Rookie Rundown: Youngsters make their All-Star case
Earlier this week, MLSsoccer.com ran a poll asking which rookie most deserved a spot on the All-Star team that's scheduled to face Manchester United on July 28.
The response was impressive—it remains one of the more popular polls we've run, which I think demonstrates how much love MLS fans have for this year's freshmen.
(Incidentally, the Philadelphia Union's Danny Mwanga won the poll, earning 42 percent of the votes).
It's unlikely, however, that we'll see a rookie on this year's All-Star roster. The votes are all in, the polls are closed, the ballots are counted, and—between you and me—there's not a rookie in sight.
But is it really surprising? The last rookie to make the All-Star roster was former New England defender Michael Parkhurst, who was a reserve back in 2005. Rookies rarely go to the summer classic.
And that's a shame, because this campaign—and I've been harping on about this all season—boasts one of the most impressive freshman classes in league history.
Still, league commissioner Don Garber gets to add a player or three to the roster, and so does the coach, Bruce Arena. And because of the high level of first-year talent this campaign, we could yet see a rookie make the roster—which got me thinking: If I were the commissioner, and I wanted to put a couple of rookies on the All-Star roster, who would I pick?
That's a tough question.
As raw, unhindered talent goes, you could do a lot worse than throwing Philly's 18 year-old Mwanga and D.C. United's 18-year-old Andy Najar at the mighty Man Utd.
Their combined age is exactly that of Red Devils midfielder Paul Scholes, but they both boast a rare soccer-player's touch. It's all natural talent, too—something Sir Alex Ferguson gushes about.
There's a story that goes like this: Whenever Sir Alex meets a young player for the first time, he throws a ball straight at them without warning. How that player reacts demonstrates whether or not the kid has natural ball-handling skills. If he flinches, whiffs the ball or tries to catch it with his hands, he's no good. If he handles the ball like a soccer player should, he's good to go.
I'm confident both Mwanga and Najar would pass the Fergie first-touch test. Both scored goals this past weekend with perfectly executed one-timers.
Against Chivas on Saturday, Mwanga netted his fifth of the season—he's the Union's second leading scorer—by chipping the on-rushing Zach Thornton with his instep, earning himself a Goal of the Week nomination. Just a few weeks prior, he scored a consolation against the Chicago Fire, and it was his first touch to split two defenders that gave him the space to bury his shot.
Najar has raised eyebrows with the way he can run at defenders. He's fearless and cocky without seeming arrogant, and he always knows exactly where the ball is when it's under his feet. And that volleyed goal on Saturday—also a Goal of the Week nominee—was something special. Believe the hype? It's early, but he sure is exciting to watch.
At the opposite end of the field, there are some decent defenders who would relish a shot at shining for Sir Alex during the All-Star Game.
One thing Manchester United lacked last season is a scoring center back—someone who can get forward late in a game and muscle his way onto the end of a set-piece to create chances. These types of attack-minded defenders can prove the difference between no points and a point, or a single point and three.
Last season, Man Utd got just one league goal from Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown and Nemanja Vidic combined. San Jose's Ike Opara, on the other hand, has three goals already this season. Worth an All-Star nod? Probably not, though you can bet he'll be in the running in his sophomore year, a la Omar Gonzalez this year.
Sir Alex also prefers center backs who can play out of defense. He likes a guy who's composed, unflappable. Ferdinand, in his day, comes to mind. As does New York's Tim Ream.
Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe and his staff value that composure, too, which is why they signed Ream.
The 22-year-old suffered a dip in form before the break, at times finding himself out of position when New York conceded goals. His communication with fellow 'back Mike Petke appeared to break down, too. But he's bounced back and regained his early-season form, helping New York to a win and a tie since the break with just one goal allowed.
Form comes and goes, but quality is for life—just ask Ferdinand about that. Besides, just before the break and right after the Red Bulls shut out Chivas USA, 1-0, I asked Ream about his recent struggles.
He shrugged, nodded, and then coolly reminded me that he's still "just a rookie."
In All-Star voting, Ream actually garnered more online fan votes than any other defender in the league. He didn't, however, earn enough votes from media, players and coaches, so he'll likely not make the roster.
Unless, of course, I was commissioner for a day.
David Agrell is a new media editor for MLSsoccer.com. His "Rookie Rundown" column appears exclusively on MLSsoccer.com.