The great debates in sports evolve around many different topics, usually circling back to which players should be on the field come game time. Whether it be a seasoned veteran or a youngster starving for some action, different ideas swirl about on whom should be competing for their team. A team's management, coaches, players, fans and the media all have their own opinions on who should be playing and who should be sitting.
The arguments really start heating up when a younger player is either being forced to play in a tough situation for his team or is being held back in order for him to learn how to become a professional from the sidelines. FC Dallas head coach Colin Clarke believes in the latter as his team has a few great examples of younger players who still need to mature both on and off the field before they can get thrown into the mix of a Major League Soccer match consistently.
"The young players come from an environment in college where it can be detrimental to their growth because they are playing so many games in such a short period of time," said Clarke. "When these players come into MLS, it's a long season and it's hard for them to keep a level of consistency for the entire year.
"If you watch some of the rookies that played well in MLS this year, they did struggle at certain periods of time throughout the season."
Not too different than the development process of an NFL quarterback, it is important to expose a younger MLS player to things he can handle and can succeed at before letting him loose every Saturday for 90 minutes. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana played in all 16 games during his rookie season of 1979. By glancing at that stat, one would think that 49ers head coach Bill Walsh was rushing a younger Montana into the limelight and that it worked out just fine for Walsh, Montana and the 49ers.
However, what Walsh actually did was create a plan to have his younger quarterback Montana relieve his veteran starter Steve DeBerg at the end of all 16 games in order to give Montana the confidence he needed. Montana only threw 23 passes the entire season during "mop up duty", but Walsh placed him in situations that he knew Montana was going to succeed in. Montana then led the 49ers to one of his four Super Bowl championships just two years after his rookie season and would later give credit to Walsh for putting a plan in place from Day One of his career.
In football, we have seen the other side of the spectrum in the careers of Cade McNown, Heath Shuler and Ryan Leaf. These three quarterbacks had high expectations coming from college to the pros and when given the opportunity to show their stuff on the highest level, all three came crashing to the ground. These quarterbacks were not eased into the role of being a professional quarterback by their coaches, but instead were thrown into the fire to see if they could fend for themselves.
Not only does a player need to learn his position at this next level, but he is also discovering how to become a classy professional off the field. After just a few seasons, all three Heisman hopefuls in college were hanging their cleats up to pursue different careers other than being an NFL quarterback. With their bodies and their egos battered from several beatings, all three players slipped away from the game that had brought them so much glory just years before. There is a fine line between giving a younger player the freedom to express his strengths while easing that younger player into an important role on a professional team.
"Results matter on a college level, but then these younger players get put in an environment where results matter even more on a professional level," said Clarke. "They are now playing with teammates that are making their living and feeding their family based on their results in MLS.
"It's important to be cautious when throwing a young player in before he is ready for it can be detrimental to him or to the team."
FC Dallas' young nucleus of Ramon Nunez, Clarence Goodson, David Wagenfuhr and Ty Maurin are looking to follow a similar route to one that has been already taken by Eddie Johnson. Johnson was a player that was given more responsibilities as time went on and improved dramatically over his first few seasons in the league. As Johnson's responsibilities on Dallas increased, so did his minutes.
In 2001, he played in 10 matches (263 minutes), in 2002 11 matches (326 minutes), in 2003 22 matches (1,265 minutes), and last season 26 matches (2,269 minutes). In 2004, Johnson had a breakout season and showed everybody in MLS what kind of player to look for in the future. At 20 years of age, Johnson was the youngest player in league history to either have or share the league lead in goals. People quickly forget the first three years of his career and how slowly the team developed him and allowed him to grow into the magnificent player he is today.
"Last season I was criticized for not playing the young players and everybody is entitled to their opinion," said Clarke. "I didn't go into last season with the pre-set notion of not giving our younger players minutes. For instance, David Wagenfuhr in preseason was well on his way to earning a starting spot for us, then he got injured right before the season started. By the time he had gotten back to playing shape it was a couple of months into the year and the opportunity was gone."
The future is bright in FC Dallas as the team will open up a new stadium in Frisco next season, has an experienced head coach returning for 2005, and has a younger player core that is looking to make huge strides in Major League Soccer. The team spent most of the season last year speaking on building the team around a younger core that the fans will enjoy watching and other MLS teams will hate playing against. Backing up their words with actions, the team signed MLS Comeback Player of the Year Nominee Ronnie O'Brien (25 years old) to a four-year contract following the season, and have Eddie Johnson (20 years old) and Cory Gibbs (24 years old) under contract for multiple years.
With players such as Ramon Nunez, Clarence Goodson, David Wagenfuhr and Ty Maurin hungry to play in 2005, Head Coach Colin Clarke will have his hands full in Frisco. As all coaches would say, it's a good problem to have.
"The positive on next year is that we are going to have a reserve team and be able to gage our young players in those games," said Clarke. "It's definitely good for our team to have some of our young players hungry to get minutes with us."