Ten MLS players to watch for 2014
Several young players in MLS could make the step up to international level
L.A. center back Omar Gonzalez looks a lock for the U.S. national team
D.C.'s exciting Andy Najar is the type of creative player the U.S. lacks
Nobody needs a crystal ball to pick out the favorite for World Cup 2014. The tournament is in Brazil ... so need we say more?
You could argue that everyone is playing for second place, as the Brazilians will surely be the oddsmakers' choice in four years time, with Spain and Germany trotting along behind.
Then again, weird things do happen. Uruguay won the last World Cup played in the samba kings' backyard, back in 1950. And the Brazilians will be under enormous pressure -- not just to win, but claim the Cup with style and panache.
None of that should erase any of the fun of trying to spoil Brazil's carnival. The United States will be certainly be fancied to qualify for a seventh consecutive tournament.
You already know some of the names and faces who will lead the U.S. charge into Brazil 2014. But what about some of the young up-and-comers? Are there players in MLS today, unknown to many domestic soccer fans, who have a good shot at finding their way into the rotation in four years?
In fact, there are probably players who are in MLS today who will even be "promoted" into Europe while they make their way into the national team. That's how Michael Bradley did it. As 2006 opened, the young midfielder had just left the New York MetroStars for SC Heerenveen in the Netherlands. He trained with Bruce Arena's team just before it left for Germany four summers ago. (He was always a training presence, never really considered for a roster spot.)
Jonathan Bornstein was an unknown rookie at Chivas USA four years ago. He was a just a fourth-round pick, in fact, converted from forward to left back by then-Chivas coach Bob Bradley. But he flourished quickly, earned Rookie of the Year honors and, a few months later, had his first U.S. cap.
So Bornstein's and Bradley's cases perfectly illustrate how young players rise from relative obscurity to important places within a World Cup cycle. Here are 10 young players currently in MLS to watch over the next year or so, as Bob Bradley (or his replacement) begins building a side to qualify for and then compete in Brazil 2014. (Players are listed alphabetically.):
One of the league's top young attacking fullbacks, the New England Revolution right back is enjoying his second strong season at Gillette Stadium. He's about where Marvell Wynne was at this point four years ago but may have more upside. Alston doesn't have Wynne's pure speed but seems to be further along in terms of soccer savvy, which means a lot.
He gets lost at Chivas USA because, well, everyone gets a little lost at Chivas USA, overshadowed by the better known tenant at the Home Depot Center, the Los Angeles Galaxy. But Bradley called the big forward into his January camp, an indication of where the 23-year-old Salt Lake City native stands. Sure enough, he has six goals and three assists this year for a Chivas team that doesn't score a ton of goals.
A severe knee injury suffered in April is a significant setback to the big defender-midfielder. When he returns to the Houston Dynamo next year Cameron and Houston coaches will need to settle on his best position. He was a revelation at center back last year, moving there out of team necessity and rounding quickly into one of the league's top defenders. He prefers midfield, but wasn't making a big impact there in early games this year.
The former U.S. under-20 captain (he's 21 now) had a starting spot at center back for FC Dallas earlier this year until sidelined by a broken arm. Calm on the ball and smart in his positioning, he should help make central defense a deep spot for the United States during the next cycle.
This is the no-brainer of the bunch. Some people even felt he should have been included in the 2010 team. He needs to keep improving his medium- and long-range passing from the back and must keep honing his positional sense. If he can do that, the L.A. Galaxy man and 2009 MLS Rookie of the Year is a prime candidate to move oversees.
McCarty is frequently overshadowed in the center of FC Dallas' midfield by David Ferreira, but the North Carolina man and 2008 U.S. Olympian is a scrappy, skilled box-to-box midfielder with plenty of promise. Like Braun, he was in Bradley's extended January camp.
He's still quite young (17) but he already has shown signs of becoming an impact player in MLS. He has two goals already in 12 appearances for D.C. United. Born in Honduras, he has lived here for four years now. United officials say Najar is a U.S. resident as a green card holder, which means he can apply for citizenship going forward. Perhaps most importantly, he is the kind of creative player the United States so often lacks.
Another member of Major League Soccer's fabulous 2009 rookie class. Pontius showed he could make an impact for D.C. United last year as a forward or a flank midfielder. He has six goals and four assists in a year and a half in MLS so far.
The Red Bulls' rookie center back is flourishing under Austrian coach Hans Backe. Ream wasn't a touted pick coming out of the MLS draft last January but immediately caught Backe's eye and has been a calm and steady presence all year at Red Bull Arena. He's a leading 2010 Rookie of the Year candidate.
Somewhat lost in the hubbub over Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle, Gonzalez and everything else going right this year for the L.A. Galaxy is what a great year rookie midfielder Michael Stephens is having. He has the look of this cycle's Stuart Holden, a fast and energetic presence along the right side.