MLS's new kids on the block
Among the handful of obvious developments that have thus far marked the second half of the MLS season, one of the most thrilling is the rise of a small group of young players who have finally been given a chance to shine. MLS coaches find themselves reaching further and further down the bench through the long summer, a situation that can sometimes create opportunities for new talent that did not feature during the opening part of the league campaign, and give players a chance to step into the fray and make a name for themselves.
As we watch the arrival of these youngsters, it's natural to imagine that coaches might have been better served to give them a chance earlier in the year. Keep in mind, however, that adjusting to the rigors of the professional game is not always easy, and that the natural instinct of the boss is to go with known quantities over green players, especially when most of the roster is fit and available at the start of the campaign. Not everyone can be Harry Shipp. Sometimes it requires months of impressing in training, or an injury to a starter, to create the circumstances needed to convince a coach it's time to give a young player his moment.
Whatever the reasons, the kids are on stage now. What follows is a small sampling of the players who have stood out during the latter half of the season, despite making almost no contribution through the opening months. This is by no means a comprehensive group.
Ambroise Oyongo - New York Red Bulls
Oyongo leads the list not because he's the most talented player, but because his rise has been so sudden. The 23-year-old Cameroonian left back didn't make his first appearance of the season until June 28, but already has eight starts and a substitute stint to his name. In that time Oyongo impressed with his speed, ability on the ball and instincts for reading the game, filling in at a position hit by the World Cup absence of usual starter Roy Miller of Costa Rica. All of this comes despite his unlikely signing after a January trial.
Oyongo played well enough in Miller's stead that Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke stuck with him despite Miller's return in July, and he figures to play a large role for New York through the end of the regular season, at least during those games when Oyongo is available. The fullback's emergence put him on the radar of Cameroon national team head coach Volker Finke, and Oyongo will travel to Africa for a pair of Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers the first week of September.
Tommy Thompson - San Jose Earthquakes
Thompson's shot to show what he can do in San Jose has come much later than many observers expected. After a single, late-game substitute appearance in early June, Thompson waited until mid-August for another opportunity. Thompson's unique ability with the ball makes him one of the more exciting prospects to come through the Earthquakes system in quite some time, though he doesn't seem to quite fit the team's direct, physical style.
Perhaps that explains why head coach Mark Watson delayed Thompson's integration into the team. With San Jose clinging to hope that it might sneak into the playoffs, Watson relied on veteran players. Now that most of that hope is gone, it's Thompson's turn in the lineup. Although he has only two starts, both in the past two weeks, Thompson's skill is evident.
As the Quakes push toward the opening of their new stadium in 2015, turning to the homegrown star could be a nod to the future.
Steve Birnbaum - D.C. United
Birnbaum, a center back out of Cal selected second overall in this year's SuperDraft, moved to the front of the line for D.C. United after an injury took down veteran Jeff Parke. Installed next to Bobby Boswell in mid-June, Birnbaum's stellar work is a major component of United's excellent season. In 11 starts, all of them of the 90-minute variety, Birnbaum maintained the standard set by Parke and ensured that United didn't fall off the pace in the Eastern Conference.
A foot injury originally put Parke on the shelf, the type of setback that wouldn't normally keep a player out for an extended period of time. But with word that Parke also underwent inner ear surgery this month, with a timetable on his return unknown, it's quite possible that Birnbaum will continue to see his name written into the lineup for the foreseeable future. With United hitting unexpected heights -- top spot in the East, with the Supporters' Shield within sight -- Birnbaum's steady play must continue if they intend to reach those goals.
Again, whether head coach Ben Olsen wants to turn to the rookie with so much on the line is beside the point. That United had the wisdom to draft the former college standout, perhaps with the thinking that Birnbaum could help right away, is a credit to their plan.
Tesho Akindele - FC Dallas
The highest-profile breakout player from this group gets final billing. Goals draw the eye, and no MLS rookie has more of them than FC Dallas striker Tesho Akindele. The 22-year-old out of Division II Colorado School of Mines bolstered the Dallas attack after breaking into the starting lineup in late May, collecting seven goals in those 13 games. Akindele's hat trick against San Jose on Aug. 17 earned him player of the week honors and announced his candidacy for rookie of the year honors.
It's likely no coincidence that Akindele's emergence happened alongside FC Dallas' climb up the Western Conference standings. A key part of the club's 10-game unbeaten streak, Akindele will be an additional weapon available to Oscar Pareja when the Texas team arrives in the playoffs in just over two months' time.
It's not just the goals, though. Akindele also has a pair of key assists, including one in his side's big win over Western Conference rivals Real Salt Lake last weekend.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.