On the eve of the team's first preseason camp, Los Angeles Galaxy head coach Steve Sampson said he believes it is unlikely that either of his two 2005 first-round draft picks will step directly into a starting role this year.
With a crew of veteran defenders already in place, Sampson said it will be extremely difficult for rookies Ugo Ihemelu and Troy Roberts to find themselves in the starting XI come April. Sampson believes both will provide cover for his starters, and that is precisely the reason he selected them.
While Ihemelu, the fifth pick in January's MLS SuperDraft, is content to sit back and wait his turn with the Galaxy, Roberts (the eighth selection) is committed to being on the field when the 2005 campaign gets underway on April 2.
"I don't know what my chances are," Ihemelu said. "Right now I just want to get in there and experience it and just improve. This is my first year in there, and I'm not going to hold my expectations too high since this is a good team that I'm going to be going to."
One of the reasons Ihemelu is taking a cautious attitude toward his prospects for playing time is that he didn't expected to be taken with such a high pick. By his own admission, the Southern Methodist University product had a poor performance at the adidas MLS Player Combine at The Home Depot Center the week of the SuperDraft.
Ihemelu didn't attend the SuperDraft in Baltimore, instead opting to watch it on TV from his home in Texas. When his named was called with the fifth overall pick, he was as surprised as many MLS observers were with the selection.
"My initial reaction was shock," he said. "I was very excited about it. There were a lot of good players at the combine and a lot of defenders that were expected to go before me."
While some analysts questioned the decision, Sampson maintained that Ihemelu is the type of player who can serve as an able backup in the event that likely starters Chris Albright and Danny Califf are called away for U.S. national team duty. He also said both of his first-round draftees can help in his plans to start the Galaxy attack from the back line. Ihemelu said he thinks his athleticism came into play.
"That's probably something that sets me apart from some of the other guys," Ihemelu said. "I guess they just saw something in me that they can probably make me an even better player."
Roberts, a product of the University of California, hopes to prove himself worthy of a starting position.
"I'd like to start and play in every game possible, and that's my main goal right now: earning a spot in the starting XI for the team," he said. "I think I have a good chance. I know there is a lot competition, but I've faced a lot of competition before, and I'm just being really optimistic, and I have confidence in myself.
"Someone like me, a rookie, coming in, they're not just going to hand their job to me. It's going to be a competition between teammates at practice."
With several players ahead of them in the pecking order, both Roberts and Ihemelu will have to do a lot to impress Sampson enough to earn significant playing time. Also, as Sampson pointed out, it is simply more difficult for rookies to step in and make an impact than it has been in years past.
In addition to Albright and Califf, Jamaican international Tyrone Marshall and left back Paul Broome are due back from last year and out-of-contract central defender Ryan Suarez could yet return to the club. Sampson also acquired fullback Todd Dunivant in a trade with the San Jose Earthquakes in January and Costa Rican international Michael Umaña is also set to join the squad.
However the battle for starting places turns out, both Ihemelu and Roberts understand that, as first-year players, they have a lot of room to grow. What remains to be seen is whether the confidence of Roberts will bear out, or whether Ihemelu's plan is best: not to force anything, instead opting to "just be a rookie" and learn how to be a professional soccer player.
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.