Sure, it's too early to make wild predictions about how the 2010 season might roll out, but after a slew of preseason scrimmages, and with Matchday 1 done and dusted, it's safe to say the New York Red Bulls boast the most exciting bunch of rookies.
Center back Tim Ream plays like a five-year veteran. Midfielder Tony Tchani missed some preseason but looks strong and confident on the ball. Forward Conor Chinn finished preseason as the club's second leading goalscorer. Midfielders Austin da Luz and Irving Garcia both have a good touch and are exciting to watch.
So who’s to thank for such pickings? Probably assistant coach Richie Williams, and the franchise did just that by extending his contract on Tuesday.
"Richie has been an invaluable resource for the club since I joined the club in January," Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe said in a PR-tinged statement that was also very telling. "His ability to assess players both at the MLS and college level has been vital to our early success this season."
Indeed it has. And you’re welcome.
The foreign-owned franchise has employed a foreign-led technical staff with little experience of the domestic game's unique structure—drafts, caps, relationship with college soccer and so on. It needed an MLS expert to help navigate its way through the league's idiosyncrasies. It needed Williams, who has been around MLS since its inception, more or less.
Williams played a big part—and one can assume, a lead part—in making those excellent picks in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. So how did Williams and bosses approach this year’s draft, especially given all the holes in the Red Bulls roster following a disastrous 2009 season?
Because MLS coaches have to deal with a fixed roster size, each and every signing is a risk. So they look at a young player’s potential and how well he can adapt to the rigors of professional ball after a cushy ride in college.
“Rookies are going to have their ups and downs, but you've got to keep working with them, especially in our league which is very difficult, in terms of our salary cap, to obtain players," Williams told MLSsoccer.com. "You have to pick these young kids with the hope that one day they will contribute to the team in a positive way."
Ream, who played the full 90 minutes in last week's 1-0 defeat of Chicago, is already contributing.
A second-round pick, Ream had the best outing of any rookie in the league. Compared with those first-round choices also making their debut—Toni Stahl and Danny Mwanga for Philadelphia and Ike Opara at San Jose, for example—Ream looked calm and professional, and easily the better signing.
"It didn't seem like a ton of people were rating him [prior the draft]," Williams said. "We felt we could hold off until the second round to get Tim, which fortunately we were able to do. He's done very well for us."
Ream's ability to read the game and play the ball out of defense under pressure has made him a very early contender for the Rookie of the Year. No selection from beyond the first round has earned that honor since Jonathan Bornstein did in 2006.
Being able to adapt to MLS—especially to its pace, both physically and mentally—is a highly regarded rookie characteristic. Technical skill is good because that can't be taught at this level, but learning how to keep up and read a fast game tactically is the biggest adjustment a rookie has to make.
Williams cited da Luz and Chinn as contrasting examples.
"You can see when [da Luz] has the ball he's much better with his first touch—he can see the pass, he can play quicker with the ball—but when guys are physical with him, he struggles," Williams said. "Whereas with [Chinn], he can deal with all the physical stuff, but at times when he's asked to play a little bit more he struggles with because the pace of the play is quicker."
As for Tchani and Garcia, the Red Bulls staff felt they were among the better pure players in the draft, but the pair satisfied positional needs, too. Tchani will challenge for a central midfield role alongside the likes of Joel Limpere and Seth Stammler, while Garcia will hope to earn minutes on the right wing.
"There are different pieces in each player that you've got to work with, and you've got to just keep trying in the hope that they'll become complete players," Williams said. "It's not an easy thing, but it's fun to see how they get better and how they improve. You'd like to see everybody do well and succeed individually, and collectively, for the team.”