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Sep 1, 2008

Still no dominant rookie to emerge in this year's class

Where have all the rookies gone?

August is usually the time of year when several first-year players have so firmly established their presence in the lineup that they can't be called rookies anymore. Yet five months into the regular season, the list of deserving candidates for the league's Rookie of the Year award is shockingly short.

The continued influx of foreign talent has certainly made playing time tougher to come by for this year's rookie crop, but injuries have also played a part. In fact, every time it seemed like a rookie was poised to break out -- or at least make a position their own -- there was the MLS witch doctor sticking pins into the rookie voodoo doll.

The scoring leader among first-year players, New England's Kheli Dube, looked set to run away with the ROY award until a torn groin sidelined him for two months starting in August. That appeared to open the door for Chicago's Patrick Nyarko to make a late push, but he was laid low by an MCL injury. Ditto for Chivas USA forward Justin Braun, although his recovery from a bum ankle saw him return last weekend. Real Salt Lake's Tony Beltran, after appearing to claim the right back position, subsequently lost it with a groin ailment.

This has made for a shallow pool of notable first-year performances, but there are a few worth remembering nonetheless.

Who's Hot (sort of):

1. Kheli Dube, F, New England

Dube's recovery from his aforementioned groin injury is set to take up most of September as well. Yet with four goals and three assists, the Coastal Carolina product remains the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. Not only has Dube's pace added some verticality to the Rev's attack, but his underrated ability to hold the ball up and lay it off has helped the team survive the extended absence of Taylor Twellman, a loss which would have crippled most teams.

Dube's return should coincide with the season's stretch run, and head coach Steve Nicol will be hoping that the former Zimbabwean youth international will have enough time to regain his form of mid-summer.

2. Geoff Cameron, D/M/F/popcorn seller, Houston

Okay, so the popcorn bit is a stretch, but given that Cameron has done just about everything else for the Dynamo, it wouldn't surprise me to see the University of Rhode Island product hop into the stands and try to improve Houston's bottom line.

Simply put, Cameron has been Houston's Mr. Fix-it, stepping into a variety of positions. And given the Dynamo's ridiculous schedule, which will exceed 50 games this year, you can bet Cameron's versatility is plenty appreciated by head coach Dominic Kinnear.

Even more amazing is that Cameron was a completely unknown quantity before January's combine, yet his athleticism and deceptively quick feet saw Kinnear take a flyer and select the rookie with the last pick of the third round of this year's SuperDraft. If the Dynamo returns to the MLS Cup final this year, it will be due in part to Cameron's flexibility.

3. Justin Braun, F, Chivas USA

One player who could wrest the rookie scoring crown away from Dube is Braun, whose rags-to-riches story is even more surreal than Cameron's. Braun was playing at the Home Depot Center for a Utah state select amateur team when he was spotted by Goats head coach Preki. An invitation to preseason and a developmental contract followed, and when injuries sidelined the likes of Alecko Eskandarian and Maykel Galindo, Braun was thrust into a significant role, appearing in 17 games, ten of them starts.

Alas, after tallying three goals and two assists, Braun was also bitten by the injury bug, with a right-ankle ailment forcing him to be substituted early in the Goats' August 14 game against Los Angeles. With Eskandarian and Galindo gradually returning to health, Braun may find himself back on the bench, but his work rate and 6-foot-3 frame should ensure that he'll get more opportunities this season.

4. Matt Marquess, D, Kansas City

Marquess makes this list simply by winning -- and hanging onto -- a starting spot, even though it's been in the latter part of the season. While more heralded rookies like Chance Myers and Roger Espinoza were given the first opportunities at cracking the Kansas City lineup, Marquess has excelled by playing a low-risk, stay-at-home kind of game at left back.

Marquess' maturity and low-key approach, especially in light of Espinoza's penchant for red cards, have also been welcome developments for Kansas City, and it's also allowed Wizards' head coach Curt Onalfo to move Michael Harrington into midfield.

Who's not:

1. Chris Tierney, D, New England

While Tierney's delivery from the left flank has been Beckham-esque at times, his defending has been plenty suspect. San Jose's Ronnie O'Brien lit up the rookie with a Player of the Week performance on August 16, and things didn't get much better for Tierney in the Rev's first-leg defeat to Joe Public in the CONCACAF Champions League 10 days later. Both goals in New England's 2-1 defeat came after Joe Public winger Kerry Baptiste exposed the defender's lack of pace.

2. Sean Franklin, D, Los Angeles

If ever there was a poster child for the Rookie Wall, Franklin is it. Granted, there is plenty of blame to go around for the Galaxy's defensive frailties, but in a season where L.A. has conceded a whopping two goals per game, some of that responsibility has to be placed at the rookie's feet, despite the fact that he's played most of the season in a central role and not in his preferred right back position.

Certainly Franklin's pace, passing, and better-than-expected toughness speak well of his long-term prospects. But right now, he looks like a guy who needs a rest, as he doesn't appear to be closing down opponents with the same tenacity as earlier in the year.

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

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