These rookies raise the bar in MLS
'09 MLS rookie class is getting unprecedented opportunities with more roster spots
Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza have shored up what was porous Galaxy defense
No. 1 pick Steve Zakuani adding punch to Seattle's offense with 4 goals, 4 assists
It has been an excellent year for rookies in Major League Soccer. 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: Los Angeles defenders Omar Gonzalez and A.J. 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 Cronin anchored midfield so well, he earned a U.S. call-up 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. Galaxy 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. "A.J. has been resilient on the right side, and he's gotten forward."
Hitting the wall
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 to 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."
D.C. United veteran midfielder Ben Olsen, a rookie in '98, 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."