In March, when Galaxy coach Bruce Arena
got word that former U.S. international Gregg Berhalter
wished to leave European soccer
for MLS, he made sure the rugged central defender knew what he'd be in for. Arena had already made up his mind that rookie Omar Gonzalez
, chosen by Los Angeles with its first pick
in the 2009 SuperDraft, would be starting in the middle. He paired Berhalter with the 6-foot-5 University of Maryland product, who gets my vote for MLS Rookie of the Year against some very stiff
Gonzalez started all 30 games, committed just 29 fouls, and backstopped a revamped defense that cut its goals allowed total in half, from 62 to 31, from a dismal 2008
season during which the Galaxy missed the playoffs for the third straight season. Big and strong and fast, the most arresting aspect of Gonzalez's play was the calmness and poise he brought to the
most frantic situations. He and Berhalter and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts
- all newcomers to MLS -- formed a solid defensive core that stabilized what had been a chaotic,
Nearly as influential was another central defender, the Revs' Darrius Barnes
, who played every minute (2,700) for an injury-ravaged team that
scraped into the playoffs. New England right back Kevin Alston
showed incredible potential while playing 26 games, and Gonzalez's teammate, outside back A.J.
, performed solidly before a late-season injury cut into his playing time.
D.C. United unveiled two rookies, forward Chris Pontius
, who provided many bright moments in a disappointing season. Toronto FC goalie Stefan Frei
committed the rookie mistakes that are inevitable to
young keepers, but his courageous command of the penalty area and superb reflexes repelled many more shots than his errors let slip past him.
TFC midfielder Sam
played enough good games to deservedly earn a call-up to the U.S. team for the Concacaf Gold Cup. Wizard Matt Besler
logged a lot of minutes at outside back and in
The No. 1 pick, midfielder Steve Zakuani
of Seattle, swapped superb games with a few indifferent ones as teams adjusted to his considerable pace. He
narrowly won the rookie scoring race with four goals and four assists, just nipping Pontius (4, 3) and Wallace (3, 3).
Among those rookies who emerged late in the season are yet
another TFC player, forward O'Brian White
, Chivas USA midfielder Michael Lahoud
, and FC Dallas defender George John
Stefan Frei (Toronto FC), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles), Chris Pontius (D.C. United).
Ridge Mahoney's Pick: Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles).