Connolly: Easy pickings

Of all the players Bob Bradley added to his ever-changing MetroStars
roster, none came easier than midfielder Joselito Vaca, who was obtained
from the Dallas Burn for future considerations on Feb. 5.

For the most part, any player acquired for "future considerations" in Major League Soccer means he was, in essence, picked off the scrap heap by a team that no longer had a place for him. This past off-season, that scenario was the case with Jaime Moreno going to D.C. from the Metros, Chris Brown to San Jose from New England Revolution, Devin Barclay going to Columbus from D.C. and, of course, with Vaca in Dallas.

Of course, the writing was on the wall for the 21-year-old Bolivian international once the club drafted Ramon Nuñez with the sixth pick in January's MLS SuperDraft. Not only did Nuñez represent another offensive-minded midfielder to add to a crowded list at that position, but at 5-foot-5 he was also someone who was similar in build and style. The fact that Vaca made a tad over $50,000 also made him expendable.

Just like that, a player who was only 18 months removed from earning an assist in an MLS All-Star game and three years removed from being the fifth selection of the 2001 draft was sent packing for virtually nothing.

"It was pretty easy for us," admitted MetroStars assistant coach Mo Johnston on his squad's pickup that will cost, at most, a first- and second-round pick in next year's MLS SuperDraft. "And we're fortunate to have him."

Indeed, as Vaca is one of the league's more skillful midfielders, and still just 21 years old even though he's entering his fourth year in MLS. Over the course of his three seasons in Dallas, the Tahuichi Academy product accounted for five goals and 17 assists in 73 matches. Unfortunately for Vaca, his nine-assist All-Star season of 2002 was not duplicated in 2003. Though he played in a team-high 27 matches, he was never in his preferred playmaking role, and was primarily a flank midfielder on the league's worst team.

Vaca was not looking for a trade, but knew that moving on was the right thing for him when he got the news he was coming to New Jersey.

"It's important for players to get new starts," he said. "With the way things went in Dallas, I needed a change."

Johnston agreed.

"We knew what Joselito had to offer - he just needed to be in a different environment," said the former Kansas City Wizards striker. "We saw a player who has been in this league a while despite being a young man, and someone who also has international experience. Joselito came here a good player, and he'll be someone that will just get better and better around the players that we have."

For Vaca, there isn't another team in the league that has the personnel to complement his skills, as well as one that employs a system that allows a midfielder the freedom to create from a multitude of areas on the field. Sharing attacking responsibilities with Amado Guevara - one of the league's best playmakers and field generals - should only allow Vaca to flourish, as the two have already formed a bond on and off the field.

"Amado has helped me a lot," said Vaca, who primarily speaks Spanish. "He's been one of the most important people as far as helping me on the field, and having him has allowed me to communicate better."

Vaca's presence has also given the MetroStars somewhat of a new look due to his prowess down the right flank. While his position is ostensibly as an attacking midfielder next to Eddie Gaven at the top of the team's box-shaped midfield, he has the freedom to float to the right side on the attack to get behind the defense and serve in balls. It's something that Bradley's side didn't get enough of last year.

"We didn't get many good crosses to our forwards last year," said second-year striker Mike Magee. "Joselito gives us another dimension because of the way he can play balls into the box. Last year, Amado got stuck dribbling in the middle of the field many times without many options out wide, but Joselito helps gives us width.

"He's been a great addition."

While Bradley said that he had a feeling that Vaca was simply a player who was stuck in a bad situation and would fit in well with his side, what he's been most impressed with is what he's seen in training sessions on a daily basis, as Vaca's passion to play and competitiveness has helped to increase the level from a year ago.

"When he comes to training everyday ... he just comes to life," said Bradley. "He's running, he's making plays, he's helping his team - he's a joy to watch. If you're on his team that day, it makes playing more fun. If you're the coach that day, it means it's not necessary to step in all the time and try to stop it."

The fact that Vaca has quickly gelled with his fellow midfielders and has taken to the system so quickly can't be great news for opponents around the league since they already had to deal with a group that includes Guevara, Gaven, Ricardo Clark and Mark Lisi, who had two assists in the team's 3-1 opening-day victory over Columbus on April 3.

"All of our midfield players have freedom, so our movement in the midfield is a great thing to watch," said Johnston. "We've adapted to that concept now. And we have the passing ability to break people down. We have - for me - probably the best midfield in the league now."

It's hard to argue with that. Especially is Vaca produces as he is expected to do.

"This year," he said, "I'll be able to show the player that I am."

Four quick ones

Questions for Colorado Rapids midfielder Kyle Beckerman

Best soccer fans other than your own team's fans: Any English club, also Chicago Fire's fans behind the goal.

Funniest player on your team: Pablo Mastroeni.

Funniest player not on your team: Nick Rimando, D.C. United.

Where were you when John O'Brien scored against Portugal?: Jumping up and down in my apartment.

Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet. Send any questions to Marc at shaketiller10@yahoo.com.


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