At this time last year, relatively few folks outside of the D.C. United family had ever heard of Andy Najar. Few had any sort of expectations for New York Red Bull draftee Tim Ream. And Sean Johnson was so highly regarded that he was offered a Generation Adidas contract, then so often overlooked that he fell to the 51st spot in the 2010 SuperDraft, where the Chicago Fire happily scooped him up.
Three different players, three stand-out rookie seasons, and three guys who show that, when it comes to succeeding in the league, “fit” can often be as important as “talent.”
A lot can happen in a year. Najar won the MLS Rookie of the Year, the first academy product to do so. Ream and Johnson went from college to the US national team camp.
Talent is a big part of it, of course, but talent’s not enough. Just as a lot can go right if you land in a good situation, a lot can also go wrong for talented guys who don’t. Just ask Dilly Duka or Collen Warner, two highly regarded first-round draft picks from 2010 who spent last year all but nailed to the bench. Their chances will come, but not yet.
Who has the chance to be the next Ream or Johnson? Who will be another Duka or Warner?
Right Fit: Perry Kitchen, D.C. United
According to head coach Ben Olsen, Kitchen was “far-and-away the best player in the draft.” Hyperbole aside, there’s a reason he was a top-3 pick, a reason he was the centerpiece of this past year’s NCAA champions, and a reason almost every pundit figures he’ll compete for a spot with the US national team within the year.
Kitchen, much like Ream last year, has the luxury of walking into a squad that’s in a rebuilding mode. For all of Najar’s attacking heroics, United were the worst team in the league in 2010 and are doing a full-fledged roster overhaul.
Part of that overhaul will likely be pairing Kitchen, a d-mid with great field vision and skill but limited range, with Dax McCarty. McCarty is the prototypical two-way central midfielder. He’ll do the harrying and disruption, covering more ground than any other player in the league, and let Kitchen protect the backline and control the tempo.
Wrong Fit: Kofi Sarkodie, Houston Dynamo
Sarkodie, a right back, was Kitchen’s teammate at the University of Akron and will be his teammate again with the US at the CONCACAF U-20 World Cup Qualifying tournament in April
That might be the only time he sees the field all year.
Really, this one was a head-scratcher. The Dynamo already have two good, young right backs on the roster in Hunter Freeman and Jordan Graye. Adding another—even one as talented as Sarkodie—at the expense of getting one of the highly touted central defenders still on the board just doesn’t track.
Perhaps the idea is to play Sarkodie, who is relentlessly attack-minded, at right midfield. If so, that begs the question “What of Danny Cruz and Francisco Navas?” Those two young midfielders have Houston fans buzzing; it seems counterproductive to create a logjam.
Right Fit: Stephen McCarthy, New England Revolution
A big, strong, aggressive two-way central midfielder who can also fill in at the back. Sounds a lot like Shalrie Joseph, doesn’t it?
Obviously, McCarthy is a long way from being Joseph’s caliber at this point, and it’s a longshot that he’ll get there at any point. But the Revs, outside of Joseph, were simply manhandled in 2010. They were out fought, outrun and out-played on a painfully regular basis, a shocking turn of events for a franchise that had built its reputation on fielding 11 guys who were as likely to will themselves to victory as they were to play themselves there.
McCarthy has the toughness and flexibility to help bury the memories of 2010 in Foxborough. He’s a winner, having been part of the University of North Carolina team that made a habit of appearing in the College Cup the past few years, and he’s the type of physical presence that you notice on the field.
Wrong Fit: Konrad Warzycha, Sporting KC
Kansas City, to their credit, are trying really hard to put together a workable 4-3-3. That means attackers who go at you with pace both on and off the dribble, at least one poacher to make diagonal runs in front of goal, and a midfield that emphasizes technique and interchanging play with short passes.
Warzycha doesn’t really have a spot. He isn’t disciplined enough to play as the d-mid in the midfield three and isn’t technical enough to take one of the other spots. The talent is there—pair Warzycha with the likes of McCarty or Pablo Mastroeni in a 4-1-3-1-1—and he’d probably thrive.
In a 4-3-3? Different skillset, and frankly a much lower probability of success.
Right Fit: Anthony Ampaipitakwong, San Jose Earthquakes
First, any “Ampaipitakwong to Wondolowski!” goals might break Twitter. The pick was worth it just for that.
But mainly, Ampaipitakwong is the type of heady player who wants to be part of a system, who knows his game is more suited to 11-v-11 than it is to one-on-one. Hence, his dismal showing at the Combine, but spectacular college career.
That success has a chance of carrying into the pros since San Jose’s winning ways are due almost entirely to their system. Ampaipitakwong won’t push anyone out of the starting lineup, but he’ll win minutes for his ability to fill gaps and get the ball where it needs to be.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at email@example.com and followed at twitter.com/mls_analyst.