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Kandji heads list of USL stars likely to move on

The kid blazed up and down the pitch, blowing by defenders on full throttle runs, beating them with sick cuts and moves. This was back in 2006 when Atlanta Silverbacks coach Jason Smith first saw Macoumba Kandji play at a team tryout.

"I was asking about him in about three minutes," Smith says. "It was clear nobody could keep up with him. I just remember he would turn and run at such a tremendous pace for 40 yards or more, he left everyone behind."

Smith signed Kandji up for Atlanta's Under-23 team on the spot. These days, Kandji stars for Atlanta's USL-1 team. The midfielder has seven goals and four assists for the Silverbacks this season.

Smith knows Kandji, 23, born in Senegal and raised in Gambia, will likely get scooped up by another team at the end of the season. Several MLS and some European scouts have inquired about Kandji, who came to the U.S. five years ago.

"Right now, we have some paperwork issues with him," Smith says. "He has his work permit [to be in the U.S.], but we are still working on asylum status. Once he can travel [overseas], and people see him in person, he'll be gone."

Says Kandji: "I would love to play in the MLS or even higher. I just want to get to the highest level I can."

The MLS sure wouldn't be a bad start, making Kandji the latest player to make the move from the USL to America's top pro league, following players like Houston's Brian Ching and Maykel Galindo of Chivas USA.

Here is a look at some other USL player who can make the jump to the MLS -- or even higher.

Danny Cepero, GK, Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders: Cepero is on loan from the New York Red Bulls, but maybe not for much longer. Cepero is a smart keeper -- he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania -- who maintains his cool when balls start flying off the crossbar. And this Ivy Leaguer likes to mix it up. He brings a blue-collar approach to the game a la the Chicago Fire's Jon Busch, controlling the box, stuffing streaking strikers and midfielders.

In 16 games this year, Cepero, 23, has allowed 14 goals for the USL-2's City Islanders with a 0.875 goals against average.

"Ideally, I'd say I can play in the MLS right now," says Cepero, who played on the Red Bulls' reserve team last season. "I'm going back to the Red Bulls [in August] and it could be a tough transition. It's definitely going to be a challenge, but I'm hoping to be in the mix for a starting spot next year."

Felix Garcia, striker, Laredo (Texas) Heat: Only 17, Garcia is one of the hottest young stars in American soccer.

He arrived last summer, signing with Laredo of the PDL (Premier Development League), blowing away bigger, stronger, more experienced players with his speed and tenacity. The kid is fearless and, in February, U.S. U-20 men's coach Thomas Rongen named Garcia to his team.

Garcia, who will be a senior at Lyndon Baines Johnson High School in Laredo this coming fall, has 14 goals in 12 games for the Heat this summer. He scored three in a win over New Orleans on July 19. Laredo general manager J.J. Vela says MLS and Mexican first division teams have inquired about Garcia.

"Felix will make a name for himself, he will take it to the next level," Vela says. "It's just a matter of time. But, at the end of the day, he's still a humble kid."

Sebastian Le Toux, striker, Seattle (Wash.) Sounders: Le Toux is a lock to play in the MLS. Seattle Sounders FC, the new franchise which joins the league next year, made Le Toux its first signing in May.

Le Toux, 24, is the reigning USL-1 MVP and has seven goals and three assists this season. He arrived in the Pacific Northwest last year after being on trial with FC Dallas. Le Toux also played in his native France for F.C. Lorient in the French League 2 and Stade Renais Football Club in the French first division. "I've never seen anyone run as much on the field as Sebastian," Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer says. "He runs a marathon every game."

Schmetzer says Seattle could bring as many as eight players from the Sounders USL roster to the MLS. Candidates include former MLSers Taylor Graham (defender), Danny Jackson (defender) and Josh Gardner (midfielder). Seattle goalkeeper Chris Eylander, 22, who has no MLS experience, could be the next player signed by the MLS Sounders.

"Eylander is the best goalie in the league [USL]," Smith says.

Martin Nunez, striker, Carolina (N.C.) RailHawks: Think of Nunez as the USL's version of Argentina's Ariel Ortega.

Like Ortega, who plays for River Plate, Nunez is diminutive -- only 5-foot-5 -- and electric on the pitch. Nunez, 21, has smooth ball skills, beating defenders up and down the field on the outside with his speed. Nunez, who moved to the Miami from Uruguay when he was nine, scored 30 goals for Georgia Perimeter Junior College in 2006. He has four goals and an assist for Carolina this year. The Red Bulls offered him a developmental contract before this season, but Nunez chose to play for Carolina.

"I just couldn't come to an agreement with [the Red Bulls] and I wanted to play more than I would have there," Nunez says. "So I came to Carolina. This is my first year as a pro, so I have some things to work on. But I think, if things keep going well, I can play in the MLS."

Johnny Steele, midfielder, Puerto Rico Islanders: Islanders coach Colin Clarke liked Steele when he came to the U.S. from Northern Ireland six years ago.

But, Clarke, then head man with FC Dallas, said the club didn't have a youth team. So he directed Steele to the A-League, now known as the USL. All these years later, Clarke and Steele have been reunited.

Steele, 22, has two goals and leads USL's first division with six assists. Steele is tenacious on the field, fighting hard for every ball, always moving vigorously. And he comes equipped with a killer left foot.

"Johnny's had to change his attitude around a little, but he's been great," Clarke says. "He's become a leader on this team. Johnny's a great talent and I fully expect him to play in the MLS or Europe."

Matt Watson, midfielder, Carolina RailHawks: The San Jose Earthquakes and L.A. Galaxy have already inquired about Watson.

"Matt will play in the MLS," Schweitzer says. "It's just that he went to a small school [University of Maryland-Baltimore County]. I'm sure he will get a shot after this year, in the MLS, or in Europe."

Watson grew up outside Birmingham, England rooting for Aston Villa, and he wouldn't mind playing across the pond.

"I would love to play in Europe at some level," he says. "I miss my family a lot, I only see them twice a year, it's hard. But, if there are opportunities here, I will stay. We will see what happens."

Watson creates and attacks with a flair on both sides of the ball. He's great at setting up teammates and uses his speed to burn players.

"And Matt's a team player, which is rare in the modern game," says Leigh Cowlishaw, who coached Watson with the USL-2 Richmond (Va.) Kickers last year. "He has a lot of skill and can score goals, but he doesn't play as an individual. Matt really cares about the team."

Scott Palguta, defender, Rochester Rhinos: According to Rochester general manager Matthew Ford, the Red Bulls tried prying Palguta, 25, away from the Rhinos this offseason.

"But the offer wasn't good enough," Ford says. "We've developed Scott, so the deal had to be right."

Palguta has developed into one of USL-1's top defenders over the last three years in Rochester. He's tenacious on the ball, but not reckless, good in the air, with great skills with the ball at his feet. Palguta, a Jersey native, played at Cornell.

"Scott was a real find for us," Ford says. "And I'm sure we will be hearing from more teams about him."

Justin Rodriguez covers the USL for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at jrod_showtime@yahoo.com.

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