Across the league, the arrival of stars like Thierry Henry and Nery Castillo have absorbed the attention of both MLS die-hards and those with only a passing interest in American soccer. Yet hidden beneath the endless pages of Rafa Maquez feature pieces was a much less covered, but important announcement out of San Jose.
Ike Opara, stud centerback and Rookie of the Year candidate, would be sidelined indefinitely due to surgery on a broken left foot. The announcement, tragic for the resurgent Earthquakes, elicited merely a blip across the American soccer landscape. This has been a trend throughout the year; while the DP madness has deservedly garnered headlines, the best rookie class in Major League Soccer’s 15 years is barely getting the press that it deserves.
One quick perusal of the league will reveal that nearly every club in the league has at least one quality rookie who has already excelled or has the potential to do so. How did this occur? Don Garber and his staffers deserve some praise for this success, as not only a stellar Generation adidas class but also the advent of the Homegrown Player rules led to the class’ great depth.
To call it the greatest rookie class ever is quite the declaration. To prove this, it’s first important to analyze MLS’s bygone years which SuperDrafts 2010 has to top.
The Past Classes
The past classes will be evaluated upon the achievements of their players in MLS and foreign leagues as well as internationally. The league has too small of a sample size to only judge a decade and a half of classes based upon their play in MLS alone.
To determine the strength of each year, I split the players into two groups: internationals and league stalwarts. This method, although rudimentary, is effective in revealing those players who may have not had the talent to play for the national team, but still made a solid contribution to MLS. It’s easy to forget someone like Mike Petke, who has appeared in over 300 league matches despite only two caps for the U.S.
A few other notes:
- Players who are drafted but don’t sign with MLS don’t count towards a class (Marcus Tracy and Mike Grella from 2009 for instance).
- I took the liberty to predict 2009’s future, as one year isn’t enough time to fully assess players.
Here are the best of the previous classes:
Internationals: Eddie Pope, Greg Vanney, Steve Ralston, Eddie Lewis, Chris Armas
League stalwarts: Diego Gutierrez, Jesse Marsch
The inaugural class - only counting players straight from college - didn’t have the depth that futures ones offered, but few others possessed the international quality that 1996 did. Ralston, who recently retired to take a coaching role in Houston, is the all-time MLS leader in assists, matches, and minutes played, while Pope is possibly the greatest defender in MLS history.
Internationals: Tim Howard, Clint Mathis, Pablo Mastroeni, Ben Olsen, Josh Wolff, Jeff Cunningham, C.J. Brown, Chris Klein
League stalwarts: Mike Petke, Tyrone Marshall, Wade Barrett, Carey Talley, Daniel Hernandez, Matt Reis, Joe Franchino
Quite frankly, 1998 is the class that all future ones should be compared against. Among the accomplishments of those emerging from that year’s College Draft are eight World Cup roster appearances and Cunningham’s 128 goals, only four short of Jaime Moreno’s MLS record. A draft that began with Leo Cullen, Ritchie Kotschau, and Ben Parry happened to reveal to the world quite possibly America’s greatest goalkeeper (Howard) and its most talented field player (Mathis).
Internationals: Ricardo Clark, Brian Ching
League stalwarts: Damani Ralph, Arturo Alvarez, Brian Carroll, Alecko Eskandarian, Eddie Gaven, Nate Jaqua, Todd Dunivant, Pat Noonan, Shavar Thomas, Logan Pause, Jack Jewsbury
The 2003 batch, the class of 1996’s antithesis, despite not having the same international pedigree as the others appearing in this article, introduced a slew of MLS contributors. Although this class doesn’t seem to have lived up to potential, many from 2003 are MLS mainstays. Also, the 14 Project-40 members is still a record.
Internationals: Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Clarence Goodson, Freddy Adu, Chad Marshall
League stalwarts: Chris Wingert, Ramon Nunez, Joseph Ngwenya, Ned Grabavoy, Seth Stammler, Matt Pickens, Jeff Parke, Alan Gordon
The legacy of this class hinges on the future of Adu, whose career path has diverged from Bradley’s since starring together at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup. If the youngest player in MLS history can resurrect his career, the 2004 draft would rival 1998 as it would have a higher ceiling through Adu, Bradley, and, of course, Dempsey.
Prospective internationals: Omar Gonzalez, Steve Zakuani, Chris Pontius, Kevin Alston, Stefan Frei, Tristan Bowen
Prospective league stalwarts: Sam Cronin, Darrius Barnes Rodney Wallace, Matt Besler, George John, A.J. DeLaGarza, Michael Lahoud, Jeremy Hall
The strength of 2010’s predecessor has also been overlooked. Gonzalez is the first player to blossom into a truly fantastic player, but there is no reason why the likes of Zakuani, Alston, and the rest won’t be appearing in MLS all-star and international matches in the coming years.
THE FOUR TYPES OF ROOKIES
The Rookie of the Year Frontrunners
These are the rookies who have instantly starred in MLS. They are not only playing large minutes in their first seasons but also seem to definitely have future careers abroad.
Andy Najar (D.C. United): There have been effectively three stories this year in the capital: the awfulness of D.C. United, a possible move to Baltimore, and Najar. The 17-year-old wonderkid has been the only reason for hope during a miserable campaign for D.C. fans and has already started the proverbial “cap him now” blog posts by U.S. commentators.
Ike Opara (San Jose Earthquakes): The San Jose Earthquakes are having their best season ever since their reincarnation in 2008. A main reason is the stability that the security the athletic Opara provides at the center of defense. The Wake Forest product has surprisingly scored three goals and is already being talked about as a potential starter at the 2014 World Cup.
Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls): The left-footed center back received little thought from Red Bull supporters when drafted in the second round, but Ream who has played every league minute for NY this season is considered the steal of the draft. Carlos Mendes, his partner in the center of defense, described the rookie’s attributes perfectly.
“Tim is a good young player,” said Mendes exclusively to Goal.com. “Very composed on the ball. I think it’s been easy to gel with him. He’s the type of guy who reads the game; he’s calm on the ball.”
Danny Mwanga (Philadelphia Union): Peter Nowak’s pre-MLS Draft preparations seemed to hinge solely on convincing MLS to sign Mwanga to a Generation adidas contract so that the forward wasn’t lost to Europe. The first pick in the 2010 draft has blessed Philadelphia with seven goals, only four short of Damani Ralph’s rookie record.
Michael Stephens (Los Angeles Galaxy): The diminutive midfielder, who has seamlessly fit into Bruce Arena’s starting XI, has an eye-popping seven assists this year, tied for fifth in the league with the likes of Guillermo Barros Schelotto and David Ferreira. His stats may be inflated by being on the league’s highest scoring team, but his easy transition to the pros bodes well for the future of the Gals.
These are the players who haven’t received the same fanfare as those in ROY contention, but have starred nonetheless.
Zach Schilawski (New England Revolution): With the Revolution having a mediocre season and receiving minimal headlines, Schilawski’s goals have been largely overlooked. The forward’s five strikes would have led last season’s rookie class.
Blair Gavin/Ben Zemanski (Chivas USA): The central midfield duo from Akron has been fantastic for Chivas USA. Bringing the quick passing style seen in college to MLS, Gavin and Zemanski have been two of the brightest players for a team lacking in talent.
Nane Joseph (Toronto FC): The Cameroonian has only made seven league appearances for Toronto FC thus far, but the trade of Sam Cronin to San Jose illustrates the faith Preki has in Nane. The physical central midfielder is fast becoming the perfect complement to Designated Player Julian de Guzman.
Zach Loyd (FC Dallas): Schellas Hyndman selected the versatile defender to serve as an MLS-ready player and Loyd’s demonstrated just that, filling in across Dallas’ backline. He might not have the same upside as others on the list, but there is no reason why Loyd won’t be a top MLS contributor for years to come.
The Promising Ones
These are some of the rookies who are making a slower transition into the league, but still appear to have great futures.
Tony Tchani (New York Red Bulls): The second pick in the 2010 SuperDraft has slowly established himself as a midfield starter in Hans Backe’s 4-4-2. Although the Cameroonian has clear deficiencies in his game, including his decision-making in the final third, his pure athleticism has cemented his spot. Under the tutelage of Rafa Marquez, Tchani’s potential is limitless.
Teal Bunbury (Kansas City Wizards): Bunbury’s two goals aren’t an impressive statistic, but both were vital game-winners against Eastern Conference rivals, the Columbus Crew and Toronto FC. The recent goals show how the fourth overall selection in 2010 is quickly becoming acclimated to MLS.
Amobi Okugo/Jack McInerney (Philadelphia Union): The sixth and seventh picks in the 2010 SuperDraft respectively haven’t started for the Union; yet, there is a feeling that the two United States youth internationals are on the verge of breaking out soon.
Dilly Duka (Columbus Crew): The playmaker, who has seen some time in CCL play but less in MLS, will need more time to develop than most as he adjusts to the physical nature of professional soccer. Keep an eye on Duka, though, as Guillermo Barros Schelotto gradually releases the reigns of the Columbus Crew attack.
Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake): While Duka has a mere 15 minutes of MLS time, the 16-year-old Gil is yet to appear in an MLS match. Due to his youth and size, he also will need time to adapt, but the playmaker has been trumpeted as the future No.10 of United States for a reason.
Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire): The Generation adidas goalkeeper, with one fantastic showing, stole the headlines from the likes of Marquez and Thierry Henry in the blockbuster five DP matchup between the Red Bulls and Chicago Fire. The 20-year-old clearly has the shot-stopping abilities to become a fantastic net-minder, evidenced by his three Save of the Week victories in four appearances.
The Academy System Graduates
These are the players who propel 2010 in front of the past classes. This section is only highlighting a few of the homegrown players; few have emerged into the public eye just yet.
Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls): Although the 17-year-old Agudelo is yet to appear in MLS, his performances in the Milk Cup with the Under-20 national team have shown just how dangerous of a forward New York has.
Bill Hamid (D.C. United): Hamid, since making his professional debut in May, has battled for D.C.’s starting keeper spot with U.S. international Troy Perkins. In his sparse starts, his size and athleticism needed to be an elite goalie have impressed.
Bryan Levya/Moises Hernandez/Ruben Luna (FC Dallas): The belief in the quality of these players comes from the knowledge of how great the FC Dallas Academy is at producing soccer players. Keep your eyes on these talents in the coming years.
Breadth And Depth
The 2010 rookie class’ strength is derived from its diversity. The wealth of athletes came from different backgrounds -- college, MLS academies, and youth national teams -- yet, all possess the talent to contribute in MLS and beyond.
The likes of Andy Najar and Ike Opara, the stars destined to don international kits, will become synonymous with the success of this class. But as these players mature, those that trade MLS for European expeditions aren’t what that will thrust this group past 1998.
The 2010 batch will be considered the best rookie class because of the pure volume of this legion. Listed above are 21 players who have made arguably the greatest impact thus far or have the brightest futures of any MLS class thus far.
To curtail redundancy, I was forced to omit some players who have already shown similar promise to those who made the cut.
Nearly a dozen other rookies are getting steady minutes, any of which could develop late into the Mike Petkes and Daniel Hernandezes of this class, the solid MLS contributors. And that is neglecting all the homegrown players being signed daily, who will slowly emerge in the coming years.
Importing foreign stars is crucial in raising the profile of MLS, but raising the overall quality of play through draft classes is just as important in retaining the fans drawn in casually by the latest blockbuster signing.
The 2010 SuperDraft, with its prodigious early results, has already introduced a new base to MLS. Now, it’s time to watch as it continues its rapid development and likely exceeds any of its predecessors.
For wry non sequiturs follow Goal.com correspondent Avery Raimondo on Twitter @averyraimondo
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