in the third round) last January; instead, he went on trial with Leeds United of English Division One and signed a short-term deal. During the summer he negotiated a three-year contract and in the first portion of the 2009-10 season played two matches in the Carling Cup.

Those forwards who do sign with MLS often don't play up top, as the expansion of international slots to eight per team has encouraged MLS coaches and general managers, like most of their counterparts around the world, to find and test as many foreign forwards as possible.

Of the 10 rookie field players who've played the most minutes (as of mid-September) in league play, six were defenders and three were midfielders. Zakuani played forward at the University of Akron and is listed as such in our All-Rookie Team, though he usually plays as a left midfielder or left winger for Seattle. Pontius played up top for UC Santa Barbara and has moved into midfield, either on the right side or in the middle, for United, though D.C. also has Santino Quaranta and Fred to play an attacking midfield role.

Many of the top MLS rookies in recent years have moved to Europe. Examples like goalkeeper Brad Guzan (Chivas USA), defenders Michael Parkhurst (New England) and Bakary Soumare (Chicago), and midfielder Maurice Edu (Toronto FC) are more common than those of forwards, yet 2004 Rookie of the Year Clint Dempsey (New England to Fulham) and 2005 finalists Scott Sealy (San Jose to Maccabi Tel Aviv) and Chris Rolfe (Chicago to Randers FC in January) have shown that the case of Ralph isn't a unique one. Dempsey, Sealy and Rolfe all played a lot of midfield during their MLS careers; Yura Movsisyan, picked No. 4 overall by Kansas City in 2006, will leave Real Salt Lake at end of the season and play with Rolfe in Denmark for Randers.

Across the board, coaches and former players cite attitude, in addition to talent, as absolutely critical. Before he left his post as a Fire assistant coach, former U.S. international midfielder Chris Armas praised the dedication and work ethic of Soumare as vital in his development. Less than three years after being drafted by Chicago, Soumare earned a callup to the Malian national team, and in August moved to French club Boulogne, which bought his rights for approximately $2 million.

"The key for him is he comes in every day, and he works hard," said Armas last year.


However, the prominence of those dozen or so rookies who have garnered significant playing time is a sharp contrast to a second tier of players who rarely see the field. Chivas USA rookie Michael Lahoud (Wake Forest) drew some plaudits for his play early in the season, yet a slew of midseason additions - including Jesus Padilla from parent club Guadalajara - moved him to the outer fringe of the 18-man first team.

When MLS eliminated its reserve league last year and cut down its roster size from 28 to 24, it cut down the chance for rookies to keep a spot. Teams can also trade international slots, so on some MLS rosters, former college players are in the minority, and drafting a rookie who might need two or three years to develop is a luxury. Tougher competition for spots has mitigated the added opportunities produced by expansion.

"If someone comes into our league, if I don't think he can help me as a rookie, he's probably not going to help me down the line, either," says Schmid. "Unless it's a situation where he plays a position where you've got somebody, but maybe when that guy retires or leaves, you move him in there, but still, if he would have played for you as a rookie he would have helped you."

In other words, if a rookie doesn't perform like a DeLaGarza or Alston if the need arises, he might not be worth keeping.

"If he can't," says Schmid, "it's not over, but it's very difficult."

(This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)


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