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May 3, 2008

2008 rookie class offers little impact so far

As it does almost every season, the month of April has witnessed its share of surprises. The sight of Columbus in first place and Toronto's first-ever three-game winning streak have been among the bigger shocks. But one development that has flown under the radar has been the relatively meager contribution by this year's crop of rookies.

Last season, Kansas City's Michael Harrington scored just three minutes into his debut, and by month's end, then-Los Angeles forward Robbie Findley also tallied a goal. In 2008, Houston's Geoff Cameron has been the only first-year player to find the net, with the few remaining rookie contributions coming mostly on the defensive side of the ball. (For those of you bringing up names like the New England duo of Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi, their prior professional experience means they are not rookies in the eyes of MLS.)

So who or what is to blame for this shift? Some contend that it's merely a reflection of a talent-starved draft class, although it seems like that assessment is trotted out every year. Others will point to the influx of foreign talent. When MLS expanded the number of foreign roster spots to eight per team this past offseason, the move carried with it both pluses and minuses. On the one hand, the league was hailed for combating the inevitable dilution of talent wrought by expansion. With the "Beckham Era" entering its second year, maintaining, or even increasing, the level of play on the field was paramount. But at the same time, concerns were raised that American products, especially those in attacking positions, would find it more difficult to get on the field.

While the increased dependence on foreign players certainly has played a part, it has not stopped second or third-year performers like New England's Amaechi Igwe, Kansas City's Tyson Wahl, and Colorado's Nick LaBrocca -- all products of the American system -- from coming in and having an impact.

It all points to the fact that the quality of play league-wide, in terms of both foreign and domestic players, has increased. And even as expansion has created more job openings, it is taking a higher caliber player to crack the lineup. All the more reason to take note of those first-year players who have managed to make a breakthrough and have gotten the jump on their peers in this year's race for Rookie of the Year.

Who's hot

1. Sean Franklin, D, Los Angeles Galaxy

Given that the Galaxy have the second worst defensive record in the league, Franklin's place in the top spot seems specious. But the reality is that the veteran members of L.A.'s back line have been primarily at fault for the team's woes, with Franklin's speed and passing out of the back doing much to pick up the slack. If Abel Xavier continues to gift goals to the opposition, Franklin will be a mainstay for the foreseeable future.

2. Chance Myers, D, Kansas City Wizards

The No. 1 overall pick in this year's SuperDraft, Myers, was set to begin the year as a starter until a foot strain knocked him out of the opening day lineup. But the UCLA product managed to win back his spot in the third game of the season, and has been impossible to dislodge ever since. In that match, New England's Nyassi had been running rampant on the left wing until the introduction of Myers' pace and strength in the tackle put the breaks on the Gambian's domination. The performance wasn't a fluke either. He has continued his solid performance, shutting down Toronto FC midfielder Laurent Robert, even though his team lost last Saturday.

3. Brandon McDonald, M, Los Angeles Galaxy

Given the Galaxy's lopsided payroll that includes three maximum-salaried players, L.A. was always going to need a heavy contribution from rookies, and while a player like MacDonald is still a little raw, his tenacity and ball-winning abilities have seen him make a steady contribution. These traits were in evident in last week's SuperClasico win over Chivas USA. During one play McDonald twice kept the ball alive at the top of Chivas' box, allowing Landon Donovan to eventually lash home the first of his three goals that night.

4. Geoff Cameron, M, Houston Dynamo

Cameron remains the only rookie to score this season, with his stoppage-time strike on April 6 allowing Houston to salvage a 3-3 draw against FC Dallas. Cameron also contributed to the Dynamo's second tally that day, when his cross was knocked into the net by Dallas defender Drew Moor. Unfortunately for Cameron, the return to health of players like Brad Davis, Brian Mullan and Stuart Holden, means that additional playing time is likely to be scarce for the remainder of the season. But at least Dominic Kinnear knows he can count on the rookie in a pinch.

5. Roger Espinoza, M, Kansas City Wizards

Espinoza was another preseason injury victim, as he broke his foot just two weeks into training camp. But the Ohio State product has settled into a spot on the left side of midfield, where his touch and passing have kept the Kansas City attack ticking. His darting runs into the middle of the field have also opened up space for left back Michael Harrington to get into the attack.

Who's not

1. Ciaran O'Brien, M, Colorado Rapids

Nothing makes a first impression quite like a red card on one's debut, but that is exactly what befell the UC-Santa Barbara product, when his knee-high challenge on Galaxy forward Carlos Ruiz resulted in the rookie's ejection. Granted, some MLS defenders might consider his injury-inducing tackle on Ruiz a public service, but the fact remains that O'Brien hasn't seen the field since.

2. Dan Stratford, M, D.C. United

On the one hand, Stratford should be commended for simply making the United squad after being selected in the second round of the Supplemental Draft. But getting subbed out after 41 minutes last weekend against Real Salt Lake, and not due to injury, doesn't exactly count as a vote of confidence, especially given his numerous giveaways.

3. Shea Salinas, M/F, San Jose Earthquakes

Rest easy San Jose fans, Salinas' willingness to take players on certainly makes him a candidate to move to the "Who's hot" list at some point in the future. But unfortunately, the single biggest impression of his first month in MLS was his physics-defying miss in San Jose's 1-0 loss to Chicago, when he shot a potential equalizer over the bar from just four yards out.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com