First XI: Youth Served
So, it was the MetroStars, with the youngest starting lineup ever fielded in an MLS game (average age just over 22), taking three points from the Galaxy on Saturday at Giants Stadium with Mike Magee (aged 19) heading home the winner. And, so it seems, we'll see Metro fielding a similar lineup in Wednesday night's rematch at the Home Depot Center, which got First XI to thinking about an All-Time 22-and-Under team from MLS.
11. Goalkeeper, Tim Howard, '01 MetroStars. Easy pick here as the majority of top 'keepers in league history have been veterans. Howard looked so good for the MetroStars during training as a 19- and 20-year-old that then-coach Octavio Zambrano traded away Mike Ammann in '01 and cleared the way for Howard's Best Goalkeeper season. Perhaps the best pure shot-stopper ever in MLS, Howard gets the nod in our Under-22 lineup over Adin Brown ('00 Rapids) and Nick Rimando ('01 Fusion).
10. Defender, Nick Garcia, '00 Wizards. A fixture on the back line for the '00 champs, Garcia made the transition from Indiana University to MLS look easy. As the Wizards have forged on after that Supporters Shield/MLS Cup winning season, they've never had to worry about Garcia's spot in the defense.
9. Defender, Carlos Bocanegra, '00 Fire. When the Fire decided to part with veteran defender Francis Okaroh at the end of the '99 season, Bocanegra stepped seamlessly into Chicago's three-man setup, alongside Lubos Kubik and C.J. Brown. When Kubik went down early in the 2000 season with an injury, Bocanegra's mettle was tested. He played as both a left back and a center back as the Fire tried to find the right combination. No, '00 was not Bocanegra's best in a Fire uniform, but for a 21-year-old, he was more than solid.
8. Defender, Dan Califf, '00 Galaxy. See a trend here, MetroStars fans? Yeah, Califf (along with the previous two players) makes it three standout defenders who were all taken in the '00 draft after the Metros selected Steve Shak with the No. 1 overall pick. He's rough and tough and one of the best ever in MLS at getting his head on corner kicks. Getting injured surfing may not have been the smartest thing Califf ever did, but the guy's gotten the job done in L.A. now for four-plus seasons.
7. Midfielder, Pablo Mastroeni, '98 Fusion. If ever there was a chaos team in MLS, it was the '98 Fusion, who seemingly changed senior international forwards on a weekly basis. If there was one steady force on that expansion squad, it was the rugged defensive midfielder out of North Carolina State. Mastroeni, now 27, gave the Fusion four outstanding seasons before finding himself dispersed to Colorado, where he continues to play the same, hard-tackling, smart-passing game.
6. Midfielder, DaMarcus Beasley, '03 Fire. He debuted for the Fire as a 17-year-old in 2000, but truly emerged as an MLS star last year, when he scored a career-high seven goals and led the Fire to a first-ever Supporters Shield. Beasley's game has evolved and improved steadily. DaMarcus' greatest asset from the outset, however, is his sense of timing. No player in MLS (except maybe the next guy on the list) has his change of pace.
5. Midfielder, Landon Donovan, '03 Earthquakes. Not easy to choose the '03 Donovan over the '01 Donovan, but the fact that Donovan re-asserted himself after a disappointing '02 (post-World Cup) season pushes last year's version over the top. Flat out, the best player in the league right now, Donovan amazes with his off-the-charts fitness and his ability to make every attacking player on the Earthquakes much, much better.
4. Midfielder, Steve Ralston, '96 Mutiny. The very first Rookie of the Year (Bandai!) in MLS history, Ralston found an immediate chemistry in Tampa Bay with Carlos Valderrama. Once Valderrama saw that Ralston would get him the ball quickly and take off into space, El Pibe knew he had a great running mate in the Mutiny midfield. Keep in mind, back in the inaugural season, there were not many 21 and 22 year olds (much less 17- and 18-year-olds) running around. Ralston was a rarity.
3. Forward, Carlos Ruiz, '02 Galaxy. The best pure striker the league has ever seen, no one player had as great an impact on a club as Ruiz did on the '02 champions. Not only did he score 24 goals, but he seemed to score in injury time of about a dozen tie games. The Galaxy's second-leading scorer in '02 was defender Alexi Lalas, who scored four.
2. Forward, Jaime Moreno, '96 D.C. United. He joined United about halfway through the inaugural season and was the final piece to a championship puzzle. No one in MLS has ever been able to put defenders on the wrong foot the way the 22-year-old Moreno could back in the day. He is quite possibly the best combination-forward (scoring and passing) that MLS has ever seen.
1. Forward, Ronald Cerritos, '97 Clash. When I saw that Cerritos had been released by D.C. earlier this week, I could not help but think about the '97 season when Cerritos burst onto the MLS scene with 12 goals and 10 assists - on a last place team. He scored a lot of great goals, but the thing that was most memorable about Cerritos was how many goals he (all 5-foot-7 inches of him) scored with his head. He was pure joy on the field.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.