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Apr 23, 2007

Youth rules the day in Week 3

Long before he was manager at Red Bull New York, as he apprenticed for the high-profile MLS position through the U.S. national team post, Bruce Arena spelled it out for us clearly:

"It's a young man's game," he told media audiences more than once during that remarkable 2002 grab at World Cup glory.

Indeed. But that old platitude doesn't exactly tell all. There's still this little matter of selecting the right young ones.

Send a boy to do man's work and, well, look what happened at Real Salt Lake over the weekend. The Utah outfit continued to spiral downward as Chivas USA delivered a 4-0 shellacking that could have been much worse. Chris Lancos, 22, got his first MLS start but certainly couldn't bail out an RSL defense that's more out of tune than most "American Idol" contestants.

Nor is manager John Ellinger getting what he needs at the other end from Freddy Adu, who remains in search of his initial goal or assist this year.

On the other hand, young Brad Guzan, 22, continues to stand impressively in goal for Preki's confident Chivas USA -- blemished so far only by a tight loss at Houston. Chivas USA midfielder Francisco Mendoza, even younger at just 21, is similarly performing beyond his years.

So the trick is to identify which of the unseasoned, impressionable young men are ready to accept the challenge. Spot the up-and-comer ready to blossom and you might have the next Jozy Altidore on your hands.

Altidore struggled in Red Bull New York's season opener, removed after 61 minutes. But Arena faithfully stuck with the young phenom, 17, and it paid off handsomely as Altidore struck the next week against FC Dallas. Then young Josmer (that's his official name, although he prefers to go by Jozy) was even more impressive over the weekend against Houston.

Altidore almost provided what would have been the no-brainer goal of the week in a slaloming effort through the Houston defense. But his shot from a tough angle while moving fast went high. From there, he gamely battled tough Houston defender Eddie Robinson, with the best still to come.

His superb turn against Robinson arranged things perfectly for an authoritative blast into the roof of the net, rescuing the night as 10-men Red Bull proffered a lesson in how to play a man down. (Will there be a day when MLS teams are sophisticated enough tactically to truly exploit the man-advantage situation?)

And who provided that telling pass in to Altidore? Red Bulls defender Hunter Freeman sliced a nice ball with the outside of his right foot directly at Altidore. Freeman, 22, is looking like another spot-on choice among the younger set. Arena thought enough of him that he traded away the far more heralded Marvell Wynne. So far, so good for Freeman, who has been rock solid in two Giants Stadium starts.

In Dallas, Steve Morrow's youth movement seems to be paying early dividends. His midfield in Sunday's home opener was the youngest deployed this weekend (although not by much, since Columbus' midfield was quite boyish, too).

Morrow promised to play the youngsters. So the team's home opener was entrusted to halfbacks Dax McCarty (age 19), Juan Toja (21), Ramon Nunez (21) and Aaron Pitchkolan (24). They were feeding Kenny Cooper, who is just 22.

Nunez made the difference, converting on a big counterattack launched by McCarty, then deciding the game single-handedly after halftime. Rapids veteran Pablo Mastroeni recognized that Nunez was slashing through the defense and took a yellow card for intentionally pulling down the young attacker.

Nunez's ensuing free kick wasn't the greatest ever, but was good enough to sneak into the back post. It also provided the first blemish on young Rapids goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul. After the goal he came up screaming, apparently at teammates in the wall. But Coundoul put two hands on the ball, yet somehow was unable to direct it safely away. Uh, that's on you, Bouna.

At Crew Stadium, the youthful midfield has been predictably up and down. Eddie Gaven (20), Danny O'Rourke (23) and Ned Grabavoy (23) were outstanding for a half in a 2-2 tie with New England, but lost the initiative after the break. Something similar happened last week at Real Salt Lake, when Sigi Schmid's halfbacks wilted after the break.

On the subject of inconsistency, the first big mark of 2007 against MLS officiating is in the books. Columbus forward Andy Herron will certainly be suspended for his ugly assault on Jay Heaps. Referee Ricardo Salazar can be excused for not spotting the vicious elbow, which gave Heaps a concussion.

But Salazar had been lenient to that point, failing to warn Heaps earlier for a big forearm shiver and not recognizing when the match was about to get away from him.

Then again, Salazar looked like Pierluigi Collina compared to Hilario Grajeda, who set back officiating by a decade at the Home Depot Center. His wildly uneven refereeing in the Chivas USA-Real Salt Lake match didn't dent the outcome (because Preki's men were so dominant).

But RSL's Chris Klein should probably have been ejected for his horrible lunge at Maykel Galindo. Same for Chivas' Sacha Kljestan and his awful tackle that ended Andy Williams' evening (and possibly broke his leg). Plus, Grajeda missed three penalty kick appeals, any one of which could have been justified, and rendered other judgments that were downright bizarre. Suffice to say, no MLS referee has stumbled through a more embarrassing evening this year.

Back to the decisions on young players: Ellinger surely is moving toward the hook where veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando is concerned. Talented rookie Chris Seitz awaits his turn.

Rimando's evenings in goal are devolving into comedy bits. Not even 30 seconds into Saturday's pasting, there was Rimando straying disturbingly far from goal and making things easy on Galindo, who scored two on the night.

Ellinger is hinting at a change in goal, and no one is under more pressure to make the correct calls than he is. RSL's manager has just 15 wins in 67 MLS matches, which surely must be testing ownership's patience.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.