Young talent on the rise in MLS
As the best players in Major League Soccer converge on Toronto for Thursday's All-Star Game, there is a growing generation of young standouts developing in MLS that figures to keep the league stocked with talent even as some of its best make moves abroad.
Several of the league's best young players will represent the United States in the Olympics, including midfielders Sacha Kljestan and Robbie Rogers, who were set to represent the next generation at the All-Star Game before being called up for the U.S. Olympic team. Olympic teammates Stuart Holden, Nathan Sturgis, Patrick Ianni, Maurice Edu and Chris Seitz are also considered some of the league's best prospects.
While those are names you might have heard of, here is a Best XI of top young players that you should be hearing plenty about during the coming years:
Sean Franklin, Los Angeles Galaxy
The rookie defender has stepped right in and been the best defender on a shaky Galaxy back line. An injury likely cost the 23-year-old a shot at the Olympics, but he'll be key to L.A.'s playoff push.
Abdus Ibrahim, Toronto FC
If there is a candidate to be the next Jozy Altidore, it is Ibrahim, who has begun to dazzle despite being just 16. Acquired by Toronto from FC Dallas earlier this season, Ibrahim recently scored his first goal and is already showing signs of being a top striker.
Emmanuel Ekpo, Columbus Crew
The only Olympian on this list, Ekpo is talented enough to be a member of Nigeria's stacked Olympic squad, and the 20-year-old has already become a key member of the Crew's high-octane offense.
Jorge Flores, Chivas USA
There is no better Cinderella story in MLS than Flores, who won a reality show to earn his MLS contract and has quickly become a fan favorite. The 18-year-old midfielder's three goals for Chivas USA helped him earn a U.S. Under-20 call-up and he has the skill to eventually become a regular for the Goats.
Bakary Soumare, Chicago Fire
There hasn't been a better defender under the age of 23 in MLS this year than Soumare, who has been a rock in the back for Chicago in his first full season as a starter. The Mali-born center back combines size with athletic ability and fearlessness and seems destined for a European transfer.
Brek Shea, FC Dallas
The only player on this list who hasn't seen much playing time, Shea makes the list because of his immense potential, which has already caught the eye of European scouts. At 18 years old, his combination of size and speed has scouts drooling, and he could follow former D.C. midfielder Bryan Arguez (Hertha Berlin) as a European transfer who saw hardly any playing time in MLS.
Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi, New England
The Revolution has one of the best reputations in MLS for finding talent, but landing Mansally and Nyassi was top-notch even by their standards. The Gambian duo were discovered at last year's Under-20 World Cup and were promptly scooped up by New England. The pair has helped the Revs deal with the losses of Pat Noonan and Andy Dorman, as well as helping offset the prolonged absence of Taylor Twellman due to injury.
Tony Beltran, Real Salt Lake When he was selected with the No. 3 pick in the 2008 MLS Draft, Tony Beltran was considered by many to have been a reach. All Beltran has done is earn a starting job on the best defense in the Western Conference. The 20-year-old right back has shown good poise for a young player and his versatility and tenacity should help him continue to evolve.
Chance Myers and Roger Espinoza, Kansas City
When Curt Onalfo selected Myers and Espinoza he smiled and stated rather confidently that the two young players would be able to help the Wizards immediately. They have done just that, providing skill, speed and depth on a Wizards team that needed a youth infusion. Both have had their growing pains, but both have shown clear signs of having the talent to turn into all-stars.
There are plenty of other young talents throughout MLS, but this group, along with the U.S. Olympic team players, make up what is arguably the strongest group of young players to pass through MLS in its dozen years of existence.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.