24 Under 24: Counting down the greatest seasons for young players in MLS history

Anyone who’s followed the past three editions of MLSsoccer.com’s 24 Under 24 series knows it’s all about the present and, more importantly, the future of Major League Soccer.

Who’s the best young talent in the league right now? Who’s bound to improve next season? And which players are set to be the heroes of MLS in the years to come?

That’s all well and good for the future, but what about the past? What if 24 Under 24 existed 10 years ago (or MLSsoccer.com, for that matter) and we were able to look back at some of the best young players in the league from years gone by and see how they shaped the landscape today?

That’s the goal in this article, but there’s no clear science exactly how to do it. I set out to rank the best years in MLS history when it comes to young talent, with one single goal: When did players younger than 24 years old make the biggest imprint on the league?

Here’s my list, keeping in mind the rules of 24 Under 24: A player is only eligible for the list if he’s younger than 24 at the time of the MLS Cup that season. Let’s do this.

5. 2009 - The Best Draft Ever?

This one makes the list largely because its draft class might be the best in league history. The names that came to MLS that January include likely 2014 World Cup selections Omar Gonzalez (Rookie of the Year), Matt Besler (28 appearances) and Graham Zusi (13 appearances), along with guys like Sam Cronin, Chris Pontius, A.J. DeLaGarza and Stefan Frei, who were all regular starters their rookie season.

Add in Steve Zakuani (4 goals, 4 assists), Fredy Montero (12 goals, 7 assists) and some of the 2008 draft guys making their mark – Brek Shea, Roger Espinoza, Tony Beltran and Sean Franklin –and it’s an impressive start to the list.

4. 2003 - Donovan and Beasley Shine

This year was highlighted by the first career Best XI selections for both Landon Donovan (right) and DaMarcus Beasley (both just 21 years old), but there were other youngsters on the prowl. Taylor Twellman led the Revolution with 15 goals, Edson Buddle scored 10 for Columbus and Damani Ralph scored a record 12 goals for the Chicago Fire that still stands as the high water mark for rookies today.

Ricardo Clark, Kyle Beckerman and Danny Califf all started at least 23 games in 2003, and Justin Mapp and Brad Davis had become regular starters for New York and Chicago, respectively. The league also added Alecko Eskandarian, Mike Magee, Todd Dunivant, Brian Carroll, Logan Pause and Jack Jewsbury in the draft.

3. 2008 - USMNT Regulars Galore

A technicality drops this year to No. 3 on the list, but it’s still impressive. Three players under 24 made the Best XI squad – Chicago defender Bakary Soumare, Chivas USA midfielder Sacha Kljestan and Columbus midfielder Robbie Rogers – and Dallas forward Kenny Cooper had a breakout year with 18 goals and a Best XI nod at 23 years old. Cooper, however, turned 24 just five days before the regular season ended, so he technically would not be eligible for the list, had there been one that season. Drag.

Still, the list of youngsters thriving in the league was impressive: Stuart Holden, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Bornstein, Brad Evans, Eddie Gaven and, for half the year until he left for Scotland, Maurice Edu. The draft class was solid, too: Shea, Beltran, Franklin, Espinoza, Geoff Cameron and Stephen Lenhart.

2. 2005 - Holding Midfielders Rule

A year highlighted by players that made the backbone of the US national team for years to come. This was Clint Dempsey’s best year in MLS at just 22 years old (10 goals, nine assists and a Best XI nod), and the best statistical year for Donovan (12 goals, 10 assists) up to that point in his career.

It was also a pivotal year for holding midfielders, considering Beckerman and Ricardo Clark each appeared in 30 games, and MetroStars teenager Michael Bradley (right) started 30 games and logged the most minutes of any player on his team before he left for the Netherlands the next year.

Michael Parkhurst started 32 games and won Rookie of the Year, Brad Guzan started 24 games in net for Chivas USA and Clarence Goodson was a force on the backline in Dallas. Teenager Freddy Adu had the best statistical year of his MLS career with D.C. United (4 goals, 6 assists) and both Metro's Gaven (8 goals, 4 assists) and Chicago rookie Chris Rolfe (8 goals, 5 assists) were irreplaceable for their clubs.

Add in a host of players who’ve logged impressive MLS careers – Drew Moor, Gonzalo Segares, Ned Grabavoy and Jeff Parke – and you’ve got your runner-up.

1. 2002 - Ruiz vs. Twellman

The numbers speak for themselves from 2002, when a record four players younger than 24 were named to the Best XI and, for the only time in league history, a kid won the league MVP. That honor belongs to Carlos Ruiz, who won the Golden Boot with 24 goals and piloted the LA Galaxy to the MLS Cup at 23 years old, maybe the best season for an under-24 player in league history.

Twellman, meanwhile, scored a career-high 23 goals at just 22 years old, and both Bocanegra and Tim Howard were named to the Best XI team. Bocanegra was named the Defender of the Year, becoming the first under-24 player in league history to accomplish the feat.

Donovan (7 goals, three assists) and Beasley (3 goals, 4 assists) were influential too, as was Buddle (9 goals, 5 assists) and youngster Bobby Convey, who scored five goals in 26 appearances while finding his footing for D.C. United.

Nick Rimando started 28 games for D.C. United that season at 23 years old, and Califf was a regular with the Galaxy at 22.

The draft yielded a crop of talented players who eventually left their mark – Rookie of the Year Kyle Martino, Mapp, Kelly Gray, Alejandro Moreno, Cory Gibbs and Davy Arnaud – but the star power of 2002 is what we remember. No other year in MLS history can match the young talent prowling around the league then.

Well, not yet, anyway. There’s always next year.