In an ideal world, each MLS team would have at least one talented young player to carry the torch in the 24 Under 24 rankings.
But that simply didn’t pan out to be true in this year’s series, which wrapped up on Friday. In fact, the list was top-heavy in some cases (the fledging Philadelphia Union had four players make the list), and four teams failed to land a player on the list at all.
So what does that mean for the four teams on the outside looking in? We take a look at those who missed out on this year’s youth movement and try and explain what happened.
Chivas USA – There’s actually not a great deal to be concerned with when it comes to the Goats. Striker Justin Braun was high on last year’s edition of the list (No. 10) and he didn’t make the cut this season because of age restrictions. Rookie defender Zarek Valentin received high marks this season but not quite high enough (he finished at No. 29 in the voting), and midfielder Blair Gavin came in at No. 32.
Those three make up a nice foundation for Robin Fraser’s team going forward (and Ben Zemanski and Jorge Flores are no slouches either), but for now they lack that one top-shelf young individual player that most teams seem to have. They’re a bit gray at the temples (Juan Pablo Ángel, Alejandro Moreno and Simon Elliott), but that veteran presence is invaluable as the club continues to adjust to Fraser’s style. But how will the club draft in January? Fraser nailed the pick with Valentin, but so far the selection of youngster Victor Estupiñán has yet to pan out.
Columbus Crew – Robert Warzycha’s group is in a similar boat with Chivas, with young talent just not quite good enough to make the list. The Crew actually had three players make the top 40, highlighted by recent trade acquisition Tony Tchani (No. 30). Yes, Tchani is battling a knee injury and will certainly take time to acclimate to this third club in the last six months, but his athleticism and talent are unmistakable when he’s healthy and fit.
The Crew also boast Nigerian import Emmanuel Ekpo (No. 31) and rookie handyman Rich Balchan (No. 36), the latter of whom has been a quiet contender for Rookie of the Year all season. Add in promising rookie Justin Meram and the creative Dilly Duka and the Crew have a core to build on, and don’t forget: Eddie Gaven might feel (and look) like a grizzled veteran, but he’s still only 24 years old.
Houston Dynamo – Head coach Dominic Kinnear was one of the darlings of the draft last January, when he and his staff swooped in for the kill on defender Kofi Sarkodie and big striker Will Bruin in the first round. It was clear right away that Kinnear’s group, which is not used to missing the playoffs, were intent on righting the ship immediately, and they appear to have done so. With the postseason in sight, there’s no doubting that Bruin is a worthy ROY candidate himself, and Sarkodie should have the talent to contribute in the future.
The Dynamo are also littered with Home Grown talent, including Josue Soto and Alex Dixon, the latter of whom made a splash with the dramatic game-winner in a 3-2 win over Real Salt Lake on Aug. 20. And Kinnear's group is one of the best on draft day in the league, with late-round steals like Danny Cruz, Corey Ashe and Geoff Cameron to their credit.
Colorado Rapids – Here’s the one team in the league where there may be some concern about the future. Forward Sanna Nyassi landed at No. 34 on the 24 Under 24 rankings, but manager Gary Smith has largely front-loaded his club with veteran talent from MLS and abroad, most notably pickups like Brian Mullan, Jeff Larentowicz, Caleb Folan and Jamie Smith since he took the reins. Yes, the Rapids have youngsters (forwards Andre Akpan and Quincy Amarikwa have shown flashes this season), but the bulk of the team is at least in their mid-20s, and captain Pablo Mastroeni is still grinding away at 35 years old.
Last year’s squad relied on an unusually high amount of players in the 25-29 age range who played the third-highest percentage of minutes in league history by players in that age group (68.38 percent). And it’s no surprise, given Smith’s penchant for veterans, that the team with all-time highest percentage of minutes played by 25-29 year olds was the 2009 Rapids, who did not claim a trophy.
How did they get here? Easy. The Rapids haven’t drafted particularly well or that often in the last five years. In fact, they’ve had just one first-round pick in the last three years, and only three of their 21 combined picks over the last five drafts have played an MLS game this season (Akpan, Ross LaBaeux and Omar Cummings). Their best moves certainly came in the latter rounds of 2007, when they landed Cummings and Nick LaBrocca, who played 61 games with the club before he was traded to Toronto last year for Marvell Wynne.
But does it matter? The team built to win now did just that last season, using a veteran-laden group to surprise the league with its first MLS Cup in franchise history. It will be interesting to see how Smith pilots his team this winter as each player ticks off another season. Can the club built for the present begin its renovation for the future?