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United rookies rock the capital



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Football supporters love a home-grown hero. In a time when it’s impossible to bump into our idols on the Tube or in the pub after a match, it’s becoming more and more difficult for fans to relate to players. They earn huge amounts (in Europe, at least) and have impossibly attractive wives, girlfriends and cars.

So for many of us, footballers are a different species. Because of this, we rely on local lads to represent us. We all love the kid who watched from the stands breaking into the team and scoring a vital goal. It’s moments like that which make football what it is.

Although some local boys do make the grade in the USA, things are a little different. The amount of investment required on the part of young players in order to succeed is generally high, and the draft and youth soccer systems make it unlikely that a teenager can watch a club one season and then walk straight into the first team a few seasons later. Again, there are exceptions. But the local boy done good story is one which just seems less poignant Stateside.

That’s why, as a Major League Soccer fan, I get a little kick out of seeing rookies doing well. First year professionals in the Premier League are given no name, no special status. But in the US they are – in a very American sporting tradition – afforded a label and given a certain amount of slack. And it’s great to see them exceed expectations, as this year’s group is undoubtedly doing.

The Class of 2009

The rookies of 2009 are heading towards a record held by the classes of 1998 and 2009: most rookies starting at least half of the games in a season. This impressive achievement is being enabled and augmented by the excellent quality of the 2009 batch with several names standing out not only in the context of their own team, but across Major League Soccer as a whole.

In Toronto, Sam Cronin and especially goalkeeper Stefan Frei have made impressive starts to life in MLS. Midfielder Cronin has played 16 games for TFC this term, scoring once, while his goalkeeper has won rave reviews in his 15 appearances. LA Galaxy duo Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza have 25 appearances between them, helping Bruce Arena’s side to turn a disappointing run of draws into a short streak of more decisive results in which the Galaxy have amassed nine points from five games, half of their total return so far in 2009.

One of the best rookies so far this season has been Steve Zakuani of Seattle Sounders. The versatile Congolese has formed a crucial part of Seattle’s deadly attacking foursome, linking up with Freddie Ljungberg and Fredy Montero to provide the ammunition for Nate Jaqua. They all chip in with goals, Zakuani hitting the net twice in 15 appearances. The 21-year-old grew up in London and played youth football for Arsenal before moving to the States for college. After a season in the PDL, Zakuani joined Seattle and has looked the part in his debut season.

DC rookies lead the way

But for me, it’s the kids at DC United who are making the biggest impact. Room-mates Rodney Wallace and Chris Pontius have benefited hugely from Tom Soehn’s willingness to test the depth of his squad in order to maintain momentum towards the end of the season. Given plenty of playing time, the pair have really caught the eye.

Wallace, a Costa Rica-born first round SuperDraft pick for United, has been used in a variety of positions this season and has shown his capabilities all over the pitch. He has started 15 matches, playing in both attacking and defensive wide roles. Despite his heritage, Wallace is very close to being the aforementioned local boy. He moved to Maryland as a child and joined United from Maryland Terrapins, having graduated from the University of Maryland.

The 21-year-old’s greatest attributes are his pace and his ability to move quickly with the ball, beating opponents for both guile and speed. The fact that he is equally adept in a few positions works in his favour, and probably helps to explain why he has already racked up 16 total MLS appearances in 2009. Though he is far from the finished article – his crossing leaves a lot to be desired on occasion – Wallace is fast becoming one of those players who sends a buzz around the stadium when he opens up on the wing.

His fantastic start began with an assist at HDC in Week 1, and he’s added two more since. He opened his own account on 26th April, scoring the first goal of a dramatic 3-2 win over New York Red Bulls with an easy finish. He scored his other goal in Week 8 in a 1-1 draw with Kansas City Wizards, passing the ball coolly past Kevin Hartman into the net.

Chris Pontius, the man who scored off Wallace’s assist in the first game, has been even more impactful. The Californian 22-year-old spent an award-winning stint at University of California, Santa Barbara before being selected by United as a first round SuperDraft pick for the 2009 season. Because of his name, Pontius became an instant cult hero for some MLS fans. His Jackass namesake portrayed a character know as “Party Boy”, whose fetching get-up consisted exclusively of a leopard print g-string.

Competent in his passing and confident running with the ball, Pontius is calmer in his play than Wallace and took a little less time to settle into his professional career. He has been played all over by Soehn, appearing up front as well as wide and central midfield spots and, in the US Open Cup against New York, in a holding midfielder role. He excelled that night, and added two goals for good measure.

In the league, Pontius has arguably been the season’s finest rookie. He looks accomplished on the ball and the stats are piled in his favour too. On top of a pair of assists, he has found the net four times in 16 games. After hitting the top corner in Week 1 against the Galaxy, he added a second in that superb win over New York, winning the game with an open goal in stoppage time. It was another late show when Toronto FC visited RFK. On the day of the Keep United in DC march, Pontius made it 2-2 in the 86th minute, thumping in his third of the season after a cheeky dummy by Jaime Moreno. Amazingly, the game finished 3-3.

And in United’s visit to Qwest Field in June, Pontius opened the scoring in another 3-3 draw, turning in a perfect sweeping cross from Tino Quaranta. Seems he has a knack of contributing to high-scoring games.

With prospering rookies, the depth of DCU’s squad is becoming one of its major strengths as the club goes in hunt of glory on more than one front this season. If Soehn can get – and keep – the likes of Luciano Emilio, Christian Gomez and Jaime Moreno among the goals, United will be there or thereabouts come playoff time. In goal, Josh Wicks has been a revelation in recent weeks and could be vital to the MLS Cup crusade. The balance of youth, radiance and experience has been almost the perfect blend and United have been impressive. However, the “rookie wall” can never be taken lightly.

Chris Nee writes at twofootedtackle and co-hosts the twofootedtackle podcast.