MLSsoccer.com’s first edition of 24 Under 24 in 2010 was, hopefully, the most realistic glimpse we could offer into the future of Major League Soccer.
After all, the two dozen players selected by a panel of MLS experts, including our own editorial staff, marked the cream of the crop for the young talent in the league, ranked on a number of criteria ranging from their skill to their transfer value to that ever-elusive value every player wants in their repertoire: intangibles.
The list got its fair share right, but there certainly some missteps as well. Let’s take a look at how some of the players have fared since they made the cut last time around.
Going, going, gone
OK, so Ryan Smith didn’t quite pan out as the future in Kansas City. After a promising 2010 season that included seven assists in 26 games, Smith came in on the countdown at No. 12, ahead of guys like Bill Hamid, Robbie Rogers and Teal Bunbury. But when he opted to jump from MLS back to his native England in June citing family reasons, our list lost one of its brightest young playmakers.
There were high hopes for Tristan Bowen, too, and at least some of them were vindicated upon Bowen’s departure from the league last month. Bowen came in at No. 13 last season based on the glimpses of talent we saw with LA last season, and even though he struggled to crack the lineup with the Galaxy and neighboring Chivas USA, he attracted the interest of Belgian second-division outfit KSV Roeselare for a year-long loan.
It was no surprise when Steve Zakuani came in at No. 4 last year, but we all witnessed what happened next. Zakuani was off to a dynamite start to 2011 when he suffered a broken leg in April, shelving him for the duration of the season and leaving us with his freestyle rap videos instead of highlight-reel goals. No worries – he’ll be back.
Others have been bitten by the injury bug, too, notably nomadic midfielder Tony Tchani, who was traded twice this season and then underwent season-ending knee surgery last month. He came in at No. 16 last season on his potential and raw talent alone, but can he climb back to the list? Others who have battled injuries this season are San Jose defender Ike Opara (No. 11 last year) and D.C. United midfielder Chris Pontius (No. 18), who suffered a broken ankle last weekend and will likely miss the remainder of the season.
The 2010 rookie class was one of the best in recent memory, but it hasn’t necessarily translated into a stellar second year in the big leagues for some. Last year’s 24 Under 24 list ranked Philadelphia’s Danny Mwanga at No. 5 after his knack for last-minute heroics served as a rallying cry during the Union’s expansion season, but he hasn’t exploded the way most expected in 2011. It may take another season for Philly’s rising star to really come into his own. After all, he’s only 20.
Perhaps the same can be said of Chicago Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who landed at No. 8 last year. Heralded as the possible future netminder for the US national team, he stunningly lost his starting spot in Chicago for a period earlier this season and hasn’t always lived up to the Superman hype that most everyone heaped on him after some freakish saves in his first turn out of the gate.
You won’t find a number of players from last year’s list this time around, simply because they’re too old to make the cut. So forget about wondering if Seattle’s Fredy Montero can hold onto the top spot, if Red Bulls stalwart Tim Ream is the best defender on the list or why no one gives any love to Real Salt Lake grinder Will Johnson. They’re all gone.
Some others to keep in mind that didn’t make the age cut this year: Pontius, Marco Pappa, Justin Braun and Robbie Rogers.
What went right
It certainly wasn’t hard to crown Montero last year, and it came as no surprise when he returned in 2011 as a freshly minted Designated Player carrying the weight of the franchise. Cheers, Fredy, you’re not a kid anymore.
And neither is Omar Gonzalez, who came in No. 2 last time. Though he’s been curiously overlooked recently by the US national team, he’s the absolute rock of the LA Galaxy defense in his third year in the league, a perennial All-Star and even an MVP candidate, if you ask some of the fans enjoying another solid season at the Home Depot Center.
D.C. United’s Andy Najar came in at No. 3 last year, and then went ahead and won a highly competitive race for Rookie of the Year. He was also the subject of a tug-of-war between the national teams from the US and Honduras, and he’s a catalyst for a reborn team in the nation’s capital.
Brek Shea landed at No. 7 last time out, but few expected he’d explode the way he has this season. Perhaps it was the lucrative new multi-year contract with FC Dallas, the fauxhawk or just Brek being Brek (copyright pending), the FC Dallas playmaker has leveraged his talent into a real shot at league MVP, a starting spot on the US national team and a new role as everyone’s favorite dude in MLS.