These rookies raise the bar in MLS (cont.)
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 '08 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 rehabbing 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.
Keeping the picks
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 '09 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 '03 Rookie of the Year Damani Ralph -- the learning curve is steeper. In the past three years, high-scoring college forwards such as 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 '09-10 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 '04 Rookie of the Year Clint Dempsey (New England to Fulham) and '05 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 '06, 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 call-up 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.
Facing reduced slots
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 Jesús 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. Click here for a free 30-day trial.