In addition to bringing in an increasing number of proven players, MLS teams are becoming better at developing young stars on their own. Between the addition of Homegrown signings, the “Young-DP” salary cap relief, and improved scouting operations, more young players are making an impact around the league than ever before. Though a long list of youngsters could be highlighted for their bright futures, a few players stand out as they will be particularly intriguing to follow this season.
With First Kick drawing closer, this continuation of the "Five-to-Watch" series will profile five young players who will be looking to break through to stardom in 2012.
5. (18-years-old), Attacking Midfielder, Real Salt Lake
Is this the year that Luis Gil becomes a major contributor for RSL? The young American showed plenty of promise in somewhat limited minutes last season, scoring two goals and making 14 starts at the age of 17. RSL has had the luxury of bringing Gil along slowly, thanks to their core of veteran attacking players, but with Andy Williams’ retirement and Javier Morales moving toward the latter stages of his career, the need for a creative spark in the midfield may be too great to leave Gil on the bench any longer.
Regarded as a top prospect for years, Gil has been involved with US youth national teams since his mid-teens. When he joined RSL in 2010, he was seen as a long-term project, but Gil was able to make his MLS debut in early 2011 and saw his playing time increase as the season went on. A strong showing to start the 2012 season could lead to a spot on the U.S. Olympic squad, but more importantly for veteran-heavy RSL, it will signal that the team has a player to build around for the future.
The bottom line: With fewer experienced options available in midfield, Gil will have to sink or swim this season, and based on early indications he’ll be up for the challenge.
4. Darren Mattocks (21-years-old), Forward, Vancouver Whitecaps FC
The Whitecaps selected Mattocks with the second overall pick in this year’s SuperDraft, and though that would be a point of pride for most players, the former University of Akron forward preferred to see it as a major snub by the Montreal Impact, who decided to pass on Mattocks with the first pick. After scoring against Montreal in a pre-season contest this past month, Mattocks was eager to publicly remind the Impact that he could have been theirs.
Though his antics may have been a bit bold for a rookie who was playing in pre-season for the first time, there is plenty of evidence that Mattocks will be able to live up to his own bravado. Blessed with blazing speed, the Jamaican-born striker will add another dimension to the Vancouver attack, which will also feature the French forward tandem of and , who each scored 11 goals in 2011. Mattocks brings his own goal-scoring pedigree to BC Place, having scored 39 goals in two college seasons at Akron.
The bottom line: Though he will likely be utilized primarily as a “super-sub” to start the season, Mattocks will pose a major threat to opposing defenses whenever he is on the field.
3. (20-years-old), Midfielder, Philadelphia Union
As one of the first foreign signings by the expansion Union in 2010, the Colombian midfielder has grown up quickly with the Philadelphia club. His fluid play in central midfield contributed to a noticeable improvement in the team’s play in their second season, a season in which Torres scored his first goal for the Union. Torres finished the season with a total of three goals and two assists in only ten starts.
After a rocky off-season which saw the club’s leading goal-scorer (Sebastien Le Toux) abruptly sent to Vancouver, the Union will have to lean more on Torres to generate attacking play, with a largely inexperienced group of forwards in front of him. Luckily for the Union and their fans, Torres will have a creative partner in the midfield in the form of Freddy Adu, and the two should form an effective pair with more time together on the field to acquire some much-needed chemistry.
The bottom line: Torres has certainly been effective when used by Union coach Piotr Nowak, but in order to take the next step in his career Torres will need more playing time in 2012.
2. Perry Kitchen (20-years-old), Defensive Midfielder/Defender, D.C. United
D.C. United officials were thrilled on SuperDraft day 2011 when the young defender fell in their lap with the third overall selection. After a busy rookie season that was marked by ups and downs, and learning a new position (Defensive Midfield), Kitchen will be asked to make an even bigger contribution to the Black-and-Red this season. One of several young players who are regulars for D.C., Kitchen may have the biggest role to fill, as he attempts to anchor the team’s midfield.
Despite making some typical rookie mistakes last season, Kitchen showed plenty of promise once he was moved full-time to the defensive midfield role. Though he is young, he has already shown excellent versatility and is capable of playing in central defense, as a right full-back, or in his current midfield position. He appears to have all the intangibles you could ask for in a player his age, serving as captain of the U.S. Under-20 national team and leading the University of Akron to its first ever national championship as a freshman in 2010.
The bottom line: With little competition at his position, United will rely heavily on Kitchen to thrive in the defensive midfield role, and much of their success could be tied to his performance.
1. Joao Plata (20-years-old), Winger/Forward, Toronto FC
The young Ecuadoran, who earned the nickname J-Money (Plata being Spanish slang for money) in the Lom household, somehow flew under the radar in 2011 despite some very impressive performances in his first MLS season. Whether it was his club’s poor regular season or Toronto’s location on the opposite side of the U.S./Canada border, Plata failed to generate the same widespread buzz as some other top performers his age.
Last season, Plata scored nine goals and added eight assists in 35 total appearances in all competitions (MLS, Canadian, and CONCACAF competitions). His four goals in the CONCACAF Champions League helped salvage the 2011 season for the Reds, who take on the LA Galaxy in the quarterfinals of that competition this Wednesday. Though he is tiny in stature at only 5-foot-2, Plata handled the notoriously physical defenses in MLS well in his first season, and is an excellent complement to his strike partner, the imposing and experienced Dutchman, Danny Koevermans.
The bottom line: With a year of MLS experience under his belt and a team that can only improve on its 2011 performance, Plata is set to shine as one of the league’s most exciting attacking players in 2012.
Fabian Castillo (19-years-old), Winger/Forward, FC Dallas
Diego Fagundez (17-years-old), Midfielder/Forward, New England Revolution
Written by Max Lom, Follow him on Twitter @MaxLom11
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