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Apr 13, 2006

Youth is served

There's a new influx of Major League Soccer talent making an impact on their teams from the very start. Besides helping to secure their own careers, they are making inroads for new prospects, especially as MLS is looking to develop even more young players.

This could be the year that the jinx of the number one pick is broken. After MLS' inaugural year, none of the players chosen first in the draft, not even wonderkid Freddy Adu, ever became a regular starter with his team in their rookie season.

However, the first overall pick in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft, Marvell Wynne, looks set to buck the trend. Not only did he recover from sports hernia surgery in the offseason to make the opening Red Bull lineup, but he performed so well in the preseason that coach Mo Johnson was singing his praises as a potential Rookie of the Year candidate.

In Wynne's opening game, he faced off against Adu and another former no.1 pick, Alecko Eskandarian. Though he made a few mistakes, his talent and ability to contribute were evident.

If MLS veteran Jesse Marsch is to be believed, however, there's stiff competition for Wynne in the rookie race from a former U.S. U-20 teammate, Sacha Kljestan.

Marsch and Kljestan started in the Chivas USA midfield together, helping lead the team to a 3-0 victory over Real Salt Lake in the Chivas opener. Kljestan had an assist in the game, finding Juan Pablo Garcia for the second goal.

"The young kid flatout knows the game," declared Marsch. "I recognized from day one when he came to our team that he was a smart player. In terms of seeing the game and knowing plays ahead of time, he's the best rookie I've ever played with. I expect a big future for him."

Another heralded rookie, Mehdi Ballouchy, was central to Real Salt Lake's midfield in their loss. Though Ballouchy struggled at times to find his way in the game, his skill is such that he is still expected to be a major contributor this year.

"The good thing about Mehdi is that he keeps working and tries," explained RSL coach John Ellinger. "He keeps plugging along and he keeps playing. That's a positive for him. He'll make a mistake, but he'll learn from it and keep going."

Other young players, almost rookies, are going through their own growth in the league. After a tough first year, Chad Barrett has become a starter for the Chicago Fire, while Jamie Watson provides RSL with energy off the bench. He didn't make the lineup for the first game of the season, but that was due to an amateur mistake unrelated to his playing skill. Watson missed a team gathering because he forgot to account for the daylight savings time change.

In a loss versus Kansas City, Kei Kamara, the Columbus Crew rookie, was often the most dangerous looking player on the field for his team. He and another newcomer, Kenny Cooper of FC Dallas, actually got on the scoreboard for their respective teams. Cooper repeated his feat the following week. With his tenacious workrate, Kansas City newcomer Matt Groenwald impressed as well.

Given the quality of the emerging players in MLS, it's no wonder that the administration believes that the future of the league can safely depend on such players. In fact, that's what the league is banking on with both expansion and a new player development program in the works.

"What we're emphasizing is player development and expanding opportunities, because we believe there are far more players in this country than we are able to identify," said Ivan Gazidis, the league's deputy commissioner.

The fact is, with the league expanding to four more teams by 2010, there will be a need for new talent to fill those rosters. While MLS always has the option to dip into the world market for personnel, the league considers domestic youth to be a better investment.

"The answer long-term lies right here in this country," Gazidis declared. "We still think that we have not scratched the surface of what we can do with our player development programs."

Gazidis pointed out the positive impact that Major League Soccer itself has had in the improvement of the U.S. national team. He explained that he expected increased youth involvement at the pro level to have a similar impact.

"If we're right about that, and we think we are, then within five to ten years, we'll see the U.S. team legitimately competing to win the World Cup."

Gazidis viewed the programs in place now a success. That included Generation Adidas (a league-brokered contract that guarantees educational funds, if so needed, to young players who sign with MLS) and the Bradenton residency of the U-17 national team. Yet he also pointed out their inadequacies.

"I think it would be a more healthy sign for us, if rather than a great number of the young players who are in Bradenton graduating to form a large part of the U.S. senior squad, if we were able to get the 500 kids across the country that are just as good and who have as much potential as the 35 in Bradenton. When you looked at the U-17 national team and then looked at who graduates to the senior team, it would be a far smaller number, because they'd be in competition with a greater number of young players from across the country."

In something of a counterpoint to Gazidis, another view is that soccer development in the United States is already too structured and suffocates the advancement of certain technical skills.

"It's still the case that we play a ton of organized soccer in this country, but we don't play that much unorganized soccer where people can just experiment with the ball and be creative and imaginative," explained U-15 national coach Jim Barlow.

"At a very young age in our country, players are put onto teams and given shape and structure and a way to play. It would be great to have players who have a relationship with the ball that isn't just driven by practices and drills and exercises."

Of course, Barlow is speaking of an age group that the pro academies would probably not reach for a while.

Yet if Gazidis is able to bring his vision to fruition, that will be sooner than later.

"The first steps are in place -- we've expanded our rosters out to 28 and have a fully functioning reserve division. The results of that have exceeded our expectations. The next step is to begin to push our influence down to the youth levels, so that we have an entire elite club structure as they have overseas."

He didn't believe the club structure abroad could be completely duplicated, however.

"Obviously, the United States is a little bit unique," Gazidis emphasized. "The solutions are going to be varied across the country and the implementation timeline is going to be different."

He did have a target to shoot for, though.

"In three years, I want MLS to play a leadership role in youth player development," stated Gazidis, convinced of the viability of that venture. "Absolutely."

When MLS was first created, the league looked to players abroad to fill out its ranks. Now the strategy seems more to gain inspiration from the structure of other leagues, but to depend on the local talent to carry out the objective.

"I really believe that in the next five to ten years of the competitive development of our league, [local youth talent] is where our future is going to lie," concluded Gazidis.

"There's no reason not to elevate the standard of play on our fields to another level."

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com