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Jan 13, 2006

Departures could signal new trend

The 2006 MLS SuperDraft is a week away, promising to deliver to the league a new crop of young prospects, just as defections and expansion put a serious strain on the talent pool. There is little question that the league needs fresh blood, which makes you wonder what is going on with two of its most promising young players.

Columbus Crew midfielder Danny Szetela is currently trying out with a team in England and MetroStars midfielder Michael Bradley is close to being sold to Dutch club Heerenveen. If MLS allows both teenage midfielders to move abroad, it could signal a shift in the league's ability to hold onto and develop its young talent.

Selling players' rights is nothing new for the league, but selling rights to players who are still in their teens, and who have yet to reach their full potential, is alarming. It is one thing to have players play out their contract and test the waters abroad, but allowing prospects with years remaining on their contracts to audition for potential transfers is asking for trouble.

It seems like an odd approach, considering that more young American players are choosing Europe over MLS than in years past, with the likes of youth national team standouts Benny Feilhaber and Preston Zimmerman inking deals abroad. Could it be the league's attempt to entice those youngsters drawn to Europe into seeing MLS as a viable short-term option?

In the cases of Szetela and Bradley, it might simply be the league's attempt to address their unique situations. Szetela's career in MLS has been a disappointment since he arrived via the highly publicized lottery that landed him on the Columbus Crew. In his two seasons with the Crew, Szetela has struggled to establish himself and now faces the prospect of playing for the same coach, Sigi Schmid, who used him sparingly in last summer's Youth World Championships.

Szetela's failure to make an impact has done little to defuse the interest in him among European teams, who see a good looking American kid with a European Union passport and an appealing skill set. Opinions of Szetela among MLS circles have diminished considerably, perhaps enough to have MLS considering whether it would be wiser to cut its losses and sell Szetela, while he can still fetch a good transfer.

Perhaps more important, selling Szetela could provide a somewhat happy, if not premature, ending to what has developed into a somewhat cautionary tale for young players juggling the decision between MLS and Europe. Those who are trying to steer more American talent abroad have used Szetela's story as an example of what can go wrong if you sign with the league, even though Szetela's status with the Crew is far from disastrous at present.

Bradley's status, and the fact that he's on the verge of signing with Heerenveen, is a more surprising development. Bradley emerged last season as a true talent with serious upside. He seemed destined to be a long-term fixture for the Metros before the team fired his father, Bob Bradley, as their head coach. His father's unceremonious ouster left Michael Bradley understandably unsettled and raised the question of whether staying with the Metros was best for his development as a player.

MLS has been surprisingly open to the possibility of selling Bradley, even though he has all the makings of the type of prospect whose value could skyrocket in the next few years. League officials might sense some obligation to do right by a player who might not have signed with MLS in the first place if he wasn't getting a chance to play for his father. They are probably also aware that Bradley has just two years left on his current contract and has no intention of signing a new deal, which makes jumping on a reasonable sale price from Heerenveen a prudent decision.

Whether the potential early departures from MLS of Bradley and Szetela are unique situations or the beginning of a new trend in MLS, one thing is certain: The league had better find a way of convincing its younger talents to stay in the league longer than a year or two, or MLS could find itself starving for talent in the very near future.

Trade winds

Dealing away young prospects for veterans is always a risky proposition, but it was one that two MLS teams felt was worth trying this week. The Chicago Fire dealt away one-time U.S. Under-20 midfielder Will John and a second-round draft pick to the Wizards in exchange for veteran midfielder Diego Gutierrez. In this week's other marquee trade, the Metros dealt teenage defender Tim Ward to the Columbus Crew for veteran midfielder Chris Henderson.

Chicago and the Metros used similar strategies in the deals, trading away highly-regarded prospects who failed to have impact rookie seasons, for veterans with championship experience who could be called on to start and provide leadership. Were the deals worth it? Let's take a look.

Chicago traded John, the 18th player chosen in the 2005 MLS draft, for Gutierrez, one of the league's best central midfielders when healthy, but a player who is 33 and coming off of an injury-plagued season. The expected departure of Jesse Marsch, coupled with the uncertain future of Chris Armas, who is recovering from his second major knee injury in four years, left the Fire with a potentially serious problem in midfield.

Bringing back Gutierrez, who was a key player on the Fire's 1998 MLS Cup championship squad, gives the Fire a true leader who is capable of dominating play in central midfield. The question is whether Gutierrez can regain his stellar form of 2004 after battling a series of physical ailments in 2005.

For Kansas City, the decision might have been a simple one. The presence of former U.S. national team midfielder Kerry Zavagnin meant the Wizards could deal Gutierrez and still have leadership in the middle. In John, the Wizards have acquired a hometown kid who is probably as well known in Kansas City as some Wizards players, and is a player with considerable upside.

He failed to impress much in limited action with the Fire first team, but John did show glimpses of being a potential impact player with the reserve team. The Wizards do gain a considerable amount of salary cap space in the trade, but it is still a serious gamble for a Kansas City team that missed last year's playoffs and will have a hard time qualifying in 2006.

The MetroStars trade of Ward for Henderson was pretty predictable. Metros interim head coach Mo Johnston has never been a big fan of Ward, as evidenced by his decision not to dress the 18-year-old playing for any of his games as coach. Johnston's desire to add effective wing players, coupled with Schmid's considerable interest in acquiring Ward, who he coached with the U.S. Under-20 national team, made the trade an easy one to make.

The real question is whether the Metros could have gotten more for a player considered to be one of the best left back prospects in the American soccer system. The Metros are hardly settling for Henderson, who enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in 2005, posting his best year since 2002 with three goals and eight assists. At 35, Henderson is past his prime, but he was still one of the most effective and relentless wing midfielders in MLS last season and his ability to play both flanks gives Johnston the versatility he was craving.

Was it worth the gamble of dealing a prospect like Ward? That depends on how highly you rate him. For some, Ward's impressive showings early in the 2005 season left an impression that seemed to overshadow the fact that he struggled mightily in the second half of the season. For others, Ward's serious struggles late in the year suggested that he could still be a year or two away from being a reliable MLS defender. The Metros had no interest in waiting that long.

Schmid and the Crew weren't nearly as concerned. Schmid coached Ward with the U.S. Under-20s and surely saw the versatility and offensive attributes that could eventually make Ward a truly dynamic left back. The salary cap space saved in swapping Henderson for Ward doesn't hurt either.

Who wins in the two trades? Check back in October, when we see which teams are sitting home for the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.