The Throw-In: Identifying the next Clint Dempsey, Brian Ching, Steven Lenhart and more

Throw-In: Silva, Dempsey

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Are we doing Graham Zusi a disservice by suggesting he could be the Next Landon Donovan, both in MLS and for the US national team?

How is that any different than debating whether LeBron James or Kobe Bryant is the Next Michael Jordan? Or those suggestions, pre-injuries, that Sidney Crosby could be the Next Wayne Gretzky?

The fact is that in sports culture, when we watch greatness on a stage for any sustained amount of time, we almost take their excellence for granted. When they’re gone, the bar is set so high, and the vacuum of their absence is so immense, that it becomes natural to pine away for that feeling again. We want to see greatness exist indefinitely.

There’s nothing wrong in looking for “The Next” anything. It’s both a validation of the precedent set by star players and a hunger for similar excellence. Here are five guys in MLS who are walking in some big shoes these days.

Luis Silva: The Next Clint Dempsey. Whoa, slow down! We’re not there yet. But let’s not forget that Deuce was nowhere near the polished project he is now back in his sophomore season, and despite winning MLS Rookie of the Year in 2004. But ‘05 was truly his breakout year – he really started to rack up numbers after pushing up from his midfield spot and ended the year with 10 goals and nine assists for New England.

Like Dempsey, Silva is also probably better suited as a pure attacker, but has been stationed mostly in midfield by Ryan Nelsen. But he’s an absolute game-changer when he figures into the attack. And like Dempsey, he fools you with his physical gifts. Silva doesn’t look particularly fast but can accelerate and find space when he needs to. All he has to do is develop that killer instinct.

Jack McBean: The Next Brian Ching. The first thing you notice about McBean is his size: 6 feet, 180 pounds – as an 18-year-old.

The Galaxy are literally growing their next target man, and McBean has taken a quantum leap forward over the past 12 months, dominating the MLS Reserve League, scoring four goals in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League and earning four starts in league play so far this season.

His technical ability is getting better with each minute of playing time, as is his aerial presence and hold-up play. No one’s asked the Orange County native if he’s got the Big Kahuna’s surfing chops, though.

Tommy Heinemann: The Next Steven Lenhart. RSL's Devon Sandoval came out and said he's modeling his game like Lenhart's. But Heinemann is closer to actually doing it. No, he hasn’t earned Big Bird’s shadowy reputation yet. But give him time. He’s bigger than Lenhart by about three inches and is learning to use his body to his advantage. He’s a pain to mark in the box and it won’t take long before defenders are crying foul on his poaching skills, which may not be pleasing to the eye, but are effective.

Like Lenhart, Heinemann also came up in Columbus but couldn’t find a regular role under Robert Warzycha. The question now is whether the St. Louis native will follow in his former teammate’s footsteps and carve out a starting role with his new team or continue to be a late-game tactical substitute.

Kyle Bekker: The Next Will Johnson. This may be a bit of a disservice to Johnson, who’s only 26 and whose star is still on the rise. He’s a first-time captain in Portland and his leadership qualities are bubbling to the surface with each game.

That said, the Canadian national team could use all the quick injection of star potential it can get. And very quietly, one is being developed in Toronto. Bekker (far right) is only four years Johnson’s junior, and is still looking for his place early into his rookie season.

But his skill set is very similar: comfort on the ball, great vision for the game and deceptive speed. Like Johnson, Bekker can also play in a central midfield role, but is just as comfortable out wide. The great thing here is that as the CanMNT reinvents itself for the next World Cup cycle, both Toronto-area natives will be key pieces at the same time.

Perry Kitchen: The Next Kyle Beckerman. Holding midfielder with a little bit of recklessness and a good amount of bite? Check. Kitchen and Beckerman don’t have hairstyles that echo each other, and that’s probably a good thing. But the D.C. United enforcer can cover ground like the Dreadlocked One and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

Like Beckerman, he’s probably looking at a career of being a fringe US national team player after a productive youth-team career – he may perhaps earn a bit more attention later in his career through simple player-pool attrition, much like the Real Salt Lake captain.

What he’ll earn in the years to come is the polish and the technique that he doesn’t have yet – reading the passing lanes better, for instance. Ben Olsen is the perfect tutor.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.