Rookie Rundown: Youngsters make their All-Star case

Freshmen struggle with voters, but deserve Garber's pick

Tim Ream

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

Earlier this week, MLSsoccer.com ran a poll asking which rookie most
deserved a spot on the All-Star team that's scheduled to face Manchester
United on July 28.

The response was impressive—it remains one of
the more popular polls we've run, which I think demonstrates how much
love MLS fans have for this year's freshmen.

(Incidentally, the Philadelphia
Union
's Danny Mwanga won the poll,
earning 42 percent of the votes).

It's unlikely, however, that
we'll see a rookie on this year's All-Star roster. The votes are all in,
the polls are closed, the ballots are counted, and—between you and
me—there's not a rookie in sight.

But is it really surprising?
The last rookie to make the All-Star roster was former New England
defender Michael Parkhurst, who was a reserve back in 2005. Rookies
rarely go to the summer classic.

And that's a shame, because this
campaign—and I've been harping on about this all season—boasts one of
the most impressive freshman classes in league history.

Still,
league commissioner Don Garber gets to add a player or three to the
roster, and so does the coach, Bruce Arena. And because of the high
level of first-year talent this campaign, we could yet see a rookie make
the roster—which got me thinking: If I were the commissioner, and I
wanted to put a couple of rookies on the All-Star roster, who would I
pick?

That's a tough question.

As raw, unhindered talent
goes, you could do a lot worse than throwing Philly's 18 year-old Mwanga
and D.C.
United
's 18-year-old Andy Najar at the mighty Man Utd.

Their
combined age is exactly that of Red Devils midfielder Paul Scholes, but
they both boast a rare soccer-player's touch. It's all natural talent,
too—something Sir Alex Ferguson gushes about.

There's a story
that goes like this: Whenever Sir Alex meets a young player for the
first time, he throws a ball straight at them without warning. How that
player reacts demonstrates whether or not the kid has natural
ball-handling skills. If he flinches, whiffs the ball or tries to catch
it with his hands, he's no good. If he handles the ball like a soccer
player should, he's good to go.

I'm confident both Mwanga and
Najar would pass the Fergie first-touch test. Both scored goals this
past weekend with perfectly executed one-timers.

Against Chivas
on Saturday, Mwanga netted his fifth of the season—he's the Union's
second leading scorer—by chipping the on-rushing Zach Thornton with his instep, earning
himself a Goal of the Week nomination. Just a few weeks prior, he scored
a consolation against the Chicago Fire, and it was his first
touch to split two defenders that gave him the space to bury his shot.

Najar has raised eyebrows with the way he can run at defenders. He's
fearless and cocky without seeming arrogant, and he always knows
exactly where the ball is when it's under his feet. And that volleyed
goal on Saturday—also a Goal of the Week nominee—was something special.
Believe the hype? It's early, but he sure is exciting to watch.

At
the opposite end of the field, there are some decent defenders who
would relish a shot at shining for Sir Alex during the All-Star Game.

One thing Manchester United lacked last season is a scoring center
back—someone who can get forward late in a game and muscle his way onto
the end of a set-piece to create chances. These types of attack-minded
defenders can prove the difference between no points and a point, or a
single point and three.

Last season, Man Utd got just one league
goal from Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown and Nemanja Vidic combined. San
Jose's Ike Opara, on the other hand,
has three goals already this season. Worth an All-Star nod? Probably
not, though you can bet he'll be in the running in his sophomore year, a
la Omar Gonzalez this year.

Sir Alex also prefers center backs who can play out of defense. He
likes a guy who's composed, unflappable. Ferdinand, in his day, comes to
mind. As does New York's Tim Ream.

Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe
and his staff value that composure, too, which is why they signed Ream.

The 22-year-old suffered a dip in form before the break, at times
finding himself out of position when New York conceded goals. His
communication with fellow 'back Mike Petke appeared to break down, too. But he's
bounced back and regained his early-season form, helping New York to a
win and a tie since the break with just one goal allowed.

Form
comes and goes, but quality is for life—just ask Ferdinand about that.
Besides, just before the break and right after the Red Bulls shut out Chivas
USA
, 1-0, I asked Ream about his recent struggles.

He
shrugged, nodded, and then coolly reminded me that he's still "just a
rookie."

In All-Star voting, Ream actually garnered more online
fan votes than any other defender in the league. He didn't, however,
earn enough votes from media, players and coaches, so he'll likely not
make the roster.

Unless, of course, I was commissioner for a day.

David Agrell is a new media editor for MLSsoccer.com. His
"Rookie Rundown" column appears exclusively on MLSsoccer.com.