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MLS Rookie-Sophomore All-Star Game


Armchair Midfielder is a column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A. If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.

Fo this go-around we're pushing for a MLS Rookie-Sophomore All-Star game.


The MLS All-Star game is coming up on Aug. 5, and unlike most all-star games (see NBA, NFL, NHL) it will be a game that will actually be entertaining to watch.

No ridiculous high scores, and no I’d-rather-be-golfing effort by the players.  The best the MLS has to offer will be taking on Chelsea – the team that some consider the greatest club in the world (although Barcelona may refute that with one glance at their 2006 Champions League trophy). While their stature in the world of club soccer can be debated, there’s no doubt the current back-to-back English Premier League champs will turn the usual meaningless all-star game in this country into a valid, meaningful match just by stepping on the field at Toyota Park.

It has all the makings to be one of the best All-Star games we’ve seen in professional sports here in the U.S. in a long, long time.

Soooo…why are we disappointed?

Well, to put it simply: We’re greedy. We want more. More players, more action, more games.

How to solve it? Well, what about adding another game?

Keep the match between the chosen MLS 18 and a super club from across the globe the main event of the All-Star weekend, but take a page from the NBA and add a Rookie-Sophomore game.  

The additional game (which you could play on Friday night) gives MLS the chance to showcase the rising stars in the league; the guys they will soon be promoting on billboards and TV commercials as the future of soccer in America. We bet there’s quite a few fans out there who don’t know much about Dasan Robinson, Brandon Moss or Atiba Harris. Well, MLS, here’s your chance to make introductions. And as a fan, wouldn’t you love to see guys you’ve only heard about (unless you’ve actually gone to a reserve game), such as Dax McCarty or Josmer Altidore?

While there could be coaches (maybe the top assistant from last year’s MLS Cup teams) it really shouldn’t be a “coached” game. Instead, let these young guys run free. It should be treated as a pick-up game, just one that happens to be between some of the best young players in the U.S. Lets see some stepovers, nutmegs, bicycle kicks and, hey guys, try that latest trick you’ve been working on with your teammates at practice. Why not? Entertain us. Make us go “oohhh…” Force us to text our buddy, “did U C that!?” when you pull off a sick move. And maybe more importantly, show us how bright our young talent is in America.

We aren’t going to get a Rookie-Sophomore game this year, but we still wondered what the squads would look like so we analyzed the available players and came up with our own Rookie and Sophomore rosters. During our deliberations, we ran into some sticking points, so we also included a quick list of rules on how the teams should be chosen.

After reading, let us know if we are on the money or way off base. If you want to chime in on our picks, email us at centercircle@ussoccer.org. We’ll post your comments in the next edition of 50-50 Ball.

Who knows, maybe next year or the year after that, MLS will do the picking.

The Rules
1) The MLS Commissioner will pick the players for both teams after consulting with the league's head coaches.
2) Roster can be from 18 up to 22, with unlimited number of substitutions during the match.
3) Not every player in MLS for their first year should be considered a rookie. (Take Chivas USA’s Claudio Suarez. Sure, it’s his first year in the league, but the guy was born in 1968 and has played in a World Cup. He’d be the oldest, if not scariest looking, rookie in the league.) To get around this we created a cutoff age. Only players who are in the league for their first year and were born on Jan. 1, 1983, or later can be considered a rookie. By this rule, guys are 23 years old or younger.  
4) For the same reason as the rookies, we figured we needed a cut-off age to be considered a sophomore. To allow some younger players the chance to test the waters elsewhere (overseas, Mexico, USL) we set the limit at those born on Jan. 1, 1981 or later.
5) Players who are technically in their second season but were injured for the majority of their first season can still be considered a rookie.
6) Some guys have played multiple positions, but in most cases players should be chosen by what position (goalkeeper, defender, midfielder or forward) they played most during the first half of the season.

ALL-ROOKIE TEAM
GOALKEEPERS (2)
Starter: Noah Palmer (CLB) – A tough pick here as there weren’t any rookie goalkeepers that stood out in the first half of the year as Chivas USA’s Brad Guzan last year. Almost by default, Palmer gets the nod, as he was the only one with consistent play with his club’s first team. Columbus has started so many different ‘keepers this year we wouldn’t be surprised to see Crew Cat in front of the net at some point. That said, Palmer’s 10 starts for the Crew get him the starting gig (despite a 1-5-4 record). While he was drafted out of Maryland in 2005 by Real Salt Lake in the Expansion Draft and did start one reserve game, we consider him a rookie because he injured his shoulder and sat out the majority of the season after surgery (see Rule No. 5).

Sub: Ray Burse (DAL) – One of OSU’s best goalkeepers of all-time, Burse has yet to make an appearance with the first team at FC Dallas, but has started three reserve matches.  

DEFENDERS (6)
Starter: Marvell Wynne (NY) – On top of all the normal struggles rookies go through, Wynne had to deal with recovering from a hernia operation. Luckily from him, he went to Germany and Dr. Ulrike Muschaweck performed her now famous – and seemingly miraculous – Minimal Repair Technique and he was back to normal in no time. His quick recovery allowed him to continue to work on the technical and tactical part of his game, which has improved with each passing game. As he gets smarter on the soccer field, his physical attributes (see blazing speed and Superman strength) will only allow him to become a tougher defender and more dangerous up the right flank in the attack.

Starter: Nathan Sturgis (LA) – Sturgis is the three C’s: calm, cool and collected. After his first preseason match, former L.A. Galaxy coach Steve Sampson said of the youth international, “He proved he can play in the MLS without question.” Sampson obviously didn’t get everything right as he was fired earlier this season, but he was spot on here. His predecessor, Frank Yallop, knows it as well as Sturgis continued to start in L.A.’s backfield, helping them go undefeated in the month of July.

Starter: Jonathan Bornstein (CHV) – Amarosa is a pretty big liar, but even she wouldn’t be crazy enough to say she knew Bornstein was going to have the impact he’s had for Chivas USA during his rookie year. The former Cal Poly Ponoma and UCLA forward moved to defense and has started every game for the Goats, while knocking in four goals so far. And if there was a question whether he’d be a starter, he put those to rest with three goals the past few weeks before the break, two of which were long-distance bombs.

Starter: Matt Groenwald (KC) – Third-round picks aren’t usually counted on to come in and be an instant starter, but that’s just what the former St. John’s midfielder has done. While he had to take a step back on the field as he now plays right back in MLS, he has done nothing but take steps forward during his rookie season. With a pit bull’s intensity, Groenwald has become an integral part of the Wizard’s defense, playing almost every game this season (starting all but three of those appearances).

Sub: Dasan Robinson (CHI) – The Chicago Fire might want to draft a player out of the University of Dayton every year. First they find a gem in Chris Rolfe in ’05 and then they come away with Dasan Robinson, from the ’06 Supplemental Draft no less. When Jim Curtin went down, Dave Sarachan put Robinson at centerback (and outside right since Segares returned to the line-up) and he’s done nothing but impress. If this trend continues, don’t be surprised to see the Fire change their name to the Flyers.

Sub: Tony Lochhead (NE) – Like Palmer, not exactly a rookie, but when the Kiwi got drafted in 33rd overall in ’05, he elected not to sign. He finally did in September, which is pretty deep into the season and didn’t see the field, so we still consider him a rookie. And while New Zealand didn't make the World Cup this year, it allowed him the chance to get double-digit appearances with the Revs. 

MIDFIELDERS (7)
Starter: Brandon Moss (CLB) – We sat here for 20 minutes trying to come up with a good analogy to use with the old proverb, “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” but we got nada. (Well, nothing good – “If the MLS is the rolling stone, then the proverb isn’t true because the league is definitely gathering Moss…Brandon Moss that is!” We said it was dumb. Leave us alone.) We don’t need the comparison anyway, as the 1,200 minutes he’s stockpiled on the field this year (16 games, 13 starts) demonstrates his importance to the Crew during the first half of the season.  

Starter: Quavas Kirk (LA) – Another rookie by way of Rule No. 5 as Kirk spent all of 2005 with the U-17s in U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program. Somewhat of a surprise impact for the Galaxy this year, but a bad spell of injuries got him on the field starting in June with three straight appearances off the bench. He then got his first start on June 17 and hasn’t looked back for a total of seven straight starting XI appearances before the break. The tall, lanky right midfielder needs some fine-tuning, but he’s got a second gear to get past defenders on the flank and whip in dangerous crosses.

Starter: Mehdi Ballouchy (RSL) – Ethan Zohn has had a great first half of his rookie sea…what’s that? We wrote Ethan Zohn. Oh, sorry, we meant Mehdi Ballouchy. We must have been looking at his picture right then. Anyway, Ballouchy has been a much-needed cog in their leaky midfield from last year, providing head coach John Ellinger with creative technical ability and head-on-a-swivel vision. While RSL continues to struggle (in agonizing last second fashion no less), they can rest assured their Moroccan midfielder will continue to be a bright spot.  

Starter: Sacha Kljestan (CHV) – Sacha is definitely in the running for “Rookie of the Year” at this point as he’s started every game, playing more like the veterans around him than the new guy. Will he win it? We’re thinking he comes close, only to lose out in the end because of his last name.

MLS executive: 1: “I think we should give it to Sacha, the midfielder from Chivas.”
MLS executive 2: “I agree. How do you pronounce his name? Kles-tan? Kil-jes-tan? Clay-stan?”
MLS executive 1: “I have no idea.”
(silence for 5 seconds)
MLS executive 2: “Ahhh…lets just give it to his teammate, that Bornstein guy.”

Sub: Lance Watson (KC) – It's not everday in American sports that the coach and GM you stand with tower over you during your draft picture, but Watson already shown during his limited time on the field this season that he has the ability to make an impact despite his small stature. He’s yet to tally his first point in MLS, but we don’t think he’ll have to wait too long after the break as his 22 assists in college demonsrate he's got the ability to provide his teammates with quality service.

Sub: Calen Carr (CHI) – Is it us, or is Calen Carr a pretty well known rookie because of the white headband he rocks during games. Seriously, you could be talking about Carr to some soccer buddies and if one of them asks, “Who’s that?,” you could just say, “The guy with the white headband on the Fire,” and he’d know exactly who you meant. Used in midfield and up front, he’s only started one game (in 13 appearances) and notched a single goal and a single assist, but he’s already becoming a fan favorite in Chicago. Just ask the Section 8 fan who discretely pulled Carr’s headband off when the forward jumped into the stands after a Fire goal (Yes, that really happened).

Sub: Dax McCarty (DAL) – Dax may look like the grown version of the “Problem Child,” but Dallas is counting on the redhead to torment opposing defenses rather than John Ritter (which would be hard since he passed away…R.I.P. Jack.). So far, he’s has only made one appearance for a whopping five-minute spell, but he gets the special nod from the Commish because of his huge upside. Not even out of his teens yet, McCarty is a regular with the U.S. Under-20s as they get prepared for the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, so why not let the fans see one of the most promising American midfielders.

FORWARDS (6)
Starter: Kenny Cooper (DAL) – With the size of Kenny Cooper’s neck, we weren’t sure if he’d be considered one choice or two, but in the end it didn’t really matter either way as we were still going pick him (or them) as our starting forward(s). During his time at Man U, everyone here wondered how good the younger Cooper actually was. Well, with seven goals and three assists, including a number of game-winners, we think he’s provided some answers so far.

Starter: Kei Kamara (CLB) – The Division II prolific scorer has proven he can find the net in the professional ranks as well, putting three away already during his rookie campaign. When Edson Buddle was shipped off to New York, Kei wasn’t shy about trying to be the go-to forward for the Crew and if he can continue to score maybe he can lead Columbus out of the cellar during the second half of the season.   

Sub: Jacob Peterson (COL) – Scrappy. In a word, that’s Jacob Peterson. The guy just will annoy, annoy and annoy, until finally it almost seems like the defense wants to let him score just so they don’t have to keep dealing with him. If it was that easy, we’d probably have Peterson starting, but we do agree that his two goals and two assists definitely make an argument for putting him ahead of Kamara. Our reason we didn’t: goal celebration. That’s right. We happen to have inside info that Jacob is a stellar break-dancer, yet have we seen these robotic moves after a goal? The answer is no. But all can be forgiven if the Michigan lad pulls it off with a goal in the Rookie-Sophomore game.

Sub: Atiba Harris (RSL) – It is a stretch to say Atiba is the best player ever from St. Kitts and Nevis? Somehow we don’t think it is. With eight starts in 15 games this year and two goals, Harris has shown some of the talent that made him such a wanted player by Newcastle United a couple years ago. Along with Ballouchy, RSL seems to at least have a bright future.

Sub: Josmer Altidore (NY) – Josmer has been whispered about since joining the league, but only because hardly anyone has seen him play. Finishing up his studies in Bradenton, Fla., he was bouncing back and forth to New York, but only to see action in three reserve games. He also seems to be a possible forward for Rongen’s U-20 side as he’s been in a part of all four camps they’ve had this year. Alexi Lalas basically called him the next Freddy Adu, so if half the people that went gaga over Fredua want to see Josi, he needs to be on the Rookie squad.

All-Sophomore Team
GOALKEEPERS (2)
Starter: Brad Guzan (CHV) – The former Gamecock lost his starting spot with Chivas USA six games into this season after allowing eight goals over two games, but his play as a rookie alone allows us to pencil him in the starting position. Guzan logged over 2,000 minutes in 2005, starting 23 of 24 games, which was good enough to garner him a look from former national team coach Bruce Arena and become the youngest goalkeeper to start in his U.S. debut since Brad Friedel in 1992.

Sub: Jay Nolly (RSL) – Nolly got a taste of professional soccer last year when he filled in a handful of times for No. 1 DJ Countess during his rookie year, but like everyone else at RSL in 2005 he was a bit over his head. This year he’s stuck behind the even more experienced Scott Garlick and has only seen one half of play, but he’s done well in reserve play, going undefeated at 2-0-1 with two shutouts.

DEFENDERS (6)
Starter: Bobby Boswell (DC) – Boswell has done so well early on in his MLS career we actually had to double check to make sure he really has only been in the league for two years. After not getting drafted in 2005, Boswell won over Peter Nowak and the coaching staff to snag the starting center back position, making people forget all about the departed Ryan Nelson. He’s started 46 or 47 games the past year and a half, and is definitely the United’s defensive rock.

Starter: Ugo Ihemelu (LA) – We’re not sure who was more surprised and annoyed when the L.A. Galaxy picked Ugochukewu Ihemelu as the fifth pick in the draft – the Galaxy fans who probably cocked their head, threw up their hands and said, “Who!?” or MLS Commissioner Don Garber who probably wasn’t prepared for that name that early (does anyone remember…did he just go with Ugo, or did he attempt his full first name?). Two years later, after 44 games (42 starts) Galaxy fans know Ugo well after seeing the Southern Methodist defender on the field more than Landon Donovan (34 games for L.A.), helping Garber and everyone else get use to that tongue-tripping name.

Starter: Michael Parkhurst (NE) – 2005 MLS Gatorade Rookie of the Year is all that really needs to be said. Parkhurst has been a difference maker since day one of his professional career and doesn’t seem to be suffering from any kind of sophomore slump.
 
Sub: Drew Moor (DAL) – After playing 20 of 32 games as a rookie last year, Moor has secured his starting spot in the Dallas backline. He hasn’t had as much, or as immediate, of an impact as the three starters ahead of him in MLS, but Moor no doubt has the chance to move up the ranks of top U.S. defenders.

Sub: Facunda Erpen (DC) – Facunda quickly found his way onto the field for D.C. United after his late-season signing last year, an impressive accomplishment considering the talent sprinkled about on the top team in MLS. He’s started every game he’s played, including every match for United this year. His selection to the Sophomore teams is an easy decision as he was added to the All-Star game late after Eddie Pope was unable to go.

Sub: Hunter Freeman (COL) – Freeman has played consistently for the Rapids over his first two years, but he’ll start on the bench for the sophomores as we feel Freeman has yet to come into his own as a professional. After setting a new Virginia school record for assists his senior year, Freeman has as many assists as ejections (one) during his MLS career. (Whether that has to do with the Rapids style of play or not can be debated.) Despite the lack of input in the attack, Freeman is one of the young bright spots that might actually help convince fans to come out and watch the Rapids. 

MIDFIEDLERS (7)
Starter: Francisco Mendoza (CHV) – At 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds, Mendoza isn’t what you’d call an intimidating presence – at least off the soccer field. On the field, Mendoza can strike fear in any opponent with impressive skill on the ball and good vision to find his teammates. After winning a starting position last year, Mendoza hasn’t let up.

Starter: Danny O’Rourke (NY) – O’Rourke was considered the safe bet by a number of soccer insiders in the 2005 SuperDraft, stating that the Indiana midfielder would be a consistent, hard-working and talented player for whoever picked him. San Jose did and after getting a handful of appearances, he was moved to the N.Y. Red Bulls at the start of this season. His draft day description seems dead on in 2006 as O’Rourke has started every game and the combined time he’s spent brushing his teeth this year is more than the amount of time he’s been off the field (20 minutes).

Starter: Thiago (CHI) – We’d put Thiago on the team just because he goes by one name, but luckily for us he’s also deserving. His split-second moves, stylish dribbling and knack for finding the net get him on the roster, but it’s his three game-winning goals last year that make him a starter.

Starter: Paulo Nagamura (LA) – Of all the names on both rosters, Nagamura’s might be the least well known, but that’s not due to his impact for the Galaxy. One of the more aggressive holding midfielders in the league, Paulo has emerged as one of the Galaxy’s leaders. He’s also got his name to the stat sheet with three assists already this year.

Sub: Kevin Novak (RSL) – After barely getting a sniff with the first team last year, Novak has settled in as a consistent performer for RSL. A versatile player that can also play forward, Novak might have gotten the starting nod with a handful more starts and a bit more work on the defensive end.

Sub: James Riley (NE) – Riley earned a lot of experience in his first year as Steve Nicol say fit to include him in 23 matches (12 starts). So far in ’06, Riley has already made more starts (13) and with good composure and significant speed he’ll be on the field a lot more as they push to stay second in the Eastern Conference.
Sub: Tim Ward (CLB) – OK, so we might be breaking Rule #6 by placing Ward as a midfielder, but we feel it works since the Wisconsin native’s versatility has allowed Sigi Schmid to put him in the back or as an outside mid. Still in his teens, Ward will be a U-20 veteran (he was named to the U-20 World Cup team in ’05, but got injured just before the tournament) and is one of the players with a bright future ahead of him, so why not let the fans see him play…even if it’s not his first position.

FORWARDS (6)
Starter: Scott Sealy (KC) – Sealy had an impressive rookie campaign with the Wizards, finishing second on the team in scoring with nine goals to put him in the running for Rookie of the Year. He’s slightly behind his pace from last year, but with Eddie Johnson and Josh Wolff not putting up big numbers (although skewed due to being with the MNT at the World Cup), Sealy still has the chance to emerge as the go-to guy up front.

Starter: Chris Rolfe (CHI) – One of the top stories of the 2005 MLS season, Rolfe virtually came out of nowhere to register eight goals to win the Chicago Fire’s Golden Boot. His standout performance provided him with a look at the MNT level where he demonstrated he could hold his own and in a year or two could become a regular member. So far this season a concussion has kept him off the field, but expect him to return soon and once again find the back of the net on a regular basis.

Starter: Roberto Mina (DAL) – After watching Mina play this year, we were a bit surprised Ecuador passed on him for their World Cup team. Was he not as good as we thought? Well, after Ecuador’s impressive performance in Germany we realized it wasn’t that Mina isn’t good, rather more so that Ecuador’s players were that good. The silver lining for Mina not going to the World Cup was that he got to stay at FC Dallas and continue his good form from a year ago where he scored seven goals and added three assists.

Sub: Chad Barrett (CHI) – With players such as Chris Rolfe and Nate Jaqua who have been in with the U.S. MNT, and Costa Rica international Andy Herron, it’s definitely been an uphill battle for Barrett to find time on the field up front. But so far the former U-20 has more than held his own. He’s already almost doubled the minutes he’s played in his sophomore campaign and his two-goal performance that single-handedly provided the Fire with a 2-1 comeback victory over Real Salt Lake showed he has game-changing ability.

Sub: Jamie Watson (RSL) – Watson has been up and down during his time with Real, but when he’s on the field defenders aren’t happy. Nicknamed “The Pest” by head coach John Ellinger, Watson has the ability to harass defenders into stupid mistakes. His playing time is down this year, but Watson would no doubt increase the energy level in the Rookie-Sophomore game.

Sub: Ryan Pore (KC) – Stuck behind Eddie Johnson, Josh Wolff and even sophomore teammate Scott Sealy, Pore doesn’t always get a chance to show what he can do on the field. Let him loose in this game and maybe another team in need of a forward comes knocking on the Wizards door.

And once again, to comment on any of our picks write to centercircle@ussoccer.org.

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