Neil W. Blackmon
Of late, MLS has asked media to vote on the 24 best players under 24, and while the rankings are at bottom just a fun “who to watch” list, they also make for great fodder down the road as the youngsters who make (or don’t make) further develop and shape their careers.
There’s been a great discussion among soccer writers, spearheaded by The Shin Guardian, about the most recent version- the 2013 MLS 24 Under 24 Ballot. Healthy debate has occurred about who ranked where and why, who was omitted, who was too high, too low, and above all, the need for transparency. Credit should go to publications like The Shin Guardian and writers like Charles Boehm who have been transparent with their votes and the process, and more credit should go to the fans and folks on social media who have made the debate interesting.
With that in mind, The Yanks Are Coming thought it would publish its ballot. Appropriate disclaimers will be listed below, but first, here’s how the voting process actually works (it is, in our view, more difficult than it should be).
There are five categories to rank the players: technical, tactical, physical, potential and personality. Further, the “potential” and “personality” categories, at least in our view, are hugely difficult to gauge because we can’t go party with the players and then cast a personality vote and of course, the players are on multiple teams, each of which have their own club culture (or lack of) and club upside (or lack of). Needless to say, our rankings changed in a couple of drafts before we came up with a list we liked.
Finally, two more disclaimers:
a) It wasn’t fair for us to submit a ballot when we have limited observations of several players. As such, we reached out to some other folks in and around MLS for help. One of those individuals is an MLS assistant coach. The other is a scout. We can’t claim these rankings as being entirely based on our observations.
b) The players we have seen multiple times (multiple here meaning at least five observations) may be higher or lower than the ones we sought help on. That’s just our effort to raise transparency.
Here is our list, with a short “TYAC take” next to most players. Comments encouraged.
24. Perry Kitchen, DC United– He wins a lot of balls and is a workh0rse for a terrible team. Would show more in attack, we feel, if circumstance didn’t dictate that he spend most his time defending his rear off. He’s a smart player. I’m not sure how much technical upside there is, though- and he’s a guy we’ve watched a great deal. On a better side, he’s probably ranked higher- fair or unfair.
23. Mauro Diaz, FC Dallas — Late charge gets him on our list, which speaks to his talent since he didn’t feature until this summer. I’m not positive Schellas knows exactly what to do with him, but that really shouldn’t surprise anyone. Technically he’s ahead of most the players on the list, and “potential” wise he might be too- you don’t go through the River youth system if you aren’t a big talent. But we still need to see more.
22. Jonathan Osorio, Toronto – Not sure if this is like Perry Kitchen or not in that he’d be higher if Toronto weren’t miserable. He’s actually better as a substitute on that team anyway- and the numbers (passes completed, secondary passing rate) bear that out on OPTA. He gets tired otherwise. Needs to get stronger. Makes mental mistakes when he is tired. Plays ambitious ball when the simple one will do too much… or is that just because Toronto is lousy and his teammates lack his vision and understanding?
21. Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Portland Timbers- One of the guys we called an MLS assistant coach on. His quote: “Physically, he’s an NFL safety. If he sees you, he’s standing you up. Has a New Yorker’s mentality, too- tough, flamboyant, strong. Staying with the NFL thing, though- he’s raw. You can beat him over the shoulder, which is inexcusable given his size. Gets lost too much. Needs a mentor, not just Caleb.”
20. Jose Villareal, LA Galaxy — Probably too low. He’s explosive on set pieces already and technically, he’s a very gifted attacking player. He needs a weight room. Overwhelmed in physical games, and gets lost defensively. The U-20 World Cup was a real exposure period for him, in our view- his tendency to check out of games was on display as was his defensive issues. We really think a great deal of that has to do with strength though, and while he won’t get any bigger, he can get stronger and tougher.
19. Dillon Powers, Colorado Rapids– Another player we needed an outside take on. Here’s what a scout told us: “What is it about Notre Dame kids that makes them so mentally prepared? He was ‘next man up’ and didn’t miss a beat playing out position, or what I thought was out of position in Martin Rivero’s spot. I think he’ll become a ten-fifteen goal guy. And to me, he’s a captain type of personality, which is a big deal in that youth movement.”
18. Chris Klute, Colorado Rapids– An argument for why Eric Wynalda should be a manager in MLS- Klute has gone from a guy scouts overlooked to a mainstay left back centerpiece in the Colorado Rapids youth revolution. Oscar Pareja took him from the Atlanta Silverbacks on loan and has transformed him into a full-fledged starter with a bright club and, possibly, national team future. We asked our scout how he missed him: “We missed because we’re wrong sometimes. He went from decent passer to high level passer and crosser of the ball in a flash. The NASL stint did wonders for his confidence, and his physicality was a great fit for that league and as such, ours. I don’t buy the national team now “hype.” He’s nowhere near sound enough in his positioning, and he struggles with combination play too much to jump into a World Cup team. But he’s getting better every match- you see it on the film.”
17. Diego Fagundez, New England Revolution– One of the youngsters in Boston was going to suffer because they have so many of them. Blast us for going low here if you’d like, but heed our scout’s take: “He’s so creative and he plays hard. Imagine if Villareal played as tenaciously as him. I say that because Diego isn’t as technically gifted. Both are less than blessed physically, and Fagundez isn’t as fast. Here’s the thing- if you had to ask which one of them will get stronger and work harder defensively, is there any question who you think does that? Not for me. Less upside with this kid, but if he does this consistently, I’ll bite the bullet.”
16. Kelyn Rowe, New England Revolution– He benefits from playing with Agudelo and Fagundez but that’s not all a one-sided thing. He’s becoming more adept at finding pockets of space and quickly exploiting them with fast passes, and we’ve been impressed in five observations with him and his movements off the ball. He’s a big part of what New England is trying to do and his recent form is a reflection of a player who is really starting to “get it.”
15. DeAndre Yedlin, Seattle Sounders — Look, we get it. Homegrown player. Electric pace. Cool hair. Smiles all the time. Plays for one of the league’s “glamour” clubs. He’ll be a proper two-way fullback one day, but technically, he ain’t there yet. Service is plain poor more than it is average at this point. Takes too many chances getting forward. His positioning has improved this year, but it still needs work. Sigi is the right manager for him though. Won’t let him get too high on himself.
14. Soony Saad, Sporting Kansas City — The Wolverine product is probably the smartest player, on the field, we’ve watched (collectively, seven observations). Sporting brought in Benny Feilhaber and Claudio Bieler and when we spoke to Matt Besler this March, Saad was the attacking piece he kept talking about. Now we see why. And his development, to the tune of seven goals and four assists in twelve matches, suggests why Sporting weren’t as heartbroken about Kei Kamara’s departure as some speculated they should be.
13. Felipe- Montreal- Our observations were too limited. Here’s what an MLS assistant had to say: “It’s not a coincidence their form dipped when his form dipped. He’s been asked to do different things this year,too, because their pieces look different. I’d like to see him defer to teammates less. He’s more creative now than last year, and with that comes the understanding that it is okay to take the team on your shoulders when you’re pushing for a goal that separates three points from one. When he’s not playing well, his defense suffers. That needs to get corrected.”
12. Richard Sanchez, FC Dallas – He’s on loan in Fort Lauderdale and is our only goalie on the list with Sean Johnson now headed towards 25. He’s the reason the Strikers, who finished last in the NASL spring campaign, have a legitimate Soccer Bowl shot in the fall. Needs to work on his distributions,but his positioning is brilliant, his pedigree on the Mexican youth teams is gold medal stuff, and he’s super athletic. Seasoning is the only argument for why he’s not their guy, right now. Will be the league’s best keeper in due course if he’s not off to Europe soon.
11. Jack McInerney, Philadelphia Union– Atlanta product has cooled off after the blitz of a start but has benefited from Conor Casey’s tutelage. He’s a goalscorer’s goalscorer in that the lull in form hasn’t phased his aggressiveness. He makes good runs, and is smart– can diagnose defenses and figure out where soft spots are. Obviously, he needs to be more consistent. That will come. The expectations were so high, you have to factor that into your ranking a bit. Very close to a top ten player.
10. Andrew Farrell, New England Revolution – Youth revolution, indeed. Even when Agudelo departs this team has such a strong nucleus for the future. Farrell might not win the Rookie of the Year after being the top pick but he’s started every game for Jay Heaps and he’s been exciting. Gets caught out too much and needs to make better decisions about when to get forward and when to dribble the ball out of the back- but he’s got the right manager for that. Once he adjusts to the step up from college, look out!
9. Russell Teibert, Vancouver Whitecaps – Another guy we asked a MLS scout about. Scout’s take: “Martin Rennie’s biggest challenge with this kid will be keeping him in Canada. Tremendous passer, and can beat you when you’re on his shoulder and crowd him. Teams are going to have to start respecting that,which will make him even more dangerous because he can cross the ball with above-average accuracy. I think he reads the game well too,which helps his defense. I wonder about him out wide defensively, because he drifts centrally so much. What he does one v. one works against a mediocre defense, but won’t against the better ones in our league until he shows that he can stay outside, beat you without coming central too. Needs to be less predictable.”
8. Olmes Garcia, Real Salt Lake– One of the guys we’ve seen the most, and almost always influential. His older teammates do a great job of getting him involved, but he rewards them on the ball with a combination of strength and speed that qualifies as “plus” in both respects. Kreis is great at bringing young players along, too, which helps “potential” ratings. Needs to do better off the ball, and learn diagonal runs. Every time we’ve seen him he’s pretty straightforward, preferring to use speed to blow by defenders rather than try to outsmart them. Needs to do a little of both.
7. Oriol Rosell, Sporting Kansas City – Straight to the scout for a take on the Sporting midfielder: “You don’t usually see a 21 year old kid with his understanding of the game. The defense behind him is brilliant but he actually helps because he reads the game so well and is clean in his tackles, which he takes elite-level angles on. His positioning compensates for a lack of pace- basically, he doesn’t have to do much turn and pursue defending. He doesn’t do ambitious distributions, and I wonder if he ever will. They’d like to get something from him in that regard. Still, he’s the best young defensive midfielder in the league by some stretch.”
6. Gyasi Zardes, Los Angeles Galaxy– Every label you can get for a young MLS player he has: Generation Adidas, homegrown, etc. Physical specimen, but smart player too. Every time we see him we’re tempted to say “If I were that big and strong…”,but he at least tries to do the little things too- hold the ball up, pass it, link up. He can take you one on one too. A bit like Eddie Johnson was at that age but his first touch is comically further along. Needs polish off the ball, and with the guys he plays with, needs to link-up better. Third highest potential score we gave (16).
5. Luis Gil, Real Salt Lake– We asked an MLS assistant to break down the young American starlet: “Will Johnson left and you thought- how do they deal with that- and then this guy comes in and plays both ways. He’s smart. He can play a bunch of different positions for them- there’s not really anything about his game that makes one position better than others. Jason’s used him underneath, and he’s scored two goals from there by making smart, late runs. He can play wide on either side because he’s got great, soft feet. They’re making him defend, and making him useful on set pieces, but he might take the kicks when he’s older. He’s a senior international in the next cycle.”
4. Amobi Okugo, Philadelphia Union– The same assistant on the Union starlet: “You have to remove international future from the equation and once you do,you have a future captain. Teammates gravitate towards him. His positioning is excellent, and he anticipates movements so well that he gobbles lazier balls up. He isn’t big, but he’s fearless. We’d rather pick on someone else on set pieces and that’s part of our process when we play them. They’d love for him to get better on the dribble. He’s a holding midfielder that’s smart enough to do what they’re asking him to right now. You can’t beat him with pace- you have to be smarter than he is or stronger. He’s just so steady.”
3. Shane O’Neill, Colorado Rapids — One last take from an MLS Scout: “You’ve got to love how versatile he’s been- they’ve started him in three different spots. I thought he gave Ramos all he had this summer, which was impressive. Drew Moor has really helped him understand that you can play simple at center half, keeps things in front of you, not overcommit. The move to fullback wasn’t a shock, either. Even with Klute, he’s their best service option from the back, and he’s sneaky fast- you think you’re with him and he’s past you. He’s a great athlete, that’s what we loved about him early on- he’d be a pro at something if it wasn’t soccer. He’s close to national team ready, really.”
2. Darlington Nagbe, Portland Timbers– Caleb Porter has pulled all the right strings with his former college player, who has rewarded him with easily his finest year in MLS- one that has made everyone anxious about his potentially becoming a US international (long way to go). Nagbe is the full package: fast, strong, a workhorse, a slick passer, a good finisher. This year, he’s done it consistently too. Not many guys on this list are prime-time ready. Nagbe is.
Speaking of prime time ready….
1. Juan Agudelo, New England Revolution/Stoke City– We don’t think a single American has improved more in the last year than Agudelo, but we’ll let an MLS assistant have the last take: “Technically, he’s rare. He can hold it up, he can beat you off the dribble, he can poach. You have to know where he is all the time because he’s capable of scoring the absurd goal, too. He makes smart runs, which he didn’t do before. They’ve done a great job getting him to think about where space is, to diagnose and keep his head up. That will help him in Europe. He’s also improved his passing, but that’s a work in progress. He was the only bright spot at Chivas. He needs to get stronger. That’s my concern for him in Europe. Can he stay fit? They’ll miss him.”
Agree? Disagree? We are stupid? We are brilliant? Let us know below.